How Did We Get Here?
Those who read last week's newsletter saw (I hope) the clip of Heaven 17 performing “(We Don't Need This) Fascist Groove Thing.” That’s a 21st century taping, but the song itself came out on the Penthouse and Pavement album in 1981. I fist heard it when I was in college the following year, and the way that works on the mind is that the music you hear, and dig, while your brain is still developing carves out permanent synaptic channels—it becomes a literal part of you.
Heaven 17 may not be the world's greatest band, but I love them more than most any other band because they left that imprint in me. So that clip put me on a little nostalgic kick, and the past week I've been mainlining things like So and The Seeds of Love. Those albums, and others like In A Silent Way, Frank Sinatra Sings for Only The Lonely, Sweetnighter, and Gaucho, were part of key moments in my life. Some of those were crises, but others were periods where everything just fell into place, if just briefly, the music soundtracked some kind of internal flow state.
Thats how music sticks with us for decades, that's how things like ‘80s nights work, that's what wedding DJs tease and prod. Musical nostalgia is something I strive to take a critical stance against, but I'm guilty of it, as you see, and not only critics fight against it, you should too. It's the indulgence you need to watch out for.
Nostalgia can be dangerous. That comes in degrees of magnitude and specificity. My one marriage failed because it was never going to work, but I thought it would in no small part because of one evening in a bar on East 7th Street, when Modern English's "Melt With You" came on the juke. I confused nostalgia for reality.
Damn, I still love that.
That is the real danger. The "Lost Cause" is nostalgia, and nothing more, but it became reality on January 6. The last several years have revealed the enduring depths of white authoritarianism/fascism in this county, and the core of that is nostalgia. White men were always in charge, and now that status is threatened by actual merit, and there's tons of people with ability who aren't white, aren't straight, or aren't immediately identifiable as men or women. “Meritocracy" in America has until recently meant legacy admissions from Ivy league universities, perpetuating mediocrity and status-quo groupthink as the gene pool of the rich descends into degeneration. There is no greater avatar for this decadence than Andrew Sullivan. His career is a testament to how far someone—with credentials and an English accent but who is nothing but a rank mediocrity—can advance among other mediocrities. That his race-science schtick has turned into grievance and whining about people being “woke” is completely logical and expected. If being woke means anything concrete, it means being anti-racist. Being anti-woke, like Sullivan, means the opposite thing. Nothing more.
Nostalgia, or atavism, that's the line, try not to cross it. Nostalgia is a personal feeling, capricious and arbitrary as we all are. When it organizes itself into some kind of creed, then beware. One reason I loathe Strauss is he expresses nostalgia as an aesthetic creed, he cherishes the bygone days when the aristocrats were admired and the bourgeoisie accepted their comforts. That’s also what makes Michael Daugherty, with his cutesy, winking embrace of a pop-culture aesthetic of I Love Lucy, The Jetsons, Richard Neutra houses, and Life magazine, the worst composer in America.
Nostalgia is why we should be wary when we listen to Wagner, specifically The Ring, which tries to seduce you into embracing Wagner's worldview. Nostalgia leaves you open to manipulation from cynics, like Sob Rock, the unbelievable piece of shit that dropped out of John Mayer’s ass today. In this interview, he talks about making the new record as a deliberate insult, “shitposting.” Yes, he thinks it's a provocation, but it's really an insult, because he did this so badly. The lead single is unbelievably slick, and I can admire it for its technique:
But the rest of the album is lazy as hell. It's nothing to get the production quality of ‘80s singer-songwriter pop, you still have to make songs. And these songs are so fucking boring. This is one of the dullest pop albums I’ve ever heard, which makes Mayer a weak-ass shit poster, in other words no different than Andrew Sullivan.
Another danger is thinking that there was some kind of prelapsarian utopia, and Eden that we can return to. On a small scale, that leads to Wynton Marsalis talking shit about Miles Davis, on a mass level it’s a racist mass fantasy that America was once good and pure and we just need a strongman to get rid of the blacks, the gays, the professional women, etc. That’s all nostalgia, separated by degrees. So don’t just long for the past, listen to it.
Recording of the Week
Midwife is Madeline Johnston, also known as Sister Grotto. I love her work, which she describes with the evocative and accurate term, “heaven metal.” The heaven part is the delicacy of her musical ideas, the transparent simplicity of her singing and song writing. The metal part is in the dramatic, gothic textures that she forms out of a small handful of repeated ideas. I’m a sucker for shoe-gazy textures (nostalgia again), and her’s are some of the best, I can feel them in my hands. And there’s a real humanity and sympathy at the core of what she does. Her records are beautiful to me, and it’s not because the tries to make beautiful music, but that she herself, by embodying it, makes music beautiful. Less languid and ethereal than her Sister Grotto albums, this one has a tingling edge to it, but is as gorgeous and moving as all the others.