Tuesday, June 21, 2016
June 21, 2016: SummerStudying: Nostalgia and “The Boys of Summer”
[To kick off the summer of 2016, a series AmericanStudying some famous summer texts and contexts. Add your responses to these posts or other SummerStudying nominations for a crowd-sourced post that’ll go down like a glass of iced lemonade!]
On the limitations of nostalgia, and why it’s a vital perspective nonetheless.
Don Henley’s “The Boys of Summer” (1984), the opening track from his hugely successful and influential Building the Perfect Beast album, includes as its bridge one of the most famous expressions of nostalgia for a lost, idealized past ever set to music: “Out on the road today I saw a DEADHEAD sticker on a Cadillac/A little voice inside my head said ‘Don’t look back, you can never look back’/I thought I knew what love was, what did I know?/Those days are gone forever, I should just let them go but—.” Henley’s whole song is a nostalgic elegy, full of summertime metaphors for those idealized memories of the girl and the world that got away. But in “a DEADHEAD sticker on a Cadillac” Henley has found one of the most succinct and pitch-perfect images I’ve encountered for the inevitability of change and loss and how we continue to be reminded of what once was even as we’re driving down the road of what is toward what will be. (“Objects in the rearview mirror may appear closer than they are,” to use another famous rock and roll metaphor for nostalgia.)
I’ve written about nostalgia in this space before, and have focused in much of those posts on some of the limitations of this necessarily idealizing and often overtly conservative perspective on both past and present. I would say many of the same things about Henley’s version in “Summer,” particularly when it comes to the summertime love the speaker shared with the song’s addressee, that mythical woman who got away. After all, she’s defined more or less solely by her appearance, through the chorus’s emphasis on how the speaker can still “see” her and her “brown skin,” irresistible smile, sunglasses, “hair slicked back,” and so on. Like both the boys and the season of summer, of course, those kinds of physical and superficial elements inevitably fade over time, were never built to last, and it’s thus entirely fair to wonder whether there was any genuine there there for this couple—or whether, as the speaker to his credit overtly wonders, “it was a dream.” In any case, as the song’s first verse makes clear, both the season and the woman are entirely absent in the present—“the summer’s out of reach” and “you’re not home”—and it indeed seems to be time for the speaker to “just let them go.”
Or not. It’s not just that nostalgia is (I believe and have also argued in those prior posts) a universal and inescapable part of the human condition, and most especially of aging. And it’s not just that the things for which we’re nostalgic can, at least if we try to remember them with nuance, help us imagine and work toward better presents and futures based on the best qualities of those pasts. Those are both significant elements to consider to be sure, but nostalgia is also valuable precisely because it has been the source of so many wonderful and transcendent works of art, a list that would have to begin with Marcel Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (also known as In Search of Lost Time) but that would also include Henley’s song (as well as “Sunset Grill,” the best song on that great Perfect Beast album), the great E.B. White essay “Once More to the Lake” (about which I wrote in the first of those prior posts on nostalgia), unique and amazing children’s books such as Edward Ormondroyd’s David and the Phoenix, and many other texts. Without nostalgia, the canon of human artistic creation would be seriously impoverished—and we’d have to lament the loss, just one more reminder that there will always be occasion for nostalgia.
Next SummerStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other summer texts or contexts you’d highlight?