J is for Nostalgia

| April 21, 2014

What is it about ‘retro’ fetishization? So much of my favorite art is drenched with affected, self-aware, anachronistic retroreferentialism. Particularly, art (music) that references the 60s.

The band Broadcast provides an excellent example of this synthesis of old and new, a blurred line between past and present. In what space does this situate the listener?  I feel like this aesthetic holds an “either you get it or you don’t” appeal, and it hits me viscerally, without being cerebral about it. It serves as a kind of return to a past I never knew. The aesthetic appeal is difficult for me to defend on a philosophical level, but there’s something very welcoming, comfortable, enveloping about the sound to this listener.

Can you “spot the differences” between Broadcast (circa 2000) and the band The United States of America (circa 1968)?

Stereolab is my absolute favorite band of all time hands down no contest forever and ever and ever. And they are the prime perpetrators of this kind of affected synchrony, as if the years 1972-2000 didn’t really happen and  the river of time flowed into a pool and decided to stay awhile.

Is this kind of embrace of/retreat into the past a kind of aesthetic nihilism, or retrogression? And do I even care? It does seem to provide an escape from the present…

The electronic duo Boards of Canada, who also traffic in concentrated nostalgia, used in one of their videos appropriated footage from an INSANE ‘bicycle safety’ video from 1963 called “One Got Fat” (watch the 1963 bicycle safety film here). In the original film, a group of nine monkey-masked kids decide to ride their bikes to the park for a picnic. Along the way, one by one, the kids are ALL KILLED ON THEIR BICYCLES AND IT’S THEIR FAULT BECAUSE THEY WERE RIDING THEIR BIKES WRONG.

The video itself somehow subverts the perversity of the original footage and makes it somehow less disturbing. I can’t put my finger on the uncanny sense it gives me, but it’s absolutely transfixing. Watch what they do with the original footage.  We’re so desensitized to found footage, and affected retro authenticity, that this video at first reads as a new creation, perhaps due to the subversiveness of its content. But lo, it’s ‘real’!

How does one have nostalgia for a time and place one never lived? Is this in fact nostalgia, or some kind of diachronic dysphoria? When art capitalizes on this constructed nostalgia, what is it doing to us?