An Inconvenient Youth, Part Two

April 21st, 2008 | Category: Essays

Remember when music was good — when bands stood for something and the music they created was from the heart? Remember when music was real?

I remember a college professor trying to tell me that Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine was “fake, plastic music” while Jimi Hendricks’ Are You Experienced? was “real.” I recently heard the same argument about the fakeness of My Chemical Romance, with NIN as the “real” example.

Since writing last entry, I attended a skateboarding session where there were several skaters much older than I am. One said skater couldn’t seem to get his head in the present. All he talked about was “how things used to be” — the tricks, the ramps, the attitude, the music — everything. Needless to say, this grew tiresome very quickly, and I was glad when the younger crew finally showed up to session.

Some cultural artifacts get “grandfathered” in before our critical filters develop — shows that you remember loving that would probably annoy you now. Others however are chosen by your newly discerning pre-teen mind. Be it Bad Brains, The Wipers, The Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedys, Fugazi, Nirvana, Nine Inch Nails, or My Chemical Romance, everyone has that “punk rock moment” where he or she realizes that the shit on the radio or the shit that their dad likes is wack. This does not make the stuff that you used to like better than the stuff your daughter likes. This does not make Nine Inch Nails “better” than My Chemical Romance (there are plenty of other reasons for that).

As Doug Stanhope would put it, Nine Inch Nails is good to you because being young is good. Everything was better then, but not because it was 1991 (or 1968), for example. It’s because you were young then. The same can be said for the Jimi Hendricks example and my college professor above. Sorry, everyone, “Three’s Company” was not necessarily better than “The King of Queens.”

Part of this is cognitive. Our brains’ ability to create and store new memories simply slows down — to a near-stop, therefore making our most cherished memories those of a bygone era, those of our youth. And when we remember those times, we reify them, making them stronger (Freud called the process “Nachtraglichkeit” meaning “retroactivity”).

So, the aging skateboarder lamenting the olden days when skateboarding was more about gnar than fashion (Ed. note: it’s always been about both) might be suffering from cognitive deceleration, but most likely he’s just being nostalgic boor. Farbeit from me to quote Bob Dylan, but he once said, “nostalgia is death.”

My college professor (who’d probably be proud of me for quoting Dylan, even if I’m using it against him) was just being nostalgic as well. Nostalgia is not inherently bad, but when it comes from a sad place (as in our lamenting skateboarder above), then it indicates a dissatisfaction with the present. This, I believe, is when it becomes death.

We should all always be working toward making these the good ol’ days. The day I’m looking back, lamenting the now, is the day I want to cease.


Johnson, S. Mind Wide Open. Schribner: New York, 2004.

Watson, J. D. Avoid Boring People. Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 2007.

Watson, J. D. “On Enduring Memories” SEED Magazine, April/May, 2006. p. 45.

Thanks to Reggie for sending me the Ruben Bolling comic.

Further Posting:


  • Reggie said:

    I think there’s always been some kind of nostalgia. Grandpa always got cantankerous off corn liquor and loudly opined on “the good ol’ days,” for generations of grandpas. Even people who have been through terrible ordeals can often recall aspects of those ordeals with a wistful fondness. The passage of time has a way of tinting our past with a rosier hue–time truly does heal all wounds.

    But the kind of pre-packaged nostalgia we experience today is different than that of our grandpas, for what I believe to be a few reasons. For one thing, our rate of progress is accelerating, in a sense time is going faster. A few hundred years ago, many of us would probably have ended up in one of a few dozen professions, using the same tools and utilities that our parents did, who in turn used the same tools and utilities as their parents. There were inventions, there was progress, but it happened at a slower rate and so there really was less to fondly recall. One can imagine that cantankerous grandpa reminiscing on “the good ol’ days, when we used donkeys to plow the fields–just like we’re doin’ now.”
    Today, we exist in very different worlds than our parents did. In fact, the next generation of kids exist in a very different world than we do. The flow of information is almost ceaseless now, and it’s literally impossible for one person to keep up with all or even most or even half of it. You can sample bits and pieces from several disciplines, or you can devote yourself to a few, but you can’t be totally able in more than a fraction of the skill sets available today. So as things change at a more rapid pace, we can recall things in the more recent past with fondness–like the touch-tone wall phone, video rental stores, and the compact disc. These are things invented within my lifetime, yet they are practically phased out already. Remember that scene in Stepfather II where the evil stepdad clocks his wife with the receiver from a phone and kills her? You won’t be doing that with an iPhone.

    Another reason we are an increasingly nostalgic society is because more and more of our daily lives are being cataloged. You can go to a website and look up the synopsis for every episode of Punky Brewster, you can even watch a few. Though I watched this program voraciously as a kid, the world would be no worse off if we forgot about Punky Brewster. In fact, we might even be a little better off. People throughout history have reminisced fondly on their youth, but they couldn’t always go on eBay and get that G.I. Joe doll that mom never bought them EVEN THOUGH THEY BEGGED AND PROMISED TO CLEAN THEIR ROOM FOR REAL THIS TIME!!! Today, we can remember and fulfill our nostalgic desires in ways that we couldn’t before. Even people who did not experience the previous generation’s past can join in on the nostalgia for irony’s sake.

    I think that our society has largely replaced thought and action with irony. As new technologies are invented and improved upon, people in command of those technologies (and remember, technologies can be DVD players or they can be standardized tests and new investment strategies) become, for a brief time, exalted for their knowledge. In today’s climate, to admit you don’t know something is dangerous. It’s much better to assume a disaffected, ironic stance, mocking technology by dwelling in the nostalgia of a simpler time, even though that time might be ten years ago. “Been there, done that,” has gone from a motto to a mantra.

    How this relates to elitism is obvious: there is no substitute for “real” nostalgia better than actually having been there. That is one piece of information and knowledge that cannot be usurped without a time machine. So while the younger generation might understand, oh, everything pertinent better than people that are older than they, they can’t really ape Hostess ads in comic books the way my generation can. I mean, I was there, man. I saw Batman lure the Joker to his doom with the promise of a Hostess Fruit Pie. And that was before Michael Keaton played Batman, too. What? You wanna talk about Christian Bale? Ahh, kids today. No respect for history.

  • Ian said:

    Great read.
    Interesting take on thought and action, Reggie.

  • Gyrus said:

    The day I’m looking back, lamenting the now, is the day I want to cease.

    I’m not sure older people looking back is so poisonous. Maybe that’s part of the deal. When 12 year olds aren’t convinced that what’s happening now is the best thing ever, when they are looking back with envy to their parents’ or grandparents’ culture, then maybe we’re in trouble (and there are plenty of those kinds of signs).

    Nostalgia is changing because the rate and nature of change is changing. But I often question the unquestioning counter-cultural allegiance to novelty, the (apparent, at least) loathing for looking backwards. Douglas Rushkoff once said luddite tendencies were useful in that they acted as a brake on runaway technological development. Some luddite faction might say they want a total abolition of technology, or a certain form of technology, but they never achieve it. But in the process, even though they’ve not stopped “progress”, they’ve given it pause, maybe stopped it from careening off in inhuman directions. Neither the “pro” nor the “anti” factions achieve their goals in a pristine form; but if the society is a healthy whole, the outcome is generally better for all.

    It’s all to do with looking in a Howard Bloom fashion at the sum ecology of the social organism. Maybe the nostalgia of older people acts as a brake, a way of helping society maintain ties to the past even in the face of catastrophic change.

    Of course attachment to the past can harden in unhealthy ways; but there’s unhealthy potential in the other direction too. I guess you’re acknowledging some place for nostalgia in saying it’s “not inherently bad” except “when it comes from a sad place”. But again, isn’t that sadness part of the deal? The “algia” bit means pain or sickness, as in neuralgia or whatever… Nostalgia without the sadness is a bit like the 12 year-old’s excitement about current culture without the excitement!

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    Perhaps it’s simply one variety of nostalgia I’m speaking to. For a clear image, think of Uncle Rico in Napoleon Dynamite. That kind of nostalgia can’t be seen as good for anything (except comic relief of course).

  • Gyrus said:

    Yeah, it’s good to nail down the variety we’re talking about.

    It’s fascinated me that Genesis P-Orridge, who has made some of the most extreme anti-nostalgia statements imaginable (can’t find them now, but I’m sure people who know him/her know what I mean), has spent much of his career working over the past – especially his fixation with Brian Jones, who he met as a teenager. His description of this encounter is a kind of archetypal instance of that “glow” that we perceive in the culture we’re excited about when we’re young.

    But the whole late-’80s “Godstar” project, which he described as an attempt to exorcize the hidden cultural grief for this icon, to bring Jones’ presence to light in order to move culture forward, is an interesting example of productive nostalgia. The sadness is there, but it’s embraced in a spirit of exuberance rather than clinging & wallowing. You have to take it on whole-heartedly without attachment – not easy! Anyway, in P-Orridge’s cosmos, honouring Jones’ lost spirit like this helped him (& collaborators) move forward with their contribution to “the next Big Thing”, which was acid house and rave.

    Imaginal psychology writers like James Hillman and Robert Romanyshyn are a great source of perspectives about nostalgia, grief and the past that dodge both denial and wallowing…

    Sorry, I saw Napoleon Dynamite but I think I’ve buried the memory! ;-)

    But yeah, maybe nostalgia per se isn’t the enemy – nor is futurism, or whatever we want to call the opposite. Is it the clinging that gets us lost in either? We can get lost in the present, too: a zero-attention, amnesiac, visionless wallowing in the here and now…

  • brian tunney said:

    Remind me to bother the hell out of you about this…

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  • PFJ said:

    remember when blogs used to be real…

  • j ragel said:

    It seems like skating made a fairly clean shift from ‘old school’ (which contained big decks, launch ramps and use of skate board as primary means of transportation) to the more current norm, which was once called ‘street style’ (smaller decks, more flip tricks and eventually a much bigger marketing culture).

    I just bought a Vision Gonz with Indie trucks at Goodwill for 10 dollars. It’s in great shape. Of course, if I need to go to the store for groceries I’ll still use my bike. I don’t think my ‘old school’ deck and outdated tricks are better then the newer puny decks with tiny wheels. In fact, I think it’s pretty smart to take the bus to the skate park—you have more energy to skate when you get there.

    I think true maturation in these matters involves focusing less on ‘things’ and more on the social and cultural interactions with those things. For instance, I bet kids at a Justice show in 2008 are having a similar experience to kids at a Kiss show in 1978. In fact, the two experiences may be more similar then we could ever dream.

  • Roy Christopher (author) said:

    Jon, I totally agree with your Justice show vs Kiss show example. Authenticity comes from experiences, not products or eras.

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