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Are we too nostalgic?

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As I'm sure you're all aware, I have an allergy to grumpy old farts claiming that the world is going to hell, so I wasn't likely to  have a positive reaction to this particularly weird argument from Simon Reynolds that things were better in the 60s, man, because they were, uh, not as nostalgic as people are now.  Yes, folks, Reynolds is nostalgic for a time when people weren't, he claims, as nostalgic.  I combed the article for any indication that Reynolds is aware of the irony here, but alas, he's too far up the ass of the good ol' days when they weren't longing for the good ol' days that he didn't realize what's he's doing here.  

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Anyway, the argument, which was repeated by another writer at Salon, is that we're so busy regurgitating our culture that we don't make new culture.  As compared to the 60s, when they were very forward-thinking. I reject this argument, and believe that it only seems that way because the people making it are looking at the past through rose-colored glasses. Does our culture have nostalgia now?  Yep, but I would argue no more than the 60s.  Did the 60s have innovation?  Yep, but it's false to claim that our culture is being eaten up by retreads.

Let's talk about music.  To hear Reynolds say it, you'd think current pop music is just mired in the past.  Let's examine this claim.  Here's this week's Top 100.  Objectively, only one of the top 10 artists is a nostalgia act, Adele, and she updates the soul sound she's working quite a bit.  Here is the top 100 of 1964.  In the top ten, there are at least two acts I'd call nostalgia—Louis Armstrong singing "Hello Dolly" and this country-nostalgia-sounding song by Gale Garnett called "We'll Sing in the Sunshine".  In case that seems unfair, here's 1966, when "The Ballad of the Green Beret" was the #1 song of the year.  Unless you want to argue that Nicki Minaj or Lady Gaga are nostalgia acts (Gaga may steal, but she distances herself from her inspirations), then I'd say that the objective facts aren't really going Reynold's way.  

In fact, there's so little nostalgia for the past that New York Magazine up and declared rock and roll niche music like jazz or something. I also think the argument is overstated, but they have a point.  Rock radio is fading away.  Contrast that to the 80s and 90s, when Boomers drove the market for "classic rock radio" to the degree that you were more likely in much of the country to hear a song from the 60s by randomly flipping on the radio than you were a current song.  That's not really how radio works now.  Reynolds tries to dodge this by pointing out that genres come and go constantly, and that there's not a lot of centralized pop music for people to back (except, you know, hip-hop, which crosses a lot of boundaries), but the increasing numbers of genres actually strike me as evidence that our culture in innovative.

Even if you restrict yourself to rock music—which you really shouldn't, because part of the point of not being all nostalgic is accepting that popular tastes can shift dramatically, and as they shifted to rock, they can shift away—the notion that we're mired in nostalgia is just objectively false.  Sure, there are nostalgia acts.  But there are far more innovative acts.  Here's some music that I listen to all the time lately:

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I'm unclear how any of them are nostalgia acts.  I mean, the last one uses the harmonium as a rock instrument, which is the sort of bold choice that made people slobber all over the Beatles. Even Nick Cave now doesn't sound like Nick Cave 20 years ago.  I promise you that I go to SXSW every year, and while there are a handful of nostalgia acts, they don't get near the traffic of people doing something truly new. 

But they draw inspiration from older forms, you could argue.  Sure, but that's the nature of innovation. Someone like Reynolds would say the two Most Important Acts of the 60s were Bob Dylan and the Beatles, and they borrowed and indulged nostalgia as much, if not more, than any of these bands.  Dylan basically built his early career mimicking decades worth of American folk music, providing his audience with a nostalgia for a life they didn't even live.  That nostalgia was notoriously dear to them, which is why the panic when Dylan went electric.  The Beatles drew heavily on 50s rock music and Tin Pan Alley melody-writing to craft their music.  In general, a lot of 60s music was about rooting through the older blues, rock, country, folk, and R&B for inspiration. 

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Which isn't to say the 60s weren't  innovative. They really were.  But like I said before, the notion that our culture as a whole is mired in nostalgia compared to then doesn't hold up.  I posit instead that the people who are worried that the culture is overly nostalgic are externalizing what might be a personal problem, that they and their peers have given up discovering new stuff.  I get it.  I'm getting to the age where some of my friends look uncomfortable if you put on something that's too new-sounding, because it has weird sounds and rhythms that don't sound like what they were listening to growing up.  You can't just throw on the big rap record from this year on the stereo in a mixed group of peers like you could when I was 21.  Some people are going to be like, ugh, that's loud and noisy, even if they wouldn't say the same about the record that came out in 1999.  There's a reason that sneering at hipster is such a hobby—it's my generation really starting to work its "kids get off my lawn" muscle.  It happens.  But we shouldn't mistake our own peer group growing older and disengaging from youth culture for the end of innovation.  

As for fashion, well, the reason I know it's still innovating is I look at what young people are wearing these days and I think, "Ah, no way in hell."  That, I think is a good measure that things are still changing. 


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