Boomers are the navel-gazingest generation in human history, and I do far more than my share. On those occasions when I’ve pondered the reasons for my nostalgia habit, I’ve generally settled on the idea that nostalgia is a way to shelter myself from the present. The present so often disappoints; the past is seductively right, and seems so even when we know that it wasn’t. (I am capable of nostalgia for days that, while I was living them, I was seeking refuge from in nostalgia for even earlier days.) But that can’t be all of it. When I put on Mud Slide Slim, it’s not necessarily because I want to relive the summer of 1971—and the millions who also own Mud Slide Slim probably don’t want to do that, either.
How James Taylor in particular, or boomeresque nostalgia in general, fits into our perception of ourselves may be a more suitable subject for examination. Maybe reminding ourselves of our past is a way of reminding ourselves of where we came from. Consciousness of our roots is important to the part we play as Americans—no matter how successful we become, no matter how deeply we get into the role of middle-class suburbanite on the ladder of success, we want to show the audience that we’ve never forgotten the farm or the college or the people that raised us. And if we’re still listening to the music we listened to in those days, how far removed can we be from the farm or the college or the people—and their values? The music signifies what we’d like to think we are. Or, to put it another way, it signifies how we’d like the audience to think we are.
As Thomas de Zengotita reminds us, the audience is, in large part, ourselves. If you asked me to name my favorite jazz musicians, I’d name Miles Davis pretty quickly. But I am going to make a confession. I often either don’t get what Miles is doing, or I just don’t like it all that much. But I still play my Miles Davis CDs now and then, because I want to be the kind of person who listens to Miles Davis, and I want the audience (even when it’s just The Mrs. and me) to think of me as that kind of person. That’s distinct from a person who listens to Miles because he likes the music—but as far as my audience [of one] is concerned, it’s enough.
This is another corkscrew onion: the question of whether you like what you like because you like it, or because you like the idea of people seeing you liking it, and whether it’s possible to tell the difference. Or if the difference matters anymore.
I’m never willing to discount the possibility that I could be entirely wrong. (A willingness to doubt my entire argument in the end is part of the character I play.) But maybe not. De Zengotita argues that for us, everything is surfaces without depth, and even without edges. We don’t have time for depth, and our mediated existence automatically sands off the edges. I’d read about the concept, and thought about it, but I’d never really seen it up close until the James Taylor concert—an experience entirely about surfaces, a scene with 22,000 actors performing their self-scripted parts, and then cheering themselves and their performance as much as they were cheering for Taylor.
And that’s where the piece ended when I wrote it in 2005. I felt like it needed more, but since I couldn’t come up with more, I put it aside. It occurs to me now, however, that one possible lesson I might have taken from the concert experience, and from writing about it, is that I should take my head out of my ass now and then, stop thinking so much, and learn to take pleasure in the moment without stopping to wonder What It All Means. But either ending—that one, or the ending-that-wasn’t in 2005—is good enough for this blog.