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Nostalgia and the politics of reaction


Some scattered thoughts on the occasion of Mick Jagger’s 75th birthday:

The first Rolling Stones album I ever heard in its entirety was Some Girls.  I was 18 in the summer of 1978, and nobody I knew was a Stones fan, as even then — forty years ago! — the band was considered something of a relic from a bygone era, i.e., “the Sixties” (at that age of course a decade earlier is an immense expanse of time, that’s not on your side, and waits for no one).

My knowledge of the band consisted of having heard a half dozen different songs very occasionally on the radio — this was before the classic rock format existed, if you kids can imagine such a state of affairs.  I also remember reading a review in 1973 of Mick Jagger’s 30th birthday party concert (at Madison Square Garden maybe?), in which the writer snipped that the Stones hadn’t really made a good album since Beggar’s Banquet five years earlier.

Anyway . . . Some Girls was greeted as a “comeback album” by many critics, which made it an odd introduction to the band for someone who had no idea where they were coming back from, exactly.  Forty years later, there are days when I would still rank it as their fifth-best album (the top four being in chronological order Beggar’s Banquet, Let it Bleed, Sticky Fingers, and Exile on Main Street), although I wonder if that’s because of the nostalgia effect of having found it first.

The Stones have spent the last forty years being a tribute band to themselves, which is perfectly fine, but also a little sad, in the way that do you remember when is always a little sad.

Which brings me to the nature of nostalgia, and its relationship to the politics of reaction.  Make America Great Again is a perfect four-word encapsulation of the explicitly reactionary politics that have taken over the Republican party, and, for the time being, all branches of the federal government.  Reactionary politics are, among other things, an expression of a profound psychological sense that things are bad and used to be much better.  That sense, I think, is linked intimately to the experience of nostalgia as a kind of baseline or background emotion, that is central to the lives of so many people.

Without wanting to be flip or trivializing, I’m struck by the extent to which Youtube comments reflect the pervasiveness of this sentiment.  Look up the comments to any popular song from a generation ago, and you’re almost certain to find the following opinions without looking very hard:

(1) This is what real music sounds like.

(2) Why can’t they make anything like this today?

(3) Justin Bieber sucks.

In regard to the last point, I have no idea why Justin Bieber, whose oeuvre is completely unknown to me, has become the whipping boy for Youtube nostalgia mongers, but he’s referenced as regularly by them as Neville Chamberlain is referenced by right wing warmongers.

Now it’s not very mysterious why these opinions are so common, and it has nothing to do with the supposed decline of the quality of popular music.  Old people remember the past fondly because of course life was better then — because they weren’t old.   So old people as a group are particularly vulnerable to the blandishments of reactionary demagogues.

The invidious synergy here between nostalgia, racism, and sexism, is obvious: Donald Trump’s entire political message could be summed up as the claim that things were better when white men ran everything.  That’s what Make America Great Again means as a functional matter.

But this invidious synergy can be found in all sorts of places besides the most obvious ones.  Every time someone writes a column about the good old days, that’s a campaign ad for Donald Trump, practically speaking.

Happy birthday Mick.


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