Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Nostalgia, Play Loud

Rock and roll and nostalgia go hand in hand. The songs you loved at [insert age here] can't possibly matter as much to someone born ten years younger or ten years older than you, and each of them has songs that have indelibly soundtracked their lives and who look at you, baffled, when you don't share their passion. Nostalgia is a tattoo that you can't remove, and most of the time, we don't want to.

Carrie Brownstein's 2015 memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is a terrific account of Brownstein's early and ongoing identification with punk rock and creative expressions. On one level a chronological narrative of Sleater-Kinney—loaded with details of road-and-stage exploits, band dynamics, Pacific NW Riot grrrl history, fly-on-the-wall songwriting and recording sessions with fellow members Corin Tucker and Janet Weiss—the book also allows Brownstein to maturely essay more personal questions about queerness, gender performance, friendship, intimacy, and personal integrity. Brownstein's references throughout the book to Joseph Mitchell, James Baldwin, Joan Didion, and The New Yorker didn't surprise me: Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl is a very well-written, literate and cerebral book, but thankfully Brownstein doesn't sacrifice anecdote or evocative details. Her tone is humble—self-deprecating without false humility—and her style conversational, though it suffers in places from over-writing—8 out of 10 Brownstein metaphors land, on average, but when they do they are memorable. (It also didn't surprise me that during Sleater-Kinney's hiatus in the late 90s Brownstein considered studying nonfiction writing in an MFA program.) 

One of my favorite passages comes early in the book when Brownstein—first and always a fan of music—writes very wisely about the value and limitations of nostalgia:
Nostalgia is so certain: the sense of familiarity it instills makes us feel like we know ourselves, like we’ve lived. To get a sense that we have already journeyed through something—survived it, experienced it—is often so much easier and less messy than the task of currently living through something. Though hard to grasp, nostalgia is elating to bask in—temporarily restoring color to the past. It creates a sense memory that momentarily simulates context. Nostalgia is recall without the criticism of the present day, all the good parts, memory without the pain. Finally, nostalgia asks so little of us, just to be noticed and revisited; it doesn't require the difficult task of negotiation, the heartache and uncertainty that the present does.

Now l can’t listen to some of these records alone, in my house that l have cleaned and organized, books arranged just so, sheets washed. The sounds don’t hold up. In these cases, fandom is contextual and experiential: it’s not that it happened, it’s that you were there. It’s site-specific, age-specific. Being a fan has to do with the surroundings, and to divorce the sounds from that context often feels distancing, disorienting, but mostly disappointing. I think of all the times I’ve had a friend over and pulled out records from high school or college, ready for the album to change someone’s life the way it changed mine. I watch my friend’s face, waiting eagerly for the “aha!” moment to arrive, only to realize that my affection for this intentionally off-key singing, saggy bass sound, and lyrics about bunnies isn’t quite the revelation it was fifteen years ago. “You had to be there” is not always a gloat or admonishment—often it’s an explanation for why something sounds utterly terrible.
Carrie Brownstein and Jessica Hopper

This passage put me in mind of Jessica Hopper, author of the pointedly-titled The First Collection of Criticism by a Living Female Rock Critic, also published last year. Gathered from pieces Hopper's written over the past fifteen years for magazines and online sites such as SPIN, Chicago Reader, Village Voice, and her own tumblr, Tinyluckygenius, Hopper's pieces are smart, meaningful, and affecting. She writes conventionally solid album reviews as well as evocative profile pieces, and in between personal essays, all of it benefiting from the intelligence of a fan who's steeped in historical knowledge and the perspective it grants. My favorite essay in the book is "Emo: Where the Girls Aren't," first published in Punk Planet in 2003. Hopper's a powerful writer when she zooms in on individuals in the middle of living inside of historic moments, in this case the rise of punk feminism in the 1990s. Hopper, too, writes about nostalgia in her book, devoting an entire section to it, with essays on Bruce Springsteen, Pearl Jam, Dinosaur, Jr., and Hole, but in this essay she comes at nostalgia from a different angle than Brownstein; Hopper's nostalgia carries some troubling questions. Writing about her early experiences with punk rock and emo, Hopper turns her attention to the generation of hungry and wide-eyed female fans who came after her:
My deepest concerns about the lingering effects of emo is not so much for myself or for my friends—we have refuge in our personal-political platforms and deep-crated record collections—but rather for the teenage girls I see crowding front and center at emo shows. The ones who for whom this is their inaugural introduction to the underground, whose gateway may have been through Weezer or the Vagrant America tour or maybe Dashboard Confessional's Unplugged. The ones who are seeking music out, who are wanting to stake some claim to punk rock, or an underground avenue, for a way out, a way under, to sate the seemingly unquenchable, nameless need—the same need I know I came to punk rock with. Emo is the province of the young, their foundation is fresh-laid, my concern is for people who have no other previous acquaintance with the underground, save for these bands and their songs.
When Hopper was that age, she too "had a hunger for a music that spoke a language I was just starting to decipher, music that affirmed my ninth grade fuck-you values—music that encouraged me to not allow my budding feminist ways to be bludgeoned by the weight of mainstream, patriarchal culture—I was lucky I was met at the door with things like the Bikini Kill demo, Fugazi and the first Kill Rock Stars comp." She continues, "I was met with polemics and respectful address; I heard my life and concerns in those songs. I was met with girl heroes deep in guitar squall, kicking out the jams under the stage lights. I was being hurtled towards deeper rewards. Records and bands were triggering ideas and inspiration." Hopper knows that she wouldn't be who she is now, as a woman and a fan and a professional, if she "had not had gotten those fundamentals, been presented with those big ideas about what music and, moreover, what life, can be about."

And now Hopper recognizes that at shows she watches the girls up front as much as the band, looking for signs:
I watch them sing along, to see what parts they freak out over. I wonder if this does it for them, if seeing these bands, these dudes on stage, resonates and inspires them to want to pick up a guitar or drum sticks. Or if they just see this as something dudes do, since there are no girls, there is no them up there. I wonder if they see themselves as participants, or only as consumers or—if we reference the songs directly—the consumed. I wonder if this is where music will begin and end for them. If they can be radicalized in spite of this. If being denied keys to the clubhouse is enough to spur them into action.
Hopper acknowledges that she wouldn't have considered starting a band until she saw other women in bands—a clarion call that previous generations of female artists recognize and are grateful for. "It took seeing Babes in Toyland and Bikini Kill to truly throw on the lights, to show me that there was more than one place, one role, for women to occupy, and that our participation was important and vital—it was YOU MATTER writ large," Hopper writes.
I don’t want these front row girls to miss that. I don’t want girls leaving clubs denied of encouragement and potential. As lame as punk rock can be, as hollow as all of our self-serving claims ring—that the culture of punk is truly different somehow than that of median society—at its gnarled foundations still exists the possibilities for connection. There is still the possibility for exposure to radical notions, for punk rock to match up to what many kids dream, or hope for punk DIY to mean. But much of that hinges on the continual presence of radicalized women within the leagues, and those women being encouraged—given reasons to stay, to want to belong—rather than diminished by the music which glues the community together.
Hopper ends her essay with a demand: "Us girls deserve more than one song. We deserve more than one pledge of solidarity. We deserve better songs than any boy will ever write about us."

Nostalgia, from nostos, implies a return home—but more accurately, it's the inability to return to a home that we've defined, often inaccurately, by its absence. (I've weighed in on this most human of impulses here.) Hopper isn't explicitly writing about nostalgia in her piece, but in looking hard at those young women up front rocking out at shows, she's seeing them through her own feelings about, and memories of, herself in that very position, years earlier—nostalgic for a liberating and empowering era that she hopes lives on. Brownstein pulls albums that may or may not rock your world as they did hers; Hopper hopes that what she longingly recalls is happening right now for you. Nostalgia simultaneously redefines our past and our present. Someone should write a song about it.

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