Grease Is The Word

–Steve Wright

If by chance you hear a song you like that is more than three years old and you give a shit about music then you will likely experience an emotion or memory that could be considered “nostalgic.”  Big whoop say you – it’s no revelation that a song, like a sound, taste or smell, can evoke memories and emotions of a particular time or event from your past for which it was the “background music”, playing on the car stereo or at the party or however.  Nor might you be unfamiliar with the experience of what we could call a “misplaced cultural nostalgia,” wherein a song, movie or book concerning a time before you were born evokes a similarly powerful yearning for an idealized but truly unknown past.  Classic rock albums like Sticky Fingers, Abbey Road and The Wall can still conjure the naively idiotic wish that I had lived during those times, when things were artistically and politically “exciting.”  More recently we can recognize that Radiohead has been ringing a sulky post-1968 Commune, pre-9/11 bell of gloom since 1995’s The Bends:  “where do we go from here?  I wish it was the Sixties… I wish I wish I wish that something would happen.”  The point often made about cultural nostalgia is that, like science fiction and other fantasy, it imagines a utopia that never existed and supposes a highly undesirable present.  Academics go further to paint nostalgia as a reflex that is usually conservative, male, negative and potentially fascistic, and despite their tendency to level these (redundant?) criticisms at almost everything, for nostalgia these readings often apply pretty well.

In thinking about contemporary music that can get me all misty-eyed – the increasingly fractured and web-dependent underground British and North American rock of the mid-to-late-1990s and the 2000s – I wonder if the nostalgia evoked here has any wider currency or cultural meaning?  Would the songs in question evoke similar associations or “memories” for any significant number of people, or will their histories be lost amongst a thousand others in a time of ever-multiplying trends and the fracturing of shared experience?  Will there be a shared or “classic” set of standards for the 2000s and beyond (assuming the force-fed shit like Hinder and Beyonce will join Donnie & Marie in the cultural dustbin)?  What will people drunkenly slur together in Big Chill moments or at sporting events?  Can one feel nostalgic for ironic or post-ironic music when nostalgia depends on idealized belief and irony plays in knowingly deceptive discordances?  A shared nostalgia seems necessary to legitimize our interests and identities, both past and present.

While pop songs and the cultures they represent are shared experiences, the emotional reactions evoked hold a power that feels quite personal.  Wikipedia notes the word nostalgia is “made up of two Greek roots nostos “returning home”, and algos “pain”… to refer to “the pain a sick person feels because he wishes to return to his native home, and fears never to see it again.””  The emotions and ideals here are personal and universal, and this duality separates the manifestation of nostalgia for a certain time from the memories of a particular individual, and rather suggests that nostalgia is a kind of group memory (or delusion).  Wikipedia also mentions in its definitions of nostalgia the concept of “”far sickness”… the longing to be far away” – the utopian negative of cultural nostalgia akin to science fiction or fantasy – and also connects nostalgia to Romanticism and literary melancholy, modes that seem incompatible with the irony of the last 30 years.   In connecting nostalgia with irony, it is important to clarify what is meant by “irony”.   Nostalgia in pop music is often addressed with verbal irony – the intentional discongruency between what is said, meant and understood – as such music is full of lyrics that aren’t particularly concerned with narrative, but other types of irony can also mix with nostalgia, including dramatic irony (where one knows something another does not) and situational irony (where an actual result is the opposite of the expected result).  Linda Hutcheon argues for a dynamic between nostalgia and irony in that irony enables nostalgia: “perhaps irony is one (though only one) of the means… to create the necessary distance and perspective on that anti-amnesiac drive [nostalgia].”  Certainly the post-ironic rock of the mid- to late- Nineties and beyond that is so proudly “honest” – popular emo and some types of late-indie – invites the nostalgic impulse while remaining thoroughly reflexive and self-aware.  The evocation of nostalgia by the merely ironic music of early alternative and indie rock, in their respective presents of the late 1980s and early 1990s (as opposed to the nostalgia of hearing these now in the late 2000s), is more difficult to recognize as these songs are often so negative and sarcastic.

Let’s consider the music, lyrics and attitude of 1995’s “Nostalgia” by the Archers of Loaf as an example.  Despite the title it is difficult to image this defiantly ironic song evoking nostalgia in any genuine way.  The title and chorus hail the topic head-on with a knowing antagonism, and the verses address nostalgia in metaphoric then reflexive terms, creating moments of verbal and dramatic irony:

I’ve got the skin of a shark

and I’m gonna make a muscle

just holding onto filth

of the pornographic slut

I’ve got an ill will

and a pair of brass knuckles

cutting through ribs

it’s a tour de force


all from the grease

‘cause grease is the word

and I’m never never sure

but I’m sure you’re never right

it’s the secret agent man

and a cartoon hero

gamble and a Rambo with a capital R

The obtuse commentary in the verses “writes around” the topic in the manner of language poetry, dropping visceral but disjointed images – both verbally ironic methods.  The subjects in the first verse seem vaguely symbolic or archetypal:  “the pornographic slut,” the shark, brass knuckles, the cutting of ribs.  A listener familiar with Bachman’s lyrical point of view as an Archer of Loaf might hear “Nostalgia” as another dissatisfied blast at mass media culture, perhaps even recognizing “the pornographic slut” as Madonna, then a principal in the Maverick record label that unsuccessfully attempted to sign the Archers of Loaf around the time of Vee Vee’s release in 1995.  The second verse continues with the floating archetypes and unidentified first and second persons, though the anti-major label trope may continue if the first person secret-agent-man-cartoon-hero is understood to be Bachman / the Archers taking “a gamble” by turning down the overbearing advances of the major-label-Madonna-Maverick-Rambo.  This rebuff of a major label offer by a minor-league band certainly is the opposite of music biz expectations and so provides a layer of situational irony as well.  Even a dramatic irony is at work here as Bachman confounds the listener by painting an emotionally charged scene but not revealing the players’ identities.

The eras “Nostalgia” addresses through these ironies are treated with classic punk vitriol.  The second verse’s evocations of 1978’s Grease and 1985’s Rambo:  First Blood Part Two come off as particularly contemptuous as such reflexive lyrical references to pop culture phenomena were still fairly unusual by the mid-Nineties.  The mention of one of the most nostalgic movies about the 1950s ever made is immediately followed by a lyric lifted from the disco-inflected chorus of the film’s title track (“Grease is the word”), neatly connecting the 1950s and the Fifties retro craze that emerged in the late Seventies.  Similarly the Rambo reference ties together the Eighties and the Sixties as the Rambo films concerned prisoners from the Vietnam War and sought to glorify the U.S. military adventures of the 1980s.  The Grease allusions suggest a vast contrast of musical artistry and authenticity between both the bands and their respective eras, highlighting the sonic and emotional differences between the smooth feel-good dance music of the Bee Gees and the rough noise of the Archer’s indie rock.  “Nostalgia”’s Grease quote is a powerful diagetic rupture that forces the listener to self-consciously consider the songs and eras in question, the mechanisms and value of nostalgia, and the very act of listening itself.  “Nostalgia”’s ironic treatment of the topic provides space for nostalgia as Hutcheon suggests, so that nostalgia now becomes the object of irony’s acid that strips the idealized sheen to expose clichéd regression.  “Nostalgia”’s music mirrors its conceptual abrasion in its pounding atonality, which takes on a Rambo-esque brutality rarely reached by the Archers, a band noted for grafting detuned guitar lines onto traditional pop and punk song structures.  As a single song, “Nostalgia” deploys an arsenal of ironies in what appears to be an attempt to denigrate its subject and the pop products that deploy it so obviously.

However, “Nostalgia”’s ultimate function (ironically enough) is to actually highlight the inherent nostalgia of Vee Vee and perhaps the entire wiseass indie rock endeavor, for as a fairly straight punk screed the song contrasts mightily with the moody and often ballad-like formats of the rest of the album’s tracks and is virtually alone in its apparently lack of nostalgic affect.  Most of Vee Vee’s tone and content are steeped in nostalgia.  “Step Into The Light” is a slow gospel hymn that’s “so tired of being in the dark and all alone.”  “Nevermind The Enemy,” suggests “Let’s raise the glass / Let’s peel the eyelids back / And toast them / …we’ll watch our heroes trip and fall” in minor keys and stumbling melodies.  The ballad “Greatest of All Time” mourns the lynching of “the front man of the world’s worst rock and roll band” as the populace is “reminiscing just how bad he sucked”.  Another ballad “Floating Friends” laments “All of my friends have floated away…just like the old ones, / Just like the times before.”  “1985” is basically a church organ solo whose title speaks for itself.  “Let The Loser Melt” remembers that “The first time / Was the worst time / The second time / Was worse than the first / The last time was a great crime / On all things, great and small… It was just a rut.”  “Death In The Park” again features bittersweet progressions and wry remarks like “It’s always the same people / Pissing the same people off.”  Placed in the middle of a pre-mp3-era indie album (when albums were played straight through rather than diced into singles or mixes), “Nostalgia” reveals rather than destroys the nostalgic impulse in indie rock.

This “dirty secret” version of nostalgia – indie rock’s darker, distopic, wise-assed yet regret-tinged one – is at work in many of the indie-era classics:  Pavement’s “Summer Girl”, Superchunk’s “The First Part”, The Postal Service’s “The District Sleeps Tonight”, etc., etc.  Yet distopic themes can be found in earlier non-ironic music as well.  Even “Grease” mixes a fairly dim view of existence with optimism:  “This is a life of illusion, a life of control / Mixed with confusion – what’re we doin’ here? / We take the pressure, and we throw away / conventionality, belongs to yesterday / There is a chance that we can make it so far / We start believin’ now that we can be who we are.”  If we can recognize that nostalgia functions in all modes of rock and pop-oriented music, even recent ironic and oppositional forms, then we see that these forms actually enable (or grease) nostalgia so that smart-than-thou hipsters can swallow, pass it through the system, and perhaps even secretly enjoy the sentiment.  And on the gut level, doesn’t all music need to evoke nostalgia in order to guarantee repeated listens for the long-term, even music that portrays itself as smarter than all that?

It’s a bit hard to take, though.  That irony enables nostalgia in “smart” underground music seems a betrayal somehow.  As a universal emotion, perhaps nostalgia is the first fine flaw that eventually leads to the classic scene-destroying rift; namely, the detachment of a music’s initial social and political intentions from its final popularly-recognized cannon.  Marcel Danesi argues “almost the instant they come out, musical trends pass unnoticed into the realm of nostalgia” (Danesi 148). While the “pop” music he disparages is the assembled corporate product rather than underground music, it is interesting to ponder the possible acceleration of a scene’s decay in the ever-widening, ever-quickening availability of independent music, and/or the failure to launch of talented bands into even a middling level of underground recognition.  Danesi imagines this dynamic to be the end of popular music as we know it;  “there just may be too many actors on the pop culture stage for any specific type of performance to catch on broadly.  So, if there are any trends in pop culture and music today they are largely negative ones… The pop culture experiment of the past 150 years is on the verge of disappearing completely or else is morphing into a new form that will differ radically from its historical paradigm” (Danesi 147).  A wholesale disappearance may be possible, but acts do occasionally “cross over”, though much more rarely (Modest Mouse or Coldplay arguably).  The morphing of popular culture into new forms and systems seems more likely.  The appearance of an MIA song in a major movie trailer, a Nick Drake tune in a car ad, or an Of Montreal’s hit in an Outback Steakhouse jingle no doubt indicates a new paradigm, where an artist may be unknown popularly but has his/her music enter the above-ground consciousness with an entirely different meaning than the original / underground one(s) – an ironic dynamic to be sure, one we might recognize as an “accelerated nostalgia” where we wryly mourn (or celebrate?) the immediate commercialization of the latest thing as we share a bloomin’ onion with the dipshit who “LOVES that Outback song!”


“Irony, Nostalgia, and the Postmodern”

Linda Hutcheon, Ph.D., University of Toronto

Popular Culture: Introductory Perspectives

By Marcel Danesi

Published by Rowman & Littlefield, 2007

ISBN 074255547X, 9780742555471

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