How Cool is That? (h2so4 14)

Audience, nostalgia, and the search for meaning in pop music

It’s the problem of nostalgia for what never was. Oh, of course these things really did happen, but not how you declare you rememberthem. Well, maybe deep down, or if you gave it some thought, you really do remember how it was. But for some reason in memory you cling to the kinder version. Like how great the senior prom was, greater than anything since. Or—if you’re too honest to allow yourself that fiction, or, like me, can’t really put “fun” and “high school” in the same sentence—maybe you find yourself thinking how much better life was when you were younger in general. Admit it. You’ve gone there. And pop music boys Fountains of Wayne, though it is their unstated mission to comment on this and other follies, certainly won’t hit you over the head with your error. Indeed, they’re kinda subtle about it: “If you knew now what you knew then, you wouldn’t want to go to Amity Gardens again.” Since this is a rewriting of a cliché that says its opposite—if you’d known then what you know now—you really have to pay attention if you are to get the point. The point: the only way that that time can stand as greater than this time is via a forgetting of what it really was: lonely, scared, “alienated,”desperate for attention and approval, in short, teenaged. And sometimes fun. If you knew now what you knew then, you’d give yourself permission to accept how good life has been to you, no matter what your hardships. Who would want to be a teen again?

But this is fluffy pop music. Who pays close attention to the words when the melody is the stuff of teen pull-out posters and mythic pop rocks? Ah, but that is the point and the power of the point if gotten. “Meaning” or inspiration can be found in the oddest places. To wax over-emphatic, the world is meaningful only because we give itmeaning and are open to what it has to offer; you can find meaning anywhere except where you fail to look for it. Yes, the world is not new anymore, but it hasn’t changed that much. Or, if it has, perhaps that is your fault.

Now, maybe it’s true that younger people are more open to possibility and thus less inclined to judge every new thing as not-of-concern (though of course teens are far less open and more judgmental in other ways—it is an extreme time of life, no?, for the mostly privileged teens who listen to pop music and worry about popularity and acne more than imminent death, war or starvation). They haven’t formed those hard shells of judgment wrought by years and years of bad record buys and discontentedness with radio formatting.

The Fountains of Wayne album Utopia Parkway is commentary on the sickness of a culture that wants only to be young. The first lines of the album are:

    Well I’ve been saving for a
    custom van/ and I’ve been
    playing in a cover band/ and
    my baby doesn’t understand/
    why I never turn from boy to
    man....

The song’s subject doesn’t want to treat life as something different from what it was when he lived at his parents house and dreamed of being a rock star. The song sings of getting “some paper and a staple gun,” to “put my name in front of everyone.” I’m guessing he’s almost forty years old and he still thinks he’s going to make it big. Hey, it could happen. But remember, the album is called UtopiaParkway.

Its unstated mission is to make you love your life right now, as it is, not as a holding pattern waiting for something better to happen. Do that, and playing in a cover band is not so pathetic.

Attached to this mission is the reminder to be true and to notice people: be open to possibility. “Hockey teams have playoff dreams/ teenage girls read magazines/ no one hears the desperate screams of the techno DJ/ what does he say?/ he say sha la la la la la....” Everyone dreams of the future, everyone looks for beauty,everyone wants to escape their troubles.... everyone finds solace in music, all this is common. And common is not all bad. It is how we live together. How very h2so4-ish. “Crossing guards start traffic jams/soccer moms drive minivans/ no one sees the anchor man on the instant replay/what does she say?/ she say sha la la la la la....”Everyone is invisible; we think we know what their lives are because we know what category they fit into, but what do we know? Where do they find beauty? What makes them happy? What makes them cry, for joy or sorrow? What does she say? Perhaps you should ask yourself that, and then listen.

You are thinking: No way! That song says nothing of the sort! But consider the possibility. To deny the possibility inherent in this openness to the world, or this beauty, or this “something new,” and instead to join the easier way of retail chain and convenience mall culture is to sell yourself for something that can’t be bought. In other, more cleverish words: “Fighting for the freedom from a common bond/ to be a barracuda in the guppy pond/ so little time for so many things to try on.”

It’s like E.T. saying “be good”: too sweet to take without cringing, but, notwithstanding your hatred for Steven Spielberg, you know you agree with that little alien.

Of course, the “mission” of the album is something I found there—who knows what the songwriters had in mind in their moments of creation. The songs aren’t all about false nostalgia orfailure to grasp adult life, though they are all ironically attached to youth culture in some way, and often to a youth lived or livable only by people who are no longer young—“oh yeah we’re going to a laser show.” Do teens still do that? Perhaps pot and Pink Floyd never go out of style; like chocolate and peanut butter, or chicken and egg, no one knows which came first or which make which enjoyable.

But the false nostalgia theme, as I am calling it, is certainly there. Take as further evidence the song “Prom Theme.” Its melody and instrumentation do speak the language of the kinds of songs voted as prom themes every year by sincere or ironic high school seniors, but the words state the reality as different from the dream, or perhapsrestate the reality as viewed in retrospect:

Here we are at last/ running out of gas/ the air is getting thick/ the girls are getting sick/ we’ll pass out on the beach/ our keys just out of reach/ and soon we’ll say goodbye/ then we’ll work until we die/ But tonight we feel like we’re stars/ we’ll play our air guitars/ ’cause we’re eighteen/ it’s a perfect night to sing our prom theme.

Yes, you can hear the violins, because they are right there on the record.

But the headline said this was an article about audience and nostalgia. That is because Utopia Parkway and my love for it brought me to a realization about audience. By “audience” I mean something like and not-like “target market,” perhaps: “those likely to be drawn to this piece of creative activity.” Utopia Parkway’s music is so aggressively perky-pop that it tends to be dismissed out of hand by those who have trained their ears to inform their bodies not to move to such things. Itis as if the equation to live and choose by is: pop music = trash, insipid, corporate product, meaningless, uninspired, bad. Aha! but what have we been saying about the dangers of finding meaninglessness too easily? That’s right. It could be anywhere, this inspiration, and yet we too often think we know exactly where it can be found, or at least precisely where it certainly won’t be found.

That occurred to me during a recent h2so4envelope-stuffing “party.” Jill was making us (by means of free drinks and snacks) lick stamps, stick labels, and seal pages together for a mass mailing. We had just finished listening to the truly great pop creation of Bettie Serveert, “Palomine,” when I thought I had my chance at surreptitious proselytization. I seized the day and stuck Utopia Parkway into the CD player. I was indeed going to make these envelope stuffers see beyond Fountains of Wayne’s glossy exterior into the dark underbelly of their meaning, what is to me their true genius.

But oh how this was not to be so! The glances. The sulkingness. The utter terror of the uncool! And since I don’t think music should have to be explained (despite this essay), I didn’t push it. Later, Irealized that what is great about Fountains of Wayne—the ironic distance between its form and its content—is what is great about Stereolab, too. And Stereolab is the darling of every right-thinking cool person, myself included, right? I guess there is nothing wrong with preferring some sounds to others, but....

And so my little light-hearted article about audience and nostalgia became a nagging concern with how we give the worldmeaning, whether we would ever allow the world to be different than it is, despite our best efforts, and... a worry about closed-mindedness.

Why so serious? Because in this room full of people who go out of their way to seek what is different and interesting and inspiring and full of potential, no ears were willing to hear something that sounded superficially “the same”-as-everything-else-in-that-shipwreck-of-the-damned-known-as-pop-music as a challenge to the status quo. So Stereolab can sound like elevator music but carry a political message, and that is cool, because elevator music is so obviously retro, not “now” (at least not “now” before Stereolab),and, plus, nobody really listen to Stereolab (at least not in the beginning), and that’s really cool. Strange, to be in a population that has to define itself as nobody in order to give its cultural products value. In the meantime, take that pop shit off the stereo, man!

So this became a rant, of sorts. This isn’t really a criticism of my friends and “coworkers” at h2so4; it is not aimed at particular people. Lord knows making judgments about things is a necessary activity in this world. It is simply not possible to consider thoughtfully every sense-stimulator we encounter, to measure each sound with open aplomb in this crap-filled soundstage of a world. So perhaps the reactions I charted are nothing to worry my little head over. These people, after all, do have good taste, and big hearts, and kind and giving envelope-licking tongues. They stand for and do and produce things that I would back even more heartily than I back Fountains of Wayne’s Utopia Parkway.

Maybe this is just a reminder. Please watch out for shut-ear syndrome. Something new is always a recombination of old things. And it is possible to find inspiration in the oddest of places. •