Set adrift on memory bliss

The making and marketing of legislated nostalgia

Words & images © Paul Ransom

Note: This piece was originally composed in October 2013 and was an op ed for an independent music magazine here in Australia. Though some of the particular examples are dated … oh no, wait a minute, that’s the point.

The mellifluous, reassuring voice on the radio said it all: “Music from the time of your life.” That the next song was Nirvana Come As You Are was truly horrific; not simply because Kurt & Co had been co-opted by the queasy listening classic hits community or even that I was showing my age, but that what was being sold was the idea that the best years of my life had been and gone, and that by gluing the dial to the past I could revel forever in some halcyon fantasy land, where life was sooo much simpler and I could still get laid.

So perhaps it is not surprising that this year’s summer festival line-up reeks of GoldFM, or that the bill posters that line the walls of the Palais Theatre in the once bohemian heartland of St Kilda scream out knee blanket names like Charlie Pride and Tony Hadley.

Okay stop! Tony Hadley singing the hits of Spandau Ballet? Is that what passes for gold these days? Clearly, memory has a transfigurative effect. No disrespect to the Spandaus but back in ‘83 could anyone have reasonably foreseen that thirty years down the track roomfuls of misty eyed forty somethings would pay good money to croon along to True and Muscle Bound? Such is the gravitational power of nostalgia.

The rock & roll nursing home is built on the myth of former glory. At its core is the commodification of wistful regret, of our slow tiring, of our forlorn wish to be young again.

No wonder the marketing bods ruthlessly target it, selling us our own memories. The idea that somehow civilisation has passed its zenith and that they don’t write songs like they used to is enshrined in our shared cultural experience. Just as every teenage generation thinks it is in the process of inventing sex and naughtiness, so every wave of middle agers comes to believe that things were so much better back then. Life was simpler, the drugs were better and the bands were simply brilliant compared to today’s pale imitations.

This may well just be the inevitable and pardonable corollary of age, (you’ve seen everything go full circle and it’s just not as interesting this time round); yet my eyebrows rise when I hear young people, (who should know better), spouting the same tired cant.

During my tertiary lecturing years (in the early noughties) I was frequently astonished by the ferocity of my young charges passionate declarations that there were “just no good bands these days.” Even back then I knew there was something deeply wrong about the fact that I was the one introducing them to new music.

In effect what I was fighting against was their parents’ record collections. I recently asked one of my former students why she loved ‘80s music so much and she said, “It was the first music I ever heard.” (It will not surprise you to learn that she already has her Tony Hadley ticket.)

However, there is something more pernicious than parental soundtracks at work here. Back in the aforementioned ‘80s I remember how vigorously the ‘60s generation marketed their much vaunted music and street marching at us, labelling teens like me selfish, shallow and apathetic. (Sound familiar, kids?) What galled me then, and still does to a degree, is that the generation that opposed Vietnam grew up to vote Reagan/Thatcher/Bush1 and that their loose hipped rock & roll revolution was so keenly and rapaciously sold out for endless reunion tours and coal powered superannuation.

To be fair though, generational imperialism is not the preserve of greying hippies. The old have always poured scorn on the young. My contemporaries are no different, forever extolling the apparent virtues of Tears For Fears or, heaven forfend, one album wonders like Adam Ant and Cyndi Lauper. Even my friends from the early rave days can be heard to exclaim, “Dance music’s just not the same anymore.” (Sorry, what?)

Excruciating irony aside, the crowding of the airwaves and concert halls by the sounds of yesteryear is a by-product of both dewy nostalgia and generational conceit, as amplified and exploited by a razor keen marketing machine that knows there is no more powerful lure than the delusion of our own pomp. The rock & roll nursing home is built on the myth of former glory. At its core is the commodification of wistful regret, of our slow tiring, of our forlorn wish to be young again.

Thus, with the top line acts for this summer’s Big Day Out2 being two thirds 90s nostalgia, you have to wonder whether yet another generation are gearing up to impose their faded and probably false memories on their children. Are the mad moshers who tore it up for The Violent Femmes and Nirvana back in ‘92 about to turn to their younger friends and say, “It’s not as big a day out as it used to be?”

1: Doubtless a bunch of once tie dyed, campus rebels from the sacred 60s are also avid Trump fans. Yeah, deep fucking joy, man.

2: The Big Day Out was a touring summer music festival here in Australia for about twenty years from the early 90s. It is now defunct.