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Thursday, August 26, 2021

August 26, 2021: American Teens: “All Summer Long” and Nostalgia

[With pre-season sports practices beginning this week, I’ve officially got two sons in high school (!!!!). So this week I’ll AmericanStudy pop culture representations of American teens—share the teen texts & contexts that stand out to you in comments, fellow kids!]

On classic rock, pseudo-nostalgia, and the undeniable role of pop culture in our lives.

Kid Rock’s “All Summer Long” (2008) features—repeats as the opening two lines of its chorus, no less—one of the worst “rhyming” couplets in recent years, if not indeed in all of American pop music: “And we were trying different things/And we were smoking funny things.” So it’s fair to say that I shouldn’t necessarily subject the song’s lyrics, or any Kid Rock-penned words, to the most rigorous AmericanStudier analyses (Kid Rock’s political preferences, on the other hand…). But while “All Summer Long” doesn’t quite rise to Dylan-like lyrical complexity, the song does comprise a particularly striking example of what I would call the pseudo-nostalgia often found in the very concept of “classic rock”: in its title line, “Singing ‘Sweet Home Alabama’ all summer long”; in its concurrent, repeated evocation of the vital role of “our favorite song” and “play[ing] some rock and roll” in creating its idyllic teenage memories; and even musically, in its samples of both the Skynyrd song and (very, very randomly) an infinitely better song, Warren Zevon’s “Werewolves of London.”

So why does a song about, as the opening verse locates us, “1989” and “summertime in Northern Michigan” make such defining use of a 1974 song by a Jacksonville, Florida band while sampling a 1978 one by a Chicago singer/songwriter? To my mind, these classic rock references link Kid Rock’s song to one by his fellow Michigander (and oft-cited musical influence) Bob Seger, “Old Time Rock and Roll”; Seger’s song is perhaps the clearest single expression of classic rock pseudo-nostalgia, the attitude that music used to be great and has sadly fallen off, and thus that the best we can do in the present is play that old time rock and roll. I call this attitude pseudo-nostalgia in part because of the blatant irony and even hypocrisy involved in denigrating contemporary music and pop culture while contributing to them; and in part because it seems to me less interested in the past itself in any specific or meaningful ways, and far more in the seeming authenticity or coolness that such an attitude grants its holder in the present.

On the other hand, I can’t claim to know what songs or artists Kid Rock and his teenage girlfriend and friends played on the beaches of Northern Michigan in 1989—and in any case it would be hypocritical of me to critique their classic rock affinities, given how much classic songs and albums by artists like Skynyrd, Seger, Tom Petty, Pink Floyd, and, of course, Bruce Springsteen meant to my own youthful life and identity. Indeed, I would argue that my generation was the first for whom the popular culture of our parents’ generation was at least as meaningful and constitutive of our perspectives and identities as that of our own—a phenomenon that has only been amplified since, thanks in large part to the ways in which YouTube and the rest of the digital world have preserved so much of 20th century pop culture into the early 21st century. Our 21st century summer playlists are indeed as likely to feature “Sweet Home Alabama” as “All Summer Long,” not just in a nostalgic way but also and more importantly as a vital part of our present culture and world. Works for me!

Last teen texts tomorrow,


PS. What do you think? Other teen texts & contexts you’d share?

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