The Changing Sounds of Musical Nostalgia

What musical element will cause someone who is currently fourteen or fifteen to wax nostalgic when they hear that same song in their thirties?
Record Player

I’ve been listening to The Radio Dept.‘s Clinging to a Scheme on a pretty regular basis lately, and it recently struck me that the reason I like it as much as I do — aside from having such great pop songs as “Heaven’s On Fire” and “David” — is the album’s production.

Production-wise, nearly every moment of the album is treated or enhanced with a nice layer of gauzy distortion and noise. And while distortion may bring to mind all manner of ear-shredding rawk songs, here it functions similarly to a light gaussian blur effect in Photoshop. Perhaps not so surprisingly, it’s not all that unlike the pops, hisses, and crackle that give vinyl recordings their warmth. (And no, let’s not turn this into a vinyl-vs-CD argument, okay?)

The songs’ edges become a little less distinct, and the lines demarcating the various elements within the songs — the vocals, the keyboards and programming, the guitars — are less than well-defined. This can best be heard on the band’s vocals, which adopt a “phoned in” quality that increases the sense of distance between the listener and record.

However, this increases the emotional impact of the album. The sonic fidelity of the songs — which sounds closer to that of vinyl releases than of any digital media — causes them to feel out of time. You feel less like you’re listening to a 2010 release and more like you’re listening to an obscure vinyl LP that came out twenty-five years ago and that has only recently been uncovered and released.* (The obvious love and affection that the band has for ’80s music — such as Sarah Records’s brand of noisy twee-pop — as well their melancholy, nostalgic lyrical themes, certainly adds to that feel as well.)

This is nothing new, of course: I’ve written about plenty of other bands that adopt a similar aesthetic. But it hit me that perhaps the reason that this aesthetic is so effective for me is that I know what vinyl recordings sound like. I grew up listening to vinyl and started getting into music right before CDs became mainstream. As such, the pops, hisses, and crackle of vinyl have worked their way into my subconscious. Any time I hear something that remotely resembles those sounds, that part of my brain gets a little extra jolt that unlocks the random memories associated with the era in which I first heard them. Which only increases the emotional impact of the music that triggered the response. (And in the case of The Radio Dept., that jives quite nicely with their aforementioned nostalgic bent.)

All of that is to say, I wonder if the music has the same impact for someone who didn’t grow up with vinyl as their first foray into music — say someone born in the late ’80s. They may still enjoy Clinging to a Scheme, and they might find the fuzzed out recording style cool and interesting, but does it have the same emotional effect? What’s more, what might be the sonic effects, styles, and tropes that conjure up an emotional, nostalgic response for them, or for someone who is even younger?

(I’m not referring to genres or styles here. Rather, I’m referring to those things that — either intentionally or unintentionally — color a song. It could be a production or recording technique or a particular guitar effect, something that isn’t really part of the song the way the melody or the lyrics are, but is nevertheless part of the song. It’s something that shapes and informs the song, sometimes to the extent that we could never imagine, if only subconsciously, the song without it.)

What musical element will cause someone who is currently fourteen or fifteen to wax nostalgic when they hear that same song in their thirties? Or, to put it another way, what, musically, is shaping the memories of tweens today that will make them reminisce and perhaps even grow a little misty-eyed when they hear it two or three decades from now? Instead of the pops, hisses, and crackle of vinyl, will it be the pops, hisses, and crackle of the low-quality MP3s that they downloaded from one source or another, or in the music stream that they heard on some social networking site? Or something else entirely?

* — Back in 2006, I wrote about a similar experience I had while watching The Secret Rivals, an old kung fu movie whose DVD release’s video quality is incredibly poor but which adds a curious form of realism to the movie.

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