In the mid-’90s, when “hell froze over” and our parents’ generation paid exorbitant prices for Eagles tickets, we chuckled about how uncool it was to live in the past. When the Sex Pistols reunited more times than any band with one album and a dead bassist had any right to, we snickered at how grotesquely John Lydon’s punk-rock nihilism had aged. Even our Gen-X neighbors who brought their toddlers to see Pavement tour their greatest-hits set fell prey to our derision. But when we heard, last week, that both At the Drive-In and Refused were reuniting, the oldest among us were forced to stop laughing and took a long, sober look in the mirror at faces that aren’t getting any younger.
Music fans who were born in the early ’80s remember ATDI and Refused as two of the greatest punk bands from our high-school years — the mid- to late-’90s. Sure, they appealed to 20-something Gen Xers, too, but for us, they were the cathartic soundtrack to our teenage rebellion. We can’t hear “One Armed Scissor” without being transported back to a time when every emotion had its own theme song. For once, the bands that are reuniting are ones that stir our own nostalgia.
And why not? Millennials may just be the ideal audience for reunion tours of all kinds. As Simon Reynolds’ most recent endlessly (and rightfully) discussed book Retromania underlines, we’re the first generation that came of age when almost any music, from any era, was available to download. Unfettered by budget concerns thanks to Napster, then Soulseek, then torrents and Mediafire, we’ve filled hard drives with ’50s rockabilly and ’60s soul and ’70s punk and ’80s hip-hop and ’90s grunge. We’ve gorged ourselves on African pop and German techno and Latin psychedelica and Japanese noise. If we’re feeling heartsick, we’re as likely to queue up Patsy Cline as Neko Case; our party playlists seamlessly segue from Gang of Four to Girl Talk (that ultimate symbol of our generation’s insatiable, attention deficit disordered omnivorousness). For better or for worse, the music of the past can sometimes seem as vital to us as the music of the present.
Of course, the music-as-information revolution that made connoisseurship so easy also created some issues of its own — not just our theoretically worrisome embrace of nostalgic homage over kill-your-idols innovation, but practical problems. Sure, we could listen to albums from any time, even the out-of-print stuff that makes record collectors pant. But, in many cases, the older bands we discovered had already broken up and faded into obscurity. We could fantasize all we wanted about seeing Mission of Burma or the Feelies or the Pop Group live, but it wasn’t going to happen — until, beginning just a few years after “file sharing” became a household term, they all started reuniting.
Critics tend to see these reunions as cash-ins targeting the bands’ original audience — aging fans looking to recapture their salad days by revisiting the music that soundtracked it — and promoters tend to market to that group, too. And it certainly plays no small part. But when acts like the Feelies tour in the 21st century, they play to exponentially larger crowds than they entertained in their heyday. That’s where the millennials and our era-spanning music collections come in. For us, the Pixies reunion (however crass) was a dream come true — an opportunity to see a beloved band we were too young to catch the first time around. Unlike our baby-toting older siblings, many of us weren’t reliving anything at the Pavement shows; we were seeing “Summer Babe” and “Gold Soundz” performed live for the very first time.
Not only are these reunions uniquely suited to millennials’ listening habits, but they also follow a pattern of inevitable gratification that is very familiar to us. (I’m going to try to get through this paragraph with as little Thought Catalogishness as possible, so please bear with me.) As our elders are always pointing out, we expect to get what we want. That has a lot to do with the way our baby boomer parents raised us. In school, we were famously graded on effort, not outcome; the message was, if we just wanted something bad enough, we would get it. Neither our own limited talents nor circumstances beyond our control would stop us. Nothing was impossible. And so the opportunity to see Os Mutantes live began to seem like a birthright. An entire generation of undergraduate acid enthusiasts meditated hard enough on the band getting back together, and in 2006 they did. Well, how could they not have?
If the plethora of early-’90s acts that continue to headline mega-festivals like Coachella and Lollapalooza (a grunge-era relic itself) are any indication, the retromania industry is still focused primarily on Generation X — maybe because they have more disposable income these days than our unemployment-stricken cohorts, and most of us are still living out the youth they seek to recapture. But the truth is, we have always been at least as excited for My Bloody Valentine and Soundgarden as they were; hell, we’ve even convinced ourselves that the sheer force of our longing and the realization of how unfair it was that we were deprived of the chance to see them are what brought them back together in the first place.
With the Coachella-timed resurrection of bands like At the Drive-In and Refused, what’s new for millennials is that the nostalgia we’re indulging in is finally our own. Surprisingly, it feels very different and more than a little bittersweet. Our supposedly timeless taste should have inoculated us against sentimentality about music from our own teenage years. In fact, perhaps encouragingly, it hasn’t.