Raphael Saadiq's Soul Memories
by Michael D Dwyer — Arcadia University
August 30, 2012 – 00:00
To understand the relationship between popular media and nostalgia, we first need to understand this: nostalgia isn’t about the past.
"Big Easy," from Raphael Saadiq’s 2008 album The Way I See It, illustrates this point. The song clearly and proudly invokes 1960s soul. Saadiq employed period instruments and recording equipment in the production of the album, donned 60s-inspired fashions, and even released the album as a series of 45rpm singles. Listen to 30 seconds of the song and you’ll hear it—crisp snare, backbeat tambourine, staccato guitar and vocals all straight out of Motown Records. The song’s first line, “Somebody tell me what’s going wrong” evokes Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On,” the song epitomizing soul at its most culturally and politically salient. This is retro: a representational mode that signifies ‘past-ness’.
While retro and nostalgia often go hand in hand, they are distinct from one another. "Nostalgia" was coined by Johannes Hofer in 1688 to diagnose cases of homesickness among Swiss mercenaries. These cases of nostalgia did not occur because Swiss pikemen fighting unspeakably bloody battles in Spain or France had romanticized notions of the Alps. Rather, they felt homesick because getting slaughtered in the service of Europe’s crumbling monarchies was kind of a rough gig. The point here is that we should understand the temporal nostalgia in contemporary society as something other than flawed history. Nostalgia is not a simple idealization of the past, but the emotional product of a critical reflection on the present.
“Big Easy” illustrates this, as well. Though it appears at its outset to be an exercise in retro style, it soon reveals itself to be an engagement with the conditions of contemporary America. When Saadiq sings “Somebody tell me what’s going wrong / they say them levees broke, and my baby’s gone” it becomes immediately clear that the narrator is longing for “soul” (as exemplified by Gaye) in the context of a “post-racial” society where Black communities are ravaged by institutional racism. The affective products of "Big Easy"—a feeling of horror at the conditions that made Katrina possible, and the longing for a cultural movement that could respond to them—combine to create nostalgia in listeners. This nostalgia does not emerge because we correctly or incorrectly remember the soul of the 1960s. Rather, it emerges because we critically look at our society and long for something else.