Music Overload and the Escape of Nostalgia

In recent years I have noticed that in most hip coffeeshops (which are innumerable in Southern California, and which are often my “offices”), the music being played is not current. Rather, it is the hipster music from 10-20 years ago (give or take). Instead of Weyes Blood, it is Bon Iver’s For Emma, Forever Ago. Instead of Vampire Weekend’s excellent new release, Father of the Bride, it is Vampire Weekend’s debut album from a decade ago. It is not The National’s new music. It’s “Baby, We’ll Be Fine.”

Just this week I delighted when I heard songs from Radiohead’s In Rainbows in a coffeeshop, and Lauryn Hill’s The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill in another. Currently I’m at Philz and Frank Ocean’s “Lost” (2012) is playing. These are not “oldies” by any means, but they are just old enough to be largely filed away in forgotten areas of our ever-more-beleaguered brains.

Why? Because our brains are utterly overwhelmed in today’s crowded cultural landscape. We file away and forget amazing music from last month, let alone last year. There is just too much.

In a presentist world, the recent past is the new radical. The ability to recall the cutting edge is the new cutting edge. To signal taste is no longer to discover the Next Big Thing. It is to recover the Best Forgotten Things.

Spotify and other streaming sites, combined with the ever-easier mechanisms of DIY music production, have exploded our access to music. There is more and more music being made every day (much of it very good!), and all of it is accessible to anyone with a streaming account. This is changing many things about the music industry, but it’s also changing the consumer experience.

I try my hardest to keep up on new music. I maintain a “best of the year” playlist on Spotify every year, which I add to as each year goes on and I come across good songs. Here is my “Best Songs of 2019” playlist as it stands now, halfway through the year. This is my feeble attempt to “keep up” and celebrate emerging artists and their current output, but honestly it is nearly impossible. Given the choice between scouring the vast horizons of new music for the best quality, and re-discovering the gems of years (and decades) past, the latter increasingly appeals to me.

That’s why the coffeeshop music trend is what it is. That’s why more and more current artists are finding musical inspiration in cover songs (I have an ongoing playlist of interesting new covers here). The best of the past brings sanity to the glut of the present.

As the array of options in culture keeps increasing (not only music, but also the insane explosion of quality TV on Netflix, Amazon Prime, etc), and with it the pressure to check out this “must see” show or that “must listen” album, I suspect more of us will be tempted to retreat to the time-tested gems of yesterday.