Noel Gallagher’s Reverse-Chronology Comparison Standard, and Cars

Shortly after posting the Chrysler Cordoba “As Seen on Craigslist,” I read this article about an interview with former Oasis leader Noel Gallagher.  He puts forth an interesting argument about the nature of music criticism – that creating a critical narrative around a series of albums is inherently unfair, because each album is then gauged against the previous one.  For example, Oasis’ bloated Be Here Now is viewed as a failure, despite selling millions of copies, because it wasn’t as good as the two albums before it.  Everything the band released after it is seen as continuing the downward spiral to musical irrelevance.  This isn’t to say that things should be judged “in a vacuum,” but that music critics set up easy conclusions by trying to make everything part of a continuum.

Gallagher turns this idea on its head by showing what would happen if you viewed Oasis’ discography in reverse.  Rather than seeing the last ten years of their work as desperately reaching for their initial success, it becomes a journey – the fair-to-middling recent albums become stepping stones to later greatness.  Be Here Now is still the band’s turning point, but it now, as author Steven Hyden puts it, “suddenly seems like the work of a slowly evolving trad-rock band taking a grandly ambitious stab at a masterpiece and falling short. It’s an interesting failed experiment before the twin achievements of Maybe and Story, the kind of record that fans eventually come to regard as “criminally underrated.””

So what does this have to do with the Chrysler Cordoba (or cars at all)?  In my post, I posited that the Cordoba represents “a forgettable period in motoring history.”  The Malaise Era of automotive history owes much of existence to ongoing social changes in the 1970’s, but viewing it against the (theoretically) freewheeling, high-horsepower, cheap gas 1960’s is what truly defines it.  Much like Oasis’ Be Here Now, 1970’s cars stink because the cars that came before them were so much faster, better looking, and fun.

But what happens if you look at automotive history in reverse?  Instead of looking like the death rattle of an industry as it struggled to marry changing geopolitical needs and increased regulation with changing consumer tastes, the Malaise Era now becomes a stepping stone to greatness.  Sure, the engines were underpowered and the cars overstyled, but once automakers learned to strip away unnecessary embellishments and really tune the engines, they started churning out beautiful, fast cars by the million.

Of course this is nothing but an intellectual exercise – taken on their own, Be Here Now is an overwrought record by an overreaching band, and 1970’s cars are generally disasters of design with few redeeming features – there’s a reason that the past decade’s retro trend has stopped with 1970.  But that isn’t to say there isn’t something to be had there.  Disregard the smogged-out engine and view the Cordoba as a blank canvas, and maybe it isn’t so bad.  It has the same long-hood-short-trunk proportions as most 60’s cars, the interior is pretty well laid out and quite similar in design to most earlier cars, and it likely handles much better than cars a decade older.  Modify the government-mandated truck bumpers, and you’d have a decent looking car that is, by most objective standards, better than, say, a ’68 Coronet.

Of course, that’s not how things work.  Despite their flaws, enthusiasts prefer 60’s and older cars not just because the are faster or prettier than newer cars, which isn’t always the case.  They prefer them because of what they represent – ideas of freedom, the open road, youth, and memories of an America that never really existed – things that were long gone by the time that Cordoba rolled off the assembly line a decade later.  War, Nixonian politics, disco, and everything else that is now identified with mid- to late-70’s “malaise” also influence the way the cars of the era are viewed.  So while a ’77 Impala might be objectively better than a ’65 Impala, it doesn’t tug at the same emotional, visceral chord.

Personally, I prefer the older cars because they are better looking and I’m drawn to old technology and design.  I’m not old enough to have any kind of emotional attachment to cars of either era.  Of course, being a child of the ’80’s might have something to do with my irrational love of Monte Carlo SS’s and Grand Nationals, so the theory still holds true.  I would never argue that any Reagan-era car is superior to any performance car made today.  But given the choice, I’d probably rather have a 1987 Buick than a 2011 Camaro.  In other words, I’m insane.

The point of all this is that car guys and music critics fall into the same trap, and there’s not much that can be done about it.  But the next time you see a ’76 Bonneville, maybe it won’t look so ugly.

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