The General Theory of Nostalgia

Nostalgia has been a recent theme of several sites I frequent.

First up is the puzzling surge in Soviet nostalgia among the former Socialist bloc. He and MF witnessed it firsthand in Kazakhstan. Why on earth would people wish for the days of Stalin, when, for example, millions of political dissidents were killed and fear reigned the day? Curzon posits that “many feel they have lost their national pride, and they want it back.”

Now, what is meant by nostalgia? Curzon talks of nostalgia on a national level: a combination of the older population feeling nostalgia individually for things Soviet, and the youth who yearn for what their grandparents told them of their nation’s history.

Then we have Dr. David Thorpe, reknowned music snob, feeling nostalgia about bad music from a few years ago that we think is good. He gives an insightful explanation as to why we look at songs like “November Rain” differently from when they were played 20 times a day on the radio:

Those of us who bear the burden of an unhealthy obsession with pop culture are often stereotyped as being unreasonably nostalgic. I’m not sure I buy that. Those of us with more discriminating tastes know that the pop music of the past isn’t really better than the pop music of today, but the appeal of shitty songs from the past is no less mesmerizing. Nostalgia isn’t the right word; I don’t yearn for the days when Whitney Houston battled Eric Clapton for the year’s biggest tearjerker. I don’t fondly remember turning on MTV and seeing the “Unbreak My Heart” video three times in a row. Regardless of this, cultivating an appreciation for pop music I once hated is a vital part of my education as a music snob. Sure, I may spend my days studiously furrowing my brow at high-minded avant-garde music that plebeians like you could never properly appreciate, but that doesn’t mean I won’t throw on a Color Me Badd record once in a while.

Geniuses like me can appreciate great music on all possible levels, while you can only hope to appreciate great music like a retard appreciates a flower. Even so, you and I probably appreciate silly pop music on exactly the same level. I don’t buy the notion that pop-culture nerds only like outdated pop music on an ironic level, either. As far as I’m concerned, claiming to like a song ironically is a cop-out. Whether you’re spinning “Rump Shaker” by Wreckx-N-Effect with the intent to smile wryly or with the intent to actually zoom-a-zoom-zoom and a boom boom, it matters not; you’re still spinning “Rump Shaker.”

Why is it that a snob like me will joyfully listen to crap from the past while violently eschewing crap from the present? Let’s put it this way: the war against shit like Maroon 5 is still claiming lives. You simply don’t fuck around with Maroon 5. It’s too dangerous. However, the war against Bobby Brown was won over a decade ago, and his outrageous New Jack Swing singles are the spoils. I can still get pissed off at the overplayed pop music of the present, but staying mad at disposable pop music, unless it’s truly heinous, is almost impossible.

In ten or fifteen years, the songs you hate today will probably be hilarious instead of annoying. You’ll be driving your kid to school in your hoverbubble with the radio tuned to “00’s Retro Breakfast,” and a smile will creep across your face as Hoobastank’s “The Reason” comes up. “I remember this song,” you’ll tell your pasty and unpopular son. “This song used to be crap!” And you’ll love every minute of it.

And in South Korea, a large percentage of people see America and Japan as bigger threats to their country than North Korea (can’t find a source but it’s something like this) the fact that they are amassing nukes and constantly threaten to blow up the South and reunite the country by force. Why? A big answer to that question is national nostalgia: people beatify the North as their estranged brother, regardless of the current threat posed by their military.

However, in the course of discussions with the MF, we discovered that actually nostalgia is the right word. Anything to do with the past makes people nostalgic, and that feeling of nostalgia itself is enough to make something good. Like Dr. Jones says, it’s hard to stay mad over things that happened in the past, and eventually your memory of things glosses over enough to make even gulags seem rosy compared to the present.

And don’t pretend you don’t know what I’m talking about. You can even look back fondly on irritating exes. “Man, she was fucking crazy” you might say, with a smile on your lips. Despite our best intentions, our memories are naturally and fundamentally dishonest.