Country shade and lemonade
Guess I’m slowing down
It’s a turned back world
With a local girl
In a smaller town.

Oh reality, it’s not for me
And it makes me laugh.
Fantasy world and Disney girls
I’m coming back.

Bruce Johnston’s lyrics to the Beach Boys’ ‘Disney Girls’ fixate on returning – to a slower pace, a smaller town. He imagines a homecoming, a concept the ancient Greeks dubbed nostos. Originally applied to Odysseus’ return home after the Trojan War, the word is the root of ‘nostalgia’, the suffix algia meaning ‘pain’. Nostalgia is a particular kind of algia; an acute longing for home, from a place far from it. In the case of ‘Disney Girls’, this desire is both for a geographical ‘home’ (‘a smaller town’, a ‘local girl’), and for an earlier time. Feeling homeless in the present (‘Oh reality, it’s not for me’), Johnston longs to return to a ‘home’ in the past, the America of a previous generation.

Appropriately for a song about slowing and turning, ‘Disney Girls’ proceeds by stops and starts. The first is the kick of a moog synthesiser interrupting the self-consciously old-fashioned strains of the mandolin and introducing a rough waltz time. This 3/4 beat keeps the song moving lopsidedly around and around, though its momentum periodically breaks down and must be prodded back into motion, like a rusty music box. The faltering waltz movement recalls the half-remembered ‘old time dances’, fondly evoked alongside ‘church [and] bingo chances’ at the dramatically suspended bridge. Here, climactic double-tracked vocals pause at ‘church’, their choral richness an echo of the ecclesiastical choirs of childhood Sundays. The song has several such musical memories: the ‘choir’ also echoes the Four Freshmen who inspired the Beach Boys, while ‘Just in time, words that rhyme / Well bless your soul’ patch together fragments of the Great American Songbook. ‘Disney Girls’ is interwoven with songs from home.

‘Disney Girls’ songwriter Bruce Johnston was only a temporary member of the Beach Boys – brought in to cover for the increasingly unstable Brian Wilson – but his song became the fourth on the band’s 1971 album Surf’s Up. The album was an attempt to restore the Beach Boys’ relevance in the volatile world of Nixon’s America; its economic stagnation, race riots, Vietnam protests and police brutality are all alluded to with panic on the album’s fifth track, ‘Student Demonstration Time’. Yet the song’s full title, ‘Disney Girls (1957)’, marks it out of time, backdated to President Eisenhower, ‘Patti Page, and summer days / On “Old Cape Cod”’.

It is this sense of limbo and temporal homelessness that differentiates the futility of nostalgia from the achievable return of nostos: ‘Disney Girls’ longs for a past that cannot be retrieved. Yet the song’s lilting melody emphasises a tight internal rhyme scheme that locks words and phrases together, as if modelling the resolution it craves. In fact, the neat couplings that emerge – the longed-for ‘peaceful life / with a forever wife’ – are more politically-charged than they first appear: like the ‘swell girl’ fond of ‘church’ and ‘old-time dances’, they offer the kind of monogamous pairings that, after the sexual revolution of the 1960s, many worried were disappearing.

Yet this attempt to recreate the comforting predictability of 1950s America is ultimately unsuccessful: the song contains just as many half-rhymes (‘Patti Page and summer days’) as full rhymes, whilst its ending simply fades out, rather than resolving in the concluding chord cadence as is conventionally demanded; sometimes also called ‘coming home’. These irresolutions acknowledge the nostalgic half-memory at the song’s heart, the impossibility of its nostos. The cosily conventional world of the 1950s has long since faded, if indeed it ever existed; something new and uncertain has taken its place. There is no home to return to.

Painted around 1715, Jean-Antoine Watteau’s The Pleasures of the Ball might also be in 3/4 time. Glistening in silks, its central couple is suspended midway through a minuet, a courtly dance characterised by its stately, aristocratic pace, proceeding in large, circular movements. Music is provided by a string and woodwind ensemble, apparently mid-flow, to the right of the couple. Though the couple are the painting’s focus, the wind player and violinists are among the few people to look directly at them, presumably to ensure they remain in time. This ‘ball’ is a holiday world. It is, accordingly, paper-thin. A similar building in the hands of the Dutch painter Hendrick van Steenwyck – The Courtyard of a Renaissance Palace (1610) – had offered a precisely delineated, largely realistic perspective. In Watteau’s painting, the arches simply hover in front of a vaporous background. This at fist appears to show a red-roofed town, but on closer inspection it dissolves to an impressionistic haze of colour and light.

Like Surf’s Up, The Pleasures of the Ball arose from a time of economic stagnation. Louis XIV was dying, and his court at Versailles had faded from baroque splendour to dreary piety under the influence of his second wife, Madame de Maintenon. Nancy Mitford mourns this regime in her biography of Louis, The Sun King: ‘There were a lot of horrid new rules. Chatting and giggling at Mass were now severely looked upon’. But France had bigger problems: harsh winters had prompted bread riots, and the King’s silver furniture had been melted down to fund the War of the Spanish Succession. This largely fruitless campaign had lost the French over a million men, and much money and patience. Indeed, France’s fall from carefully managed magnificence to paranoia, poverty and social upheaval is comparable to the “Camelot court” of Kennedy followed by the inflation-plagued post-Vietnam years of Nixon.

The Pleasures of the Ball, Jean-Antoine WatteauThe Pleasures of the Ball, Jean-Antoine Watteau

As a teenager, Louis XIV had just survived the 1648-1653 ‘Fronde’, an aristocratic rebellion against royal power; as king, he set out to erode aristocratic privileges. He swelled their ranks, adulterating their status by ennobling members of the bourgeoisie; he moved them to Versailles, then a perpetual, overcrowded, building site; he enforced a labyrinthine programme of court etiquette and elaborate divertissements designed to preoccupy them with frivolity. But his glittering court entertainments had faded by the early 1700s – though the tediously elaborate etiquette remained – and as the ‘Sun King’ started to set, France’s nobility seized its chance to withdraw from court life and return to the lights and hôtels of Paris. Here, they organised exclusive, elaborate and cliquey entertainments that harked back to a time when aristocracy was ascendant. The inward- and backward-looking nature of these historical aristocratic fêtes defied the courtly protocols of contemporary Versailles, which had been about making royal magnificence visible to all. They revived, instead, the enchantment of aristocratic France, as its players remembered it.

Watteau depicted these entertainments so frequently that the French Academy created an entire genre to describe his paintings, the ‘fête galante’, today placed explicitly in its own time by the OED definition of ‘an outdoor entertainment or rural festival, especially as depicted in 18th-century French painting’. Watteau includes the essentially nostalgic quality of the historical fêtes in The Pleasures of the Ball, where at least one figure wears seventeenth-century dress. The clothes mark him ‘out of time’ as clearly as Bruce Johnston’s ‘1957’, and he is similarly surrounded by a misty haze created by layers of semi-transparent paint. The incrementality is comparable to ‘Disney Girls’’s laying of mandolin, guitar, flute, piano and synthesiser over gossamer-thin vocals. The effect in both is dreamlike, as if half-remembered.

Yet it’s doubtful such fêtes were remembered at all: Watteau, a roofer’s son, would only have known this aristocratic world from afar. The same was true of many of his clients, drawn mainly from the bourgeoisie – people who aped, but were set apart from, nobility. As France entered the Regency period (1715-1723), the vogue for aristocratic emulation increased, with new public versions of traditionally aristocratic entertainments such as masquerade balls. Here, formal etiquette was suspended; social and class identities were as interchangeable as costume. What Watteau painted may have been closer to these real-life ‘fantasy worlds’, where an apprentice might for a night became an aristocrat, than to the aristocracy’s private fêtes. That we cannot conclusively tell is perhaps the point: the painting offers a playful vision that, like ‘Disney Girls’, mingles fact, fiction and atemporal escapism.

Despite both pieces’ fantastical quality and hazy delicacy, Bruce Johnston has in interviews maintained that ‘Disney Girls’ is a faithful record of his upbringing. It’s a dangerous assertion: when such nostalgia is transformed from wistful half-memory into historical truth, a return to the ‘home’ it speaks of – here, an America before sexual revolution, civil rights or mass protest – may seem possible, and indeed desirable. But it isn’t: like The Pleasures of the Ball, ‘Disney Girls’ dwells in the realm of algia rather than nostos, longing for a place that appears forever lost, yet that was never truly home. Poised mid-minuet, Watteau’s couple will never ‘come home’ to their starting positions, while ‘Disney Girls’ waltzes on in dreamy circles until fade-out.