In line at the bank a snippet of song from a once hugely popular Australian band drifted into the atmosphere. What had once been a party song to power my libidinous adolescence had now, apparently, turned into background music for nostalgic middle-aged professionals, waiting to deposit checks into a corporate bank’s gaping maw.
Oh, fleeting youth.
I promise not to refer to Proust’s madeleine here. I promise, I promise, I promise.
Two seconds in, the lyrics flared into my consciousness, a bonfire of nostalgia. I couldn’t help but smile to myself. What a great party song! Everyone hears something from their adolescence occasionally and finds themselves adrift, time-shifted right where they stand. Any reacquaintance to our younger selves reveals us dreaming about the future selves in ways we couldn’t possibly have predicted. The experience inevitably brings pangs of remembered pleasure mixed with unresolved consternation. The song followed me out the door, blasted full volume through the virtual speakers of memory. It followed me into my car and into the afternoon, and clung to me like my shirt, thick with summer humidity and enthusiasm.
Music from one’s late teens and early twenties grabs and propels us unbidden. It motivates deep parts of our brains, without regard to how we may have grown into different lives since those early hearings. It’s inevitable: songs from our youth remind us of freedom and sensuality and excessive opportunity. If you have a pulse at all, the music from those years recall the primes of your life because of their vital connections of what we dreamed might be our bright future waiting to unfold. Music colors many experiences when we’re young, and as a soundtrack of our great potential it always reminds us about what we were hoping to become.
Allow me, if you will, to shift radically our chronological orientation. In the first half of the 1800s, a young Felix Mendelssohn rocked the musical world. It was all just music at the time—not classical nor “classic” nor any other moniker—but music through and through. In the end the great composer died at the tragic age of only thirty-eight, but in the beginning and middle, he shined with the fires of precocious youth.
And to digress a brief moment, I do not pit contemporary pop stars with classical stars in silly hierarchical competitions. As Duke Ellington once put it (ironically at the chronological midpoint between these two mismatched musical mavens), “If it sounds good, it is good.” The great advantage of historical perspective is to be able to compare styles and aesthetic motivations without having to play funny games about which is better.
From what we know about Mendelssohn’s life, the urge to create things came from internal forces as much as external influences. When he wrote his stunning Octet at the equally stunning age of sixteen, he essentially created a chamber music structure that did not exist before he put it together. That it also presents spectacular musical fireworks, the equivalent of my INXS moment in the bank (the Aussie band in question), just underscores my point. When we’re young, we feel deeply. We send off sparks. We glow. Most of us don’t have the discipline or skill to focus and deliver the goods like Mendelssohn did, again and again and again. But when you really listen to that Octet, you understand the motivation, the life, the soul. It rocks! That kid’s something special; he knows it, and he wants everyone to know it too, because right now feels so alive.
The music illuminates promises of undying late night parties in cool clothes, with cool people, in cool cities, full of cool promise. That we could be talking about INXS or Felix Mendelssohn in that statement is completely beside the point.
No, there isn’t even a subtle implication that INXS is stylistically similar in any way to our 19th century auteur, Mr. Mendelssohn. And yet, I can’t help but point out one vital moment of frisson. They both presented a sound to the world that cannot be avoided, regardless if you like one more than the other. Time and circumstance may change the style of things, but the motivations are the same. For different reasons these creations persist after the life and times of their creators have passed, and their creative sparks speak about the great pleasures of being young and hopeful and full.
Are you ready for a new sensation?