Last month, Dave Wakeling, former frontman of the English Beat, came to town, and a major metropolitan newspaper recommended his performance as just the thing for those suffering from “’80s nostalgia.” This, of course, is an oft-expressed view. Indeed, the faint praise for Wakeling was delivered soon after I met another journalist who ardently denounced baby boomers—which is to say, people of roughly his own age—for their continuing interest in the Beatles.

As it happens, I had interviewed Wakeling recently, so I was paying more attention to him than I might have otherwise. But what struck me was not how his music fulfilled my ’80s nostalgia. The early ’80s were alt-rock boom years, and while I didn’t ignore the British ska revival, at the time, I listened more to Gang of Four, the Slits, the Feelies, the Raincoats, the Clash, the dBs, and other bands that weren’t quite as bouncy as the Specials, Madness, and the Beat. So, investigating Wakeling’s old music now, I was struck mostly by the fact that—as he playfully boasted—”the songs are fantastic, aren’t they?”

Well, they are, and they’re certainly not the only ones. I didn’t buy the Beatles’ coffee-table book or 1, the compilation album that humbled the Backstreet Boys, but I did see the rereleased A Hard Day’s Night. And those songs are fantastic, too.

The Beatles were my introduction to pop music, and I listened to them relentlessly in my formative years—so much that I never play them now. While watching a movie that was structured around the band’s 1964 hits, however, I saw no reason to be embarrassed by my former devotion. Sure, the words aren’t great, although not in the way I remembered: As an elementary school kid who didn’t want to hold anybody’s hand, I thought the Fabs’ pre-pot lyrics were sappy; hearing them now, I think they’re pointless. But the melodies and arrangements are sharp, vital, and ingenious, working a dozen different unexpected variations on two-and-a-half minutes of thump and strum.

Does that sound like nostalgia? I hope not, because we know nostalgia is a bad thing. In fact, although the charge is often leveled at boomers (those of us born before 1965) by Generations X, Y, and whatever, it was the ’60s kids who originally established the directives now being used against them. For a few years, it was understood that ’60s rock was progressive, unprecedented, and crucially aligned with a moment that was going to change everything. History is over, if you want it.

Of course, by the time the decade ended, top-of-the-line rockers were rummaging around in the past as if there were, well, no tomorrow. Bob Dylan became Woody Guthrie, and Paul McCartney found that Carl Perkins’ blue suede shoes still fit. Since then, only cranks (some of them marvelously impassioned cranks) have suggested that pop music will continue to advance without a single look backward.

I don’t know who first decreed that the pop music of your teen years will always define you. Perhaps it’s a ’50s notion, because that decade is the era in which the teenager was initially classified as a separate demographic force. I first heard it from a high school English teacher, who might have been a boomer, too. She was in her late 20s in the early ’70s, I’d guess in retrospect—old enough to claim Elvis as her signature music but definitely not a Frank Sinatra/Tony Bennett type.

One interesting thing about the nostalgia theory of pop’s appeal is that it buys the line of ’50s and ’60s grown-ups: Rock was just a passing phase, they said. Almost 50 years after Elvis and Bill Haley scandalized adult America, we’re supposed to accept that rock’s enemies were basically right. Pop music isn’t widely considered evil anymore—gangsta rappers and death-metalists excluded, of course—but officially it’s still child’s play.

This premise is so widely accepted that it seems almost futile to note that it’s not true. If pop fans whose time has passed—those over 40? over 21?—really had moved on to other, more “adult” music, symphony orchestras wouldn’t be on corporate life support and the controversy over Ken Burns’ Jazz wouldn’t seem like old Asia hands debating the finer points of British policy in 19th-century Afghanistan.

Perhaps most commentators who dismiss all pre-1990 music (or perhaps pre-1999 music—can it be long before they deplore “grunge nostalgia”?) as merely the occasion for nostalgia really believe themselves. For some, though, it seems that their notion of pop culture’s decent interval really just acquiesces to contemporary marketing objectives. If mass-media companies want to reach the 12-to-25 demographic, then older people who insist on having pop-culture interests are at best a distraction. Out, out, damned ’80s nostalgia! The Backstreet Boys audience is where the buying power is.

As 1’s success indicates, that’s not necessarily true. But even if it were, buying power isn’t the whole story. What sells isn’t the only thing that’s interesting, although it’s often hard to make that case to pop-illiterate editors and publishers.

Anyway, pop nostalgia is a trickier concept than most of its detractors recognize. Neo-hippie jam bands purvey ’60s nostalgia for listeners who were conceived after (sometimes way after) Woodstock, and lounge revivalists simulate a vibe that even the oldest boomers never experienced. Even some techno music deals in a sort of nostalgia: for the Jetsons-style future that’s never going to happen the way it was depicted.

Ironically, the final word on nostalgia may go to the marketers. I just received the soundtrack for a new movie that features such ’60s hits as Martha and the Vandellas’ “Dancing in the Street,” the Human Beinz’s “Nobody but Me,” and Steppenwolf’s “Born to Be Wild.” The audience for this boomer nostalgia fest? The under-10s who’ll see Recess: School’s Out.

In our interview, Wakeling noted that most members of his current audience seem to be in their 20s. For some of them, ’80s nostalgia would be Sesame Street songs. But Wakeling’s ’80s songs have an allure that, if not timeless, can’t be restricted to people who were there then. “Mirror in the Bathroom,” like “Dancing in the Street,” demonstrates that the phrase “classic rock” needn’t be only a marketing term. —Mark Jenkins

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