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The Nostalgia Crisis: Why the business of the past is killing the art of the future

by Levi Dayan


Sun Ra, still from the 1980 Robert Mugge documentary A Joyful Noise

[originally published October 2021]


One of the very first shows I went to after being fully vaccinated was a birthday celebration for the late great Sun Ra, and for the now 97 (!!!) year-old Sun Ra Arkestra bandleader Marshall Allen, who performed with a band that included fellow Arkestra members Noel Scott and Heru Shabaka-Ra and the brilliant rhythm section of Luke Stewart and Tcheser Holmes. Prior to the performance, a benediction was given by Thomas “Bushmeat” Stanley, sound artist, author, radio host and assistant professor at the George Mason University School of Art, amongst other things. This benediction covered a lot of ground, but something he said that particularly resonated with me (which I’m paraphrasing here) was “I want today’s equivalent of The Temptations to be Death Grips.” The connection between the two groups may be baffling to some (though less so, I’d imagine, to people who have heard some of the deep cuts from their late 60s/early 70s albums. Shit gets pretty out there), but it makes perfect sense when one considers the arc of Sun Ra. Some of Sun Ra’s earliest including performing with the Rhythm & Blues shouter Wynonie Harris and big band legend Fletcher Henderson, and many of his earliest recordings were of him backing doo-wop groups in Chicago. Sun Ra’s music was crucial in the development of post-bop, free jazz, and even free improvisation and experimental electronic music, as seen in his groundbreaking synthesizer work. These innovations never mandated a jettison of his past; most of Sun Ra’s music was recorded in a big-band setting, typically maintaining a sense of swing hand-in-hand with moments of full-blown chaos, and the influence of 50s pop music can be heard in the endlessly catchy vocal parts and chants accompanying his many compositions. Sun Ra made the music of the future while clearly evolving from the past, but to have stood still in the past would have rendered all of his innovations unattainable.

Bushmeat’s benediction stuck with me in large part because it feels like this message has been ignored by a large segment of society. In the present day, appeals to nostalgia are central not only to corporate marketing and advertising, but also pop culture as a whole. On the base level, this is nothing new. Ever since the explosion of rock n’ roll reached adulthood, nostalgia has always been a dominating force, ranging from the success of American Graffiti and Grease in the 70s, to the insane amount of boomer former rock stars who scored late-career hits in the 80s, to Dazed and Confused and That 70s Show in the 90s. But one can’t shake the feeling that nostalgia has operated differently in the post-9/11 culturescape. For one, 80s nostalgia (perhaps one of the most questionable decades to be nostalgic for) lumbered on for what feels like fucking eons. It started with 80s-inflected club music at the beginning of the aughts, continued with the instant sampling of 80s hits in mid-00s pop, the “post-punk revival,” neo-new wave bands like The Killers, the development of synthwave, chillwave and vaporwave at the beginning of the 2010s, and reached perhaps its most shameless point with, of course, Stranger Things. That’s nearly twenty fucking years, and it still hasn’t fully died.

Beyond the excruciating longevity of 80s nostalgia, an additional unique factor of present-day nostalgia is the pervasiveness of the aughts nostalgia. Central to this nostalgia is the reality TV and children’s TV of the day, as well as basically anything in the media at that time that can make people cringe in retrospect. Memes referencing Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and Disney Channel shows, Glee, the Twilight franchise, and more are absolutely inescapable on social media. A video of former Blues Clues host Steve Burns has been one of the most shared (and probably one of the most memed) videos of the year. The impact of 00s nostalgia can also be felt in the music industry. The most notable examples would be the pop-punk influenced music of Machine Gun Kelly, Olivia Rodrigo, 100 gecs, and countless others, but the influence of the boy band and teen pop music that a lot of pop-punk bands made fun of is also omnipresent. The boy bands clearly had an influence on groups like BTS (and for what it’s worth, groups like Brockhampton also call themselves boy bands), and even beyond the cultural significance of the Free Britney movement, Britney Spears’s influnece can be found everywhere. The most egregious example of these manifesting in a single song is Charli XCX and Troye Sivan’s “1999,” which namechecks Spears in the chorus and whose video is chock full of references to relics of the Y2K era.

This is not to say any of these artists, or these reference points, or nostalgia as a whole are a bad thing. Nostalgia is part of human nature, and of course the pop culturesphere of when any given person comes of age is gonna be a source of endorphins. I still have an attachment to a lot of the mid 00s, as it was some of the first music I remember hearing on the radio and was also dominated by producers like Timbaland and The Neptunes who could get pretty weird when they wanted to. There’s certainly criticism to be made of present-day pop music, but the current state of pop music is certainly the most fun it’s been since the dawn of the 2010s, when Americans were high on hope and change and every song seemed tailor-made for Bar/Bat Mitzvah parties. At least some of the credit for that can be given to musicians embracing the influences of music that only a few years ago might have been laughed off as stupid and embarrassing. In other words, individual pop stars, and people’s own individual nostalgia, is not the problem. But when a sense of collective nostalgia becomes not just a trend, but a determinant factor of art and culture, it can spell something dark.

It’s not difficult to understand why collective nostalgia has been such a pervasive phenomenon for the past 20 years. People whose childhoods were defined by MTV, TRL, and YouTube respectively have all aged into a rapidly intensifying quagmire of recession, inequality, and institutional decay, to name just a few things. When the carefree innocence of childhood is obscured by a raging shitstorm as chaotic as the one most people are facing in 2021, the glow of nostalgia intensifies. And again, this isn’t specific to 2021; it’s possible that in the midst of Watergate, a lot of Americans were nostalgic for the 50s, a time when a war general was president and Nixon was simply his dog-loving second banana (racism is another good explanation for the 50s nostalgia boom). And the insane omnipresence of boomer rockers in the 80s is, of course, intricately tied with the cultural dissatisfaction of the boomers themselves, who looked at the self-centered materialistic nature of the era (that they helped create) as well as its cultural shifts and concluded that everything had to be done their way. But while these were certainly dominant trends, they weren’t the dominant trends. The 70s may have been the decade of Grease, but it was also the decade of funk, disco and punk rock. The 80s may have been the decade of “We Didn’t Start the Fire,” but it was also the decade that Prince and Springsteen dominated the charts. In other words, while a collective yearning for the past was inescapable, popular music still found ways to challenge and resist, often directly, the “good old days” ideology of the Nixons and Reagans of the day.

Additionally, on the surface level, pop culture seems to have made crucial progress even in the face of everything else backsliding. In fact, I think one of the more interesting questions cultural historians will grapple with in the future may be how to explain the chasm between the pop culture and politics of the Trump era. Hollywood has both always been thought of as more liberal than the rest of the country while simultaneously being the most powerful source of reinforcement for right wing ideology and values, and that certainly hasn’t changed in recent years. But as America veers closer and closer to full-blown fascist autocracy, pop culture has undeniably witnessed a shift towards the most marginalized in society. This is a time where Lil Nas X and Megan Thee Stallion rule the charts, films like Us and Black Panther dominate the box office, and films like Moonlight and Parasite win Oscars. However, when looked at in the greater context of art and culture, these advancements are dwarfed by an unprecedented devaluation of art occurring on an unthinkably massive scale.

The entertainment industry has certainly never been a nourishing environment for artistic and creative integrity, but even during, say, the mid-to-late 90s, a pretty awful time for summer blockbusters, there was at the very least some sense of competition. Even if it meant having to choose between two different movies where the White House gets blown up, at the very least people had the option to see new movies that weren’t sequels, remakes, or franchise films, and they weren’t all owned by the same company.Today, corporate consolidation has monopolized the entertainment industry. In the film industry, practically every studio is owned by Disney or another megacorporation, and almost every avenue of success in the music industry is similarly monopolized. The streaming “market” is essentially limited to Spotify, Apple Music, and YouTube, none of which provide an even remotely sustainable income for musicians. Any chance of success in the industry — which was never less than elusive in the first place —depends entirely on social media virality and algorithms, which, of course, are controlled by the biggest monopolies of all, Facebook and Google. Considering that many of the largest syndicated radio stations refuse to even play the most genuinely popular music in the country,which, these days, is almost always Rap,of course the oldest gatekeepers of all in the music industry are not helpful for working musicians. The last remaining source of a legitimate income is touring, which, in addition to being gutted by the pandemic and still facing a deeply uncertain future, is also being monopolized by LiveNation, a corporation that has jeopardized smaller, community-driven venues and shown a clear indifference towards the health and safety of its workers in its stances on vaccination. Most ominously, in recent years old music has been far more profitable than new music, even as more and more new music is released every day

This speaks to the throughline of all these forces working to kill independent and creative music, which is that they gravitate towards the business of the past. Success in the entertainment industry has become practically synonymous with virality and memeability. This is not always a bad thing, as there are artists like the aforementioned Lil Nas X and Megan Thee Stallion who have been aided by these dynamics and are also making genuinely great music. But as I mentioned before, so much of the present-day memescape is fueled by nostalgia. There may be no surer way to go viral than to dig up something completely and totally memory-holed, like flash games on Newgrounds and Miniclip or some Cartoon Network deep cut that gave kids nightmares, and send social media users into a Proustian flashback of being an 8 year old with a questionable amount of internet access. While this can make for great meme content, and great marketing, it does not make for great art - but since making great art is the least of a corporate enterprise’s concerns, memeing and marketing come before any other consideration can be made. It’s why Disney uses its near-complete monopoly over the entertainment industry to pump out remakes, sequels and franchise films, why a Space Jam sequel and not one but two Sonic movies are allowed to happen, and perhaps most chillingly, why a Mario movie would have Chris fucking Pratt in the lead role. When invoking nostalgia and going viral come before common sense, Chris Pratt doing an Italian accent is only inevitable.

But before I veer off course, these are, obviously, symptoms of monopolized industries that have long been committed to the commodification of art and all that surrounds it. As I said before, nostalgia is part of human nature, and no one is immune to the endorphins that it can release. But just as it would be insane to suggest that all art should be as experimental and challenging as possible, it is insane to suggest that all art needs to center around repackaging the past and escaping from the present and near-distant future. However, this is happening as we speak. Even as streaming services, and the internet as a whole, claim to eliminate “gatekeepers” to discovery, the new media that people consume has become more and more limited to just a handful of ideas. While nostalgia-fueled viral hits and movie remakes show no signs of disappearing, making a career in uncompromising and creative art has become completely unsustainable. And of course, Black artists are the ones who are in the most danger of being priced out of artistic fields that are more and more the domain of the children of CEOs and celebrities.

The obvious solution to these problems is to break up big tech and Disney, make Spotify pay a living wage to the musicians whose labor they exploit, and actually fund the arts. But in the short term, I believe we have a collective responsibility to reject the business of the past and embrace the limitless creative potential of the now. The mindset that art just isn’t as good as it used to be — beyond being stupid and racist for a multitude of reasons that I do not have the space to get into — is a dull, dead-end way of looking at life. If I genuinely believed such a thing, I don’t know how I’d live with myself, as one of the few things that has kept me content in the midst of the endless stream of catastrophes thrown our way in the past few years is the knowledge that art never dies, that people are inherently creative, and that as long as people are given the space to create, beautiful things will happen.

To conclude, I’ve also been thinking of a quote from another show I attended this summer, which was a performance by the Michael TA Thompson Trio at the ArtsForArt InGarden festival in New York City. At the end, as the audience was applauding an incredible performance, Thompson cut the applause short to make a statement, which, again, I’m paraphrasing: “People say everything in the world is crazy, but it can’t all be crazy because we’re all here sharing this music.”

And, lastly, the words of the late, great Sun Ra: “I like all the sounds that upset people, they’re too complacent, and some of those sounds really shake ‘em. They need to wake up ‘cause it’s a very bad world and maybe they could do something about it.”

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