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Thursday, October 14, 2004

Flat Nostalgia

Whatever Happened to the Buzzcocks?

No one knows the words to the Buzzcocks' "Whatever Happened to..?". I can't find the lyrics on any album sleeve, I spend fifteen minutes on google and turn up nothing. Try to find the words on Buzzcocks fan sites, all you get are empty pages with messages to the effect of, "If you know the words, let me know?" It's no surprise, either, because the words don't really matter in this song. The song presents an endless stream of non sequitors with the question "Whatever happened?" asked before them. The associations are not memorable, witty, deep, intimate or resonant in any way. "Whatever Happened to betting books?", "Whatever happened to Duchaus?", "Whatever happened to Chairman Mao?" But these aren't just stream of consciousness exercises, because Whatever Happened, like most Buzzcocks songs, is structured like a pop song. Over before three minutes, machine-gunning through verse/chorus and verse, the song presents its list in the context of an upbeat, freewheeling, emotional and vapidly enthusiastic teenage anthem. The only recognizable line is, "whatever happened to you and me?", returning to the easy pop ideas of angst, love and loss. It's as if, after the cluttered, empty associations which songwriter Peter Shelley sees as the cultural makeup of his imagined lover, he wonders if his human relationship holds the same meaning, an equal ground with the cluttered ephemera that his lover's media-saturated psyche contains. The chorus wings, enthusiastically, "Your pastuerized lives are fit for consumption", then...I don't know. Seriously, I can't find the lyrics.

At first reading, the song is a critique of consumer associations and the hollowing out of our emotional value systems, its about a world where so many objects and units of information are associated arbitrarily with important moments of our lives that they all hold nostalgic value for us, where the accumulation of intimate cultural associations creates a kind of permanent deja vu, a pancultural field of abstraction, where regardless what direction we look in, our eyes lock onto dense and emotionally charged pieces of our own past, heavy, hurtful, real or imagined. Recent research suggests that Deja Vu is a result of synaptic disruptions in the brain where small pieces of information are registered 'incorrectly', recursively suggesting themselves over and over again. Imagine a world where radiowaves and consumerism dissolve those associations for us, where the most fragile and empty objects weigh on us like ex-lovers, hunched over our hearts, pulling us down and locking us in the past regardless of how we originally experience them. What if your heart was breaking every day? What if your heart was breaking right now? Whatever Happened to puppy love? People you knew, missed connections, failures, small islands of happiness, what if the past drowned us before we could make a sound? Whatever Happened to New Ages? What if the world just asked you to stay in bed, all the time, regretting?

'Whatever Happened' appears on the appropriately titled Another Music From a Different Kitchen; the title comedically alludes to the disorienting nature of generic pop music. The consumer wanders from room to room, each one illogical and disconnected, every doorway leading to a room that looks the same but contains small differences, barely recognizable permutations, every room forgotten the moment you leave it. Another Music is just another strange place spouting weird noises, no less disorienting and mindnumbing than the last. The song appears most famously however on Singles Going Steady, the 1981 'best of' album containing a series of would-be hits and wannabe pop standards, every song catchy and youthful but slightly perverse and off-kilter. "Singles" is an example of the self-conscious pop artifact, containing catchy pop songs which conceal vague critiques of their own distribution. 'Whatever Happened' critiques nostalgia in its own way, but is it any wonder that it is now an important and culturally resonant piece of the past? How many times have you heard someone claim they were nostalgic for punk rock, even though they were born in the 80's? The song is prescient in that it perfectly describes VH1's entire viewing schedule in the past three years, but can't we, genuinely ask: Whatever Happened to the Buzzcocks? When I listen to the Buzzcocks, I feel strong nostalgia for a decade I never lived through. Through a web of associations, the late 70's and early 80's, and particularly the England of the late 70's and early 80's, contains an extra dimension to me, all the more filled with nostalgia because I only possess pieces of it, leaving giant gaping holes asking to be filled in. The association is built from everything from Throbbing Gristle to Derek Jarman films to 2000 A.D. comics. It contains all of my first memories of perversity and virginity, of transgression and resistance. Yes, nothing says fucked-up and perverse like British science fiction. On its flipside, the song, now over twenty years old, asks: is manufactured, falsely branded,commercially produced nostalgia really 'ingenuine'? Is the entusiastic tone sarcasm, or is it genuine exhiliration and intoxication with an endless field of references, whose associations are actually ours to choose? Maybe in our arrogance we designate these associations 'ingenuine', when in fact we can imagine a cultural landscape where there is no transcedant value attached to any time or object. In this model, we have only Flat Nostalgias, as all cultural memory is equally dampened, two-dimensional, spread out evenly.

Somewhere over the Rainbow

Somewhere over the rainbow
Way up high,
There's a land that I heard of
Once in a lullaby.

Somewhere over the rainbow
Skies are blue,
And the dreams that you dare to dream
Really do come true.

Someday I'll wish upon a star
And wake up where the clouds are far
Behind me.
Where troubles melt like lemon drops
Away above the chimney tops
That's where you'll find me.

Somewhere over the rainbow
Bluebirds fly.
Birds fly over the rainbow.
Why then, oh why can't I?

If happy little bluebirds fly
Beyond the rainbow
Why, oh why can't I?

-lyrics to 'Somewhere over the Rainbow', from the Wizard of Oz

Judy Garland might be the ultimate flickering cinematic signifier for nostalgia, one of the earliest film images of childhood and the high resonance of our own psychdelic daydreams. Immortalized in pastel colored cellulose, Garland's is a generation's childhood, her own trip to OZ a mass hallucination, like cults tripping on acid all at once and wandering through, oh, say, Sarah Lawrence College in a synchronized haze. In the years before World War II, Oz presented a last infantile daydream before America awoke in the globalized, super-hierarchy of the post-WWII advertising world. Dorothy's dreamscape creates a symbolic sit-in for her real-life problems where conflicts resolve themselves through exagerrated archetypes. The easy capitalist symbols of roads composed of gold bricks and cities constructed from money-colored gems reveal the layrinthine goal of resolving oneself within Western capitalism, suggesting that the imaginary and the unachievable is a lesson in character-building. Paying no attention to the man behind the curtain, Dorothy's adventure is justified by the emotional growth and development of her very fucking retarded friends. God is a highly choreographed sham perpetrated by adolescent power fantasies, but we're all better for it.

OZ so represents the image of American culture encased in amber that it returns as a leitmotif in this year's Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. Gwyneth Paltrow's character first learns of a conspiracy of robots lead by a mysterious scientist named Totemkoff in a movie theatre while Garland sings "Somewhere over the Rainbow" in the background. Later on in the film, Totenkoff's face is revealed to be an OZ-like disembodied head pictured by the long dead Sir Lawrence Olivier whose likeness was used posthumously fin an act of creepy novelty. Olivier's character is revealed to be an illusion; long-dead, his machinations are being carried out by ghosts in the machine, an endless army of robots representing his will long after he is deceased. "Don't you realize? This whole island is Totenkomf." one of the character's excaims. His plan is to load a sample of every animal on Earth onto a space arc then destroy the world in a pyrotechnic gala under the rocket's fuel jets, as it finds an uninhabited planet and repopulates it. The film is an homage in the widest sense, a mish-mash of radio plays, comic books, adventure serials such as 'Terry and the Pirates', and science fiction dime novels, painted within a fully realized computer generated retro-future, rayguns and robots containing the sleak curves of a chevrolet. Its overenthusiastic sense of nostalgia argues for a well-timed return to wide-eyed, naive and intentionally daft wonder at our own imaginations. Like OZ, Sky Captain asks us not to pay attention to the man behind the curtain, turning rather to the emotional authenticity of our incadescent illusions. 'Somewhere over the Rainbow' is a song about internalizing optimism while deffering experience, its about hope that has long been extinguished but whose flickering ghost present a soothing, comforting dance across the ground.

The market illuminates its own past with exagerrated urgency, shifting its light on different generations with equal luminosity until they all lose their novelty and gel together. In its desire to produce a selectively remembered history, preferring the imaginary and the misremembered to the experiential, 'aggregrated' view of pop culture, Sky Captain celebrates its own anachronism. Computer generated and lush, its source material is simplistic and childlike. Re-situating nostalgia within the Hollywood everything-computerized-is-better-syndrome, its own nods and homages are leveled out and apear more as fodder for pop enthusiasts who've consumed the media of every other available time period. In Hollywood, nostalgia is as flat as Judy Garland's breasts after they were taped down to make her appear more like an eight year old girl.

Whenever Forever

Selective memory has long been acknowledged as a defense mechanism and integral to identity-building. Think of the flattening of cultural memory as a global-scale defense mechanism that the media and the market uses. When every memory is a potential source of emotional comfort, we can hide inside a long buried piece of the past, then retreat to any point on the timeline when we've used up its resources. On a personal level, Flat Nostalgia either leaves us wallowing inside emotionally drained rooms of falsely illuminated hope or it presents us with the agency to realize that all of these rooms were arbitrarily constructed to begin with. Flat Nostalgia allows the subject, the media consumer, the opportunity to create a past energized not with hallucinatory hope but with subjective, individually constructed, mutually agreed upon inauthenticity. In the fakeness of it all we're given a new begining, an opportunity to rebuild our memories without values birthed in fear and regression. I think this what the Italian Futurists were referring to when they asked for the burning of all libraries and their revulsion with history. Rather than be haunted by a falsely remembered past, they sought to destroy it.

We all have pieces of our lives that hold meaning to us, which may seem meaningless or bland to those around us. We also have a cultural memory, one which recycles itself and is self-reflective. It's here that generations find themselves unfairly critiqued and misremembered, just as we are harsh on ourselves for things we may or may not have been responsible for. If we're in a market whose branding process forces all these generations to flatten out and share their emotional relevance, do we misremember or deform our past, or do we permit an agency we hadn't allowed ourselves before: the choice to see all our lives as seamless, empty and grey, and therefore create our own associations? Whatever Happened to dirty crooks? What if you woke up every morning with a broken heart? What if your heart broke every day? What if you couldn't take it anymore? Whatever Happened to cadillacs? What if your heart gave out, what if it sat limp and died? And what if you woke up fine the next morning, and you couldn't remember a fucking thing? Wouldn't that be something.

Link of the Day
Link to a fun sight I found while googling 'nostlgia'