Tuesday, March 6, 2012

End of a Nostalgia

From the NY Times:
CLIFTON, N.J. — The end is near for Ronnie I’s Clifton Music after 40 years on Main Avenue — yet another victim of the Internet, the economy, and changing tastes in music and shopping. But this time it is not just a store that is dying, four years after its founder did, but perhaps a whole genre of music as well. For the aging fans of the group harmony of the Harptones and the Heartbeats, the Orioles and the Ravens, the Five Keys and the Five Satins, the passing of Clifton Music is a reminder that rock ’n’ roll may never die, but one hyperbolic sect, the fading kingdom of doo-wop, just might.

The closing of this store really is the end of an era. There are few musical scenes that have had as devoted a following as doo-wop; you could make a strong argument that doo-wop fans in the 1950s invented the pop music connoisseurship many of us practice today. As best as I know (and I would love to stand corrected!), that history began with the first "oldies" compilation album of early doo-wop tracks, released in 1959, and the concurrent growth of stores like Ronnie's and especially the Slim Rose subway arcade shop in New York City. As I recall Phil Ford once saying in a paper, there have been few decades as strikingly and immediately self-reflexive as the "Fifties."

These early fans of retro doo-wop were mostly white, and yet largely listened to music produced by African American youth and distributed through the pre-rock and roll R&B independent labels. But as I've argued elsewhere, this is not the cliché story of white theft of black music. It is a reminder of an era in the northeast when segregation occurred block by block rather than city by city, and when radio stations like New York's WOV played, I'm told, both R&B and traditional Italian music side by side. There was never much money in this scene; for the most part the transformation of African American R&B vocal harmony into Italian American doo-wop was the result of love, not theft.

But anyways, the real reminder in this Times story is that connoisseurship and nostalgia have a history, and thus not only a beginning but an end. This is a bit of a sequel to what I once said about authenticity. These things have histories, and like many scholars these days I'm thinking a lot about the limits of those histories. Unlike Melissa-Perry-Harris I don't think nostalgia is always a malignant force, but she is right that nostalgia, like connoisseurship and authenticity, are cultural tropes that we need to come to terms with in a more critical way.