Memory Bands

Last year I taught a seminar on the art and thought of the 1980s, partly as a way of revisiting some of the decade's fascinating aesthetic and political turns, and partly as a way of beginning to think about the recent outpouring of nostalgia for a decade that, at the time, seemed pretty irredeemable. The material had aged well, my students were wonderful and open-minded, and yet I finished the term more confused than before. Was there anything unique about this nostalgia, or was it just the latest version of what some might dismiss as a decidedly postmodernist mode of retrospection? Was it the flash of color and retro-futurism, the grandiosity of figures like Reagan or Jacko? Maybe it was the era's low-rent bombast, quaint and mild by our standards? Maybe it was all those discrete lines of conflict or legible villains--sadly, they seem quaint too.

David Keenan's essay in the latest issue of The Wire on America's "hypnagogic pop" scene--a scene he pretty much wills into existence--offers some of the strangest interpretations yet of the 80s nostalgia that inspires certain quarters of "America's DIY underground." Keenan lingers on the "context-less" nostalgia of born-in-the-80s acts like the Skaters and Pocahaunted, and their fascination with primitive cassette technology, Beverly Hills Cop, listening to Paul Simon while watching Predator, TV dinners, Slimer from the Ghostbusters and this:


It's hard for me to accept that "Boys of Summer" is a foundational text for anyone, let alone an entire "scene." Then again, I remain deeply influenced by Spies Like Us. Keenan's piece isn't available online, but Hong Kong in the 60s has some audio clips and excerpts. (And, despite all that: the Ducktails record has some cool moments.)

It's one thing to gaffle some sounds or mimic some fonts. I just don't think it's productive or possible even to approach any cultural good totally ignorant of "context"--the impulse to try might represent a kind of retreat from the infinity of webpages and tweets which comprise our context, but it's ultimately a troubling kind of retreat. One needn't experience a moment in time to understand its importance, or speculate on its effects. Joshua Clover's upcoming 1989: Bob Dylan Didn't Have This to Sing About does a tremendous job of theorizing the turn in late 1980s/early 1990s pop, and reading it against broader, global narratives of post-cold war triumphalism. (He's previewing sections of the book on his blog.) (My own tongue-in-cheek contribution to this End of History Pop discussion over at the Believer.)

Amra Brooks' novella California is ostensibly about the 1980s, too, and it's quick and occasionally engrossing, reminiscent of the good, sharp zine writing I grew up on. Brooks' narrator--shuttling up and down the California coast with her eccentric, erratic, separated parents--recounts the 80s and early 90s as a stream of halting, disjointed, cleanly-rendered episodes. A moment from "Aptos, 1986"--maybe something someone said at school, or a particularly desperate look on her mother's face--proceeds into "Santa Monica, 1989," with its completely different sets of neighbors and friends. What I like is that it stops just short of full-on confession: although it's written retrospectively, the moments are fairly self contained, free of the kind of foreboding self-awareness one rarely possesses at the age of 14. It is the 80s in Brooks' California, but you can only really infer this based on the world around her. Casual sex, just before the panic of AIDS. Drugs, but after the rosy hedonism of the 60s. Guys in bands, as a tentative DIY/indie scene forms beneath their feet. Parents struggling to accept that the 60s did not work.

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Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. More

Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Bookforum, Slate, The Village Voice, The Boston Globe Ideas section and The Wire (for whom he writes a bi-monthly column). He is on the editorial board for the New Literary History of America.

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