(See follow-up post here.)
There is a bind in which not every generation has found itself, though the one I know best certainly has: one is, in respect of music, caught between the Scylla of trying too hard to stay with it, and the Charybdis of ridiculous nostalgia for that period of life when one did not have to try at all.
How much longer will we have to listen to the cries of melancholy longing of those now pushing 40: a longing for a more authentic time, in which something we now call 'eighties music' held us all together, forged us, made us better than the current crop of manipulated stooges with their ephemeral junk? The problem with this way of remembering things is that it wasn't 'eighties music' at the time, and it didn't hold us together. It was mostly garbage, just like today; and just like today it had, seen from the inside, internal contours and divisions that made it entirely impossible to think of it all as belonging to the same decadal genus.
That is a first point: that you are simply misremembering when you hear The Cure in some public place, perhaps on a Lite FM station while waiting at the dentist's office, and you announce: I love '80s music! A second point is that no one cares, and, worse, you're embarrassing yourself. To say 'I love '80s music' might have a different semantics than 'I'm pushing 40', but out of your mouth, dear coeval, it is pragmatically exactly the same.
What is the alternative? Well, you can try to stay au courant. You can do the 2010 equivalent of what Houellebecq's protagonist did in Le plateforme, just seven or eight years ago, when he stretched a Radiohead t-shirt, having never listened to Radiohead, over his 40-year-old gut. Hell, if you are really unconcerned with maintaining credibility you can just try it with a Radiohead shirt today and see what happens. You can try to get tips from your younger coworkers or from your students about local bands or about obscure imports. As if anything had to be 'imported' anymore! You can try your best to overlook the fact that you will always remain rooted in a now defunct system, in which music was an object that could be collected, owned, and traded, rather than something whose tokens might be gleaned as desired out of the universal storehouse of the Internet.
Until about 2002 or 2003, I remained intent on keeping abreast of things. I knew that such-and-such record label was based in Berlin, such-and-such other somewhere else. I knew that such-and-such subgenre of techno had spawned such-and-such subsubgenres. I read a print magazine (!) called Wire or The Wire, not to be confused with similarly titled tech magazine, band, or TV show, which served as a sort of cheat-sheet for the memorization of in-group shibboleths. What I took at that time for a sudden, rapid increase in connoisseurship was in fact only a death throe: a final, desperate, farcical attempt to remain with it.
Don't tell me you haven't had a similar moment, observing either yourself or your aging friends, when you stop and you think to yourself: this can't go on. I remember getting into the car of a somewhat older German friend, circa 1995. He put in a cassette of the Stereo MCs: you remember, that English bald guy and his entourage who proposed to 'take you higher'. I thought: well, this is fine, fitting music for a car trip. I visited him again, five years later. We got into his car and he asked: "Do you know the Stereo MCs?" as he, to his mind smoothly, popped in exactly the same cassette (the year was now 2000!). I saw him again in 2003, and again the same thing. We have not seen each other since (as I am learning, the neural and/or hormonal need for enduring friendship dulls right along with the one for musical discovery), but I suspect that he is either still lazily putting on the Stereo MCs to entertain the occasional visitor, or that he is dead. His was a particularly severe case of the general syndrome I am discussing, even if his symptoms were in some sense the opposite of mine: the aging music listener who is simply too uninspired to make any new discoveries, and so places a particular moment, associated in his imagination with his early twenties, on perpetual repeat.
So I can neither freeze a moment in time and cling to it, nor can I move along with the flow of time. What then is left? There is only one thing to do, and that is to go back in time. You cannot accuse me of clinging to my past if I listen to a compilation of Appalachian jug-and-washboard music from the 1920s. I'm clinging to the past in general, and it's a past that belongs just as much to someone born in 1990 as it does to someone born in 1970, even if the junior heir is not yet aware of this. When he becomes aware, I will know vastly more than he does, and I will, if supplicated, consent to initiate him.
There is something slightly pathetic and awkward about this strategy, too: something misanthropic and cranky in an R. Crumb sort of way. Something that, just like the other two options, no doubt is going to make the young people cringe. One is by definition out of step with one's era in caring about the past at all: this much I know all too well from my interest, in my professional life, in things people said and cared about in the 17th century.
Recording technology stretches back only to the late 19th century, so here there is an absolute limit to how far back one can go in one's depersonalized encyclopedic approach to music connoisseurship. Towards this limit is where I choose to linger, seeking out popular music set down by recording technology between 1895 and 1972, and the older the better. As an aesthetic, this is a sort of primitivism: what is prized is low-fidelity, zero production value, recordings of people who do not know they are being recorded, or who don't really understand what recording is.
Following upon one of my recent, categorical denunciations of sports, some readers got the idea that, if I am not a sports fan, the only other possibility is that I am in every respect a snob, which, they believed, must include a passion for classical music. They could not be more mistaken. Other than Lieder, which already straddle the boundary, I am entirely on the side of what some German sociologist helpfully called U-Kultur, that is, Unterhaltungskultur or 'entertainment culture', in contrast with E-Kultur, Ernstkultur or 'real culture'. What this distinction misses however is the fundamental difference between the encyclopedist's or the archaeologist's approach to the totality of U-Kultur's past, on the one hand, and the idolater's approach to some tiny sliver of this past on the other, a sliver that happens to coincide with his or her adolescence, and which he or she ignorantly takes to be a singular moment of greatness in a past that is otherwise unworthy of attention.
I maintain that only an encyclopedic-archaeological turn can save an aging person's attachment to popular culture from descending into ridiculousness. Though far better, of course, would be to simply not age at all, and to continue to be able to listen to music with immediacy.