In Summer 2012 I curated a discussion on the open-access scholarly forum In Media Res as a part of their Theme Week on “Media Memories.” For my post, I discussed the distinction between retro, as an aesthetic or representational style, and nostalgia, an affective response to contemporary historical and political conditions.
Though it appears at its outset to be an exercise in retro style, Saadiq’s song “Big Easy” 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.
The post is available here.