Organized by the reissue label Group number in its self-celebration of its 20th anniversary, it wasn’t so much a festival of bands coming together as the reunification of a scene – a loose coterie of sophisticated post-hardcore bands that have mostly (barely) left their respective brands in the mid-’90s. To me, it all seemed almost too weird to be real, like the most niche installment of my high school CD collection had been resurrected in sensibility. Imagining myself young at Number 20 would not be a problem. But imagining how I would feel on the other side of it all was something else entirely.
Nostalgia can feel repulsive until it’s yours. With our shared digital existence that perpetually forces us to live alongside so many other people’s memories, it’s easy to feel alienated from the present we all share. Plus, listening to someone brag about their more obscure teenage favorites might be worse than listening to them read from their dream journal. Should we blame the social networks or the Pixies? Rock-and-roll memory cults have spread since that stupendous reformation nearly 20 years ago, making the Pixies’ initial seven years from 1986 to 1993 seem like a funny prophecy. Since then, almost every overlooked and under-loved rock band seems to have come together by fate, fantasy or reflex – meaning it’s only a matter of time before a nostalgic impresario does. brings together a handful of half-forgotten, totally formative bands from your teenage years (say, Karate, Chisel, Unwound, Ida, Tsunami, Rex), on the same 21st century ticket stub.
So when I walked into the Palace Theater in downtown Los Angeles on Saturday night, I felt my brain switch between punky skepticism and happy anticipation. But underneath that, I felt a darker churning – my general midlife worries shifting into more visceral paranoia about the fate of the species. In the bigger scheme, I know how nostalgia can be a lazy U-turn in a psychic dead end; how, personally, this can amount to a lack of imagination; and how, in today’s society, it feels directly linked to our collective retreat from the ecological danger looming on the horizon. Didn’t the hardcore-punk ethos that those Numero 20 bands etched into our teenage psyches teach us never to retreat?
Imagining myself already young, I tried to expand my 43-year-old mind. I tried to imagine my older self imagining myself, right now, attending this music festival. Is this what the future looks like? Memories of memories of memories? Listening to this shimmering, indelible karate song, I could feel my nostalgia bouncing between a set of infinity mirrors. I wanted him to stay still, but, like the music, he refused.
So I grabbed something quantifiable and started counting the group members. It turns out that more than a few Numero 20 bands didn’t sweat historical accuracy. The DIY indie troupe Tsunami had grown in size (two drummers, multiple guitarists) to accommodate the changing lineup of their original tour, producing a firmer, more powerful sound in the process. Meanwhile, the New York band Ida has expanded enough to contain two generations of musicians (guitarist Storey Littleton is the child of Ida co-founders Elizabeth Mitchell and Daniel Littleton), and that elasticity has generated a exquisite profusion of melodic detail. Instead of reruns, both bands felt like buildups, their old songs filled with new truths.
The festival’s other big memory stain was in the crowds where younger attendees outnumbered their elders, but perhaps only 3 to 1 – a divide that seemed most acute when the youngest ears in the house thronged. to the stage for Codeine, a band best known for rendering their enormous austere and colossal slowness. During a suitably leaden rendition of “collapse– in which bandleader Stephen Immerwahr aptly sang, “These things take so long” – a curly-haired teenager could be seen at the edge of the stage shaking his head with deliberation and vigor, which could have sound hilarious if it wasn’t. deep. There’s a common misconception that the most stylish members of today’s youth are obsessed with reclaiming the lost 90s, but let’s not forget that they grew up in a hyperconnected century where boredom doesn’t seem no longer exist. I guess the codeine kids of Number 20 didn’t come to commune with the past instead of slowing down the present.
This unsustainable speed of life, however, is an affliction for all ages. In his extraordinary 2001 book “The future of nostalgia“, researcher Svetlana Boym describes nostalgia as “a defense mechanism against the accelerating pace of change”, explaining the phenomenon as a compensatory emotional response to rapid industrial progress, positing nostalgia as a dominant mood in the 20th century while anticipating its exponential intensification in the middle of the internet age.
And now, with the nostalgia that permeates almost every aspect of contemporary pop culture, most of our lingering suspicions about rock-and-roll reunions tend to feel like residual grumbles. Are we skeptical about the profitability of these groups? No, they don’t need to suffer twice for their art. Are we skeptical of their separation from the heat of their original moment? No, they’re better at their instruments now. Are we skeptical of all the youngsters sitting next to us, still sore from being too broke to catch Unwound that time in 1999? No, we are not allowed to accumulate secret quarantine favorites. In fact, it is likely that any The band people care about right now is more popular than ever, simply due to the fact that there are more listeners on this planet – of which at least half a billion are subscribed to one streaming service or another. .
Yet our nostalgia remains intimate, personal and fragile. It’s “a sense of loss and displacement”, as Boym writes, but ultimately “a romance with its own fantasy”. The displacement comes from my home and the waste of time, and I could feel this double dream of homesickness and time-sickness being channeled directly into my third ear at Numero 20 through the music of Hated, a loud hardcore-punk group from the relative calm of our common hometown, Annapolis, Md.
Mutual playgrounds, asynchronous delays. Back in the mid-80s, when the Hated were making amazing teenage noise, I was still a little kid, attending elementary school birthday parties at the local ice rink where the band sometimes performed at night. Today, Hated’s songs make me dream of places I remember and times I’ll never know, and on stage their lyrics seemed to aim at the center of my nostalgia-infused being. “Echoes are calling you from your past,” said one beautifully swaggering song. “The words come back and haunt you one day,” said another.
Save it for the dream journal, right? GOOD. But here’s something wild that happened outside of my head at Numero 20 during a set by Chisel, the DC-rooted trio fronted by singer-songwriter Ted Leo, later of the restless band and semi-eponymous Ted Leo and the Pharmacists. Saturday night, Chisel’s mod-punk songs sounded as bright and precise as they had more than half my life ago, but when I headed down the aisles of the Palace Theater to dance, my body m betrayed. I kept losing my balance. My arms were spinning in unexpected directions. My hips forgot the swing and my shoulders took over a bit too eagerly. Two left feet, two left collarbones, two left everything. What happened?
My only conclusion is that our deepest musical nostalgia is hidden in our muscle memory. The last time I saw Chisel, in April 1997, I was a nervous high school student whose 10,000 hours of nightlife dancing was still years ahead of me – and here in Los Angeles, this whole adult dance floor the knowledge of the body had somehow evaporated into the ceiling. As Chisel rushed into a zigzag performance of “The unthinkable is true“, at least five of my major muscle groups decided they were 17.
Music tells the truth to our body. Sometimes our brain picks it up too. And the truth was that if you grew up on one of these bands, Numero 20 promised a reconnection with a certain era, but ultimately offered a reconnection to yourself – to your memories, to your musculature, to your community, to your potentiality. These bands likely evoked a sense of possibility in a younger version of you, and hearing them again might have reopened those possibilities from within. Instead of a tomb, nostalgia has become a trampoline – something you can jump on with two feet, bouncing around in an open future.
Or maybe our common Numero 20 nostalgia felt more like a beating, throbbing, perpetual heart, forging continuity, beating loudest in a performance of Unwound in which Sara Lund’s magnificent drumming seemed to circulate the bloodthirsty guitar noise of Justin Trosper in every theater corner. This music was so strong, so vital, yet deeply interior, and by the time the band reached “Canteena monumental song from 1993, an impossible question loomed on stage: Did Unwound sound better right now than ever before?
Your answer didn’t have to be yes. He just needed to feel possible. And he did. And it stayed that way. The sound kept flowing. Your blood remained within you. The past seemed near. And the future seemed great again.