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The Man There Said The Music Wouldn’t Play: On The Nostalgia Song

Ever since pop music was old enough to have a history, people have been longing for “the good old days.” It’s a natural cycle, a scene is built up by young, hungry artists, some of those artists become successful, the scene gets flooded with opportunists, and before anyone can recognize it the whole scene has fallen apart. While being nostalgic about the past is a feeling anyone can identify with, there have been many great songs written about specific moments in music history, and they serve as great time capsules of their era’s.

Any discussion of nostalgia in music almost has to begin with “American Pie.” Released in 1971, as the counterculture movement was in it’s death throes, “American Pie” harkens back to a simpler time when Rock n Roll was young and innocent, focusing on the infamous plane crash that killed Buddy Holly. Telling a brief recap of pop music up to that point, “American Pie” is an essential piece of rock history. On the flip side of “American Pie” is Mott The Hoople’s “All They Young Dudes.” While the song, released in ’72, is about the burden the youth must carry into a bleak and uncertain future, it never over romanticizes the past. “My brother’s back home with his Beatles and his Stones, we never got it off on that revolution stuff, what a drag” sings Ian Hunter, perhaps preemptively rallying against the oppressive self aggrandizing that would define Baby Boomers in the coming decades.

While the larger generational statement is one form of nostalgia song, there have also been plenty of great songs written about more specific times and places. When David Bowie sang “Major Tom’s a junkie hitting an all time low” on Ashes to Ashes, it’s pretty obvious he’s talking about his disappointment in himself following his tumultuous Berlin period.

Lou Reed and John Cale’s entire Songs For Drella album is a retrospective on Andy Warhol and his factory scene, which memorializes the artist while never pulling a punch on his more manipulative tendencies. More recently, James Murphy wrote the quintessential song for post Guliani New York with LCD Soundsystem’s “New York, I Love You, But Your Bringing Me Down.” Pining for the days when New York was “filthy but fine” Murphy takes shots at his “mild billionaire mayor” and “the cops who were bored once they’d runout of crime.” As anyone who’s walked down 1st Ave in the past few years can tell you, his sentiment wasn’t exactly unfounded.

The most self referential form of pop music has always been hip-hop, so naturally there has always been a lot of nostalgia within the genre. While just about every rapper has a verse about “back in the day” no one has ever hit the level of poetic brilliance that is Common’s “I Used To Love H.E.R.” Common spends the whole song talking about an unnamed woman, telling the listener how much she meant to him, detailing the different phases she went through, and how she just hasn’t had the same soul lately. As you may have guessed, the unnamed woman is in fact hip-hop itself (H.E.R standing for “hearing every word”) and in many ways the song works as hip-hop’s own “American Pie,” a brilliant Cliffs Notes for the history of the genre through 1994.

As the old saying goes, the golden age is never the current age, and these nostalgic songs certainly prove that point. As any Baby Boomer will point out, 1971 was a glorious year for rock music, wedged in the middle of a glorious era. And while “I Used To Love H.E.R.” may be a great song about hip-hop’s decline, it was released in 1994, the same year as Illmatic and Ready To Die, so it may have been a bit premature. Nostalgia is something everyone feels, and as we’ve seen, it can produce great art, but it can also curdle in cynicism and detachment. Point being that just because it’s cloudy out right now, one shouldn’t digest that into feeling like it will never be sunny again.

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