Why I Won’t be Watching Daisy Jones & the Six This Week
Lately it feels like popular culture has turned down a dead end street.
I was thinking this today while deciding whether or not I would take the plunge into Daisy Jones & the Six, a ten-part miniseries on Amazon Prime about an up-and-coming LA-based rock band in the 1970s. I had already heard the buzz about the series being loosely based on the legendary rock band Fleetwood Mac. I was not surprised to hear this. Lately, "the culture" has felt claustrophobic and dull, overflowing with sequels to films that were not that great to begin with and gorging itself on nostalgia. After Fleetwood Mac's recent resurgence in popularity, it was inevitable that something like Daisy Jones & the Six would be birthed into existence.
So I've decided to pass on it for now.
My aversion to the very idea of this show is notable, to me at least, because I am the perfect demographic for this nostalgia fest. Rumours came out when I was in the sixth grade. Stevie Nicks was my first celebrity crush and the 45 for "Gold Dust Woman" was the first record I ever bought. If anyone should want to watch this show, it is me. I should want to relive the 1970s, right? I should want to revel in all of the youthful memories associated with that music and all of the other music and cultural references that surround it. Right? Who wouldn’t want to see a fetishistically researched, meticulously made reconstruction of the early 70s LA rock scene? What is wrong with me?
Nothing, of course. I’m just tired of being the eager audience for the nostalgia machine’s 24/7 reconstruction of my own past and memories. Nostalgia is in the zeitgeist now--hazy, beautiful, warmly enveloping nostalgia. It isn’t just a brand of entertainment we enjoy anymore; it is a cultural obsession.
I wouldn't be the first person to point out that the entertainment industry is wallowing in its own tried-and-true past as it churns out sequels, prequels, and reboots at an alarming rate. The entertainment press wants to focus on the economics of this trend rather than dwell on the vast, becalming Sargasso Sea at the heart of it. Audiences no longer want edgy, transgressive entertainment; they want to be catered to by a team of writers and producers that gets them. They want to feel validated and heard. They want more of what they already know they like. They want to be soothed by the entertainment equivalent of comfort food.
But the trouble with nostalgia is that it gets in the way of actually remembering what happened.
I was trying to remember recently what the start of the Grunge era was like. What did it feel like to listen to that music for the first time? Was Nirvana's Nevermind really the sonic earthquake that the music writers and pop culture historians tell us it was? I think it was, because in 1991, the audience for rock still expected the music to be regenerative, revolutionary even. Rock fans could look backwards on a series of creative explosions within a music phenomenon that was itself a Big Bang in the culture--The Beatles and the British Invasion, Acid Rock, Prog Rock, Glam Rock, Heavy Metal, Punk, New Wave. Three short decades of this music felt like an entire epoch filled with revolutions and counter-revolutions. Bono wrote the song "The Miracle of Joey Ramone" to explain the transformative power of punk music on his life, but really, his sense of wonder about punk is another quaint artifact from the 1970s because practically no one expects music to blow up their lives anymore. Music audiences no longer believe in miracles.
Grunge was one of those revolutions within rock music, maybe the last great one. With its working class fashion; its honest, introspective lyricism; its howly, growly vocal style--lower on the register than the screamy faux histrionics of 80s metal--grunge felt honest and raw. It felt like a break with the past, and that's what we still expected pop music, and pop culture, to do in the early 1990s. To bring on the new.
Jump ahead thirty years: I am a college English professor, and I show up to my freshman writing class to discover that two of my female students are wearing the same pink Nirvana sweatshirt. Neither of these women is an actual Nirvana fan, at least, not in the way we would have expected a person wearing a Nirvana sweatshirt in 1993 to be. I know enough about their generation's relationship to music to not even ask the embarrassing questions like, "what is your favorite Nirvana album"? Rock band sweatshirts and t-shirts are for sale everywhere now, wherever cheap clothing is sold, evidence that the entire history of rock music has been successfully fed into the great nostalgia machine. Now, it is not expected of anyone that they would possess memories of or even a real affinity for the thing imprinted on their clothing. The era of music tribalism is long dead. Anyone can participate in nostalgia now. The bar to entry has been reduced the cost of a sweatshirt.
The matching pink sweatshirts haunt me because they expose the awesome power of consumer capitalism to overwhelm the transgressive and the revolutionary. Seeing them, I was reminded of a moment in 1987 while shopping in Macy's when I saw tie-dyed t-shirts for sale for $35 each. That was the year The Grateful Dead's "Touch of Grey" was everywhere on FM radio, and Deadheads were wondering aloud if the high priests of hippiedom had finally been co-opted by mainstream culture. I couldn't answer that question, but it was obvious to me and many others that the nostalgia machine was hard at work turning the Sixties into an inoffensive memory reel of peace signs, photos of Woodstock, and car ads featuring songs by rock icons, making its music and fashion "classic" and sanding the rough edges off of its history.
I don't know what damage Daisy Jones & the Six will do to my own recollection of the 1970s, but I am afraid to find out. I prefer to dive into my own memories, without the assistance of a team of stylists who no doubt had long conversations about which knee-high red leather boots actress Riley Keough should wear as she tries to approximate Stevie Nicks without actually mimicking her. When I use my own brain to travel into the past, I remember the day the album jacket for Rumours was making the rounds in the 6th grade. We were all fixated on the two wooden orbs hanging under the crotch line of Mick Fleetwood’s pants like a second ball sack and Stevie Nicks---dressed in her Rhiannon Welsh witch costume---who reminded us of our older cousins and sisters, teenage girls who wore feathered earrings and smoked joints in the bathroom at school. The photography in that album was electrifyingly sensual, and there were the stories we’d all heard about the band, the sex and drugs, and the rumors circulating that Stevie Nicks was a witch. All of it was seemingly designed to rupture the staid, religiously-tinged normality of our middle class lives.
Now that we are fifty years beyond the 1970s, the society has passed judgment on the entire decade as a stagnant, dysfunctional moment in American history--Watergate, inflation, the OPEC crisis, the Carter administration, the Iran hostage crisis, the inglorious end to the Vietnam War. But the decade also summoned an unprecedented flourishing of innovation in film, music, and television. Novelty was on display in the 1970s. The regenerative force of American culture was firing on all eight cylinders.
I cannot make the same claim about this era. In music, for instance, hip hop is now being digested into a super-commercialized societally-safe consumer product as surely as rock 'n roll was a generation ago. The era of white parents freaking out over rap lyrics is over. Now we live in the age of the producer, that studio maestro who can program sounds and styles and sample from the vast catalog of digital music with god-like efficacy. Want to make the guitar on your track sound like the intro to "Smells Like Teen Spirit" or recreate the sound of the Hiwatt amp Lindsey Buckingham used when recording the guitar solos on Rumours? It’s easy to do using Pro Tools. So much of the pop music my 12-year-old daughter listens to sounds like it was programmed from a vast catalog of already existing sounds, tones, and styles from the last fifty years of recorded popular music.
The film and TV industries are obsessed with rebooting tried-and-true classics for new audiences by redesigning the leads to fit a more progressive template. A female James Bond. A new all-girls cast for American Pie. Margot Robbie as the new female lead in an upcoming "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie. Often the desire to remake classic material in this way is presented as politically progressive but underlying it is a regressive impulse to continually circle back the comfortable and the familiar. Rather than wonder what a female Bond would be like, maybe we should be asking if the world actually needs another Bond movie?
It is too easy to blame "the industry" for giving us yet another Marvel movie or Batman franchise, but the audience shares some of the blame as well. There are ready-made audiences for reboots of Full House, Hawaii 5-0, Will and Grace, and The Waltons. The appetite for consuming entertainment products that were repurposed from the last half century of pop culture appears to be bottomless.
It could be that pop culture serves a more palliative role in society than it did forty years ago. Certainly recent events in American history may have given audiences the desire to wallow in comforting entertainment, and to be fair, the entertainment-as-comfort-food analogy could fit any decade of American popular culture since the end of World War II, depending which part of it you choose to focus on. What seems to be new is the size of the audience's appetite for nostalgia.
I may end up watching Daisy Jones & the Six. There will be no harm in it. But I already know what species of entertainment it is. There will be nothing in it resembling the excitement we all felt in 1977, boys and girls, as we gathered around that album jacket to gawk at Stevie in her sexually alluring hippy Wiccan resplendence. And there is the album, of course, which still excites me every time I listen to it.