Tuesday, July 23, 2013
July 23, 2013: AmericanStudying Ambiguous Hits: “Buddy Holly”
[This week’s series focuses on how AmericanStudies can help us analyze some of our most ambiguous pop music classics. Add your thoughts on these songs or any others for a chart-topping weekend post, please!]
On nostalgia, hipsterism, and the benefits of uncertainty.
Nostalgia, about which I’ve written before in this space, can often seem to a particularly conservative emotion. Not only because it valorizes the past, but also and more crucially because it so often defines that ideal past against the less desirable changes that swept it away. Very much in that vein, to continue a thread from yesterday’s post, is the striking degree to which late 20th and early 21st century American conservatism has nostalgically idealized the 1950s and portrayed the 1960s as the source of all that is wrong with contemporary society. Yet at the same time, nostalgia for the 1950s has also come to be closely associated with another, far more liberal contemporary community, one that could be said to have inherited much of the spirit of the ‘60s: hipsters (see: the popularity of Buddy Holly glasses).
Weezer’s “Buddy Holly” (1994), with its speaker who “looks just like Buddy Holly” and his girl who is “Mary Tyler Moore,” seems unquestionably to be engaged with such nostalgia; the popular and groundbreaking music video, which inserted the band into footage from the even more overtly nostalgic TV show Happy Days, only amplifies that element. But to what end? A case could certainly be made that the song expresses conservative nostalgia, such as in the opening verse contrasting the innocent speaker and his girl with modern “homies” who are “so violent.” Or perhaps the speaker is a hipster, one who recognizes the romantic allure of the earlier era and seeks to recapture it in both his look and his love “that’s for all of time.” Or maybe Weezer and songwriter Rivers Cuomo, no stranger to ironic critiques, are satirizing that hipster mentality as no more authentic than Happy Days was.
If you’re hoping this final paragraph will provide an answer, or even advance a definite interpretation of Weezer’s first hit, prepare for disappointment. But I think that the ambiguity of “Buddy Holly” is a good thing, on a couple distinct levels. For one thing, ambiguity demands critical thinking, forces us to consider how we read a text and how we would make the case for our reading—I’m sure it’s possible to listen to Weezer and simply enjoy the music, but I would argue that their tracks almost always aim to make us think in precisely that way (Cuomo wasn’t my Harvard classmate for nothing). And more specifically, I believe the song’s ambiguity toward its historical subjects reflects our culture’s complex relationship to the 50s and 60s—most of us 21st century Americans prefer the post-1960s world in which Hollywood icons don’t freely don blackface for charity events (to cite but one example of where America was at the start of the 60s), but many (if not most) of our national narratives of the 50s still associate the decade with the worlds of Happy Days, Leave it to Beaver, and those adorable Buddy Holly glasses.
Next ambiguous hit tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Takes on this song, or other American hits?