Memory bias and why that concert was so much better in 1995

Photo by Jen Cray
Photo by Jen Cray

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As someone who was a kid in the ’90s and a teen in the 2000s and simultaneously someone who tends to love music from 1970-1990 best of all, there are a ton of bands I treasure who I have yet to see in concert and even more who I definitively never will.

Being buried in loud music is an experience I actively seek out, and the ultimate is obviously the bands whose records I’ve ground to dust on my turntable. So when bands like Meat Puppets or Gang of Four, both of which were in town last week (at least sort of), finally make their way to a stage to perform a concert I can actually attend, I cannot resist. I’m a sucker for reunion tours and I have been since I chased the Pixies around the country in 2004.

Now that I cover music regularly, I frequently am targeted for those exchanges where someone who’s older than me (sometimes by even as few as five years) has this easy superiority of having seen many of these reunion bands in their prime. I can clearly imagine (and am repeatedly told) that what this older fan experienced was an obviously better show – artists performing fresh songs with the heat of intuitively understanding that they would be heard for decades after, or the creativity-surged abandon of not giving a shit either way.

Those are shows I’ll only see on YouTube or snipped and clipped in documentaries. I know this. I am at peace with this. I am only occasionally riled by the sneer that follows this heavily acknowledged superiority, “I’m good, I saw that band 30 years ago,” as if the concert I am about to attend will surely be such a pale version that it would actually dilute the early memory this older fan clings to.

I’ve definitely seen my share of bands that are a mixed bag live. I understand how this can compromise your experience of a band, even to the point where I stopped liking records after concerts that were truly that bad. I know a bad show can ruin a good fan-band relationship.

But what I’d like to suggest is that the show this older fan saw in 1995 (or whatever) might not actually have been as cool as he or she remembers. Memory bias is a thing, and what we remember is rarely accurate. It’s smudged by many different shades of memory bias – from choice-supportive bias (where you remember the choices you made as being better than the choices you rejected, even though you never experienced the rejected), egocentric bias (remembering your past as being better than it was in order to serve your current ego), leveling and sharpening (where you only remember certain details and place an inordinate amount of significance on what you can recall) and most of all: rosy retrospection: where oldtimers just plain exaggerate how cool the past was.

In 2011, Huffington Post shared an article called “Why the past always seems happier than the present,” and among the points they make is the fact that our experiences are valued against only what we have experienced before that moment. So if you were 20 in 1994, you had 20 years of life behind you, and maybe a decade or less of concert experiences by which you judged that 1994 Green Day show. Now that you’re older, if you were able to attend that same show, your judgment of it would have 40 years of experiences and 30 years of concerts to compare it to, and it might not be as rosy as you remember.

We can still be friends about all this, you with your heavily tinted memories and me with my green perspective. We’re all destined for the same manifest amnesia caused by foolish nostalgia anyway. The name for that memory bias is right on the tip of my tongue, I swear.