My friend Colin wrote an article about 90s nostalgia, sort of. Or about Matchbox 20 releasing a new album, sort of. [It can be read here: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/column/163196-in-defense-of-not-buying-into-90s-nostalgia/]. As someone who is quite the 90s apologist, I deemed it my responsibility to come up with some sort of response. Also, I am thrilled at the idea of an internet call and response, like some sort of Space Odyssey-esque live concert throwdown. I think that makes more sense in my head.
To sum up, crassly, it is impossible for bands from the 90s to be anything other than bands from the 90s according to critical reviews precisely because said reviewers cannot stop themselves from referencing the 90s. This, in turn, renders the new music anything but new, if you will. The newness is overrun by nostalgia by the reviewer, who in turn, in announcing his/her nostalgia, renders the very idea of the band making music nostalgic, as if Matchbox 20 put out a new album only to sate the 90s thirst of the listening [and sometimes buying] public. No matter Rob Thomas’ pleas to the contrary, his band’s existence is entirely predicated on people remembering his band’s 90s existence.
Do I disagree with this assessment? Not entirely. Am I unfairly summarizing? Most likely. But like the Nitty Gritty Band, let’s get down to it:
Have you noticed that on the radio certain decades of music are lumped together, as if they are, in fact, similar? “The best from the 50s, 60s, and 70s all day long!” “Your favorite 80s, 90s, and 2k station!” But then, those stations will have subsets of programming, like 70s at 7 or a Hot 90s Weekend or some version of an 80s Dance Party, thus underscoring the idea that these groupings are actually separate. The interesting part of this has nothing to do with programming in and of itself, it’s that the programming is being put together to function in a certain way: recalling youth. There are two important factors here that I will deem scientific even though I have no science to back it up: 1) The children of the 50s and 60s were the first to really make music an every day thing, thus making music a time landmarker, guides to who they were and who they became; and 2) their children, of the 80s and 90s, grew up with music as this cultural and time landmarker, embracing it in a duel way–growing up on their parents’ music, while at some point, for me it was my early teens, beginning to branch out and ‘discovering’ their own music landmarks.
The very first album I purchased with my money was a Green Day cassette, 1,059 Smoothed Out Slappy Hours [or something like that. I don’t quite remember]. It was a ‘full length’ of two early Green Day EPs. At the time, Green Day was blowing up with Dookie and ‘Longview’ was the jam of the century, but I didn’t realize that bands put out more than one album or something. Hence, what I bought. I also remember the cassette for Dookie being blue, which I thought was the most incredible thing in the world for some reason. The importance of this purchase, in the long term, is that I will [until my mind goes] always remember that Green Day was my first purchase, and, therefore, I will always, to some degree follow their career path and, at this point, lament that they are not the band that I remember them being. What I don’t know how to answer, though, is who do I want them to be? And, here is the crux of this idea of critical review that Colin was speaking of: how could I actually evaluate Green Day’s latest album without considering what it meant to be so young and naive and amazed at the glory that was Dookie? My ability to listen to the band without any notion of that is impossible because my musical world has a foundation that has, in some fashion, been partly built by 1990s Green Day. No matter Rob Thomas’ argument that Matchbox 20 only released one album in the 90s, his bands’ fans will always remember that initial introduction and they will always be a 90s band to them because that is where the landmark has been posted. The notion that of whether this is fair or unfair, however, is an entirely separate issue.
The idea of what it means for a band to grow is something I’ve struggled with as a fan and a listener for quite a long time. I find the idea that band should still beholden to its beginnings as a failure, by me and by the band. And, yet, when a band changes too much, I disavow them to some degree, spend my time wishing they sounded like they ‘used to.’ For this struggle, I have created a simple, yet successful in that it answers nothing, rubric of sorts, incorporating three bands I enjoy, all at different degrees, and all have shifted in level of my popularity list as time has gone on: Brand New, Taking Back Sunday, and Saves the Day.
The career paths, according to J:
Saves the Day: upon hearing Through Being Cool, quickly ascend to the top of J.’s personal list. It is enough punk rock to make me feel like I’m not a total wuss, even though its chock full of emo. Also, it is a fantastic driving album. I ignore all earlier albums because I hear that they are “faster.” To me, this sounds like a terrible thing. The I’m Sorry I’m Leaving e.p. and Stay What You Are are everything I want them to be, somehow sad and violent and beautiful. Then it turns out that the way Chris sings is too hard on his throat. He adjusts his singing voice. This destroys everything for me. Somehow, Saves the Day is no longer Saves the Day and the only thing that changed was how Chris’ voice sounds. They somehow didn’t grow as a band and yet changed, thereby sounding enough like I wanted them to sound yet different enough to change how I heard them to make me only wish for “Shoulder to the Wheel.”
Taking Back Sunday: this is the easiest summary–TBS has been making the same album their whole career. You know at the halfway point they’re going to have that slowed down “accoustic” turd for whatever ungodly reason. There will be skittering vocals, handclaps, gang choruses–all good things–and Adam will be mad at some girl. They never move as a band. Yet, they remain, in their own way, popular. And there is something comforting about hitting play on TBS album, in that, much like a horror movie, I know exactly what I’m in for.
Brand New: Brand New is by far my favourite band. I make no apologies for this. I will, however, make an apology for this: Their debut album is okay. I have grown to like it more now as I filter back through the history of the band. In truth, it’s a decent pop-punk album with lyrics that at times seem better than the usual pop punk album. I once argued, with Colin actually, that Brand New were the Beatles, in that they started out pop and then progressively moved away from the pop into what I would say is more ‘internally inspired’ music. TBS writes songs they know their fans will scream back at them at shows; Brand New writes songs that they want to play. I also have a strong belief that Jesse and I should be best friends, something that I’ve written about before, because I am confident Jesse gets what it means to be a fragile egocentric individual. What I have seen from them is a willingness to see where they can take their core sound, to think not of people, but to think of notes, of structure, of purpose and feeling. You would think, then, that means I believe in bands’ abilities to grow and change, but I also know that my Brand New fandom is cemented in the first time I heard ‘The Quiet Things That No One Ever Knows.” And this means, that when Daisy came out, I looked for that same moment, and I didn’t get it. And in order to be honest with myself, I have to say that I didn’t like the album as much as I wanted to, and, yet, I still loved it. The hard part to answer is, is that because it’s good or is that because it’s Brand New and it is still close enough to who I see as Brand New at the core that I can successfully filter in “Quiet Things” even when it isn’t actually there?
What this means is every single album that is not a debut album ever put out in the history of music is an exercise in nostalgia. Each one is in constant communication with previous incarnations created by the band, as well as in constant communication with the person listening’s own history with that band. While this may seem dangerous when we want to see music criticism as this objective action, such a delineation isn’t possible. Music criticism, at its core, is still an expression of liking vs. not liking, and, as such, objectivity is a hollow game; I mean that with total affection–we cannot describe listening to music without, to some degree, having it filtered through the things we would like to listen to. How could we? We are listening to music because we like it; this will always form a center around which all of our musical choices and reactions coalesce. The reason for the 90s nostalgia boom is because those of us who grew up in the 90s, who remember dance music being the new disco and Nirvana and Britney Spears and Jay-Z and DMX and Green Day and Ace of Base and Hootie and the Blowfish and rollerblades and JNCO jeans and Alien Workshop and everything else, are all getting old enough to look back at that time and push it all together into one cultural lump that we can then render happy; when we were there, living it presently, there would be no way Hootie and DMX were the same, but now, looking back, it becomes all part of our ‘youth,’ a time when we were starting to announce who we were and who we wanted to be. It’s the reason oldies stations proudly say they play music from 3 different decades even though those 3 decades cut a huge swath in the music landscape. With enough time, it might not all sound the same, but it is the same because it no longer is music. It’s youth, remembered. It’s history, played. And, most importantly, it is a version of ourselves we can reshape. I can, in time, play Ace of Base for my niece, and she will have no idea what is going on, and I won’t be sharing some stupid Swedish pop song; I will be sharing who I was with her, and I will be able to tell stories and make fun of the world that I grew up in, all the while letting her know that this was good, it was a life I lived and am here, now, sharing this song with her, because of it.