The Past Does Not Exist: Against the Nostalgia-Addict as Critic

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At the time the mountains were climbed and the rivers crossed, you were present. Time is not separate from you, and as you are present, time does not go away. As the time is not marked by coming and going, the moment you climbed the mountains is the time-being right now. If time keeps coming and going, you are the time-being right now. – Dōgen – The Time-Being

We are told over and over that rock and roll, and indeed popular culture, is a giant youth cult, slathering its constant message of here today gone tomorrow on the bodies of the barely-post-pubescent, imploring them to die young just like their heroes. This is echoed in the fear of metal-inspired suicide pacts, the fact that few pop stars beyond the legacy circuit crack 30, many not even 20. From this springs the constant generational urge to rip it up and start again, the value placed on newness as an end in itself. It’s creation with all the destruction that implies.

So why are so many music critics entrenched anywhere but the present? An entire cottage industry has sprung up in catering to a noxious form of conservatism, peddling blatant nostalgia masquerading as cultural criticism. Every week, it seems, pieces about how “[Insert Album Here] Turns 20” suck up bandwidth and web real estate and assault the eyes with their frivolous odor. If you think I’m exaggerating, look at the numbers: for their ‘The Anniversary’ feature, Stereogum has churned out 86 pieces in exactly that format since 2008, with more than 70 coming since the beginning of 2012. TheQuietus actually offends more, as their ‘Anniversary’ series has published 118 essays of “X Years Old” filler since late-2009. Sites like Invisible Oranges run less, but they’re highly visible on a publication that produces so little in-depth writing.

“They are 1000-word column filler putting on a mask of analysis to disguise from the ritual’s emptiness.”

This is not to necessarily trash the quality of writing; it’s the exercise I’m aiming at, and how prosaic it happens to be. What about an anniversary necessitates hand-wringing and wordy gesticulation? Has the album really increased in importance since last year? What is so important about the date we can’t wait another 10 or 20 before re-evaluating? In order: nothing, no, and not much. While I try to consider context and perspective when listening to an album, I increasingly accept that a band’s background, influences, and impact are simply immaterial when it comes to deciding whether their music is effective or not. All of that is past, and considering we can only interact with the past through the documents we directly experience, its existence is highly suspect. We cannot touch, cannot hear the ephemera. In this way, only the music is left real.

These pieces of nostalgic wallowing multiply because, simply, they’re easy to write. No interviews need to be set up, no pain-in-the-ass transcription, and the author is mostly charged with letting their memories flow, rose-colored and stagnant. They are 1000-word column filler, plain and simple, putting on a mask of analysis to disguise from the ritual’s emptiness. I’m consistently surprised just how utterly thin and redundant these pieces seem. Do we really need to revisit Virgins & Philistines  by The Colourfield? Having already written about The Low End Theory  in 2011, is it necessary to follow up with Midnight Marauders  two years later? You see my point.

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Nostalgia as practiced in most critical circles strikes me as a thing so obsessed with itself it believes the quality of ‘past’ improves the music, makes it matter. An album becomes important because we, the critics, deem it important 10 or 20 or 30 years later, a length of time assumed to carry some significance. The average essay reflects on some personal experience of the author’s, moves into historic details, and maybe, just maybe, discusses the music itself. Always there is the assumption that we in the audience know the album’s themes, how its songs move us or don’t, where it succeeds and fails. This is because nostalgia isn’t about the music, never was. Instead the addicted critic focuses on perceived milestones, feeding an ahistorical desire to contextualize everything until the writer forgets their place as a speck of dust in the eye of all known life. The music doesn’t matter because of the music; it matters because they noticed.

This would all be so much critical big-headedness and solipsism if it didn’t dovetail so cleanly with the profit factory of reissues and remasters we’ve been sold into. What strikes me about so many ‘milestone’ pieces is how easily they could be lifted wholesale into press releases or liner notes with minimal change. These essays cater to the same audience that reissues of still in-print albums like Give Up  and In Utero  do, effectively serving as advertisements, drawing the reader’s attention to the new product being hawked. And make no mistake, the PR agencies and labels that send out promos view all positive writing as bonus press, whether a personal essay or an oral history. All the better when it contains nothing resembling critical analysis, becoming, ultimately, an endorsement.

In Utero  provides a revealing example. Undoubtedly a seminal album in mainstream rock music, many words were furiously processed this year about the contradictions of the biggest rock band in America recording with a strictly-DIY producer to make a noise rock record on a Major Label’s dime. These are valid topics to probe, but let me ask: do we need a phony landmark like a 20th-anniversary to discuss them? Valid criticism is valid always, sustaining and being sustained by the work of critiqued art. But to do so in conjunction with a massive, 4-CD reissue effectively becomes advertising copy, almost regardless of the critique’s true content. Hell, there is an actual published article from 2011 entitled “Nevermind Turns 20: Win the Super-Deluxe Collector’s Edition Here.” Who needs satire when life does such a good job on its own?

“Nostalgia as practiced in most critical circles strikes me as a thing so obsessed with itself it believes the quality of ‘past’ improves the music.”

This reveals the precarious position of most music critics, who rely on labels and PR companies to help them set up interviews, obtain promos, put together streams, etc. In one sense, much of what we do is advertisement, because we bought into a system that requires it to run. What else can we hope for but to scratch something of our own into the dirt? But gleeful nostalgia is the easy way out. Wasn’t the call not that long ago to Kill Yr Idols, to keep the Beatles and Neil Young and Bob Dylan from topping every critic poll? Wasn’t that about the music, too?

In Dōgen’s writing, to become convinced of past and future is to fully accept physical existence and its attendant delusions. To emphasize anything but engaging with the music is to lose the point of the music. While you, the listener, must process all of the background, the details, context and history, they don’t tally up to much. Neither, really, do you. I don’t mean to be ahistorical; hell, I’m literally a historian. I read my fair share of music books, love anecdotes, own some choice volumes in the 33 1/3  series, and seek out artist interviews hoping I can glimpse when makes them tick. What I’m saying, ultimately, is this: to privilege anything above the immediate experience of letting the sound intertwine itself with your thoughts is delusion, and only outside of this delusion can music exist. Not 10 or 20 or 30 years ago. Right now.

Robert Rubsam
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Robert Rubsam

Rob is a freelance writer and photographer whose work has been published at Roads & Kingdoms, Crux, and Flavorwire, among others. He is Features Editor at Noted.
Robert Rubsam
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