The Illusion of Permanence

April 18, 2007

On the Appeal of the Hold Steady

Filed under: Music — s. @ 7:43 pm

I like the Hold Steady. I’ve seen them live several times, and I own all of their albums. There is something kind of surprising about their success though. I think it has to do with the nostalgic, backward looking nature of the music. There is plenty of backward looking music around — utterly derivative bands like the White Stripes and Interpol jump to mind– but that’s not the kind of backward looking I mean. The sense of nostalgia that the Hold Steady trigger has more in common with a lot of modern Country-Pop music. Rather than a nostalgia for a style of music it is a combination of music and lyrics the conjure up a fictional past that engages not with the childhood that the audience actually had, but with the childhood they fantasize about having had.

Obviously the Hold Steady and the Country-Pop music of artists like Shania Twain are significantly different. The past that Country-Pop conjures up is a sort of fictional, innocent, small town that the listeners wish they had grown up in. A time of strawberry wine and tractors, when apparently all young people ever did was skinny dip and happily and innocently fuck in haystacks. Evidently imagining this kind of past appeals to the fans of Country-Pop despite, or indeed perhaps because of, its lack of connection to the reality of the present or the past. Rather than dealing with the complexities of the modern world or the harshness of rural environments, the songs imagine a past when it was all simple and easy and allow the listener to escape.

The Hold Steady conjures up a much darker period of adolescence, rife with sex, drugs, and rock n’ roll — the scene. For their audience, most of whom were in their teen years during the years when their songs take place, the songs represent the excitement that they fantasized about. We the fans were probably huddled in their parents basement surreptitiously listening to punk records on headphones and fantasizing about being at the shows and at the parties that produced the music we listened to. The characters that Finn sings about are the people that we his fans sort of wish we could’ve been. Instead of going to all night parties and overdosing on drugs we studied and went to college. Now though, we can live out that adolescence — the young, white, urban, college educated equivalent of country pop’s idyllic rural eden. That is the draw of their music to their audience — nostalgic instrumentation, underpinning nostalgic songs that allow us to vicariously live the adolescence we kind of wish we’d had, without the consequences of course. Even if it’s just for the 5 minutes of the song. The sense of escape is sort of opposite of that of country — we safely escape the innocence of our actual adolescence into the rebellious scene that produced the music we now idolize.

This kind of invention of a past that never really existed is of course rife in music, literature, and art in general. From Wagner’s paean to a strong pre-christian Germany of Norse mythology in the Ring Cycle, to hip-hop’s obsession with of “the streets” and life thereupon as a prerequisite for authenticity, the same or similar elements exist at most moments in time as does the fantasy of future. The reality of both is that they really tell more about the present and the audience than they do about the past or the future.

More later perhaps,



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