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It’s Gone, All Gone – Part 2: Remembering Everything

Nowadays I remembered things constantly; I panned, I grubbed, I fished, I lunged for recollections with a net; I plundered my own thoughts as recklessly as any oil baron ramming his way through pristine landscapes, convinced there would always be more. – Egan, Look at Me


It’s Gone, All Gone is a three part investigation of the many instances of critical abuses of nostalgia. Specifically, I’ll be looking at how critically engaging something as an object of nostalgia is itself a nostalgic mode of thinking. Today: Social Media and Nostalgia. Later: Part 3 on Simon Reynolds and Retromania. If you haven’t already, read the Introduction and Part 1: Instagram and the Faux-Vintage Photograph

Last spring, Tina Fey paid a visit to the Google complex in Mountain View, California as part of Google’s Authors series. Ostensibly there to promote her new book Bossy Pants, the conversation tended (unsurprisingly) to revolve around technology. The most interesting moment of the entire conversation was Fey’s aside about scrolling through her iPhone’s photo album:

I look back, if I go through my phone and there’s these weird chunks of time where it’s, like – because I have, like, 4,000 pictures on my phone. And it’ll be, like, pictures of us at SNL doing the Sarah Palin thing, and then taking her to her first day of preschool, and then going to the Emmy’s. And then there’s things on the table. And then coming back. The phone is a good way to see what…you’re really actually doing in your life.

It’s a simple point, but a good one. In effect, an iPhone photo album is a reverse-chronological, continually updating, personal timeline that she always has with her. Human beings are alright at remembering individual “chunks of time,” but they are tremendously bad at organizing multiple chunks into an intelligible narrative. For example, I have vivid memories of my sister’s graduation party and my brother’s birthday party, which happened around the same time, but I couldn’t tell you which happened first. As Fey says, “The phone is a good way to see what…you’re really actually doing in your life.” Read the rest of this entry »


Look At Me

We consume images at an ever faster rate and, as Balzac suspected cameras used up layers of the body, images consume reality. Cameras are the antidote and the disease, a means of appropriating reality and a means of making it obsolete. – Susan Sontag, On Photography


A few days ago I watched Lana Del Rey’s SNL performance for which she was widely panned for being “boring,” “cringeworthy,” and “stilted,” among other things. Lana Del Rey, for those who don’t know, became an internet sensation last summer after releasing two music videos (“Video Games” and “Blue Jeans“). Those videos enticed viewers with an artist whose voice was inviting, but whose pose was perfected to the point of discomfort. It’s an image that works extraordinarily well in the lab (or a music video), but falls flat in the real world. Watch the SNL performance and you’ll see nervous hands, aimless eyes, mindless swaying–visible cracks on her perfect facade. We want our artists to perform; we just don’t want to know they’re performing.

At the same time I was watching Lana, I was in the middle of Jennifer Egan’s 2001 novel, Look At MeRead the rest of this entry »

Weekly Kitsch: Another T-Shirt

I promise not to do this every time underground/subversive imagery is appropriated by a corporation and sold to a mainstream audience. Last time I looked at Forever 21’s decision to sell a copy of a T-Shirt Kurt Cobain wore during a 1992 SNL performance. This week, Disney began selling Joy Division inspired T-Shirts (seen above).  Read the rest of this entry »

Similes: Failed Heroes

He is summoned…by a committee of nervous citizens expressly to be a hero, but finds that he cannot, at last, live up to his image; that there is a flaw not only in him, but also, we feel, in the entire set of assumptions that have allowed the image to exist. – Thomas Pynchon, “A Review of Oakley Hall’s Warlock”


Joe Paterno left in disgrace last November after 46 years from his position as head coach of the Penn State football team when allegations surfaced that he had knowledge of Jerry Sandusky’s sexual involvement with multiple children. Mike McQueary, one of Paterno’s assistants, went to Paterno in 2002 after witnessing Sandusky in the shower with a child. Recently, Paterno recounted that conversation he had with McQueary:

You know, he didn’t want to get specific,” Paterno said. “And to be frank with you I don’t know that it would have done any good, because I never heard of, of, rape and a man. So I just did what I thought was best. I talked to people that I thought would be, if there was a problem, that would be following up on it.

Francesco Schettino, captain of the now-sunk Costa Concordia, has been criticized for leaving his sinking cruise ship before all passengers had been evacuated. When asked why he left early Schettino said:

I was helping some passengers put the life boat to sea. At a certain point the mechanism for lowering it, blocked. We had to force it. Suddenly the system unblocked itself and I tripped and I found myself inside the life boat with a number of passengers.

Read the rest of this entry »

Weekly Kitsch: Starbucks Blonde Roast

“I have so many cookies,” she told Gary, who was washing his hands fastidiously at the kitchen sink. “I have a pear that I can slice, and some of that dark coffee that you kids like.” – Franzen, The Corrections


It was a cold day. The first official day of winter had long since passed, but this was the first actual day of winter. People who live in the Midwest know what I’m talking about. It’s the kind of cold that causes the body to clench any and all available muscles. Only the heavy layers of clothing–and shame–keep me from rolling up into a ball.

Anyway, it was cold and I needed coffee. I’m not entirely sure when I first heard about the new blonde roast coffee at Starbucks (or, The Blonde, as I’ll be calling it). It might have been a television ad; a newspaper article; or maybe a tweet. Regardless, I can only assume it was the result of some sort of Gladwellian there-but-not-there marketing innovation.

Epistemic concerns notwithstanding, I was curious to try it. Read the rest of this entry »

It’s Gone, All Gone – Part 1: Instagram and the Faux-Vintage Photograph

Not only is the photograph never, in essence, a memory, but it actually blocks memory, quickly becomes counter-memory – Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida


It’s Gone, All Gone is a three part investigation of the many instances of critical abuses of nostalgia. Specifically, I’ll be looking at how critically engaging something as an object of nostalgia is itself a nostalgic mode of thinking. Today: Instagram and the Faux-Vintage Photograph. Later: Part 2 will focus on social media and Part 3 on Simon Reynolds and Retromania. If you haven’t already, read the Introduction.

When I first wrote about Instagram six months ago, I concluded the following:

Instagram’s popularity is attributable to one primary factor: the ease of sharing one’s story. Instagram becomes a beautiful scrapbook of our daily lives, which we can instantly share with our friends. By choosing a filter for a photo, I am choosing how I would like to present myself to the world.

At that time I had been using Instagram for about four months and, while I was certainly aware of the retro-inspired origins of the filters, that retro-ness had very little to do with my interest in the app. In my mind, the primary function of the filters is and always has been to make photographs taken with subpar iPhone cameras look better.  Read the rest of this entry »

Similes: Vertigo, Velvet Underground, and Rape?

I’m afraid that if you look at a thing long enough, it loses all of its meaning. – Andy Warhol


The symbol has become so identified with The Velvet Underground…that members of the public, and particularly those who listen to rock music, immediately recognize the banana design as the symbol of The Velvet Underground.” – Quoted from documents re: The Velvet Underground v. The Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts. Velvet Underground alleges that the AWF is getting rich at their expense by reproducing the famous VU banana image on iPhone covers (via: NY Post)


It is morally wrong for the artistry of our industry to use and abuse famous pieces of work to gain attention and applause for other than what they were intended.” – Actress Kim Novak, after discovering the film The Artist had licensed portions of the Vertigo score for its own use (via: Daily Mail)

Vertigo was released in 1958, Velvet Underground’s first album in 1967. It feels wrong when an artist tells you what a piece of artwork represents. It feels worse when people claiming to be speaking for the artist tell you what a piece of artwork represents.

I do know two things:

  1. When someone argues against a dead artist, the dead artist always wins.
  2. When someone argues for a dead artist, assume the dead artist disagrees.



It’s Gone, All Gone – Introduction: The Various Uses For Nostalgia

At that very instant:
Oh, what I would not give for the joy
of being at your side in Iceland
inside the great unmoving daytime
and of sharing this now
the way one shares music
or the taste of fruit.
At that very instant
the man was at her side in Iceland.

I recently watched Woody Allen’s latest film, Midnight in Paris. The film follows Gil Pender’s (Owen Wilson) struggle with nostalgia for 1920s Paris–a time he considers to be a golden age. In a key scene, Gil and his fiance’s “pedantic” friend Paul discuss Gil’s golden age and Paul tells him rather bluntly: “Nostalgia is denial – denial of the painful present.”

2011 had the usual amounts of oh-my-God-I’m-old moments (the return of Beavis of Butthead, Doug, All That, Salute Your Shirts; the 20th Anniversary Edition of NevermindPitchfork turned 15; and Is This It turned 10) and the requisite love letters to our past selves. For people of a certain age, those cultural artifacts elicit warm feelings of nostalgia by allowing us to leave our complicated contemporary selves for a few fleeting moments and return to simpler times. Indeed, as Psychology Today tells us, “the occasional detour down memory lane can give your spirits a significant lift.”

Of course, while nostalgia is a “denial of the painful present,” it’s important to remember that nostalgia is also a denial of a painful past. After all, the flip side of the warm feelings brought on by wistful remembrance is the knowledge that you can never truly go back. The crucial thing to remember, however, is that those wistful feelings are not based on any sort historical facticity–those feelings are based on an idealized version of the past. We know this because of Proust: “It is a labor in vain to attempt to recapture memory.” We also know this because of science. Jonah Lehrer explains in his book Proust Was a Neuroscientist, that immediately after an event happens, “we begin warping the memory…to fit our own personal narrative,” and, Lehrer continues, “the past is never past. As long as we are alive, our memories remain wonderfully volatile. In their mercurial mirror, we see ourselves.” Nostalgia, then, is one of the many techniques one has for making not only the past intelligible, but the present as well. When Proust eats his madeleine in In Search of Lost Time, we see his past through the rose-colored eyes of the present.

However, it is crucial to understand that the glasses are not only rose-colored, but are also uni-directional. The price of a rose-colored past is a disappointing present. In Midnight In Paris, Gil Pender left his painful present each night by literally transporting back to Golden Twenties era Paris. It wasn’t until Gil realized that the inhabitants of 1920s Paris looked back on La Belle Époque with the same fervor as he looked back upon the the Golden Twenties that he decided to fix his painful present by leaving his vapid fiancee and quitting his job as a screenwriter. By turning his rose-colored glasses from the past to the present, Gil Pender was able to find a present worth living for.

It’s a beautiful cliche, but the present is what you make of it.

Over the next few posts I intend to take a closer look at instances of critical abuses of nostalgia. In particular, I’ll be examining articles and arguments that criticize nostalgia while simultaneously using nostalgia as their primary mode of engagement.

Objects of Inquiry

  • Part 1: Instagram and The Faux-Vintage Photo
  • Part 2: Social Media and the Difference Between Nostalgia and Scrapbooks
  • Part 3: The Case of Simon Reynolds

Nostalgia, like most things, is best in moderation.

Best of 2011

The only thing more cliche than making a year-end list is talking about making a year-end list. And so I won’t. Below is a review of some of the things I enjoyed in the past year.

Read the rest of this entry »

Similes: Jazz Rock


“Yet Gaucho is more than a good laugh or a twinge of recognition. If you leave a question hanging long enough, it becomes practically metaphysical. (Are you with me, Dr. Wu?) And that’s a loophole big enough to let the angels in.” – Rolling Stone review of Steely Dan’s Gaucho


“His understated humor is intact, but Kaputt is no joke. It would be far too easy for Bejar to simply poke fun at so many swishy synths, lounge-lizard inflections, and cruise-ship bass lines, but he does something much tougher here. He redeems them” – Pitchfork review of Destroyer’s Kaputt

Nearly every review of Kaputt devotes at least a paragraph to assuring readers of the album’s sincere post-ironic stance: it’s ok to smirk, but know that they’re serious. Many reviewers celebrate the cool sincerity of Destroyer’s appropriation of saxophones and synths from the smooth jazz-rock loving era of the early 80s: “Here, Dan [Bejar] just sounds carefree; like he just doesn’t care. What makes this album amazing is that he really doesn’t…It is a mighty, mighty piece of work and really worth celebrating.” And we’re ok with this. After all, this is the so-called era of Retromania–everything old is new again because nothing “new” is being created.

However, what strikes me is that even in 1981, Ariel Swartley, who reviewed Gaucho for Rolling Stone, was clearly aware that Steely Dan were not only more than just the sum of their pop, jazz, and rock idioms, they were remarkably self-conscious. In other words, we tend to laugh at Steely Dan because we assume from our 21st century, Retromania-enlightened position that they are being unknowingly earnest–which, let’s face it, unknowing earnestness can be hilarious. Steely Dan were creating something new by consciously appropriating and combining ridiculous riffs and sounds, and their success lies in their ability to use those sounds to create a space between irony and earnestness by, as Swartley contends, perfecting the “aesthetic of the tease.” Unintelligible lyrics, saxophone solos, “potentially passionate outbursts,” all serve to create an atmosphere of paranoiac (un)meaning. Are they serious? Are they joking? Sometimes it’s just easier to laugh than to understand.

Steely Dan and Destroyer are asking you to do both. Understand that they’re winking, but understand that they’re completely serious.