09 April, 2014

Nostalgia and Music

A post dedicated to Devin G., who prompted this inquiry into nostalgia & music.


"Nostalgia is immediate, and tends to be localized. As often as not, it is triggered by an experiential short-circuit; our awareness of the present is suddenly interrupted by an image, a feeling, or a sensation from the past. A song on the radio, an old photograph discovered in the pages of a book. The past catches us by surprise and we are filled with longing: for that thing, that person, that place, but more for the selves that we were then."

- Sven Birkerts, from his book The Gutenberg Elegies

In Morrissey's Autobiography, which I have not read and only opened up to a brief paragraph in a bookstore, he describes his experience hearing David Bowie's 1972 song "Starman" from Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. His description includes a trace of criticism, in that he noticed the chorus ("There's a Starman waiting in the sky...") has a melody that almost exactly duplicates, if not completely lifts, the melody of the opening line to the chorus of "Over the Rainbow" written by Harold Arlen with lyrics by E.Y. Harburg for Judy Garland to sing in 1939's The Wizard of Oz. The embedded links are provided to confirm for your own ears what a young Morrissey experienced right away, having in all likelihood acquainted himself with the film over and over again during his childhood in the company of his mother.

There was something that caught my attention about Morrissey's observation. I knew he was right immediately, and I began to think about the phenomenon of that sly chameleon Bowie and his own impact on me as a listener of popular music and after, understandably, about my own young adulthood. I received a double-disc copy of Best of Bowie (US) on my 18th birthday, along with a pink feather boa, paper crown and a plastic scepter filled with glitter suspended, but not obstructed from floating around, in water. It was a fun day of high school and my friends, who were all young women, thought it was a gas to play this image-flipping trick on the birthday boy that they found so nice, so harmless and closer to them than the burgeoning brutishness of the male sex at our campus. 

I was not and am not now an overly effeminate heterosexual or a closeted homosexual. However, I knew while listening to Bowie after school that day in my bright accoutrements that the lines of sexual orientation can be cleverly blurred and in doing so you confuse viewers, inflame curiosity and even beget a little fame from either the love of androgyny or the hate of its vagary. For Bowie, with "Starman" and a number of other hits, sexual preference and outward gender confusion was always codependent upon that strange sensation of remembering who you once were (the older Morrissey in his Autobiography), who that person thought they were then (a young Morrissey watching tele with mum) and who they related that self to (seeing Judy sing in the first five minutes of The Wizard of Oz). As the teacher of dance G.I. Gurdjieff taught by his own words and in the records of his pupils, there are many little "i"s in us, but not one whole unity known as "I".

The word nostalgia itself was coined by Johannes Hofer, a medical writer in 1668 looking for a description of a disease, at times deadly, experienced by those displaced or in exile from their homeland. I thank Helmut Illbruck for bringing this interesting origin story of the term to my attention through his book Nostalgia: Origins and Ends of an Unenlightened Disease (Northwestern University Press, 2012). Hofer created the neologism from the Greek 'nostos' ("return home") and 'algia' ("pain"). Illbruck notes as well the masterful work of Richard Burton, The Anatomy of Melancholy (1621), in which Burton seems to describe this state or one similar to it as "banishment" and deems it to be an almost adolescent feeling, one that has its root in the unhealthy attachment to a place and the denial that variety in itself has some principle of unity, i.e. the sun shines the same everywhere. However, by the time Hofer published his Dissertatio Medica de Nostalgia, Burton's book was falling out of print and wouldn't appear again until the 1800s. It would become a notable book once more, for example in the libraries of Walter Pater and the Aesthetic movement. Perhaps Burton's definition of "banishment" as nostalgia describes much about the interior scene of the dandies and decadents of the 19th century's fin de siecle - whose top literary celebrity Oscar Wilde was and is a primary influence upon Morrissey's lyricism and, let us say, his own particular panache

Today, we switch on the radio and find the popular hits fulfilling their function: hitting our ears with catchy but unoriginal phrases, inserted samples with co-opted melodies and our own memory proves not to be a solid vinyl record with an adamantine needle - but a fluid, dentritic and complicit partner of our experience of nostalgia. The aim and development of major advertising for consumable media in the latter half of the 20th century has been directed towards the young. But I hear not 30 years of time between, as with Garland and Bowie, to press "replay" with references and rehashing - now there's only a decade. There is a parallel to Hollywood genre films and the "rebooting" of whole franchises (ex. Spider-Man, Superman, Godzilla, Robocop, etc.) where the target is as always a younger generation, but in this case it's those who might have been playing with the action figures of the earlier ('80s or '90s) franchise attempts, who are now able to get into the new and improved version without parental consent. Nostalgia as a dependable source of suggestive advertising!

I think Birkerts has it right in the quotation I've included above, especially with the phrase "experiential short-circuit." Nostalgia happens in a flash, is an association without formal cause. We experienced something in the past and identified with it. "I" am not a unity, and so the song is heard and my awareness is without, unbound by my current place and time, and lost, homeless to the present...We can imagine a man or woman of the 17th century in a carriage or on foot, leaving behind home, no, a whole world that they won't ever see again, and then years later they meet a person who sings the same bardic tune that their wet nurse sang to them, herself remembering the far away village she would never step foot in again, then the man or woman completely struck with fatigue, longing and the rootless wasting away of their energy. In actuality, it is because there isn't that breastmilk, or that mother, or that feather boa around our necks anymore. We aren't that "i" and we aren't the "i" who writes this article or posts that comment. The real question becomes:

1 comment:

  1. Interesting. The best title for an autobiography is by Simone Signoret - "Nostalgia Isn't What It Used To Be".



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