Joe Sparrow : Embrace nostalgia carefully to build the community you love (and thought you’d lost)

If the past is a foreign country, as L. P. Hartley said, then the nitty-gritty of what happened – the conversations, the opinions, the mindless trivia – live in a dusty cabinet in the furthest corner of a foreign museum. This is the stuff that’s ignored, lost and forgotten by most, but the devoted will work their way down the corridors to peer through the glass just one more time. 

This is nostalgia.

Nostalgia is revitalising. Or nostalgia is dangerous. Nostalgia is like drinking: a little at the right time can lift the spirits and reconnect your ego with your values, your past joys and triumphs. Too much, too often, is deadly to your vitality, muffling your connection with now, and stifling happiness. That is also nostalgia.

When we look backwards, it’s only natural that we see the landmark events, and skip from one to another to design the simplest story which lets us understand how things happened back then. Life’s too big to stop and sift through all the ins and outs of every conversation that happened.

Or is it? 

To extend the tortured museum metaphor, we’re all highly-knowledgable expert curators of a very, very specific niche in the Museum of Everything. Your niche can be whatever you like: the various haircuts sported by J-Hope from BTS,  the Automeris subfamily of moths, late Victorian-era Canadian Anglican bishops, the early records by Swedish recording artist Robyn, whatever. 

In these areas, we find the chit-chat, the debate, the details, the minutiae, innately fascinating. This is also nostalgia.

True nostalgia is a prism to view a very personal past that reveals the path to our very personal future.

Revelling in the minutiae of your niche, done right, is the good kind of nostalgia. And reader, I indulged. 

Feeling slowed down to a crawl by the lumbering weight of an extended period of hard work, I self-prescribed a strategic slice of nostalgia, and bought, for €2.90, the July 1st, 1995 issue of Melody Maker, the deceased UK music weekly newspaper. It came in the post, two days later, in a plastic wrapper. It had never been read. It still smelled, faintly, of new ink.

A reminder: good nostalgia is *niche*. I don’t need to justify this purchase. 

The Melody Maker doesn’t mean much to most people any more. A weekly music newspaper that always lingered in the shadow of its more famous rival the NME, the Melody Maker’s wiki page is now a whistle-stop summation of a 75-year publication. 

But, every Thursday between the years of about 1995 and 1999, I would walk to school or college a slightly different route, in order to pass a particular newsagent who received their delivery of ‘Makers in the morning, and I’d lift an inky copy off the pile, plop 75p down on the counter, and head to school, reading the first few pages on the way.

(See – that’s a nostalgic passage right there. No mention of the rain that accompanied the walk, no mention of the dreaded rugby game that awaited on Thursday mornings, no teenage angst, nothing. Nostalgia is an escape drug, remember.)

A quick eulogy follows for the Melody Maker.

I guess I chose to read the Melody Maker partly because it wasn’t the NME, and partly because it was a grab-bag of contradictions. It openly criticised the bands that I loved (the scathing review of Oasis’s “What’s The Story…,” ended with the words, “they sound knackered,” and I went out and bought it anyway), yet it still had all the interviews and photos of these same bands that I hankered after, because the paper knew which side their bread was buttered. 

Writers like Simon Price, Neil Kulkarni, Everett True et al were outspoken, and disagreed with each other in amusingly colourful language. The articles took every opportunity to divert me from the drudge of the new Meanswe@r single to the visceral thrills of then-emerging music like jungle, “speed garage” and US hip-hop. (The best-reviewed album on 1st July 1995 was Mobb Deep’s brilliant “The Infamous”, an LP that had, until yesterday, escaped my ears for 23 years.)

In short, Melody Maker immediately shaped my teenage years, how I viewed the thing I loved most – music – and, because of that, the rest of my life. 

Now, in an age when I receive music news and reviews from a million different drab sources, weekly music newspapers are an antiquity. In 1995, it was one of a small handful of sources for music news: two weekly newspapers, a few monthly mags, and a scattering of trusted radio shows.

Re-reading Melody Maker now reveals the pros and cons of this one-stop shop. 

On one hand, everything is in one place, curated by thoughtful experts with strong opinions, and with a remit to keep exploring for me, the reader. It’s funny, informed, and feels true.

On the other hand, where are the unfiltered voices that we now hear loudest of all via social media – those of of the artists and the listeners? Where is the unfettered opportunity for each and every DIY artist to promote themselves on an equal footing without becoming part of the machine? 

You can choose which of the above is the “pro” and which is the “con”.

The other thing I learnt by re-reading MM through adult eyes is that it was written with the various communities it served in mind. 

It was written not to merely scratch the itch of the new, but to nurture the lives of groups of people, to stretch them, to change them – because that’s how communities work. They revel in a central passion, and mutate and grow. The MM made readers part of one or more of the gangs represented in its pages.

Today, extreme capitalism has won: we’re all atomised from each other, and everything we say or do is expected to be as a lone individual. Caveat Emptor. Doing things for a community – any community – is not de rigeuer. Communities are about togetherness – and fear is more easily monetisable. Social media influencers shilling slim-tummy teas and appetite-suppressant lollipops are not about togetherness.

Yet nostalgia is, above all, a warm feeling of connection to a clique of people who think and feel like us, and allow us to rail against the normies with our mutual fascination of something that’s ours. Nostalgia allows this: it’s safe, it’s already happened, the contemporary details can be parsed and defined. In the right doses, it’s guaranteed pleasure.

And this is where the details become important. My Melody Maker contained gossip, photos, chatter, bickering and tiny nuggets of period info that you can’t find anywhere else. Their importance felt vital on July 1st 1995, but not in the fullness of time: they have been rightly edited from the bigger story of the period. 

Except… that they were all utterly fascinating to me when reading them today, and would be to anyone else who’d feel the thrill of discovering the first printed mention of a “new song” by Pulp called “Sorted For E’s And Whizz”, complete with mis-heard lyrics, buried in a brief review of Pulp’s now-famed 1995 Glastonbury set.

Nostalgia is a drug. We shouldn’t have too much. But also: everything in moderation, including moderation. Nostalgia is re-living the excitement of when passions were new. And the excitement felt around new passions is the feeling of nostalgia years before it becomes so.

You’re building your future nostalgia right now without realising which parts you’ll be nostalgic for. In that way, nostalgia is happened today, while you’re *holistically living in the moment*, not just when you’re looking back.

And the excitement of nostalgia really does require people to be excited with, however loosely, however remotely. So where do we go to be nostalgic with our gang today? Social media allows us to shout into the wind in the hope that we’ll connect with people like us, but does it really work?

Social media also shoots new looks, ideas, and bandwagons instantly to every place on earth, and it enforces a worldwide smoothing of cultural foibles. It’s hard to imagine a niche music/social scene like – god help us – Grebo happening now, because it’s easier to define yourself by pushing against a small-town local scene than against the global MOR-cabal. 

Social media weaponises nostalgia – but this is not good nostalgia, because good nostalgia is defined by the community that loves Niche Thing X. Nostalgia defined by the gang becomes about an investment of time and money as a consequence. If commerce uses nostalgia as a sales tool, the tail is wagging the dog.

We can reclaim nostalgia for us. But it requires the communities to scrape everything into a pile. Music nostalgia, for instance, is scattered wide across the internet and beyond: tit-bits buried in obscure fan forums; borderline-conspiracy-theory deep-dives shoved into fan-sites that haven’t been updated since 2006; illegal scans of out-of-print books and magazines tweeted and forgotten about; sub-pub-quiz-trivia permanently and uselessly etched in people’s brains.

Everything is out there: the scattered gang members, the desire for a pleasurable wallow, the snippets and tit-bits and chatter, the excitement about springing from our established passions to similar-but-different new ones. 

Bringing it together requires treating music and books and movies differently: each item a narrowband channel that encourages wider exploration. The details of the past can be brought around the object – all the trivia described above could be pinned to the song itself; a totem pole of context, of excitement, of nostalgia. 

Then the community can rally around the thing they love – and jump into the future, together, confident and fulfilled.