Saying No to Nostalgia
January 23, 2017 § 2 Comments
A couple of weeks ago, Pitchfork Media ran a story about U2’s plans to tour The Joshua Tree this year, celebrating the 30th anniversary of their biggest album. In it, Kyle McGovern argued that U2 had finally succumbed to being a legacy act. Of course, this being Pitchfork (or the Drunken Hipsters, as my friend Jean-Sébastien calls the site), McGovern couldn’t resist writing in the voice of a petulant 20-year old who spends too much time alone. Thus, even while noting that touring The Joshua Tree is a ‘win’ for the band, McGovern couldn’t help engaging in the old back-handed praise.
Anyway. The Joshua Tree is my favourite U2 album, not surprisingly. It was my true entrepôt to the band. I was 14 when the album came out, and while I remember heading ‘New Year’s Day’ from the 1983 album War on the radio, this was the first time I bought a U2 album and listened to it start-to-finish. The Joshua Tree tour visited Vancouver in November 1987, and I saw them at BC Place. Well, sort of. You don’t see a lot from the nose-bleeds of BC Place Stadium. The album remains my favourite, though I don’t really see it as the zenith of U2’s creativity as a band. I see it as the culmination of an epoch of the band’s history. And I very much was into their 1990s output. Since then, with the exception of the blip, 2009’s No Line on the Horizon, I’ve found everything they’ve done since the turn of the millennium to suck.
I thought long and hard about whether I wanted to go see the 30th anniversary of The Joshua Tree, especially because they’re headlining Bonnaroo this summer. The festival takes place nearby. When I was 16, my parents got all excited to go see The Rolling Stones at BC Place. And they got all nostalgic about a band that had sucked for most of the past decade. I thought this sad (though I did get them to snag me a Living Colour t-shirt, one of my favourite bands that opened the show). I even mocked them. They took it in stride. I guess they figured my time would come. And it has. Many of my favourite bands of youth have reformed and toured, some of have even released new music of varying quality. Some clearly reformed for the money (hi, there, Stone Roses), some reformed because they missed making music together. And, well, nostalgia.
In 2004, the Pixies reformed and went on a massive reunion tour, wherein it seemed that they actually got along. I saw them in Montréal at the CEPSUM Arena at the Université de Montréal. It was a brilliant show. I didn’t buy a t-shirt, but I did buy the instant-pressed CD of the show. I still listen to it. It was entirely a trip in nostalgia. The Pixies didn’t have any new music to play us. And I hadn’t seen them since 1992, when they opened for, of all bands, U2 at the Montreal Forum. They didn’t disappoint. Their more recent attempts at being a real band, releasing new music, well, that’s a bit different. The Pixies have moved on from being a nostalgia act.
Now nostalgia is not in and of itself a bad thing. The brilliant late scholar, Svetlana Boym, argues that nostalgia shouldn’t be just dismissed as a simple glance backwards with rose-tinted glasses. Nor should it be overlooked or patronised by scholars and journalists. Boym studied nostalgia for communism in Eastern Europe in the 1990s and discovered it to be neither facile nor kitschy. Instead, she argued it’s a ‘sentiment of loss and displacement.’ It is an orientation outwards; a reminder of loss and displacement, and is refracted through an ambivalence towards the present-day, and it is also a romance constructed by our own memories.
In the case of ageing rock bands, then, my parents went to see the Stones in 1989 and I saw the Pixies in 1994 because they were selling something we wanted to buy. Even though the Stones were older and the Pixies were older, they were still symbols of our youth. And we were there to worship at the altar of youth, our displacement into middle age for my parents, and my 30s for me. So, of course, framed in this manner, it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to see our respective ambivalence towards the present-day and our ageing bodies and the complications of daily life.
So back to U2 and The Joshua Tree. Should I go? Should I attempt recreate how I felt when I was 14 years old? No. Of course I shouldn’t go! Why? Because it’s been 30 years. The Edge and Larry Mullen, Jr., are 55. Adam Clayton and Bono are 56. In other words, they’re a decade older than the Rolling Stones were when my parents saw them in 1989. I don’t need to see this. I don’t need to hear and see their ageing. I can see my own, thanks. I don’t need to listen to Bono attempt to hit the notes he sang in 1987, when he was 26. As he’s aged, Bono Vox’s voice has become thinner and higher. This is what happens, of course. But he can’t sing like he did 30 years ago. And this will just depress me, because he can’t sing like he did 30 years ago. And the band, while they have played together for over 40 years, well, they don’t and can’t play like they did 30 years ago either.
In other words, I don’t need a trip down Nostalgia Ave., to rediscover my lost youth, the idealism of youth, or anything else like that. U2 were once my favourite band. But that was a long time ago. We’re all getting older. I’ll try to live in my own life and time this summer, thanks.
Given this analysis, what’s your response to the argument that “your music,” the music listen to and refer to, is mostly settled by the time you’re 30 (or 25 or 35, it varies)?
Well, let me be clear, that this argument is only true in this case. I will be queuing to see Trainspotting 2. But. I have heard this argument, and maybe it applies to many, if not most, but I don’t roll this way. I am always on the lookout for new music, even at my advanced age.