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Goodbye and all that. Goodbye to all that?

September 10, 2021

I try, as a rule, not to take my earworms too seriously, but I never cease to be amazed at the way tunes I have not heard in decades sometimes resurface in my consciousness and don’t leave. I guess it works like dreams. Sometimes there’s a clear trigger – and I am easily triggered. Often hearing a turn of phrase that is roughly similar to a song lyric is enough. Sometimes, I have no idea.

Well, this week’s is in the ‘I have no clue’ category: the Sundays’ “Goodbye”. This is a song I probably last listened to on cassette. It’s been at least 10 years since I had a cassette player.

Unlike most of my random earworms, this song and I have a serious history. It’s entwined with my first year out of college (I vow that it’s goodbye to the old ways) and a relationship that I messed up, and that messed me up for many years to follow. That relationship started, in fact, at a Sundays concert in the summer of 1993, probably within days of this video, and it blew away sometime in the spring of 1994. When I was a young man, it was like an event. In some ways, the event sharpened my scholarly interest in processes of memory that I took with me on a greyhound bus across the country to the University of Chicago that autumn. In other ways, it just sucked.

Having repaired a lot since then, including some valuable friendships that blew up in the process, having the song come back is not in any way traumatic. I find I listen to it now not so much as a personal memory but as a collective one – as a member of my generation and social position. That is to say: as a Gen X-er.

This also brings me back to the classroom, as I am preparing my opening class for the “Field Explorations” course in media studies on the BA Humanities Honours Programme. In the class, students explore their discipline, and their own interests in it, via a pre-set theme. My theme, which I’d already decided on before the covid crisis broke, is Normal. Quoting from the syllabus:

While certainly not unique to the discipline, critical questions of how, when and where certain times, places, things, bodies, behaviours, or experiences become ‘normal’ within our constantly shifting and highly mediated societies and environments are perhaps uniquely at the core of media and cultural studies.  They are central in our understandings of (media) power and meaning, and sit at the heart of theories of ideology, discourse, representation, performance, and media domestication, to name just a few.  With the arrival of the Covid-19 pandemic, these questions have been thrown into relief not least by the suspension of ‘normal’ life, routines and mobility, by the increased use of media for physical distance, and by the ways we understand and/or imagine the current crisis (and indeed grasp it as a ‘crisis’).  The word itself can be seen as a ‘keyword’ in our society: both self-evident in meaning, but complex, varied and changing in connotations and contexts.  In trying to grasp ‘normal’ in its multiple meanings – familiar, ordinary, predictable, standard(ized), privileged, etc. – we will explore different strands of thought in media and cultural studies and see what insights into our present (and past) conditions we can gather. 

(Yes, that’s a pretty tall order for six weeks of class)

Part of the goal of the introductory class is to open up a number of the lines above. In my experience BA students in particular are very concerned with issues of representation and identity – wherein normal and normalization show up as processes of oppression. At the same time, I think we also need to get a sense of normal as a baseline of predictability and stability, and collective meanings around which we orient. To quote an essay by Alon Confino entitled “Dissonance, Normality and and the Historical Method” that was central to thinking through my PhD research, we need to grasp ‘the configuration of what is and what is not considered being normal and happy within a culture at a given moment’. He points out:

The normal is not an appraisal of reality; rather, it is an appraisal of value. It is based on a process of comparison and analogy with previous experiences as well as with future expectations.

As such, I want to give a historical and generational perspective on such . Without turning it into Uncle Alec’s Story Hour (which is how some referred to classes by a somewhat senior professor when I was an undergraduate) I want to offer some perspective on what previous generations may have viewed as normal, and what for them the major events were. When I was growing up, the Cold War, with its daily reminders that Mutual Assured Destruction was A Thing, was normal. Until it wasn’t. And then what? Well, among other things, a Gulf War that did not take place, white police being acquitted for a crime the world had witnessed, the OJ Trial and the Real World.

This brings me back to “Goodbye”. It’s on the album Blind which came out in 1992: definitely the and then what? moment. (Peace love now what? is, in fact, a line from another song on the same album) The hope of the end of the Cold War seemed to be almost instantly tempered with a sense of…unreality. I was surprised to rediscover this sense in the song as well: I had mostly remembered its wonderful shimmering sound and soaring vocals that seemed to be desire sonified – I had forgotten how ambivalent the lyrics are by contrast. It’s this dissonance that isn’t dissonant that now gives me pause:

It starts resolute:

I vow that it’s goodbye.

It’s clearly about stepping back from a relationship

Why did we have to assume we’re exactly the same? Oh no no, talking about yourself.

And in the next verse, it walks away again, still resolute but now with some mixed nostalgia:

Those stories were a good read. They were dumb as well.

I could never be seen

Falling down on my knees crawling

Oh no no, talk about a sell

Only after this, does the song head sonically and lyrically for its climax (perhaps in multiple senses) which is in stark contrast to what’s gone before:

As the heavens shudder baby I belong to you

(Where did that come from? Ah, back together, are we?)

They said you get what you deserve and all they said was true

(So, given the foregoing, is this a good thing or a bad thing?)

So is this what it’s come to?

Am I cold or just a little bit warm?

Oh well, just give me an easy life and a peaceful death.

Oh well, whatever, nevermind. Again: What? Where did that come from?

News flash: it wasn’t just the angry lads with guitars saying this. This ending line was both surprising and it wasn’t. It was kinda normal. (On the day I am writing this, the inimitable Malgosia Fiebig will play Smells Like Teen Spirit on the carillon of Utrecht Cathedral tower to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the song)

Xeni Jardin has, I think rightly, asserted that “the core value of Gen X is hostility: to your favorite bands, your mom, your politics, and definitely those shoes.“

Asserting a similar Gen X privilege, I will also add that a hostility to your own favourite things is part of the bargain. Or rather, I would formulate the thesis of Gen X like this: the things you love are crap. (Those stories were a good read. They were dumb as well.) Don’t get me wrong, you love them. But they’re demonstrably crap. (From “Teen Spirit“ I’m worse at what I do best/And for this gift I feel blessed) Right now, as I write this, there is a part of me yelling that the Sundays were really crap. Rinse, repeat, be sarcastic, but really not. I think that’s also why a lot of songs around then were named after substances: things that just…. were. Bleach, Lithium, Glycerine. Normal, everyday things that were, I guess, as worthy of love as anything else, and certainly reliably real. In retrospect, this is an extremely white rage: communities of colour were long since used to being gaslit. Doesn’t make the rage go away.

So, again, where does this come in to teaching? Emotionally I do, and intellectually I don’t, want to tell my students any or all of this (though I may add a Confino quote). On some level, I’m still angry and I’m clearly still attached. And OK, maybe some of this did come out when I was asked by some of my honours students to talk about US media and politics:

Funny thing is that most of my circle who spent our 20s working at jobs we were overqualified for and making art out of frustration went legit. Those who struggled to do so weren’t us disaffected middle-class kids, but ones from more precarious backgrounds. And/but/so, looking at the current impending doom of global heating, driven by racist capitalist greed, I do wonder (besides what the hell are we doing here and not superglued to a fossil fuel company’s front door?) to what extent those of us socialized in/as Gen-X are equipped to teach a new group of students to face these challenges. I question what prospects my students have of an easy life, or a peaceful death. Oh well, whatever, nevermind is not a sentiment I endorse, as much as it feels like home. Sometimes it does colour the way I try to see things from my students perspective – because it was the way I saw things around their age (why did we have to assume we’re exactly the same?).

I’m glad at the least that I get to teach students in a discipline that takes this friction – the tensions between our cultural texts and our pleasures in them – seriously. Without wanting to turn the classroom into a group moan (I’ve done that wayyyy too often), it’s worth asking, and talking, about the things we’re attached to in normal life. And what and how those things matter, And: what do we need, now, to care for?

We don’t normally talk about that.

Postscript: One more note about The Sundays. They actually went back to being normal people having briefly been a global-ish phenomenon. Harriet Wheeler and David Gavurin clearly thought the touring lifestyle and the music business didn’t suit them (I’m worse at what I do best) and so they stopped. Went home, raised their kids, and lived a normal (one imagines – but of couse Can’t Be Sure – settled, middle-class, cishet nuclear family) life.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Nil Disco permalink
    September 11, 2021 1:49 pm

    Brilliant, Alec. You’re phenomenal at what you do best!

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