Tuesday, October 4, 2011

I Remember Way Back When

I don’t have much of a problem with nostalgia, a topic I recently found out smart people have been talking about. I don’t entirely trust it, but overall it seems like a pretty harmless and enjoyable way to kill some time. This is especially true if you’re with friends you haven’t seen in a while who feel like reliving something fun that happened the last time you all saw each other (usually college, at least at my age).

The only issue I have with it has very little to do with a fear that it's destroying artistic creativity. I just don't like that it hurts sometimes. And I mean that literally: sometimes, it physically hurts me to be nostalgic. Specifically those times when I'm not reminiscing about something with other people. Rather, I'm by myself and listening to a song that reminds me of a particularly happy moment from my past. And then my stomach starts tightening up, and it becomes impossible to think about anything else apart from all the good times I used to have while listening to this song that I don't have anymore. A small part of me knows that those times probably weren’t actually as great as I remember them being, but a much larger part of me doesn’t care. That’s when it hurts.

This doesn’t happen very often, mainly because things are largely ok right now, just as they’ve been largely ok for the past 23 years. I’m a middle-class white male who lives in America and listens to Louis C.K., so it’s near impossible to feel like my existence is or ever has been difficult in any meaningful sense of the word. But I’m human, and my life was simpler when I was eight like everybody else’s was, so I can’t say wistful nostalgia is something I’m immune from. And when I do succumb to it, music always plays a central role.

I think there’s a pretty simple reason for this: songs don’t change. I’ve changed a lot since 2003 (not so much in terms of maturity, but I’m taller); my friends have changed a lot since 2003; the world has changed a lot since 2003. But The Who’s greatest hits album that I bought in 2003 hasn’t changed at all. When I listen to “I Can’t Explain,” it sounds exactly the way it did when I heard it eight years ago because, well, it's still the same song I heard eight years ago. It almost seems unfair. I’ve had to grow up and start paying credit card bills and stop living in gigantic buildings with all my friends, but the song still gets to exist happily and permanently in its static little music bubble.

At the same time, though, the fact that songs don’t change is really awesome. And the awesomeness tends to outweigh any unfairness. Because it means that whenever I hear “I Can’t Explain,” it’s almost comically easy to pretend I’m 15 again, and it’s summer, and I’m lying on my bedroom floor rapturously reading the album’s liner notes in order to learn everything there is to know about The Who with a type of passion that you really only have access to from about ages 14 to 17 (For instance, they were originally called The High Numbers. Chances are high that, if you went to high school with me, I told you this many, many times).

So maybe the fact that nostalgia can be painful isn't actually anything worth complaining about. That "I Can't Explain" memory hurts like hell sometimes, but that's only because it's a happy one, so I really don’t want to lose it. And as long as “I Can’t Explain” doesn’t change, I don’t think I ever will.

Unless, that is, I become old and senile. I’ve heard senility can be pretty rough.

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