I’ve written previously about the phenomenon of music made to sound like it’s playing in a mall and the evocation of fake nostalgia. A recent piece in MEL Magazine examines this oddball subgenre and attempts to make sense of it all:
… Tills’ life at the mall is imaginary. He’s nostalgic for the 1990s, which he thinks was a better time to live. At the core of this mental construction is “mallwave,” a lo-fi subgenre of vaporwave that listeners refer to as “music optimized for abandoned malls.” Like Vaporwave creators, Mallwave musicians use soft drum tracks, ambient sounds and low-quality synthesizers to create soft, calming electronic music. But they also mix in pop music associated with the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, with the purpose of creating a holistic “nostalgic” experience, one that recreates the experience you would have had when visiting the mall. Or, in Tills’ case, what that experience might have been like, for people who lived it. […]
To Grafton Tanner, author of Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts, the turn to nostalgia in vaporwave is all about this reflection of contemporary societal trends — whether it’s grappling with late capitalism or dreaming of an allegedly sunnier bygone era. Speaking over Skype, he tells me, “Nostalgia is a popular tool in marketing, and it’s probably the most defining cultural product of our time. You see it in movies and TV with reboot trends, and of course, apps like Spotify use algorithms that recommend music that you’ve probably listened to in the past.”
Simon Chandler, writing for Bandcamp Daily, dares to dig even deeper:
… society for decades has been pursuing consumerism and neoliberal capitalism when it’s often accepted that neither
areperfect, and the way some of us have coped with this is through adopting a position or attitude of irony (cf. David Foster Wallace). We’ve mocked politicians on both sides while continuing to elect them and we’ve ridiculed McDonald’s while continuing to buy Big Macs, and vaporwave has masterfully symbolized this social phenomenaby subverting clichéd samples while relying on them to a massive extent. […]
Nonetheless, it can be argued in vaporwave’s defense that, like much uncompromising music and art, the genre’s ‘mission’ appears to be focused more on mirroring our imperfect world than on reforming it. It may not offer any solutions, but it almost perfectly depicts a political domain in which media-generated images have alienated us from reality, and in which a minority of us have drifted into self-conscious irony as a way of coping with an imperfect environment (we think) we can’t change.
There’s an interview with Brian Eno (that I can’t find) where he says that he often makes music as a soundtrack to his hopes for a better world. This is like the opposite of that.
My friend, writer Jamie Blaine, is interested in nostalgia — the things we remember and how we selectively remember them. We’ve had many discussions about memory and our memories. Jamie and I grew up in central Louisiana and have been good friends since our teenage years, so there are a lot of recollections we share. He’s much better at remembering the details than I am.
I wouldn’t say I’m distrustful of nostalgia, but I do try to be aware of how it shapes our attitudes and feelings in the present. I’ve had arguments with the ‘music was so much better then’ crowd — what you listened to when you were young and actively discovering music for the first time is always going to sound like the best music ever. I’m certain that present-day teenagers will be saying today’s music was the best thirty years from now.
I like Andrew Weatherall’s attitude. In an interview with The Guardian, he was asked to name his favorite period of music. Weatherall said, “Last week. I’m not a golden age kind of person.”
But there is something about those special songs, heard for the first time under magical circumstances. They aren’t ‘the best,’ but they’re the best for us. These songs are intertwined with our memories and, when listened to, cause spine chills. Is there another art form that imprints on us in this way? Can a painting be locked with a memory?
Jamie loves this story of my most affecting song moment:
I craved new music as a teenager in Pineville, Louisiana, but it wasn’t easy to find. I ended up learning about new music from far away college radio stations, all static-y and fading in and out. Baton Rouge’s KLSU would come through under certain weather conditions, as would Houston’s KTRU. But the most reliable signal came from Lafayette and the college station KRVS. The format was mostly NPR and regional music (Cajun) programming, but from midnight to 6 AM the students took over and played ‘alternative music’ (what we used to call it in the mid-80s).
I couldn’t exactly stay up all night listening to the radio. My solution was to buy a pack of 120-minute cassette tapes (60 minutes per side, the longest you could get) and record the station nightly. I’d put a boombox next to my pillow and start recording at midnight and fall asleep. Once the tape ran out the ‘record’ key on the boombox would make a loud click. This sound woke me up for a second so I could groggily change the tape.
The next day at high school I would listen to the radio show from earlier — on my commute, in between classes, on lunch break, whenever I could. That’s how I kept up on all the cool music that was coming out.
That’s the set-up. The actual story is this:
One night I’m sleeping while the radio is recording and I’m suddenly semi-awake. I’m in that halfway state between asleep and cognizant, not fully conscious. And I hear this music playing, the weirdest, strangest music (or so it seemed at the time). I’m in bed, partly dreaming, and this magical sound is all around me, and I can’t quite believe it. I feel euphoric. Then I fall back asleep.
The next day I’m up and trying to remember. I’m not sure what happened. Was that music real? Was it all a dream?
So I’m at school trying to steal any chance I can get to listen to my tapes of the radio, to see if this strange song exists and if I’d even recognize it. And then — and I remember being in the middle of the hall on the way to class — the tune suddenly comes on. It’s this:
I’m frozen and get chills. It’s not so much that the song is so amazing (though it kinda is), it’s that weird connection with how I heard it for the first time — and how I heard Cocteau Twins for the first time — that moved me. I still get chills when I hear the song, and it brings me back to the time when I was just starting to get excited about discovering music, discovering my music. It transports me to that boombox next to my pillow, and to that high school hallway where I stopped in my tracks with a big grin on my face – “This is that song!” It brings me back to the best music ever.
Update: After reading this post, Jamie wrote to me to say, “Nostalgia is just history with feelings.”
Friend of the blog Hao Do (@noodle_packets) ran across this amusing record store review in an ancient (mid-90s) issue of the Valencia College student paper:
Little known fact: I used to own a record shop, and Bad Mood Records was the name of my shop. The review is a glimpse back in time, not only because of the artists mentioned but also the concerns of the reviewer. Cheap used CDs, selections that are hard-to-find (remember scarcity?), Sunday specials. Reading this I was thinking, “whoa, did I really give $2 off CDs on Sundays?” but then I remember how getting people in the store on a Sunday was practically a fool’s errand. Downtown Orlando used to be a ghost town on weekends during the day.
Running a record store was tough (as was starting my own business in my early 20s), but it did set me up for a life of self-employment and a DIY outlook. In a recent edition of his terrific email newsletter Sean Bonner wrote:
One of the fun facts about starting your own companies and working for yourself most of your life is that you become basically unemployable in any other context, so in a way I’ve kind of locked myself into this for the rest of my life. Which is equally scary and exciting.
I deeply relate to this and sums up the odd combination of fear and gratitude that I feel for how I’ve chosen to live my ‘professional life.’ As much as I denounce ‘the hustle,’ every day feels a little like a hustle.
If I have any regrets about the record store, it’s that I let the domain badmood.com lapse once the store shut its doors. I was farsighted enough to set up a site for Bad Mood Records but somehow didn’t think that domain had legs. Regardless, you can see what an Orlando record store website looked like in 1997 courtesy of the Wayback Machine. That spinning record is adorable.