Back to 1989: Father John Misty & the Culture of Nostalgia

by Stephanie Smelyansky

Taylor Swift is a pop phenomenon of the 21st century. Lou Reed is an experimental rock phenomenon of the mid-to-late 20th century. Father John Misty isn’t a much of a phenomenon at all outside of his moderately successful stint with Fleet Foxes and his less successful solo venture. These three artists had nothing in common, until Father John Misty decided to unite them.

In September 2015, Father John Misty dropped a cover of “Blank Space” by Taylor Swift in the style of Lou Reed. Stylistically, the cover is equal parts brilliant and barbaric, breaking the musical structure that makes “Blank Space” such a catchy tune. Pop, especially Swift’s pop, relies on melody and rhythm. With his band the Velvet Underground, Lou Reed stripped away much of those elements, exploring instead a rawer, less organized musical frontier. The Velvet Underground’s experimental drum beats, coupled with Lou Reed’s droning guitar, is almost antithetical to Taylor Swift’s meticulously designed, self-consciously commercial music. Father John Misty’s version of “Blank Space” can barely be called the same song because it’s so stylistically different, but oddly enough, however, the cover works. If you disregard the lyrics, it feels as if the song could have just walked off the Andy Warhol album. And even though the lyrics are trivial at best, they can be interpreted with the same dark, punk lens that permeates all of the Velvet Underground’s music. It’s a cover that could really only exist now and today.

I don’t know how many millennials know who Lou Reed is today. Perhaps the Beatles are as far back as our collective musical consciousness goes. But the relatively outsized subset of millennials who do know Lou Reed tend to be conspicuous—they’re the ones who clutch their vintage Hunky Dory records, wear the same pair of Converse/Keds/iconic sneaker until the soles have fallen apart (at which point they’ll duct tape them back together), and drink PBR on the weekends while discussing postmodernism. They’re part of an intellectual pastiche of sorts, pulling elements of the past into the present under the facade of “being ironic” to create a new culture that coddles them with sentimentality and provides them with a space to feel emotion against the growing harshness of the modern world.

Our generation is obsessed with the culture of nostalgia. From the way we dress to the music we listen to, we are trying to replicate the sentimentality of a specific moment in time. Modern fashion draws as equally from the 60s as from the 90s, and everything in between, as seen in the resurgence of everything from high-waisted jeans to oversized Reeboks. From Doc Martens to flannel shirts, grunge is suddenly having a moment again. Bands like the Smashing Pumpkins and Nirvana serve as the inspiration for new post-grunge albums such as the Foo Fighters seventh studio album. Proclaiming yourself as a 90s kid even if you were born in 1996 is a street cred requirement.

We propagate the culture of nostalgia because contemporary life has stolen it from us. Every moment worth remembering is captured on Instagram or Facebook, every experience worth sharing is shared with the world on Snapchat. This kind of lifestyle prevents nostalgic experience. With all the highlights of life visible on your computer screen at the click of a button, the mind finds itself unable to procure meaningful remembrances—to couch experience in the ameliorating vagueness of memory. The important stuff—the emotions and thoughts coursing through your head—are obscured and neglected in the process of trying to take the perfect selfie.

Father John Misty succumbed to this culture of nostalgia. Lou Reed was never mainstream, he never held the kind of fame that stripped him of his authenticity. He was a figure in the cult of nostalgia cultivated by millennial hipsters and their PBR. Yet Father John Misty’s cover of “Blank Space” has racked up over 100,000 views on the internet; it’s made its rounds of web fame, an attempt to turn Lou Reed into the mainstream. The reason so many of us like Lou Reed is because he’s raw and because he’s exclusive to the mainstream; he’s delegated to a specific group of friends, a specific time, or a specific place. Basically, he’s a product of nostalgia. The desire to capture that nostalgia and convert it into something part of our lives is so strong that Lou Reed has applied onto the frame of Taylor Swift. This is a 2015 phenomenon because try as hard as you might, when appropriating the past, you’re still stuck with the present.

Father John Misty sees the absurdity in nostalgia culture, but do we, the consumers, see this distinction? Misty, with his covers, was poking fun at Ryan Adams, who covered all of 1989, and the whole concept of covers especially. But in doing so, Father John Misty ended up pandering to a market that desperately longs for something in the past that they can’t have. I think Tilman recognizes this. After he posted the cover online, he pulled it down saying he had an insane dream where Lou Reed spoke to him and said that the covers were a disgrace to his memory. Two weeks later, Father John Misty said he was simply upset over the fame that he attracted with the covers. Misty, via dreamscape Lou Reed, said, “‘The collection of souls is an expensive pastime.’” It is, and it’s an exhausting one, always putting up pretenses of historical omniscience. We need to understand that the past is the past, and rather than trying to recreate it today, we should focus on creating a new present.

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