Nostalgia is a funny thing.
Whether we understand it as a fetishization of the past, or a wistful historicization of one’s own present, there is no denying the ability of our brains to gather up disparate circumstances and stray thoughts into these gauzy-edged bundles of nostalgia. I think this might be part of the reason why one of our reactions to nostalgia is always some form of embarrassment; nostalgia represents one of those many mental states which escape the realm of our mastery.
Nostalgia, in some ungraspable way, targets us at precisely those points of our character which our pride and self-consciousness have worked so assiduously to protect. You might even say that nostalgia is the anti-irony, or at least that which destroys irony’s pretense to humorous detachment.
Thus, I don’t expect that one need be a devoted Proustian to recognize the ability of the smallest thing to send one off in transports of fond or fell recollection, and that this ability is both an asset and a ridiculous nuisance. An asset, because it mythologizes our own lives and grants them a heightened significance through tactile memory; a nuisance, then, because of the way it taunts and reminds us of those good and glorious days, never again to return.
Anyway, the point of all of this maudlin rambling is really just to segue into something that I’ve been feeling somewhat nostalgic for recently; namely, the absolutely blind acquisition of new music.
It used to be – “back in the good old days,” of course – when I was starting to explore more types of music (my early teenage years being largely devoted to ), that every now and then I would be browsing through a record store (early on, more likely to be a Best Buy than anything more street-cred-worthy, but hey, I grew up in the suburbs, so cut me some slack) and would come across something completely random and unknown to me, and just buy it anyway.
Now, in all likelihood, I’m sure I had some sort of unformed estimated-guess-work cranking itself out in the back of my mind, but still, these were, for all intents and purpose, bands whose names were totally foreign to me, and whose music I had never encountered. You can sort of picture me, then, as an awkward, teenaged version of the compulsive, inveterate gambler, clutching a palmful of sweaty tickets at the horse track, always more and more sure that the next one was the one, this next one will be the last one, the big one, the promised one.
Which is to say, I imagine that in some small way I became addicted to the thrill of discovering new and wonderful music, no matter the attendant risk of shelling out hard(-ish)-earned money on some total fucking bullshit (Papa Roach, I still haven’t forgiven you for coaxing me into buying that first record of yours…).
Here’s a brief list, then, of some of the more notable albums that I can remember purchasing with absolutely no prior knowledge of what fresh hell or new bliss was in store:
– Cradle of Filth, Bitter Suites to Succubi. I know, I know; for most of the metal community out there, this is hardly something to crow about. I can absolutely fucking guarantee, though, that every metalhead out there has a gateway band which, no matter how embarrassing your complete love affair over them may seem in retrospect, was still the band responsible for opening new vistas of musical possibility. Cradle of Filth was that band for me* – they were the first extreme metal band I saw live, and this was on a tour where Nile opened for them (Black Seeds of Vengeance had just come out), which fostered a huge interest in death metal.
*Well, after Metallica, I guess, which played a similar role much earlier on, but I suspect Metallica played such a half-initiatory role for many kids, inasmuch as they received widespread radio play. Metallica wasn’t quite the band to tip me into extreme metal, though, which probably has a lot to do with timing; by which I mean, basically, that getting into Metallica circa 1996 or so (as it was with me) is a hell of a lot different than getting into Metallica circa 1982.
– Anathema, Judgement. I picked this one up, actually, at the same time as the Cradle of Filth record, which had just come out in Europe, where I was traveling at the time. I’m pretty sure this was at some major chain-type place (HMV, maybe, but this was quite some time ago), and, though the fog of adolescent memory is not to be trusted, I’m fairly sure there was a whole Peaceville highlighting display endcap there, with all that great early 90s death/doom stuff, plus the At The Gates reissues that Peaceville was doing at the time.
– Godspeed You Black Emperor, Lift Yr Skinny Fists Like Antennas to Heaven. Holy shit, was this one of those finds which just blew me the fuck away. I’m pretty sure they just hooked me with the relatively simple cover art.
– Nick Cave & the Bad Seeds, No More Shall We Part. So, sure, it’s probably like the most emo-est of all the emo Nick Cave albums, but it completely rules, and I can’t believe I hadn’t listened to any Nick Cave before buying this record.
– Jimmy Eat World, Clarity. Fuck you, this album rules.
– Dream Theater, Scenes from a Memory. Can you say “game changer”? I should probably confess that when I was considering buying this album (from my local Best Buy, I definitely remember), I had a pretty good hunch that this was a metal band. At that point, though, I wasn’t quite canny enough to think of things like checking to see what record label had released an album (though since DT was on a major, I guess it wouldn’t have done much in this case).
– Opeth, Blackwater Park. Again, based on the artwork, I had a slight inkling (but certainly a desperate hope) that this might be heavy metal, but really had no idea the total and utter ass-kicking that awaited.
– The Dresden Dolls, The Dresden Dolls. At this point, I was getting a little more sophisticated, because I remember hearing that The Dresden Dolls were going on tour opening for Nine Inch Nails, and that their album was out on Roadrunner, which I knew, by that point, was a metal label. Someone dogmatically looking for metal, however, would have obviously found him- or herself sorely disappoint with this punk cabaret act (who totally kick your ass and mine, and pretty much established all the right bona fides by covering Black Sabbath – “War Pigs” – and Fugazi – “Blueprint” – when I saw them live a few years back).
– Rosetta, The Galilean Satellites. This is probably the most recent (and maybe one of the only in recent years) example of making a more or less blind purchase of an album. The fact that this was pretty much a blind acquisition is corroborated by the fact that I didn’t discover until months later that these two discs were actually meant to be played simultaneously, rather than as one album of jammin’ post-whatever-metal and one album of static, weird ambient bits, and space noises. I still kinda like it that way, though.
So, yeah, I’m guilty of being totally nostalgic and self-indulgent about this. Finding these remarkable new (to me) artists was a fantastic thrill, which felt all the more personal and triumphant because there wasn’t really anyone to share the credit. It was just me, stomping around a few places in the Twin Cities (that’s Minnesota, folks) with my palpitating heart and my pockets full of as much disposable income as I could come by, and then racing home, and breathlessly ripping through the packaging and putting it on the stereo and, I’m sure, muttering futile and fevered incantations that my time and money would not have been wasted.
The whole point is, this doesn’t happen any longer. I’m sure there are a whole mess of factors influencing this. I’m older, so I’ve just been listening to and reading about music for a lot longer by now. I’ve basically taught myself a ton of the history of various genres, so I can understand how you get from Blue Cheer to Black Sabbath to Judas Priest and Iron Maiden to Metallica and Megadeth to Morbid Angel to Emperor to Anaal Nathrakh, and on and on. Apart from brand new bands, it’s pretty unlikely that I come across an act that I know absolutely nothing about, or at least can’t make a few educated guesses based on what country they’re from, what label they’re on, what their songs are called, and whatever else.
This points, obviously, to another major difference: the ubiquity of great reference sources on the internet. I’m obviously not old enough to bullshit you with some story about “the time before the internet,” but I was going through this phase of adolescent music exploration in the mid-1990s, when painfully slow dial-up connections and, y’know, like GeoCities and shit were the currency of the day. I probably could have found more information than I had at my disposal if I had really tried, but I just didn’t have the sheer breadth of information at my fingertips that I do today.
A corollary to that, then, is that the music industry itself is so massively saturated these days. This is an old and tired refrain, I know, but what it essentially means is that, precisely because there is such a massive amount of information available, I am exceedingly unlikely to take a risk on buying up something about which I have literally heard nothing.
This doesn’t even begin to touch on the prevalence of music downloading, which I don’t really want to get into; suffice it say, though, that when I started buying music on my own, you didn’t really have the ability (or, at least, I didn’t have the technological sophistication) to download an album wholesale to see if you might like it. It seems likely that no one accustomed to the instant gratification world of downloading can ever really have that same thrill, that moment of anticipation where you wait for the music to peal out of your speakers, tolling out the worthiness of your instincts.
I’m sure there are a number of other factors contributing to this nostalgia, but the bottom line is, I’m pretty bummed out that I will probably never feel that same way about going out to purchase new music. I suppose I could try to artificially recreate some of those earlier circumstances, but that, I fear, is the great lure of nostalgia, and the only reward for which can be nostalgia’s poisonous doppelganger, disappointment.
I’m embarrassed now, not just by the sheer joy I remember experiencing, but also by how much I miss that feeling; and also, moreover, by the pure, unadulterated consumerism into which I wholeheartedly threw my adolescent self, and am now eulogizing like some herald of a great extinction.
I guess if there’s anything useful to be gained from dwelling on nostalgia, it’s that no matter how mortifyingly embarrassing your current self may find aspects of your former self, there’s no getting to the one without going through the other.