Sampling Nostalgia: “Forever Young,” “Young Forever,” and the Impossibility of the Occasional

Okay, so that’s a totally clichéd academic title: Strange Phrase: The Things I Will Discuss to Explain the Strange phrase. Anyway. . .

I won’t pretend to be an expert on occasional poetry, but I will bet that Pope did not perform “The Rape of the Lock” past his prime to a bunch of aging baby-boomers who want to party like its 1712. I’m thinking of anecdotal accounts friends once gave me upon seeing Modern English circa 1997. Of course they wrote and performed other songs besides “I’ll Stop the World (and Melt with You)”, but really, who wants to hear them? Also recall Homer Simpson on Bachmann Turner Overdrive: “They were Canada’s answer to CCR. Their big hit was TCB.” When he sees them perform not only can he not wait for “Taking Care of Business,” but he can’t even wait for “the workin’ overtime part.” But I digress, as neither of these examples get to exactly what I mean to discuss.

While we might dismiss the occasional as too rooted in a particular context and therefore not amenable to its own legacy, I would argue that this situatedness makes the occasional all the more important and, presently, all the more rare (which is to say impossible). According to Wikipedia, “Goethe declared that ‘Occasional Poetry is the highest kind.'” Likewise, Hegel had the following to say about it (I can’t believe I am about to agree with Hegel):

Poetry’s living connection with the real world and its occurrences in public and private affairs is revealed most amply in the so-called pièces d’occasion. If this description were given a wider sense, we could use it as a name for nearly all poetic works: but if we take it in the proper and narrower sense we have to restrict it to productions owing their origin to some single present event and expressly devoted to its exaltation, embellishment, commemoration, etc. But by such entanglement with life poetry seems again to fall into a position of dependence, and for this reason it has often been proposed to assign the whole sphere of pièces d’occasion an inferior value although to some extent, especially in lyric poetry, the most famous works belong to this class.

The occasional speaks to a specific moment, to something that had a specific historicity, a particularity, perhaps a singularity. It resists appropriation into a culture of sameness, or at least did. Well, perhaps it never did and I am merely romanticizing what the occasional was. Perhaps better to say that what the occasional could be is a fleeting moment in which representation touches materiality. If considered in an historical manner, the occasional thereby might offer some understanding of its occasion. That is most likely wishful thinking, but I throw it out there.

What the Modern English and Homer Simpson examples begin to demonstrate is the fact that the present United States can in no way deal with occasionality. I see this inability in student essays which rush to declare whatever they are about to be the “greatest poem/modernist poem/novel/postmodernist novel/song/album/etc. OF ALL TIME!” Everything has to be eternal, capable of transmitting meaning to everyone, everywhere, everywhen in the same manner, transparently and without regard to historical notions of reading, epistemology, etc. When we are confronted with something new, we try to make it something old. I think that this desire is a function of nostalgia, which dovetails with the fact that we don’t give a damn about anything Tony Basil has done since “Hey Mickey.”

To be a bit more academic about this issue, let’s just say it’s very much related to Jameson’s lament that postmodernism is bound up with a culture that can no longer think historically.

With that, a screed about contemporary music or, rather, a contemporary song and what it means in terms of contemporary culture.

While I do have some idea what happens in the world of music, I have no idea whether the things I know about are actually part of some kind of social vocabulary. I know Beyonce made one of the best music videos of all time, but I have no idea what the song sounds like. That said, I may be making mountains of molehills here.

That said, I have some issues with Jay-Z’s “Young Forever.” Before I begin, let me say that if Jay-Z wants to use the lyrics and music from an older song to make a million dollars, more power to him. I don’t care and would like to see copyright open up a bit for more of this kind of work (although, given the fact that his use of the song in question is almost certainly controlled by a mechanical license for covering the song and not sampling it, the issue of copyright is not really an issue here).

Nonetheless, because the 80s are on my mind constantly, and because I trace many contemporary cultural and political problems in the United States to that period, I take issue with the manner in which Jay-Z appropriates Alphaville’s 1984 song “Forever Young,” which, thank god, has no relation to the Rod Stewart song of the same name.

Here’s Alphaville:

What strikes me most about this song and video (or, rather, the combination of the two) is the utter lack of nostalgia. To contemporary ears, the title “Forever Young” reads as an ode to a better time, the right now/present when we are as beautiful, fit, and carefree as we will ever be. As I will argue below, Jay-Z seriously (perhaps willfully) misreads the song as such. Of course, it’s not surprising that he does so. A great deal of rock and popular music celebrates youth for one reason or another, and I know more than one person who thinks that The Ramones’ cover of Tom Waits’ “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up” is some kind of punk rock anthem to youth and its fuck-all attitude. (It’s actually a late song that, like Twain’s Huck Finn, is performed by an older person/group who only understands what he/they had in his/their youth by virtue of no longer being youthful. That self-awareness is the price of maturity and exactly what destroys innocence).

In the case of the present song, Alphaville is not singing about being young and the powers that stage of life affords. Rather, this song is a product of a Cold War culture that directly impacted a German band on a social/cultural level and, of course, an entire planet, which wondered if they “would drop the bomb or not.” The end of the first verse further clarifies this issue (lyrics):

Can you imagine when this race is won
Turn our golden faces into the sun
Praising our leaders we’re getting in tune
The music’s played by the madman

The race in question is the arms race, a race that cannot be won. However, there were of course those who at least implied the possibility of victory if not openly claimed it–a logic that derived from Vietnam and would lead to our present situations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Thus imagining victory here does not refer to the end of the Cold War in peaceful terms, and the praising/getting-in-tune-with the leaders is like drinking the Kool-Aid, swallowing the bi-polar logic of the Cold War in which the only choice is between one side or the other (regardless of what Joshua tells us in Wargames, you cannot choose not to play).

Considered in these terms, and given that the video is mainly about the very young and the very old–those who cannot yet understand and those who understand all too well–the song’s chorus does not refer to being young in any conventional sense. Rather, it refers to life, a life threatened regardless of that life’s age. That is, the song is about the decline of the world, the death of everything. I am reminded of the judge in Blood Meridian:

If God meant to interfere in the degeneracy of mankind would he not have done so by now? Wolves cull themselves, man. What other creature could? And is not the race of man more predacious yet? The way of the world is to bloom and to flower and die but in the affairs of man there is no waning and the noon of his expression signals the onset of night. His spirit is exhausted at the height of its achievement. His meridian is at once his darkening and the evening of his day. He loves games? Let him play for takes. This you see here, these ruins wondered at by tribes of savages, do you not think that this will be again? Aye. And again. With other people, with other sons.

For the judge, the West and perhaps all the world of men exists in a state of permanent decline interrupted by mortal attempts to erect eternal monuments meant to stave off the effect of time and the violence of nature. Man (and I use the word knowingly) refuses to die, refuses to admit his mortality. And this logic is precisely that which leads to a situation like the Cold War: as empires decline they grasp at straws to maintain their status. In the early to mid-1980s, that grasping had led to the capability of two nations to destroy all life on Earth rather than appear weak and vulnerable. With the Cold War it had appears that man had learned to play for stakes and would soon cull its own, all of its own.

This reading of the Cold War (and McCarthy) is overly simple, but the song in question is not altogether complex. My point is simply that it is not a song bound up in nostalgia for the past. It does not wish for a simpler time, does not long for the days before atomic power or the Cold War. Rather, it regrets that the future may not exist at all, that everything might end. The songs final verse alludes top this regret:

So many adventures couldn’t happen today
So many songs we forgot to play
So many dreams are swinging out of the blue
We let them come true

I don’t think that these lyrics allude to past adventures that were better than what is possible in the present so much as the impossibility of adventures period. There is no future and, as a result, any action in the present becomes meaningless. Alphaville longs to be forever young because it wishes to retain the potential of the future, something that the leaders of the world had foreclosed on.

Thus the song is very rooted in its moment. It is not some eternal anthem to youth, but a statement about the late Cold War. And while my use here of the term “occasional” is somewhat inexact, it nonetheless gets to the heart of what I am arguing: that the power of this text does not derive from its touching something eternal and ubiquitous but rather from its particularity and for the fact that it only fits within history in its specific situation.

Of course, that doesn’t stop Alphaville from going all Modern English on us:

The song’s Wikipedia page mentions that it has become something of a pop standard. Indeed, it has been covered numerous times. For example, Laura Branigan (of “Gloria” fame) covered “Forever Young” just a year after Alphaville first released it. Thus she retains the Cold War context and, it seems, just about everything else from the song, and adds very little to the original:

I guess I am being somewhat problematic by implying that covers should add to a song, modify it, and respect its specificity. Perhaps. Maybe I am just not a fan of the cover at all. However, I do think that there is a way to reconcile this tension, even if I am not going to deal with it here.

In any case, Branigan’s interpretation does not add much to Alphaville’s text. It’s inoffensive, but just does not break any ground.

Compare that version to this one by another german band, Die goldenen Zitronen, who cover “Forever Young” as “Für immer Punk”:

Now Die goldenen Zitronen’s cover is what a cover ought to be: an interpretation and resituation (and that’s without even considering the issue of language). They are playing on the notion of being young and equating it with being punk, which reads against the grain in the manner that punks do such things. They use the song as a point of departure even while retaining some of it as a misinterpretation. Of course, my German sucks (viz. nonexistent), so I can’t speak directly to most of the lyrics, but I am sure that whatever the misinterpretation it works because the point is to misinterpret. More important, that misinterpretation situates the song in a new context and allows it to develop its meaning in that context. Branigan’s version largely fails to do so. (Yes, something of a moral argument here.)

Finally, compare each of these versions of the song to Jay-Z’s, entitled “Young Forever”:

Now, I can’t be sure if that is the actual music video for the song. Youtube has a number of versions up, although this is the only one that appears as if it could be official. Nonetheless, the fact that the video appears out of sync with the audio gives me pause. Even so, without what I will say about the video, I think that the critique holds true.

To begin, this (mis)interpretation falls short. Whereas Die goldenen Zitronen rewrite “Forever Young” as “Forever Punk”, and alters the lyrics as well, Jay-Z wholly appropriates the song’s first verse and chorus without changing them at all (Again,the lyrics from “Forever Young” in “Young Forever” are not sampled, but covered by Mr Hudson). This appropriation without alteration is significant because it retains those lyrics which are most explicitly about the Cold War: “are you gonna drop the bomb or not?” Now, I understand that “drop a bomb” can mean a number of different things (The Simpsons played with this line too), but the lyrics simply don’t make sense in this context as written. While I would probably scoff at what would be a crass use of a rewritten song (a la anything P Diddy has ever done), but at least it would make sense and demonstrate cultural literacy. By retaining the lyrics as originally written and performed, Jay-Z misreads the original song. Perhaps, again, this misreading is intentional, but it nonetheless falls short of the interesting misreading from Die goldenen Zitronen because it does not resituate the song in any way, shape, or form.

To be a bit clearer, Jay-Z merely adds the old song to his own. He does not seek a level of abstraction at which the two songs might meet and converge, but rather grafts one to the other seemingly under the assumption that they are about the same thing, that they derive from similar occasions. Now, such juxtapositions can be useful and interesting, and I am willing to listen to such arguments. Again, my target here is not really Jay-Z, but rather the type of thinking “Young Forever” represents. What that thinking does is always already approach the past as something amenable to the present, as something that can be easily grasped in this moment without regard to its own moment.

The video and lyrics to “Young Forever” bear this reading out. Here’s the first verse:

So we live a life like a video
When the sun is always out and you never get old
and the champagne’s always cold
and the music’s always good
and the pretty girls just happen to stop by in the hood
and they hop their pretty ass up on the hood of dat pretty ass car
without a wrinkle in today
cuz there is no tomorrow
just some picture perfect day
to last a whole lifetime
and it never ends
cos all we have to do is hit rewind
so lets just stay in the moment, smoke some weed,
drink some wine,
reminisce talk some shit forever young is in your mind
leave a mark that can never erase me neither space nor time
so when the director yells cut,
I’ll be fine,
I’m forever young…

There is something here about life as an icon, living life according to fantasy rather than reality. However, the lyrics do not critique this lifestyle, and if they don’t exactly celebrate they present it as a matter of fact. This is how Jay-Z lives his life, that’s how we roll. What’s more, the lyrics ask that this way of life last forever. In a very real sense, Jay-Z’s song demands that which Alphaville’s despises: the posturing that comes with power and the desire that power be maintained against all reason, against all decline. The Jay-Z of the video, who seduces numerous women and becomes the victim of violence as a result, is the top dog for whom everyone is gunning, the one who has become so big that he has nowhere to go but down. Tony Montana. And while there may be here some critique of the lifestyle, that critique is no more than metaphorical: no one needs to take Jay-Z down to become the next kingpin. Capitalism has more than enough room for captains of industry. Ther can always be another, even if the overall number must remain finite. In other words, no one is gunning for Jay-Z and he has little need to remain young forever f by that he means fast and strong, capable of staying hungry and withstanding the attack of the new. Regardless, he no doubts desires sameness. His song demands it, the endless continuation of present circumstances, a flattening of the world that makes possible the status quo.

It is this very sameness that Alphaville laments, the sameness manifested by those who do have the power to decide, the ones who cannot abide seeing anything that might diminish that power. Moreover, this sameness is that which makes impossible the occasional, which is a reminder that there is variation, that there is particularity, that there is such a thing as a situation (in both the active and passive senses). Jay-Z’s use of “Forever Young” seems nothing but an attempt to cash in on a half-memorable song the lyrics to which somewhat/kinda match a certain theme that we commonly understand to be universal. And while Jay-Z’s song in no way applies to all people everywhere (except to those, perhaps, who vote their aspirations rather than their situations), it attempts to popularize (in the sense of populism) that which can never be popular through recourse to that universal. It asks that we feel his pain, that he too wants to be young forever just like us and damn his fame that makes that impossible. Compare that idea to what Alphaville was saying: that there is no future for anyone because of a specific threat to humanity. The occasion of that statement has become something of a joke, subject to nostalgic remembrances of legwarmers and John Hughes films (there’s a paper: “Nostalgic Apparel: Princesses, Legwarmers, and John Hughes”). I am not arguing for respect here, so much as the necessity of knowing that the past is more than a sample.

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2 Responses to “Sampling Nostalgia: “Forever Young,” “Young Forever,” and the Impossibility of the Occasional”

  1. Victor Says:

    The song and of course the lyrics “Forever Young” although written during the time of the cold war, could never have been more contemporary and realistic than today. Today we live in a controlled world where banks and multinational corporations rule our lives through financial terrorism making us feel entirely insecure about our futures and our lives and deciding how we are to live these lives. If we do not like this and do not sumbit to the terror state, we are considered terrorists. The recent corruption – stealing of money by politicians and governments in Greece entailing the intervention of the IMF in Greece highlights this fact exactly and accurately. Revolution will start in Greece which will spill to other countries in the EU and we are now talking of Greece’s lost generation.

    The duty of young people and all peoples of the world is to enact and realise our dreams and not to submit to the final pre-set stage of extreme private capitalism – in other words, destitution, poverty, hunger, control, fear, dependency. All of these are exactly what our leaders want as debt = money and money = profit for banks and multinational corporatocracy.

    We must awaken to these sad truths – yes still many people are afraid, but we must get up and stand up and fight for our rights. Greece will give birth to democracy all over and if it needs axes and chainsaws as happened in Argentina to achieve this then so be it. Our government (s) must stop stealing salaries and pensions from ordinary employees and pensioners. They know who has stolen the money as it is those who enforce austerity measures who have stolen it. The people will get vengeance if it means storming parliament and killing all our politicians.

  2. Bryan Says:

    that’s not the real young forever video.

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