Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Am I Stuck on Repeat?

Kenyon College, 2005.

It's late August, 2005. I'm returning to campus after the first of many Wal-Mart trips, this time with my mom in tow. Orientation for Kenyon College's Class of 2009 has just begun, and I'm so nervous I could puke. Excited too, but mostly nervous. I slide my burned copy of Okkervil River's Black Sheep Boy into the CD player because it's a sad record, and I'm sad, too. The band's cover of the title track fades out and the second track, "For Real," begins. Will Sheff's palm-muted acoustic guitar tiptoes through my speakers, fighting bravely against a rising tide of feedback. Then he sings:

Some nights I thirst for real blood
For real knives
For real cries

A few seconds later, a jackhammer of distorted guitar annihilates the verse, and Sheff belts out the chorus, this time a full octave higher and a good bit louder:

I really miss what really did exist
When I held your throat so tight

I pound on the steering wheel as the band stomps around in the background. I don't remember the look on my mom's face because all I can remember is the anger, the fear, and the buzzing excitement of that moment and that song. It's a feeling I can't help but be swept up in every time I listen to the track, even five years and a month after it first happened.

After essentially steering clear of indie rock for the past two years, probably, I've reunited gloriously with my long-lost friend in the past couple of months. No more hip-hop, no more electronica; give me four dudes and some fucking guitars. And maybe a cute girl bass player.
Broken Social Scene in Brooklyn in 2006.
I've met some new people in this old paradigm (Surfer Blood, Spoon, Smog, Best Coast), but I've really relished getting reacquainted with the ones I really missed. I probably hadn't listened to Broken Social Scene for half a decade when I heard "Anthems for a Seventeen-Year-Old Girl" on the Scott Pilgrim soundtrack playing in my friend's car. I had forgotten just how much I adored the song's snowy, psychedelic swooning; I've never been a seventeen-year-old girl, but I couldn't help feeling like one during those glorious four minutes and thirty-six seconds. I was glad I'd kept You Forgot It in People on my iPod.

Then I gave that album a listen I confess I never really gave it in the first place. And then I loaded Broken Social Scene's self-titled 2005 record - the only I really loved - back onto my iPod, and then the nostalgia train was fairly impossible to stop.

First it was the ones that'd never really left my mind: the National, Arcade Fire, Neutral Milk Hotel. Then those more resolutely buried: Clap Your Hands Say Yeah!, TV on the Radio, Okkervil. And then the ones I really had to blow the dust off of: the Good Life, even friggin' Bright Eyes. Then, God help us all, came the pop punk.

And suddenly I'm blasting "I'm Not Okay" by My Chemical Romance as I skulk the halls of my high school during my junior year, trying not to look too smugly downtrodden. Now I'm up at my lake house wearing out my copy of Atticus: Dragging the Lake II because the Rice Lake Wal-Mart doesn't carry Tell All Your Friends, and my sixteen-year-old self needs some way to listen to "You're So Last Summer" on repeat. And then I'm suffering through my last summer before college, listening to Relient K's Mmhmm in my car, my shoulders quaking as I try to control my sobbing for a girl I've never really gotten over.

At which point I realize that I haven't really gone anywhere, and I'm still sitting here in my bed, writing this article on my MacBook. And it dawns on me that, to my profound dismay, I've become a nostalgia fiend. I've transformed this vital art form I love so much into a twenty-three-year long home video of treasured memories. I've turned into one of those old fogies with the shit-eating grins, blabbering on about how "Yummy Yummy Yummy, I've Got Love in my Tummy" reminds them of high school and how much simpler things used to be. I've become the musical equivalent of Glenn Beck, crying including.

How did this happen? Will I be doomed to listen to the same five or six indie rock records over and over until I'm dead? How did I turn into my parents when I'm still living in their house?!

Well, "still" would imply that I never moved away. I did move away, in fact, for four sometimes idyllic, often frustrating years at Kenyon College.

Okkervil River at Little Brother's in Columbus in 2006.
I was actually at this show.
That's the thing about nostalgia: it's inherently deceptive. Because, just like I keep telling the imaginary stickman Republican in my head, the past wasn't all that great. I like the excitement of my freshman year I feel when I listen to "For Real," but I don't really enjoy the homesickness or the dread at leaving behind everything I'd ever loved or become accustomed to. And even then I was nostalgic, for something I never even felt and probably didn't have the depth of experience to sympathize with:

I really miss what really did exist

And do I really enjoy the second-hand heartbreak I feel when I listen to Relient K, or the embarrassment that I feel admitting that I listen to Relient K? No!

Well, I certainly don't enjoy the latter. But maybe some part of me does enjoy the heartbreak; maybe I like the feeling of something authentic, something real, that came before college and political science classes and blogs made me cynical and jaded. Maybe I just want something that really did exist.

But isn't that a sad thing? Isn't it heartbreaking to think that the rest of my life will be so artificial and dull that I'll never experience anything as deeply as I did in high school?

And that's when I decide to pull the record out of that never-ending groove. I don't keep my old records locked in the proverbial attic, but I learn to appreciate them in a new way. I pay attention to the poetry of Will Sheff's words on that Okkervil River records, and I even listen to their newer albums. I learn to appreciate Broken Social Scene's subtle instrumental explorations rather than just wallow in their Emotions. And I listen to those pop punk records a few times and put them away, because that's just not music I can listen to without a hint of irony anymore.

In short, I move forward. Because I refuse to accept that my best times are behind me. Because I know that the past isn't the only thing that's real.