Sunday, October 12, 2014

Premature Nostalgia

[This post has a slightly more specific target than just general nostalgia-bashing. Give me a minute to warm up first, though.]

I am well aware of the fact that people of my generation are excessively, annoyingly premature to jump on nostalgia trips. It's true that in one artistic medium, the video game, the '80s and early '90s were actually a really pivotal time that shaped the future of that field. In general, though, there was nothing special about that period of time. Yet a striking proportion of my generation sits around obsessing all over everyone about the "good old days," despite being far to young to have much meaningful context or perspective on our adolescent years. For that matter, shouldn't our late 20s still be part of the good days? I know everybody thinks the world was better back when they were 15, because people are egocentric enough to conflate their own youthful energy and coming-of-age excitement with the pinnacle of human civilization, but can't we at least wait until we're in our 40s like previous generations have before we start getting all obnoxious about it? Maybe it's the way the internet has sped up the world, pushing one generation out of the spotlight before their time. In any case, said trait is extremely annoying. Unfortunately, it's ubiquitous to an extent that renders criticism basically fruitless. I'll still criticize, because that's the way I am, but that's not the main thrust of this post. Instead, I want to take some time to talk about a very specific nostalgia-driven phenomenon that puzzles me to no end.

Cassette tapes are making a comeback.

Just think about that for a minute. One of the worst, least reliable, least convenient, poorest quality formats in audio distribution history is returning to the shelves for no reason other than that people approaching 30 are having their midlife crisis a couple decades too early. I've seen them again and again over the past year or so; brand new cassettes are cropping up on record store shelves. Yikes.

Now, I understand the nostalgic appeal of vinyl. For one thing, it's been around long enough to have some actual historical significance attached to it. For another thing, it was the dominant audio distribution format when most of the formative albums that shaped our musical landscape were released. Hell, we still call albums "records."

Besides that, there are non-nostalgic reasons to buy vinyl records. They have huge covers, so collectors get a much better display of the jacket art. They have a warm, rich sound that (when played through quality stereo equipment) makes for a listening experience you can't get from newer formats. They have room for cool little oddities like a never-ending loop at the end of the record. You could spin them backward and hear the music in reverse. These peculiarities helped shape the mystique around bands like The Beatles and Led Zeppelin in a way that no modern distribution format can match. And on a really basic level, if you only want to listen to one song on the album, you can just drop the needle in that place and play it instead of having to fast forward for ten minutes.

Of course, for those who don't want to go all-out digital download mode just yet with their music collections, there are also CDs. True, there's nothing terribly nostalgic about a CD, since they're still the dominant physical format. The thing is, they replaced cassettes for a reason. You can skip songs. You have cleaner, clearer audio. You don't ever have to worry about your player eating a CD. You can leave them in your hot car without fear that they'll melt. CDs are vastly more durable and convenient than cassettes, while still giving you a much bigger, nicer cover art display and better audio quality too.

Cassettes, like eight-tracks, are nothing more than an embarrassing byproduct of audio distribution's awkward adolescent phase. They were not some superior product we had back in the day before all these kids born in the late '90s came along with their high-speed internets and cellular telephones. To think otherwise is to succumb to the same kind of collective delusion that leads 28-year-old women to believe that *NSYNC was actually any better/different than One Direction currently are (spoiler alert: they weren't). Cassettes sucked, and the 25-35 crowd needs to stop trying to resurrect shitty technology like that before we complete our premature metamorphosis into crabby old people who sit around ranting about how much better things were back in our day.


  1. I think I'm going to have to play devil's advocate here.

    On the nostalgia of our generation, I think there might be some explanation. the world is really, really different from the way it was 20 years ago. Essentially that's due to the Internet and mobile phones. But those things have so completely changed the way we live that I think it's caused some of this.

    On cassettes, I have to agree and disagree. I agree with all of your criticisms except the convenience. At least when you're driving, it's much easier to switch out a cassette than a CD, and they never really made a good personal CD player whereas the Walkman was ubiquitous, reliable, and had good battery life. Mine never melted in my car, but I kept them in boxes which I always put on the floor of the vehicle. I also only had one tape ruined myself, which is nothing short of miraculous if all the stories I read about them are true.

    But--and I've mused on this before--the dumb kitschiness of it really is appealing on some level. I don't for a second think that your Mastodons and Metallicas or even your Cynics have any business releasing a tape. And certainly not It's just not right for an established artist like that. But for some bedroom black metal band, or anyone else who trades on a thoroughly silly but apparently-deadly-serious mystique, it does make sense. It also makes quite a bit of sense for an underground band who are clearly referencing a time when the cassette was the dominant format. For people who only want to hear the next Venom or Hellhammer or even Ratt, the cassette somehow provides a level of credibility matched to their denim vests.

    1. I know that the dawn of the internet age has sped things up, which strongly relates to people feeling out of date faster, but I still think somebody in their 20s has very little room to talk about the "good old days." Certainly the constant stream of "People born after 1995 will never know about [insert short-lived trend/technology that was crappy even when it was new]" posts on Facebook do nothing to dispel the notion that we're collectively pretty delusional about the importance of that specific time period. Golden age thinking in general annoys me. I think it just especially bothers me in this case because it doesn't even have the benefit of historical distance.

      As for the melting thing, it's worth pointing out that I grew up in the desert, and in a car parked in 115 degree heat, things melting was probably more of a problem for us than it was for people in most places.

      Oh, and to provide additional context, I should note that the cassette that most recently caught my attention at the record store last week was Dark Roots of Earth by Testament.

    2. Testament is an odd case for that. They're certainly pretty well-established, but not household-name level, and they're certainly trading on some nostalgia. On balance I don't think it's a good idea for them to release a cassette but I can see the argument.

      Here the actual temperature hits 100 a handful of days out of the year. The place where I grew up is three hours north of here, so slightly cooler--5 days at 100 would be a pretty hot summer, I think (though I'm not looking at any climatology data, just shooting from the hip). The humidity is terrible, but I don't suppose a cassette tape cares much about that.

      I can see both sides of the nostalgia thing. I can understand why you think it's premature, but I also understand why we do it. I am thoroughly perplexed when someone just a few years younger than myself waxes nostalgic about something like Power Rangers (which I was really just a year or two too old to appreciate).

    3. I think I'm 2 years younger than you, so I'm just barely across that threshold enough to have been into the Power Rangers as a kid.

      Terrible show in retrospect, but when I was little I thought it was awesome.