It’s not nostalgia either, even though nostalgia does have a curious link with songs, specifically Kuhreihen: the simple melodies Alpine herdsmen played on their flutes as they drove their herds to pasture and back. Swiss mercenaries fighting in 18th century France grew intensely homesick when they heard or sang these songs, and the term ‘nostalgia’ first crops up as a constructed Greek word in medical reports discussing this condition. Eventually the mercenaries were banned from singing such songs because they grew despondent and either sickened—sometimes to the point of death—or deserted, in either case at an inconvenient rate. Music is a temporal art, perhaps the ultimate temporal art, and listening to music from wherever and whenever we think of as ‘home’ does something powerful to us; it mixes space with time.
Nostalgia, then, is wanting to return to somewhere we already remember. Wanting to remember something isn’t always wanting to return somewhere, thought. When I run into someone I first met in 2005 and whose name I’ve now forgotten, I can want very much to remember their name without at all wanting to be back in 2005. Likewise, what I long for when I can’t remember a melody is to solve the puzzle the song represents, not to be back at the time and place when I first heard the song. Wanting to remember is only nostalgia in the very abstract sense that we’re longing for something that’s unavailable in the present; and unlike proper nostalgia, as soon as the memory is recovered, the feeling passes.
When nostalgia becomes an industry it can actually destroy the pleasure of recovery, at least when that pleasure is the result of solving memory puzzles within the confines of one’s own skull. It replaces nostalgia with something, though, which—while seemingly creepy—might just be better.
Image (partial) found on RaceCarDesign
In my hometown there’s a radio station called Gold FM. It plays nothing but hits from a certain slice of history. If we tabulated the years the songs in its playlist were released my guess is it’d form a bell-curve centred at about 1976. Except, of course, for when it’s All-‘80s Lunchtime, or Totally ‘80s from 7PM on Fridays, or The Big Chill on Sunday mornings (only music from the ‘60s and ‘70s), or when they “end the weekend in ‘style’ with Living In the ‘70s”. You get the picture. There’s a station just like this where you live, maybe even more than one. They all have names like Gold-something or Classic-something, but for the purposes of this article I’m going to call them all ‘classic hits radio’.
Now, classic hits radio defines itself partly in opposition to whatever awful music listeners think teenagers are listening to now, so it might seem like a different species of radio to the top 40 stations the kids like. In truth, however, classic hits radio is a child of top 40, because it operates around the idea of the playlist. The idea of the playlist and the top 40 format brought each other into being in the America of the ‘50s.
Before about 1955, commercial radio was programmed in blocks of time. Familes would gather around the set for an evening and listen to dramas, comedies, westerns, quiz shows, detective stories, news, and the odd music show like Your Hit Parade. Music could be played either live in the studio or from records, and it wasn’t until the early-‘50s that records became the dominant form of music on radio.
Through the ‘50s, several things happened in American culture. Televisions started to appear in homes, and many of radio’s best-loved personalities and show-formats migrated from radio to television. Over the course of the decade television became the leisure-time treat at the end of the day that radio had once been, and radio increasingly became a companion rather than an object of dedicated attention: something you listened to while you did something else.
Such as when you drove. American suburbs were growing at a huge rate, while most people still worked in the city. Suburbs grew faster than public transport networks, which meant more workers spent hours driving to and from work. While the generations of the ‘20s and ‘30s regarded cars with awe as dangerous objects, and both cars and radio as things to which one devoted one’s full attention – quite independent of one another—the drivers of the ‘50s were more relaxed with doing both, and happy to listen to the radio while they drove. Radio networks compensated for the advertising dollars lost to television by targeting drive-times, when neither television nor newspapers could compete.
The post-WWII baby boom meant the median age was dropping steadily, and with post-war prosperity teenagers were both plentiful and more affluent than ever before. They didn’t necessarily own cars but they still drove, and those who didn’t drive availed themselves of the newly-invented transistor radio, an amazing new radio you could actually carry around with you while you walked.
Network owners in the mid-‘50s began to realise the public was getting all the drama it wanted from television, and that what it wanted from the more companionable relationship with radio was relaxation. Which meant music. The lucrative teen market wanted music programs like Your Hit Parade and American Bandstand, which showcased the popular songs of the day.
The legend in radio history is that two station managers were sitting in a juke joint, and noticing that teenagers would go back to the jukebox with nickel after nickel and select exactly the same song over and over. It might not be true, but around this time in any case they hit on the counter-intuitive idea of a music-only station which deliberately didn’t play very many songs. Using data from jukeboxes and billboard charts to work out which songs people wanted to hear most, they compiled them into playlists, and used them as the focus of radio programming. The size of the core list was experimented with, and 40 was settled on as a good number. A few stations began to play a small selection of songs, focusing on the 40 most popular songs at the time, repeated throughout the day. The first stations to try this were so successful the practice spread quickly.
Once the idea of employing playlists began, radio stations could use them as a tool to differentiate themselves and target different markets. Playlist radio is now the dominant radio form, catering to all kinds of market segments by changing the content of the playlist, but leaving the fact of the playlist as an organising principle, unchanged.
Top 40 stations then, as now, played the hits of the day—nothing more than a few years old. Nostalgia for the ‘50s in the ‘70s lead to the innovation of ‘oldies’ stations, which played music from the birth of rock ‘n’ roll onwards. What I’m calling classic hits radio evolved in the ‘80s, excluding older music like doo-wop and the newer music teenagers liked.
As you may have guessed by now, the songs I want to remember and the songs they play overlap a lot. For one reason or another, I never spent much time listening to Gold FM until recently. When I did, I was transfixed. The station played song after song which I knew but had forgotten. Nothing locked me out, because nothing was too obscure. I belonged here, I could tell. I should have been happy, perhaps. Instead, it was like listening to someone methodically telling me the ending to every movie I was ever going to watch, and providing the answer to every crossword I’d ever do. Part of me wanted to listen, because part of me wanted to be reminded of what I had forgotten. A puzzle is not nearly as much fun to do, however, when someone else tells you the answer, and all I could think about when listening to Gold FM was the lost chances to reconstruct my memory of these songs for myself from fragments.
Because how can you remember—for yourself, anyway—what you never get to forget? Listening to Gold FM is as if one is trapped in an eternal present that is also the past, a present which in fact never becomes the past, if by ‘past’ we mean ‘not immediately available now’. The pleasure of recovery, as it applies to songs, requires a musical culture which is constantly vanishing, a cultural present always in the process of becoming a cultural past. Which is to say it requires modernity.
I want to focus on something specific about modernity, which is how we relate to lived time: the past and the present. To do this I’m going to borrow Daniel Miller’s ideas in Modernity: An Ethnographic Approach : Dualism and Mass Consumption in Trinidad (Berg,1994). In Modernity, Miller talks about two broad approaches to lived time. The first, which I’ll call ‘traditional’, sees the present as continuous with the past and the future. When the present is the same stuff as the past and the future, we make decisions on the basis of tradition, and actions are legitimated in terms of how they reach back into history.
Put another way: in deciding how to act, we know we will do things the way we have done things. The idea of ‘rightness’ in actions has a lot to do with tradition. When we think, for example, of a certain way as the right way to make a cup of tea, or to propose marriage, or to build a house, these things reach back toward the past for their justification. ‘I make a cup of tea this way because this is how my parents taught me a cup of tea should be made’ is a sentence in the traditional mode. (The past invoked by the traditional mode need not be long-standing, or even real. For the purposes of my argument what matters is the act of looking back, not how old or reliable a tradition is as a matter of historical fact.)
I’ll call Miller’s second mode ‘modern’. Miller’s argument (which he borrows from Hegel by way of Habermas) is that with the Reformation, the Renaissance, and the discovery of the New World, a new sense of ‘presentness’ arose. In this mode, the present which we occupy is defined in opposition to the past, and is seen as different to the past. Instead of seeing the present as continuous with the past, we see a rupture between the present and the past. Not only do we see a rupture, but we perform it, and not once but over and over.
You can see this rupture, and we perform it, in sentences of the form ‘yes, it used to be believed that A, but we now know that B’. Science is a great agent for producing these sentences, and performing this rupture, and so is fashion. Since our present keeps changing we keep having to differentiate it from recent presents, and the rupture has to be performed again and again. We constantly differentiate ourselves and what we think and what we wear and what we listen to from their equivalents from the prior year. ‘That’s so 2009’ is a perfect modern sentence, because it consigns something relatively recent, which could otherwise be confused with the present, to the past.
Fashion provides quite clear examples of this constant process of splitting the present off from the past, but capitalism in general also goes hand in hand with the modern approach to time. A capitalist economy always needs new things to turn into products, and therefore constantly needs and performs new kinds of justification which break with tradition.
Classic hits stations draw on both approaches to time. Their content is rock music, music which was once important because of its very newness and nowness, because it performed a break from the past and encouraged us to keep performing this break, to keep getting bored with what was and to keep seeking out what comes next. Rock, after all, was the first music to fixate so strongly on the idea of youth, and to lend itself to teenagers as a tool for constantly differentiating themselves from their parents.
Since this content is repeated more or less forever it becomes ritual and liturgical, and the product of an earlier rupture becomes the substance of a new tradition. My local classic hits station, for example, plays the Boomtown Rats’ ‘I don’t like Mondays’ each Monday as if the station is keeping Sabbath.
When I put it like that, it makes classic hits radio seem strange. Perhaps the stranger thing is what I’ve come to take for granted: the idea that there will always be new music, that music of a few years ago belongs in the past, and that the only way to recover it is through accidents of memory. My guess is that for most of human history the songs in any given community changed only slowly, and the songs we learned to love as children were still around when we were adults and when we were old. Before the incentive of capitalism, what reason was there to throw away last year’s songs and make new ones, and to keep doing this year after year? Before music could be written down or otherwise recorded, how feasible would it have been to do that anyway? If songs are only transmitted orally, there’s no good reason to forget them, because as soon as they’re forgotten they’re gone forever.
Seen like this, classic hits radio is a manifestation of the ancient oral cultural practices which never go away but rather interpenetrate modern literate culture in all kinds of ways: children’s superstitions and playground rhymes; urban legends; chain letters and emails; stories which go on forever like those found in Neighbours and Days Of Our Lives and Eastenders. When culture is transmitted orally, repetition is good, change is gradual, and the cultural moment is longer, measured in years rather than days, decades rather than years.
Radio, more than any other medium I can think of, assigns different parts of its spectrum to different relationships with time. A big part of what we choose as we tune our radios now is what relationship to history we want today. Over at this frequency it’s 1945, over here it’s 1955-75, over here it’s 1965-85 with brief eruptions of presentness, and over here it’s an eternal present where the past is forgotten after just weeks or months of air time.
Hand in hand with any given playlist is a certain community, along with its relationship to time: the young, perhaps, over at the top-40 station, or the retired over at Radio for the Print Handicapped. Who doesn’t know international hits like ‘Satisfaction’? Or ‘Penny Lane?’ The minor hits, on the other hand, link you to more closely to space, through the songs which were only hits in your region and/or demographic. Listen to the classic hits radio of your hometown, or somewhere like it, and you know every song; nothing shuts you out or jars your sensibilities. Listening to such programming is almost like returning to your small home town after years in the big city: nothing’s changed, because nothing ever changes, and you’re always welcome back. Sometimes the pleasure of belonging makes up for never getting the pleasure of discovering a new song or getting to suddenly remember an old one. Sometimes belonging is more seductive than adventure.
If the past is a different country, a country we’re forced by the movement of history and the aging of our bodies to migrate from, then classic hits radio takes you home. ‘You belong,’ says classic hits radio. You’re welcome here, here in your memories, and you’ll always be welcome. As long as you don’t mind living in the past.