In Defense of Not Buying into ’90s Nostalgia

There has been an influx of writers (some of which may or may not write for this particular magazine) who have jumped to the notion of ’90s nostalgia while considering the recent release of North, Matchbox Twenty’s first record with all new material in approximately 3,650 days. Everywhere you turn, another writer shoehorns in some reference about how “Push” was overplayed, “Mad Season” was quirky and Third Eye Blind (yes — it seems no one can help themselves from comparing the two bands for some reason) isn’t as relevant as they once were. Each review is constructed with an utterly predictable layer of snark and rarely does it feel as though the band and their new record actually had a legitimate shot at impressing these taste-makers, not only because of their past, but also because of the culture that helped paint the music they wrote more than a decade ago. 

Sure, references to the band’s one-time stranglehold on pop rock radio are fair — how could one possibly ignore how Yourself or Someone Like You lit the world on fire in both 1996 and 1997? And yes, it has indeed been a little while since a proper Matchbox Twenty album has hit record store shelves (or, well, the electronic section at Walmart, at least). But to use these things as starting points for criticism and conversation about music they began writing about ten years after putting a cap on their 2002 effort, More Than You Think You Are, isn’t just irresponsible and lazy, but it’s also short-sighted and ignorant. What — you guys seriously can’t think of anything to write about other than how successful “Back 2 Good” was? Hate the record if you want, but the last thing you should be doing is referencing how inescapable “Smooth” was during the summer of 1999. 

Take, for instance, Contact Music’s Jim Pusey, who even took the liberty of speaking for the band’s fans during his dismissive review of Matchbox Twenty’s latest.

“Although it’s not as bad as some would have you believe, there’s little to endear you to the material presented on North,” Pusey wrote. “Honestly, what would you want from a new Matchbox Twenty album? Rob Thomas pouring his heart out, catchy melodies and big choruses? Well, they’re all to be found here but perhaps I forgot my rose tinted glasses because they’re not as compelling as they were before the millennium… Overall North is a difficult record to like because it doesn’t feel like the triumphant comeback that it should have been. Instead, it doesn’t quite give Matchbox Twenty’s audience what they wanted (that’s if they’re still paying attention after the band was originally mothballed), neither is it bold enough to capture the imagination of a younger audience discovering the band for the first time.” (“Matchbox Twenty – North Album Review”, undated).

Wait. How could you possibly speak to what Matchbox Twenty’s audience is, Mr. Pusey, after spending your time looking for the obvious reasons to hate their latest record? And maybe even more so, how could you know what exactly it is that these fans want now when you address what life was like before the turn of the millennium no more than two paragraphs into your opinion?

Herein lies the problem with nostalgia: Its mere presence makes it infinitely easier to view current-day things with an utterly subjective and cynical eye. These days, the notion of criticism always seems to be based more on yesterday’s success than today’s victories. It has subsequently made it nearly impossible for writers to look at the fantastically catchy “Our Song” without referencing “Lonely No More” (or, for that matter, Rick Springfield, as Jon Caramanica of The New York Times did during his annoying, not-nearly-as-clever-as-he-thought-he-was take on the record recently) (“Music From Matchbox Twenty, Animal Collective and Jason Lescalleet”, by Jon Caramanica, 3 September 2012). It’s borderline embarrassing to think of how everybody with an opinion and an outlet can’t help themselves when they dissect how infectious “3 a.m.” was while analyzing — and subsequently trashing — the throwback, dace-tastic groove of “Radio”.

But that’s the thing about looking back — it always makes the present seem flawed, and such locution never crosses one’s mind when celebrating how great something was rather than is. 

It’s also precisely why the recent deluge of ’90s nostalgia is a bit disconcerting — it leaves no room for forward movement. Take, for example, the recent Summerland tour featuring Everclear, Marcy Playground, Sugar Ray, Lit and the Gin Blossoms. The mere announcement left the tweeting generation in stitches as 20-somethings across the world proclaimed how eager they were to get out and sing the chorus to “Santa Monica” with those three high school friends they hardly ever talk to anymore. Though despite the somewhat ironic thirst some fans have for a drink filled with pop rock from the ’90s, even some of the artists themselves had doubts about the timing of the package.

As Tris McCall of New Jersey’s Star-Ledger pointed out in July, Art Alexakis, Everclear’s principal songwriter and only current-day original member, had a tough time reconciling touring on the power of songs he wrote more than a decade ago, considering his band had released Invisible Stars in June. In fact, it took Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath to convince the lead man that the package tour would be a good idea. 

Jeremy Popoff, Lit’s guitar player, took that apprehension a step further.  “It’s been a lot of fun so far,” he told McCall. “But we do have a new album, and we’ve been getting a couple of new songs in there. Luckily, the crowd reaction has been great. For us, this isn’t just a nostalgia show.” (“Summerland more than a ’90s nostalgia trip”, by Tris McCall, The New Jersey Star-Ledger, 20 July 2012)

Ahh, but you see, this is where the notion of nostalgia — more specifically, recent nostalgia — walks that dangerous line between novelty and relevance. How good can it really feel to merely be “that band who had that one song” rather than honest, live, serious musicians who are constantly working to produce an acclaimed product? Sure, it might be fun to run through “My Own Worst Enemy” every night, but how much does it truly pay off, if your new record fails to move any units?

At its core, the wistfulness notion is unfair. It penalizes artists for actually being one of the few to achieve success in the music world by painting them into a corner deemed impossible to leave. It doesn’t really matter how good Invisible Stars may or may not be. People went to see Everclear this summer to scream the words to “Father of Mine”, not to take a potty break during “Be Careful What You Ask For”. And frankly, that’s sad. It’s a shame to think that someone can be defined by a handful of songs regardless of the longevity of his or her career. Naturally, of course that doesn’t mean that these artists’ current-day releases are going to always be great, but it certainly doesn’t always ensure a level incompetency, either.

“’96 was our first record,” Rob Thomas told Billboard earlier this month when asked specifically about the recent boom in ’90s nostalgia. “By the time I did ‘Smooth’, we recorded it in ’99, it came out right in 2000 and then everything we did from ‘Bent’ on, all the solo stuff, ‘Unwell’, ‘If You’re Gone’, it was all in the 2000s. So we never really considered ourselves a ’90s band. We just started in the ’90s.” (“Matchbox Twenty Q&A: ‘We Had This No-Fear Rule'”, by David Greenwald, 4 September 2012)

That quote is telling for two reasons. 1) Rob Thomas clearly didn’t want to have anything to do with being pigeonholed as an artist reserved for talk related to only the ’90s. And 2) Well… it’s true — Matchbox Twenty released only one album in that decade, yet they constantly get brought up when these nostalgia pieces are published and the ’90s conversations are had. It illustrates exactly how aware these artists are of their status within current-day culture and how important it is to be associated with beneficial cliques and tomorrow-thinking consumers (boy, just imagine what might happen if he clicks over to Contact Music or The New York Times someday!). 

In the end, though, the fair-weather nature of record sales, chart dominance and critical acclaim simply shouldn’t be this contingent on reputation, past hits and detached culture. Not only is nostalgia an impossible phenomenon to balance, but it also holds a tremendous amount of weight within the context of what we expect from tomorrow’s artists, even if they came from yesterday. It’s impossible to avoid, yet it’s imperative to manage. And maybe most significantly, it blurs our perception of any new work an artist offers, regardless of its true quality, and regardless of its modern-day intention.

Because, let’s be honest: Is “Real World” really all that much better than “She’s So Mean”, anyways?