This week is a bit lighter than past few. With the holiday season, I’ve been thinking on the nature of memory and why certain things seem to evoke nostalgia. For instance, many find it interesting or ironic (or something more judgmental) that Instragram users edit their photos with filters to make them look like old Polaroids even though many were born after Polaroid went bankrupt, much less after the cameras fell out of common use.
I think it’s something more than our cultural associations. We see old movies and faded photos as evocative of memory because they are artifacts of the past. They’re our vehicles for documenting events and turning ephemeral moments into concrete objective forms. I think it goes beyond that though, that the “faded Polaroid” look echos how we remember the best of our past – our happiest times bathed in golden autumn sunlight, tinged with the haze of time.
Music can have the same effect. Because of our personal experiences, some songs evoke a time or place in our lives. Other songs seem to evoke a more general sense of nostalgia though – not just a specific personal moment, but memory itself. Despite Don Draper’s (and Matthew Weiner’s) eloquence, “Nostalgia” doesn’t mean “the pain from an old wound”, it means “the pain of coming home” (Nostos is the Greek word for “Homecoming”, one of Homer’s themes in the Iliad and Odyssey). In this case, home is where we once lived – our collective past – and the “twinge in your heart” is the recognition of both its significance and the fact it can never be regained.
With that in mind, here are five songs that I feel evoke that twinge.
Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros – Home:
The band clearly set out to create a song glorifying everything wonderful about our memories, and they succeeded brilliantly. This is one of two songs that inspired me on the topic. The video compliments the song personally, shot in super eight which looks to date from 1980 rather than 30 years later (the band’s 70s-evoking hipster style doesn’t hurt either). A paean to loved ones and the halcyon notion of what “home” is, there is no twinge of pain in the song itself, only in how it resonates with our own experiences.
Talking Heads – This Must Be the Place (Naive Melody):
Another song that explicitly focuses on the idea of home and what that concept means. While the video is celebratory, a metaphor for friends as family, the David Byrne-penned lyrics are tinged with melancholy. Byrne himself described the song as “That’s a love song made up almost completely of non sequiturs, phrases that may have a strong emotional resonance but don’t have any narrative qualities. It’s a real honest kind of love song…” and I think it’s that honesty, that emotional resonance that makes the song so powerful.
By avoiding something grounded in specific experiences, he wrote something that connects with any experience of love, and that honesty ends up reminding the listener that all love entails loss (even though that reminder is hiding well in the background).
Smashing Pumpkins – 1979:
One thing you may notice is that these bands aren’t unaware of what sort of song they were creating. The videos are all built around memory and friendship and family. The video for 1979 manages to take an ubiquitous teenage experience – aimlessly hanging out with a group of friends – and capture both its triviality and its significance.
It’s an experience that, on the one hand, is inherently meaningless. A bunch of teenagers driving around, flipping off their town, engaging in juvenile destructive behaviors – these are behaviors that are, almost by definition, superficial and shallow. At the same time, because we have all experienced something similar, because almost every viewer can see something of themselves and their lives in the video, it embodies something universal and thus profound.
The Beatles – In My Life:
Hey, no one said all of these had to be innovative selections. There’s a reason why this song is the choice for so many graduations and “class songs.” John Lennon wrote this song when he was just 24 years old, inspired by a journalist’s remark that he should write songs about his childhood. Lennon later reworked the lyrics, originally about specific experiences growing up in Liverpool, into a more general work about his past.
Despite his youth, Lennon’s lyrics evoke a sense of loss born of the death of his friend and former Beatles’ bandmate, Stuart Sutcliffe. And though some of the lyrics may be a bit “on the nose” (especially the song’s opening lines), the beauty of the melody and the earnestness of the sentiment overcomes any shortcomings. At it’s most basic, nostalgia resonates precisely because it is cliche, not because it is nuanced.
Simon and Garfunkel – Bookends:
The other song that inspired the topic. This song seems the one that most embraces the fullness of nostalgia – painful, heartrending, but ultimately so evocative of “the good things” in our lives that we engage with our whole being.
Nostalgia offers us a Devil’s Bargain: when our memories dim, the happiness dims but so does the inherent pain of loss. We can have our happiness back, but only at the cost of that “twinge in our heart” again – the feeling of wanting desperately to return to that time again, but knowing we never can. Bookends is that, in its entirety.