Walking down University Place in Manhattan’s Greenwich Village, you barely even have to glance up from your Blackberry/ iPhone/iPod to spot an NYU student wearing a Led Zeppelin, Bob Dylan, or Jimi Hendrix T-shirt. Indeed, we are a generation fascinated by the wondrous, glittering past of 20th century music. Walk into first-year dorms, and there, carefully tacked upon the walls, you will find iconic Pink Floyd and Velvet Underground posters, relics of a bygone era. We are a youth culture obsessed with the past—and arguably more so than our predecessors. When I say “we”, I am not referring to the whole of our Facebook/Twitter/Twilight generation, but rather a select group that lives torn between that four or five decade-long Golden Age consisting of VW vans, civil rights activism, anti-war protests, unforgettable Bowie performances, probably ending in the grungy anarchy of the Cobain-infused nineties. After that, we of this past-adoring culture believe, it all went to shit. We scorn most of today’s music, we believe “rock is dead”, we idolize Plant, Morrison, and Allman, and we keep trying to recreate the illusion we have of those “good old days”. We imagine that was a better time. We spend hours on the Internet trying to re-live it, trying to savor a part of that magical era. We watch the Woodstock movie and Pink Floyd’s The Wall, we read about Clapton and Lennon. Very plainly, we want in.
But if we stop for a second to examine this agonizing longing we willfully take part in as a generation, we can begin to understand a little bit more about the current state of affairs – and realize the fight’s not over yet. Why do we feel such a powerful nostalgia for a time we did not live in? Why, unlike our predecessors, do we prefer to connect with our parents and aunts and uncles and talk about the music they grew up with, instead of rebelling against adult authority and discarding the ideas of the past as youth notoriously has? (Especially the youth of the generations we idolize). One plausible explanation is because this age of Internet, Facebook, globalization, and never-ending networks of people, culture, money, and history has us baffled. As human beings, we inherently yearn for simplicity and organization, we like to classify and generalize, abstract and segregate. In the twenty-first century, the educated youth no longer has the possibility of drawing a linear narrative of our past and thus, of our present. Nothing seems clear anymore – something we learnt in high school is contested by another reputable source on Democracy Now, something we hear on the news is denied by a human rights group on Facebook…Who do we believe in this day and age? While we don’t throw up our hands and claim that ignorance is bliss, we don’t want to confront our complex present (and impending future) either. So, we do what young, aspiring intellectuals do best – we romanticize and we despair. We gash out our eyes to protect ourselves from the harsh truth so that reality is a little easier to grasp…
We begin by mythologizing the past. Since we did not live to see the complexity of the 60s, 70s, 80s (admittedly less glorified than the others, but the decade still holds rank for us thanks to The Police, the Dire Straits, Bowie, etc.) and the 90s, it is all the more easy for us to forget the bad things and embellish the best. Let us reduce this phenomenon to the individual level rather than the societal or generational level: psychologically (according to Freudian theory), we shield ourselves by repressing bad memories. We also tend to change memories subconsciously so as to help alleviate our inner complexes; that time we did reasonably well in art class in the 3rd grade is turned into the time everyone was taken aback by our drawing, and so on and so forth. It is reasonably normal human behavior; we all take part in illusions and disillusions willingly in order to be functional beings.
By emphasizing the good things in our memories, we give ourselves a reason to keep striving for something “better”, a return to that mythical Golden Age – when we were innocent kids, when we were reckless teenager…the stereotypes are endless. Furthermore, when relating to culture, music specifically, when we glorify a specific artist or movement, it gives us a sense of belonging. We missed out on it, but by mourning for it, we are continuing a tradition, we are living a part of it, and so, we are trying to define ourselves and our identity.
“Nowadays, most music is for purely commercial means. Nowadays, artists no longer have true passion, there is no art for the sake of art…back in the good old days, this was certainly not the case!”
By telling ourselves these fallacies about our present musical culture, we are making moral judgments about our peers and ourselves (we inevitably partake in all of it). Our present is overwhelming; the future and the past are the only times we can manipulate. The future is too blank of a canvas and we don’t want to be disappointed. So instead, we become tireless romantics. But the ramifications of this behavior are that we create self-fulfilling prophecies out of the artistic stagnation we perceive. If we keep looking back, nothing new will be created. If we keep looking back, we can’t appreciate the beauty of new music. However, there is another component in this obsession with the past that, in my case, I express by listening to “classic rock”. This past summer, I attended a dinner at my friend’s house with her parents and their friends. They were discussing country music festivals as they all live in Kentucky, and one woman said she missed good southern rock. My friend, whose knowledge of country or southern music of any sorts extends to the Rascal Flatts and Carrie Underwood, just shrugged.
I responded: “Oh, you mean like Lynyrd Skynyrd, The Band, the Allman Brothers?”
The woman and her husband almost toppled off their upholstered seats and they all started raving about – yes – the good old days. They were amazed that someone my age knew their music. It made them feel younger, and it made me feel culturally “richer”. In a way, I was living vicariously through them.
In this situation, my generation’s musical nostalgia is a positive thing—we can relate to older generations, we are intrinsically linked, we can share, and they can share. At the same time, this behavior promotes cultural elitism. We hold contemporary music up to old standards, thus barring progress. We look down at those who don’t know the “old greats”.
At some point, we are going to have to stop clinging to the past with an iron grip. Much like in Woody Allen’s latest movie, Midnight in Paris, we have to recognize that everyone always wants what they can’t have. Owen Wilson’s character wants to be in the 1920s, Marion Cotillard – who lives in the ‘20s – wants to go back to the late 1800s. At some point, we are going to have to look forward and imagine what music our children and grandchildren will remember from the early twenty-first century. The White Stripes, Radiohead (90s, technically), Eminem, and other giants will most likely endure. Why? Because they are truly great artists. Sure, they don’t represent the youth rebellion of the 60s and 70s – but just think about what they do represent. Us. And we all succumb to narcissism at the end of the day. Let’s not wait until we’re middle-aged and sitting at a dinner party to enjoy our time and the soundtrack we are living to.