What are imagined memories?


Yesterday I had fun talking to Matt Grimes, a music industry lecturer at Birmingham City University who is starting a PhD on canonization and fans’ memories of Crass. Matt is writing up a blog post about our day of discussion. He is particularly interested in the idea of ‘imagined memories’ that I developed in 2002-2003 in a pair of articles about Paul McCartney’s webcast from the Cavern. At one point Matt asked me to explain how imagined memories come about. What I will do in the rest of this post is to define imagined memories and answer that question.

Seeing the Beatles early live shows at the Cavern and seeing the Sex Pistols taunt Bill Grundy on The Today Show at the end of 1976 are classic examples of imagined memories. The first thing to notice is that these incidents really happened: they can be located in time and place. For any individual audience members who experienced these, they were supposedly transformative moments. Yet there is also a mass of fans who never had these experiences but wished they did. In that sense they are investing in imagined memories.

Each imagined memory is the thing you wished you had experienced, but never did. It is not exactly a fantasy, because it really happened to someone else. However, it is not your memory either, because it happened to someone else. By a process of valorization in the narrative of history and in the media it is therefore a kind of fantasy which authenticates itself as a (false) memory. The term points to the paucity of phrases like ‘cultural memory’ in describing popular music’s past: for a few people these memories are real enough (although, even for them, the memories have been inflected by the subsequent success story of the performers). Imagined memories are spaces of emotional investment that are necessarily contradictory since they only matter because of what came after them. In a sense, then, they are memory commodity templates: they are both valorized (made to matter by stories) and characterized by their own rarity value. Not everyone has the ‘real’ memory. This is precisely why they become starting points for further commodities (media documentaries, heritage tourism, anniversaries, re-enactments, etc).

So imagined memories are like fetishized moments of fan subject-positioning from the early career of iconic artists, but how do they come about? What is the socio-cultural process through which they are fabricated?? Perhaps they emerge through a four part process of collective appreciation:

1. Mass performance: A classic performance (live or on record) marks a new peak of an artist’s mass adulation.

2. Historic Narration: Band biographies, etc, are created to contextualize, romanticize and therefore extend the pleasures fans have invested in the artist or piece of music. These narratives say things like “It all came about by accident” or “It almost never happened” or “There was a unique confluence of circumstances.” They are designed to show that the emotions motivating the performance are ‘real’ (phew!) rather than fabricated by technicians or commentators in the culture industry.

3. Recognition: Cultural entrepreneurs recognize the moment in the narrative that appeals to fans because it shows the artist at their rawest and seemingly most powerful (not yet diluted by the industry). The moment becomes a touch-stone in retellings of the narrative. The template now complete, fans begin to fantasize, fetishize and discuss these historic moments. New cultural products are formed around the reminscences of those that experienced the moments. They are given a mediated chance to speak about what happened.

4. Extention: The imagined memory can now become a generative resource for other narratives and commodities.

In time, of course, even the mass performances (in step 1) can themselves become imagined memories as more people start talking about their previous viewing experience and fewer fans have access to a real memory of the event. (I note, too, that the idea of “real memory” is itself a contradiction, as all memories are invented by the ways in which the brain interprets, records and remembers events.)

I want to briefly mark out some subtle differences between imagined memory and myth. The key thing to say here is that imagined memories and myths are not quite the same. Myths are ways to tell an artist’s story that satisfy the public. A star’s mass performances (step 1) can still help to generate myths, but those myths need never actually have happened. In theory, imagined memories may be based on myths, but usually they are not. Also, myths don’t have to be imagined memories: a myth can be almost anything, whereas an imagined memory is a specific moment of performance in some sense, a time and place when fans begin to wish they had been there.

Finally, this idea is still in a process for formation. There may be interesting work to be done on the intersection of imagined memories and various fan practices. One example is the question cultural capital. Given that imagined memories are invitational containers for affect that are retrospectively recognized, in what ways does their construction invite the collection and display of cultural capital? I don’t think that fans need much capital to locate these moments, since they are usually prominent in discussions of music phenomena. Nevertheless the moments may become a focus for the collection of facts and stories that allow fans to play further games of distinction.

What I hope to have shown here is that although narratives of popular music history move forwards in time, we create them by looking backwards when we are steered by the affective attachments that come from our engagement with crucial performance. This process generates imagined memories of earlier times, the significance of which gets fully recognized only in retrospect.

My thanks to Matt for making me think a bit more about this. I hope other researchers like him can now find new examples of this phenomena and take the theory even further forward.