Raphael Saadiq's Soul Memories

Curator's Note

To understand the relationship between popular media and nostalgia, we first need to understand this: nostalgia isn't about the past.

"Big Easy," from Raphael Saadiq's 2008 album The Way I See It, illustrates this point. The song clearly and proudly invokes 1960s soul. Saadiq employed period instruments and recording equipment in the production of the album, donned 60s-inspired fashions, and even released the album as a series of 45rpm singles. Listen to 30 seconds of the song and you'll hear it--crisp snare, backbeat tambourine, staccato guitar and vocals all straight out of Motown Records. The song's first line, “Somebody tell me what's going wrong” evokes Marvin Gaye's “What's Going On,” the song epitomizing soul at its most culturally and politically salient. This is retro: a representational mode that signifies 'past-ness'.

While retro and nostalgia often go hand in hand, they are distinct from one another. "Nostalgia" was coined by Johannes Hofer in 1688 to diagnose cases of homesickness among Swiss mercenaries. These cases of nostalgia did not occur because Swiss pikemen fighting unspeakably bloody battles in Spain or France had romanticized notions of the Alps. Rather, they felt homesick because getting slaughtered in the service of Europe's crumbling monarchies was kind of a rough gig. The point here is that we should understand the temporal nostalgia in contemporary society as something other than flawed history. Nostalgia is not a simple idealization of the past, but the emotional product of a critical reflection on the present.

“Big Easy” illustrates this, as well. Though it appears at its outset to be an exercise in retro style, it soon reveals itself to be an engagement with the conditions of contemporary America. When Saadiq sings “Somebody tell me what's going wrong / they say them levees broke, and my baby's gone” it becomes immediately clear that the narrator is longing for “soul” (as exemplified by Gaye) in the context of a “post-racial” society where Black communities are ravaged by institutional racism. The affective products of "Big Easy"—a feeling of horror at the conditions that made Katrina possible, and the longing for a cultural movement that could respond to them—combine to create nostalgia in listeners. This nostalgia does not emerge because we correctly or incorrectly remember the soul of the 1960s. Rather, it emerges because we critically look at our society and long for something else.




Great post Michael. 

What you seem to be describing here is something that is really worth thinking about in depth, that being the way in which nostalgia, and more specifically mediated nostalgia, can contribute to a healthy and adaptive conception of the past. Alastair Bonnett proposes what he calls "progressive nostalgia" where we can look to the past longingly specifically to highlight the ways in which we can learn from what came before. This should be distinguished from a "good old days" mentality and Nietzsche’s thoughts on monumental history, which can stifle progress (and ends up being why critics often deride nostalgia).

If the predominant mode of mediated nostalgia resembled this song, there would be more opportunities for consumers to utilize their longing for critical reflection (as you said it is less about the past). Alas, I think it is more rare than it should be, with remakes and faux vintage media text t-shirts at Target. However, I think that rarity makes posts like this one that can highlight the critical nostalgic text all the more important.


Thanks Ryan. I enjoyed yours as well.

This is something I've noticed across the posts this week, and beyond that, in my reading on the subject in general--there really is no consistent conceptual framework to talk about nostalgia, memory, retro, etc.  When you say "the predominant mode of mediated nostalgia is sadly unlike this one", I'm struck by the difference in our terminology. For me retro is the mode, while nostalgia is the affective response, generated by an encounter with a representation of the past from a position of difference in the present (which is why I was so interested in your idea of "instant nostalgia"--is that 'position of difference' projected into the future? Is it less 'instant nostalgia' than 'future nostalgia you can instantly prepare for'?).

From my perspective those faux vintage target t-shirts are definitely retro, but not necessarily or inherently "nostalgic," at least not in how I want to use the term. 

I think it's important to make this disctinction because understanding nostalgia as a quality of response forces us to confront the contingencies that shape our responses to texts: history, culture, intertextual networks, even subjectivity.

Lots of existing academic work on nostalgia since Jameson (Bennett, Boym, Grainge, et al) tries to pin down the ideological work that nostalgia does, or differentiate between this or that kind of nostalgia. And most would malign this or that kind of nostalgia as reductive, as idealization, or as ahistorical. By contrast, I would differ in that I argue that all nostalgia is productive, is critical, and is historical, but, as any affective response could be, it can be directed toward diverse political and social purposes, depending on the contingencies of response. So it would be with "Big Easy"--and if you're a fan of the music, you could note that as the song progresses, it utilizes less and less "retro" even as the nostalgic affect increases (and as the New Orleans horns sort of take over the party)., which is an interesting way into discussing how one might prompt the other, tensions between past & present in nostalgia, etc.

This is an excellent post. Just as I was about to pose the question of a radical nostalgia on yesterday's thread, I read this, which I think addresses/answers the question in a cogent and intriguing way.   

If nostalgia is approached as a critical response, would 'retro' be the tactic, or strategy? If so, what are other strategies? And, further, what is the role of the 'raw materials' used--the historical moment/movements invoked, the tools used to invoke them, etc.     

Hi Matthew,

The way I use the terms, 'retro' is a mode used in the production or design of texts, while 'nostalgia' is an emotion generated in the reception of texts. There are lots of other modes of representing the past--for example, the period film represents the past, but I don't think anyone would call, say, Reds or Saving Private Ryan a 'retro' film. Nor would anybody call a documentary film from someone like Ken Burns 'retro'. I think retro is about the representation of 'pastness' without a claim for historical verisimilitude or archival 'truth'.

In terms of your last two questions, those are big, but crucial questions! Lots of the work I'm doing right now is about how the 1950s got invoked by different people for different social/political/ideological purposes throughout the 1970s and 1980s, and why and how "the Fifties" became so influential and important in that period, and how different media forms (Hollywood films, music videos, radio, advertising, etc) generated nostalgia in different ways and with different effects.

Which is to say nothing about how the nostalgia generated by texts can shift in character throughout time--Sha Na Na opened for Hendrix at Woodstock, so the character of their use of 'retro' or the 'nostalgia' they generated was clearly working in a different way there than it did when they were on a syndicated tv series 15 years later...

Your work on the invocation of the 50s in the 70s and 80s sounds very insteresting.

This calls to mind Reagan invoking Hollywood, and, now of the constant invocation of Reagan (hologram Reagan, no less!). There seems to be an intersection here with some of the concerns of my own work, as well as something that came up in the first post (and subsequent comments), namely what might be called the material substrate of nostalgia. For instance, I am thinking of the rise of the video market in the 80s as well as the rise of cable television, and how these trends contributed to the sedimentation of images from Hollywood's past in the bodies/brains of the American populace. How might his kind of sedimentation intersect with (to use an overly broad formulation) trends in nostalgia? Skipping ahead: similarly, I wonder how the sedimentation of images of the  80s in the present--'I love the 80s,' per Wednesday's post , for instance--intersects with nostalgia for a Reaganite America. 


Great post and discussion so far -- I feel like I could be putting this comment on Matthew's post as well, which says a lot about the cohesion of thinking in what has been a great week. 

I like Matthew's concept of a material substrate of nostalgia, and it would seem to tie together (at least) two related dimensions that our conversations have touched on, namely storage and something like form or what Michael calls mode above. Viewed through those contexts, then, I think Saving Private Ryan is partly retro, if only in the much-discussed opening sequence. Look at the last paragraph of this section of the Wikipedia entry about "portraying history" in the film -- the realism of that scene is heavily rooted (at least for the filmmakers) in the materialities of production, the pastness of celluloid, that Matthew takes up in his post. 

Our knowledge of those materialities, then, is predicated on the scope of archival storage and circulation -- on how much technologies like VHS or cable keep content in view -- a dynamic that's increasingly problematic in the context of the nitrate stock Matthew discusses. William Gibson has talked about this, on Twitter and (I think) elsewhere, in terms of film before home video being something to be seen once in a theater and then either remembered or (more likely) forgotten. Did Reagan's invocations of Hollywood have the impact they did because of the age of certain voting blocs, or because of the accessibility of earlier media through video, cable, syndication, etc., or some of both? 

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