Nostalgia has taken on negative connotations in many circles, invoking rosy hued images of a past we know never existed, packaged and sold to the willing masses. But nostalgia is a multi-faceted phenomenon and is not limited to just providing a theme for parties or a new trend in fashion design. While it may not be based on the recorded "truth" of a time; it is a means of shaping our perception of the present based on our past. Whether it uses the historical record accurately or not, it can be a powerful tool for molding public opinion. In The Imagined Past Malcolm Chase and Christopher Shaw set up several variations of nostalgia, including the commodified nonexistent past, but also present it as a means of forming a special connection with the past or an identification across generations. For nostalgia to function within a culture, Shaw and Chase argue, a number of criteria must be met. Foremost, time must be linear with an undetermined future. In primitive societies in which time is cyclical, no event is lost because it is destined to be repeated. In the modern western world, time moves forward on a linear path; that which is gone can never be fully recovered. Based on this linear model, nostalgia and its inverse utopianism are linked; society, and not just time, advances. Society can progress or degenerate, but elements of that culture and the artifacts that they produce invariably are lost. Nostalgia in all its forms relies on this sense of absence and is predicated on a perception of degeneration, and so social change too must be rapid enough to be visible.
Early country music prospered because its primary audience had recently relocated to urban areas; significantly, few of them actually would have wanted an actual return to subsistence farming, but they were aware of a lost sense of community and regional or local identity. These absences must have been visible; urban life and the material improvements it could offer masked the absence of the negative aspects of rural living, but the isolation and dislocation of the new environments highlighted the issues of community and identity. Nostalgia then relocates a time when those missing pieces were still present. Nostalgia also depends on the presence of artifacts from the past, physical mementos of the things lost. Early Country was marketed as "Familiar Tunes- Old and New;" these songs, whether actual artifacts from Appalachia or facsimiles that seemed traditional, were necessary links between the present and the past. The artifacts then become a screen unto which anxieties about the present may be projected. A multiplicity of these allows them to be stripped of their intrinsic meaning, so that this projection may occur. The more artifacts that are available, the less meaning they may retain; the images and artifacts, whether songs or regional stereotypes, like the cowboy, remain, but it becomes impossible to connect the historical record with each of them. Alt.country then employs a similar process compiling images, ideas, and sounds from folk and country music, the photography of Walker Evans and Dorothea Lange, the fiction of John Steinbeck, and other icons of the Depression. While the present may not exactly replicate the events of the Depression, the icons of that era provide a precedented means of understanding the problems and a line of empathy between alt.country's young, under-employed audience and the blue collar audience of early country music.
Mining the Past, Musically and Lyrically: Whiskeytown, "Houses on the Hill"
Understanding Downward Mobility in the 1990s
The demographic associated with alt.country, young, white, and educated, faces the prospect of mass downward mobility, from the affluence of their youth; whether it comes to fruition or not, it remains a constant possibility. Statistically, 20% of Americans experience this phenomena at some point in their lives; however, this is the first time since the Depression when a generational group has faced that possibility. During the Depression, household income fell by an average of twenty-five percent; by the end of the 1980s, income had fallen twenty percent for men under the age of thirty. The 1992 college class faced the most dismal job search since the Depression, and by the end of the eighties the proportion of college graduates taking jobs that did not require a college degree had doubled. In 1990, seventy-five percent of men age 18-24 were living with their parents, the highest percentage since the Depression, and between 1970 and 1990, the poverty rate for households headed by someone under thirty had doubled. The eighties also saw the implementation of a two-tier wage ladder in many occupations, of which the newly hired did not receive the better end. And in the early nineties, there was a recession which impacted only those under thirty. Consequentially the Depression offers a precedent, a means of understanding and characterizing the financial and emotional implications of this trend. Katherine Newman in Falling From Grace accurately states that American society is overwhelmingly progressive, and so there is a dearth of rituals or symbols that contextualize this phenomena. In the mid-80s, the devastation of the small farm economy catalyzed a movement, publicized by Farm Aid, that utilized the imagery of the Depression, but that is one of the few modern recognition of this.
Newman also characterizes the differences between collective and individual downward mobility. The individual is often explained by personal failure at a job, while those experiencing it collectively often have or develop a community response, as in the case of Michigan autoworkers. The current younger generation, however, do not fit neatly into either category; they are experiencing a collective phenomena but on a personal level. Opportunities simply disappeared before or as they entered the work force, so there was no opportunity to develop work related communities. The lack of opportunities also has little to do with personal performance but is the result of shifts in the economy and corporate structures caused by business practices in the eighties. Alt.country connection with the '30s helps capture this phenomena in a historical context while helping to create this communal experience- one that developed through mass media and the internet.