Thursday, October 27, 2011

Chuck Klosterman's Nostalgia Crisis

In this Grantland essay, Klosterman does some linguistic interior design on the concept of nostalgia, and what it means for (in specific) pop music. As usual, there are a lot of really perceptive things Klosterman touches on in this extensive examination, as well as a few conclusions he could have asserted just a tad further.
The central reason most smart people (and certainly most critics) tend to disparage nostalgia is obvious: It's an uncritical form of artistic appreciation. If you unconditionally love something from your own past, it might just mean you love that period of your own life. In other words, you're not really hearing "Baby Got Back." What you're hearing is a song that reminds you of a time when you were happy, and you've unconsciously conflated that positive memory with any music connected to the recollection. You can't separate the merit of a song from the time when you originally experienced it. [The counter to this argument would be that this seamless integration is arguably the most transcendent thing any piece of art can accomplish.]

Right away Klosterman is hot on the trail of pointing out that art is nothing until it is ingrained in people's lives (or, it is less and less anything until it becomes more and more ingrained in their lives). Therefore, if a song on the radio didn't--for example--enhance my experience of driving to the shore with my best friends, then it might not be much of anything to me. It obviously still exists if I have never heard it (as do most of the greatest and worst songs of all time), but for the purpose of discussing the role of art in people's lives, the only way we could have an meaningful objective critique is if we all led the same lives. If "Baby Got Back" had--for one reason or another--not improved the subjective experience of driving down to the shore, then either a) a different song would have or b) driving to the shore might have been less fun.

Or c) the process of driving to the shore would have enhanced the process of hearing "Baby Got Back".

Heisenberg's uncertainty principle comes to mind, an over-simplification of which asserts: to observe something is to alter it. This maxim, originally applied to sub-atomic measurements--and usually in the sense that the properties of an object deteriorate upon close inspection, much like OJ Simpson's "police-contamination of the murder-scene" defense--can be called to mind for a number of various social phenomena as well as the evaluation of art. However, as opposed to sub-atomic particles, super-atomic painting, films or sets of sonic vibrations can undergo the opposite effect of degradation upon evaluation. In fact, to observe a work of art is to raise it up to the level of an interaction.

I.E. if a buzzard scratches markings onto the side of a tree bark, and these markings--to a visiting extra-terrestrial--read, "Jim-Fran's Sandwich Place", then--perhaps accidentally--the buzzards have communicated with the UFO (quite inaccurately, in all likelihood, but regardless). But let's say the UFO never visits. The scratchings aren't, essentially, anything. They exist, and are potentially a message to be reckoned with, but no evaluation and thus no elevation has occurred. They call to mind a Jefferson nickel sealed away in an underground, decommissioned NYC transit sub-station since 1938.

The act of listening to a song may or may not change your life, but it does change the song. It changes it from a series of vibrations, to a song.

This is one of the big problems with academics, they want works of art to be judged entirely on their own merits. But art is a relationship, it doesn't have intrinsic merits in a vacuum. Without the attached experience of living--or, more pertinently, without being ingrained into the larger process of experiencing--Beethoven, Bach, and Mozart have no merit. It's a tad awkward to see how this supposedly great music is becoming less and less relevant while "garbage" like Rebecca Black and Justin Bieber becomes more and more relevant.

Another very major point that Klosterman grazes by is the importance of repetition. Songs that we simply heard allot sound better by virtue of their familiarity.
You could do this right now, with any song you find remotely okay. Pick a random, unpopular song from your iTunes and play it twice a day for the next six months; in 10 years, I guarantee hearing that song again will make you feel incredible, and it won't have anything to do with a longing for whatever your life is like at this very moment. In fact, let's all do this together: Everyone reading this essay should download the song "White Rune" by Iceage and play it every morning and every night until the NCAA basketball tournament starts. Then we'll reconvene in 2021 and see how we feel about things

I already bored you about how pop music is designed to "hook" you in with a sense of instant familiarity, as opposed to cinema and visual art's attempt to challenge your eyes with expansive adventure. This is a simple product of biological evolution. The ears were used for defense while the eyes were used for advancement. The SOUND of something unknown = danger. The SIGHT of something unknown = new food supply. The repetitive rhythms of tribal drumming were soothing simply by virtue of it's repetition. The ear wants to already be familiar with things, which is why prog-rock (or otherwise unpredictable) music is often said to have a "cinematic" quality. It's also why the very best pop songs are those three minute tracks that make you nostalgic for when you first hear the chorus 40 seconds ago. I think Klosterman's IceAge hypothesis is right on, and I think a lot of critics would be alarmed to find what tracks they could hypnotize themselves into enjoying, if they really wanted to.

Finally, one of the big things that Klosterman forgets to do (as do most critics, including myself) is to point out the difference between art and entertainment. Most of the instances that he uses the word "art", he should be using the word "entertainment". There's a very distinguishable difference which still manifests subjectively, but our lives are similar enough in a lot of important ways that we can allow communicatively meaningful over-generalizations to streamline our essays:

Art is a rendered craft which changes your trajectory, so to speak.

Entertainment is a rendered craft which keeps you on your present course.

If I love a song because of how it "fit into" the soundtrack of my childhood = this is an experience of entertainment.

If I love a song because of how it "shaped" parts of my life (i.e. Pearl Jam's "Glorified G" got me interested in gun-control reform or "In My Tree" got me interested in the drums) = this is an artistic experience.

I like that Klosterman's posits that the debate about nostalgia will eventually become irrelevant due to the internet. But if I could use the art v. entertainment concept to inject some perspective into the debate on Nostalgia, I would do so thusly:

If a nostalgic love for a song had merely an aesthetic feeling, then this is entertainment. If it had a narrative effect, then this is art.

If I love "Fire Water Burn" because it reminded me of when we sat at the lunch-table singing "The Roof.. The Roof.. The Roof is on Fire!": this is entertainment.

If I love "Fire Water Burn" because it got me thinking about burning down the post-office, and discussing this with a counselor led to greater realizations about the value of socialized postal systems: this (perhaps, sadly) is art.

Most of us will agree that art is more important than entertainment. Even if "Fire Water Burn" actually led someone to burn down a post-office, in this instance, it may not be as GOOD, but it is still more IMPORTANT.

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