Donna Summer is gone. The queen of disco will never be forgotten by anybody who was alive in the 70’s. Come on. Admit it. We all danced wildly to her music. And it was fun.
Disco doesn’t make it onto any of my playlists these days. But Summer is the sine qua non of an entire musical era that came and then went. Hearing tributes to her music today were more nostalgic than inspiring.
But nostalgia is not nothing. It is a something. That longing for what once was is often silenced by those of us educated to the importance of dismissing sentimental proclivities. We have been trained to regard those feelings with suspicion, like a dirty little secret.
An article in the New Yorker last fall included a review of James Wolcott‘s memoir, Lucking Out: My Life Getting Down and Semi-Dirty in Seventies New York. That longing for another world is addressed in a colorful passage that also references the film criticism of the great Pauline Kael:
Wolcott has essentially produced a book-length complaint that the world is not the way it used to be. He wants readers to share his yearning for a time that started well before “the gold medallions and furry testicles of disco descended” (one of several baffling bon mots Wolcott dangles before his readers). This nostalgia-mongering is the opposite of what Kael stood for as a critic. “They want something that can’t come back,” she complained of people who, in the mid-seventies, clung to John Wayne’s leathery image.
The article’s author, Nathan Heller, goes on to make this point (and praise Kael):
A lot of people now—even people much younger than James Wolcott—dream of a lost moment when the opportunities were truly “hidden like Easter eggs,” when the paths were not yet mapped and overrun. How can we be expected to create properly, the thinking goes, without the tools of past success? How can we write without the old serious publications, make movies without risk-taking Hollywood producers, live without cheap urban housing, discover art without the underground, make a career without the circulation-desk jobs?
Kael’s great achievement was to fight this way of thinking, to persuade her readers that work is always done with the machinery at hand. It was, for her, a liberating insight.
And a good one to keep in mind in any age, under any circumstances.