because I’m a musician I feel this tension, and the pleasure
of recovery, most strongly when I can remember only part of
a melody. Sometimes a small sequence of two or three notes pops
into my mind, or I hear it as part of a song on the radio, along
with the sense that it’s part of something I’ve
heard once but just can’t quite remember . . . Now, two
or three notes can sometimes be quite enough to recover a whole
melody, if we remember the rhythm properly. Think, for example,
about the three bass notes which open “Walking On The
Moon.” If we remember the sound as well, a single note
can be enough: think of the first chord of “A Hard Day’s
times there aren’t enough triggers to prompt our memory
though, and a tiny piece of a melody can circulate in the mind
for days, along with that most uncomfortable of combinations:
the feeling of knowing accompanied by the complete inability
melodic fragment is an interesting thing, and it gets its power
to create tension in four ways. First, it conveys the sense
that it’s part of a larger whole, which makes the fragment
seem incomplete by itself. The notes point toward something
larger, and are not in themselves sufficient. Singing them over
and over doesn’t bring pleasure or satisfaction in the
way a complete melody would, it just intensifies the desire
to know what the hell it’s part of.
mentioned above, it’s annoying having the feeling of knowing,
without the thing known being available to us. The feeling of
knowing is a handy thing when it accompanies things we can remember,
because it lets us know we don’t need to learn them afresh.
When it accompanies a memory it’s comforting; as soon
as it’s separated from the memory it’s frustrating.
as James suggested above, we have the sense there’s only
one correct answer. The process of reconstruction and worrying
at a melody is otherwise the same as the process of making a
song from fragments of other songs: we try possibilities out
and see how they fit. Trying to make a new song from such pieces,
however, is like trying to find a name for a newborn: one answer
might feel better than all the others, but there are many other
possibilities that might work well, too. Trying to reconstruct
a forgotten song from a fragment is more like meeting someone
and knowing you know their name but not what it is: in both
cases only one answer will do.
first three factors apply any time we want to remember something
like a name. The fourth is more variable and has to do with
just how much emotion we’ve knotted into the song itself.
We care differently about remembering different songs, just
as we care differently about remembering different people’s
names. Some people are more important to us and we want to remember
their names more strongly.
Usually the dilemma resolves, given a little time. More often
than not, the song I eventually recall turns out to be a minor
hit from when I was young. Minor hits are perfect puzzles to
try and reconstruct, if you enjoy that particular neurochemical
hit I’m calling the ‘pleasure of recovery’
as much as I do. Major hits are hard to forget, so you don’t
get to enjoy the moment of suddenly remembering them again.
Minor hits were played often enough to knot themselves into
our minds somehow, and to encourage the feeling, when we’ve
forgotten them, that we should be able to remember.
most common way of thinking about pleasure as it relates to
memory is to talk about nostalgia or reverie, but neither of
these really pin down the flavour of the pleasure of the moment
of recovery itself. Reverie is enjoying being immersed in memory,
but the pleasure of recovery is about the fact of remembering
at all, not about the experience of the thing remembered. The
pleasure of recovery can apply whether or not I like the song
very much. It’s just satisfying knowing it’s back
in its proper place, whatever it is. A memory which has slipped
out of place undermines our sense that we’re a stable
entity in control of ourselves, and it’s unnerving.
MEMORY SLIPPED FROM ITS PLACE
not nostalgia either, even though nostalgia does have a curious
link with songs, specifically Kuhreihen: the simple
melodies Alpine herdsmen played on their flutes as they drove
their herds to pasture and back. Swiss mercenaries fighting
in 18th century France grew intensely homesick when they heard
or sang these songs, and the term nostalgia first crops up as
a constructed Greek word in medical reports discussing this
condition. Eventually the mercenaries were banned from singing
such songs because they grew despondent and either sickened
-- sometimes to the point of death -- or deserted, in either
case at an inconvenient rate. Music is a temporal art, perhaps
the ultimate temporal art, and listening to music from wherever
and whenever we think of as home does something powerful to
us; it mixes space with time.
then, is wanting to return to somewhere we already remember,
but wanting to remember something isn’t always wanting
to return somewhere. When I run into someone I first met in
2005 and whose name I’ve now forgotten, I can want very
much to remember his name without at all wanting to be back
in 2005. Likewise, what I long for when I can’t remember
a melody is to solve the puzzle the song represents, not to
be back at the time and place when I first heard the song. Wanting
to remember is only nostalgia in the very abstract sense that
we’re longing for something that’s unavailable in
the present; and unlike proper nostalgia, as soon as the memory
is recovered, the feeling passes.
nostalgia becomes an industry it can actually destroy the pleasure
of recovery, at least when that pleasure is the result of solving
memory puzzles within the confines of one’s own skull.
It replaces nostalgia with something, though, which -- while
seemingly creepy -- might just be better.
my hometown there’s a radio station called Gold FM. It
plays nothing but hits from a certain slice of history. If we
tabulated the years the songs in its playlist were released
my guess is it’d form a bell-curve centred at about 1976.
classic hits radio defines itself partly in opposition to whatever
awful music listeners think teenagers are listening to now;
as such, it might seem like a different species of radio compared
to today’s top 40 stations. In truth, however, classic
hits radio is a child of top 40 because it operates around the
idea of the playlist. The idea of the playlist and the top 40
format brought each other into being in the America of the 1950s.
about 1955, commercial radio was programmed in blocks of time.
Families would gather around the set for an evening and listen
to dramas, comedies, westerns, quiz shows, detective stories,
news, and the odd music show like Your Hit Parade. Music could
be played either live in the studio or from records, and it
wasn’t until the early 1950s that records became the dominant
form of music on radio.
the ‘50s, several things happened in American culture.
Televisions started to appear in homes, and many of radio’s
best-loved personalities and show formats migrated from radio
to television. Over the course of the decade television became
the leisure time treat at the end of the day that radio had
once been, and radio increasingly became a companion rather
than an object of dedicated attention: something you listened
to while you did something else.
as when you drove. American suburbs were growing at a huge rate,
while most people still worked in the city. Suburbs grew faster
than public transport networks, which meant more workers spent
hours driving to and from work and they were happy to listen
to radio while they drove.
post-WWII baby boom meant the median age was dropping steadily,
and with post-war prosperity teenagers were both plentiful and
more affluent than ever before. They didn’t necessarily
own cars but they still drove, and those who didn’t drive
availed themselves of the newly-invented transistor radio, an
amazing new radio you could actually carry around with you while
owners in the mid-‘50s began to realize the public was
getting all the drama it wanted from television, and that what
it wanted from the more companionable relationship with radio
was relaxation. Which meant music. The lucrative teen market
wanted music programs like Your Hit Parade and American Bandstand,
which showcased the popular songs of the day. Using data from
jukeboxes and billboard charts to work out which songs people
wanted to hear most, they compiled them into playlists and used
them as the focus of radio programming. The size of the core
list was experimented with, and 40 was settled on as a good
number. A few stations began to play a small selection of songs,
focusing on the 40 most popular songs at the time, repeated
throughout the day. The first stations to try this were so successful
the practice spread quickly.
the idea of employing playlists began, radio stations could
use them as a tool to differentiate themselves and target different
markets. Playlist radio is now the dominant radio form, catering
to all kinds of market segments by changing the content of the
playlist, but leaving the fact of the playlist as an organizing
40 stations then, as now, played the hits of the day. Nostalgia
for the ‘50s in the ‘70s lead to the innovation
of ‘oldies’ stations, which played music from the
birth of rock ‘n’ roll onwards. What I’m calling
classic hits radio evolved in the ‘80s, excluding older
music like doo-wop and the newer music teenagers liked.
you may have guessed by now, the songs I want to remember and
the songs they play overlap a lot. For one reason or another,
I never spent much time listening to Gold FM until recently.
When I did, I was transfixed. The station played song after
song which I knew but had forgotten. Nothing locked me out,
because nothing was too obscure. I belonged here, I could tell.
I should have been happy, perhaps. Instead, it was like listening
to someone methodically telling me the ending to every movie
I was ever going to watch, and providing the answer to every
crossword I’d ever do. Part of me wanted to listen, because
part of me wanted to be reminded of what I had forgotten. A
puzzle is not nearly as much fun to do, however, when someone
else tells you the answer, and all I could think about when
listening to Gold FM was the lost chances to reconstruct my
memory of these songs for myself from fragments.
how can you remember -- for yourself, anyway -- what you never
get to forget? Listening to Gold FM is as if one is trapped
in an eternal present that is also the past, a present which
in fact never becomes the past, if by pas’ we mean not
immediately available now. The pleasure of recovery, as it applies
to songs, requires a musical culture which is constantly vanishing,
a cultural present always in the process of becoming a cultural
past. Which is to say it requires modernity.
to focus on something specific about modernity, which is how
we relate to lived time: the past and the present. To do this
I’m going to borrow Daniel Miller’s ideas in Modernity:
An Ethnographic Approach : Dualism and Mass Consumption in Trinidad
(Berg, 1994). In Modernity, Miller talks about two broad approaches
to lived time. The first, which I’ll call ‘traditional,’
sees the present as continuous with the past and the future.
When the present is the same stuff as the past and the future,
we make decisions on the basis of tradition, and actions are
legitimated in terms of how they reach back into history.
another way: in deciding how to act, we know we will do things
the way we have done things. The idea of rightness in actions
has a lot to do with tradition. When we think, for example,
of a certain way as the right way to make a cup of tea, or to
propose marriage, or to build a house, these things reach back
toward the past for their justification. (The past invoked by
the traditional mode need not be long-standing, or even real.
For the purposes of my argument what matters is the act of looking
back, not how old or reliable a tradition is as a matter of
call Miller’s second mode ‘modern.’ Miller’s
argument (which he borrows from Hegel by way of Habermas) is
that with the Reformation, the Renaissance and the discovery
of the New World, a new sense of ‘presentness’ arose.
In this mode, the present which we occupy is defined in opposition
to the past, and is seen as different to the past. Instead of
seeing the present as continuous with the past, we see a rupture
between the present and the past. Not only do we see a rupture,
but we perform it, and not once but over and over.
can see this rupture, and we perform it, in sentences of the
form ‘yes, it used to be believed that A, but we now know
that B.’ Science is a great agent for producing these
sentences, and performing this rupture, and so is fashion. Since
our present keeps changing we keep having to differentiate it
from recent presents, and the rupture has to be performed again
and again. We constantly differentiate ourselves and what we
think and what we wear and what we listen to from their equivalents
from the prior year. ‘That’s so 2009’ is a
perfect modern sentence, because it consigns something relatively
recent, which could otherwise be confused with the present,
to the past.
provides quite clear examples of this constant process of splitting
the present off from the past, but capitalism in general also
goes hand in hand with the modern approach to time. A capitalist
economy always needs new things to turn into products, and therefore
constantly needs and performs new kinds of justification which
break with tradition.
hits stations draw on both approaches to time. Their content
is rock music, music which was once important because of its
very newness and nowness, because it performed a break from
the past and encouraged us to keep performing this break, to
keep getting bored with what was and to keep seeking out what
comes next. Rock, after all, was the first music to fixate so
strongly on the idea of youth, and to lend itself to teenagers
as a tool for constantly differentiating themselves from their
this content is repeated more or less forever it becomes ritual
and liturgical, and the product of an earlier rupture becomes
the substance of a new tradition. My local classic hits station,
for example, plays the Boomtown Rats’ “I don’t
like Mondays” each Monday as if the station is keeping
I put it like that, it makes classic hits radio seem strange.
Perhaps the stranger thing is what I’ve come to take for
granted: the idea that there will always be new music, that
music of a few years ago belongs in the past, and that the only
way to recover it is through accidents of memory. My guess is
that for most of human history the songs in any given community
changed only slowly, and the songs we learned to love as children
were still around when we were adults and when we were old.
Before the incentive of capitalism, what reason was there to
throw away last year’s songs and make new ones, and to
keep doing this year after year? Before music could be written
down or otherwise recorded, how feasible would it have been
to do that anyway? If songs are only transmitted orally, there’s
no good reason to forget them, because as soon as they’re
forgotten they’re gone forever.
like this, classic hits radio is a manifestation of the ancient
oral cultural practices which never go away but rather interpenetrate
modern literate culture in all kinds of ways: children’s
superstitions and playground rhymes; urban legends; chain letters
and emails; stories which go on forever like those found in
Neighbours and Days Of Our Lives and Eastenders. When culture
is transmitted orally, repetition is good, change is gradual,
and the cultural moment is longer, measured in years rather
than days, decades rather than years.
more than any other medium I can think of, assigns different
parts of its spectrum to different relationships with time.
A big part of what we choose as we tune our radios now is what
relationship to history we want today. Over at this frequency
it’s 1945, here it’s 1955-75, over here it’s
1965-85 with brief eruptions of presentness, and over here it’s
an eternal present where the past is forgotten after just weeks
or months of air time.
in hand with any given playlist is a well defined community
of listeners, along with its relationship to time: the young,
perhaps, over at the top-40 station, or the retired over at
Radio for the Print Handicapped. Who doesn’t know international
hits like “Satisfaction?” Or “Penny Lane?”
The minor hits, on the other hand, link you to more closely
to space, through the songs which were only hits in your region
and/or demographic. Listen to the classic hits radio of your
hometown, or somewhere like it, and you know every song; nothing
shuts you out or jars your sensibilities. Sometimes the pleasure
of belonging makes up for never getting the pleasure of discovering
a new song or getting to suddenly remember an old one. Sometimes
belonging is more seductive than adventure.
the past is a different country, a country we’re forced
by the movement of history and the aging of our bodies to migrate
from, then classic hits radio takes you home. You belong, says
classic hits radio. You’re welcome here, here in your
memories, and you’ll always be welcome. As long as you
don’t mind living in the past.
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