Nostalgia may be cheap, but none-the-less, we feel it. Perhaps by “cheap,” we mean “common,” and if so, should artists always flee that, the common experience? Interrogating the common may verge on an obligation in many answers to that question. What is it in our mundane experience that we may share with others, that we can bring something else to?
Here’s an attempt I made a few years ago to do that, accompanied by some music I wrote and performed earlier this year. I think it’s an example of some principles and risks in this approach. What are they?
How common is your common? On one hand we often enjoy and seek out the exotic, and art can help us explore that too. I’ve spoken here before about how the exoticism of some of Keats attracted me as a teenager, and the strangeness of Surrealism and the gnomic statements of Wallace Stevens attracted me before I could understand all that they were on about. But just as well we may be attracted as readers and listeners to things that speak to our own parochial experiences. Why would we read or listen to work about ourselves? Are we hoping to learn something just beyond what we already know? Or is it, as it was once said about the readers of small-town newspapers, that they’re read by the townspeople to see what the editor missed?
In these ways you may be helped if your common is shared by a lot of people, who know they share that commonness, or it may be best if your experience is novel enough to not be very common at all, and where the attraction is that common human motivation: curiosity.
How important is your common? Some works spend a good deal of effort making the case that the reader or listener is wrong in not thinking that the common experience the creator is examining is important. Others have a lighter load to lift: those who’ve witnessed momentous events or taken part in widely recognized essential activities.
The degree of difficulty for the former is considerable. You may bore your reader or listener with making your case for the value of the seeming unimportant—or not make your case vividly enough and have them give up with a “who cares” shrug.
Why would one then choose to explore something generally considered unimportant? Well, a good deal of art doubts hierarchies of experience. Societies invest a lot in hierarchies, and artists like to overthrow them. Societies are often wrong, cruelly wrong sometimes, in those constructs. Artists aren’t always right in their alternatives, or completely right, but we are tempted by angels and devils to try.
Back in 1973 I hosted a visiting German artist in New York. The musical souvenir he was bringing home was a copy of Charlie Daniels’ “Uneasy Rider,” a novelty hit single about a long hair at a redneck bar.** German appreciation of American music was it’s own approximation. This picture: “Rules of the Game” is by Renée Robbins, taken in Iowa in 1977. The player in it seemed sort of Charlie Daniels-ish to me.
What do you bring to this common experience? Why does your expression, your examination of some common experience need to exist? As a matter of political and social persuasion, the second dozen or even the second hundred similar account of a similar experience and evaluation of it may add weight to the scales of attention or justice. An atrocity like George Floyd’s needless death gains some of its power and value not because it’s unique, but because it’s not. It’s not the first or the second, or the hundred and first. We ask, we view, in a way that it be considered as if it’s the first, as if it’s an only. We ask too, fervently, that it be considered as if it should be the last. But in the world of the arts, of chosen creation, we have a burden in making the same point over again worthwhile.
But of course, we do take up this challenge. How many poems, how many songs are about the flush of love and desire? How many works of art are about the absences of death? By some accounts, all of them that are any good. I think there’s a great middle range between love and death that is open too to artistic expression, the range of how we see, feel, hear experience between those two poles. It may seem trivial compared to the existential fact of death or the powerful urge of joined fertility—but great or small, your charge is to bring something else to this common experience large or small, call it beauty, call it a frame, call it music, call it a vibration that we can feel together.
Now, let me exit the high falutin and get down to today’s piece and see how I dealt with an element of my common in “Small Iowa Town, after World War Two.”
I had my own mondegreen moment listing to this today. I heard myself saying in line 23-24 “Seeing the storefronts in their row inhaling silently the adults…” instead of what I wrote above. I may keep the unintended revision.
First off, the subject matter is problematic. The experience I speak of here is shared by few even of my age cohort, and every day by fewer, as older generations pass on. Yet, it also has little appeal of exoticism. In my grandfather’s time and before this culture, the small rural American town, was common, and a considerable amount of art (much of it not high-art, and much that was aimed at the cultured market was critical) dealt with it. As I said in starting this post, a sentimental or wistful nostalgia is considered cheap and if it’s also not even considered common to the reader/listener, there’s no path to success.
I will note that I consider the experiences I recount in this piece as exotic. I’ve spent over half a century away from it, it seems strange/familiar to me now, an unusual construction. I make in my defense a common plea of the artist being accused of trafficking in cheap nostalgia: I’m really talking about how memory, change and experience work.
Is it important? I’m not sure. That I’m writing this generalized essay says that I doubt you will think it so. I plowed this field early in this project with one of the least popular pieces ever presented here: “Homeopathic Hometown,” and this may not fare any better. I plead the audacity of the artist that wants to tilt at hierarchies of importance.
Right now there’s a good deal of mistrust in America between the generalized* remaining rural citizens and it’s urban and suburban centers. Even though I’ve been away from small-town Iowa for so long, I can understand loss and aggrievement.
So, what can I, what did I, bring to this problematic subject to make it worthwhile? I tried to talk about the strangeness of the change, that part I find exotic, that far-away world that assumed permanence of a kind. I leaned on the slowly evolving music a good deal today. As in “Homeopathic Hometown” there’s a linkage that I feel viscerally between a certain kind of German music of the late 1960s through about 1990 or so, a melding of the then new synthesizer sounds with a particular European interpretation of progressive rock music, and my experience of these changed small towns. When I listen to the Bowie Berlin trilogy I get nostalgic not for a Berlin I’ve never known, but for a rural Iowa I think I know. It’s one of those odd links I can’t quite explain, but feel. Long rolling songs about long rolling hills and valleys. Small as a palpable absence. Grant Wood as a German Expressionist.
The player gadget to hear “Small Iowa Town, after World War Two” is below. It’s a bit longer than most things here, but I had to give it some time so the music could expand. Perhaps the music will work even if the words don’t succeed.
*Well, there’s a good deal of mistrust, period. And the residents of country and remaining small towns are not monolithic stereotypes. They weren’t then, and they aren’t now—and nobody likes to be reduced to a type—but generalizations of a divide and a mutual dislike and attribution of bad motives aren’t baseless.
**At the conclusion of the song, singer Daniels states that he wishes he’d taken his misbegotten car trip west on a route (across Iowa) through Omaha instead of through Mississippi.