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Well, no, probably not. That’s a bit of overzealous, ramping things up a few notches too high. Maybe it’s not a virus. No. But maybe it’s an ailment that we need to keep an eye on.
Think about what kind of shows that are really racking up the ratings now. Stranger Things, HBO’s The Defiant Ones, Westworld—which itself is sort of a realization of my argument. A whole slew of shows whose existence relies on reaching back into the last 40 years and pulling time periods, retro music, and familiar phrases into now and…just serving them up again.
The bands everyone tells me about sound like rehashes of thirty years ago, recycling synth sounds or resurrecting David Bowie or flag shipping the post-post-post-punk (shoot me now) movement, all with megaphone in hand and screaming to the world, as a sideways answer to a question nobody asked, “Remember this?”
The neon colored pants that came back a few years ago, the big hair you might have seen in your father’s old college photos, the flannel, polaroids, reboots, retreads and redos, even the President’s slogan, rekindling a dream you think only exists in the past, are coming to bear full force. Why is this happening? What is this thing? What the hell is going on?
I understand the how part to all of this contrivance; it can be traced right back to your computer screen. The internet has allowed the growth of a practically infinite memory bank of everything old-school, encouraging mental masturbation with all those TV shows you used to watch, those bands you listened to, the social norms of yesteryear, back in the good ol’ days—or, more dangerously, the things of recent history you never even associated with.
It’s okay to reminisce, take pleasure in your past—everybody does it. But it should only be done from time to time, because otherwise you’re just living in the past, never moving forward, never fixing the problems of now, because you don’t even know they exist or conveniently ignore them.
And for those who weren’t around to experience these things and are also indulging in these artifacts of recent history, well, it can become incredibly difficult to dissociate past from present, as they more-or-less start blending together, and they begin losing their sense of place and self.
With this overindulgence, there no longer seems to be very many authentic qualities or reasons for existing in what we tend to collectively praise. Things that are dug out of the graves of recent history simply cannot be as beautiful as they were in their prior cycles of life; they’re all just Frankensteined together, piece by piece, to create something that holds no life, no purpose, no being. These things exist superficially, for their own sake, and are a danger to the innovation of culture. If we keep wallowing in ours our past, living in this stasis, what will come of us?
What we bring back had once been a genuine reaction to a problem, some major shift, in the world that needed addressing; the rebellious flapper women of the roaring 20s spawned from the 19th amendment and prohibition; the Beat generation of the 50s was a resistance to the predominantly restrictive atomic-family society that came about after WWII; the first punk bands responded to the political turmoil and societal disenfranchisement of the times in a new, ferocious way. Most cultural “movements” seem to be grounded in being ungrounded, defying the norm and what is acceptable, yet ultimately becoming accepted. Still, each of these short periods of cultural change were partially created from things of the past. It’s like a law of science, that everything must come from or be caused by something else.
I think people do this sort of thing for a couple reasons. For one, it’s easy. Before, cultural revolutions rose out of deep pain, confusion and desperation, requiring creative and sometimes dangerous answers to some very real problems. But you don’t have to be very creative to be referential or retro because you didn’t come up with that. It’s like being in a safe space where the reality of the world can’t touch you. There’s no danger in this sort of nostalgia. There’s an identity somewhere down that rabbit hole of synth-vibes and old Nickelodeon that suggests an air of being in-the-know, or even in-tune, with what our goggles of youth show to be endearing. Is that likable? Living in the past like that? Why are you doing that?
There is such a thing as genuine nostalgia, the kind of feeling that lifts you, disorients and almost makes you guilty for being alive because the feelings you feel and the experiences you realize you’ve had are too great, like you don’t deserve them. The most insignificant things become the ocean that you’re drowning in. Like a biblical level of longing that everyone’s too afraid to talk about—you can’t put it into words. But now?
It’s like the McDonaldization of nostalgia; cookie-cutter, surface-level bullshit that induces the exact opposite of what old cultural revolutions were spawned from—desensitization. Nostalgia is supposed to be a deeply personal feeling, but now…but now it’s social currency.
It’s pure superficiality, but it’s fooled a lot of people who think that living this way gives you some sort of intellect or social weight in the realm of things. But it’s so confusing to me. They don’t just wear their inspirations on their sleeves; they tattoo them all over their faces, have reconstructive surgery to look like somebody popular from 1982, and get transfused with tainted blood, just because it comes from an idol of theirs. Not literally, of course, but it certainly seems that way.
I don’t think people are necessarily afraid of any new real cultural revolution taking form. On the contrary, I think people desperately want to take part in their own cultural revolution, because that would give them a solid purpose and drive forward. But there’s not much we can legitimately fight against right now that’s in our control, and for what we can fight against, we’re simply just too lazy to do it.
There’s a discouraging level of complacency that I see in a lot of people, and maybe it’s that they’re so easily able to find a million shallow identities on the internet that the world is tricking them into believing are more meaningful than they are. I think people are settling for their identities, whether they know it or not. People want a purpose, to some extent a label, a business card or bumper sticker that tells people, I represent ___, I am fighting for ___. But in the end, it seems that most people just don’t want to put in the work.
Just like how Bryan Adams sings about his Summer of ’69, the past always seems to hold a euphoric quality that the present never seems to have. It’s such the easy go-to for good feelings, and if you can construct your entire identity around what are supposed to be the best days of your life, why not do it?
I can tell you, 2011 seemed like the best year of my childhood; endless evenings of biking through town, feeling sore after yard work in the hot sun, and disobediently scaling the trains that would stop at the industrial port near my house. The times were grand, but with people still reeling from the recession, civil wars breaking out in North Africa, and Japan being leveled by a magnitude-9 earthquake and tsunami, the past never is the good ol’ days for everyone.
That brings me to my final point: I think another reason is that a lot of people have lost hope for the future because the present seems so dim, so they look to the past as if the answer has always been there. What answer?
I know this rebuttal to Trump’s slogan is a little played out at this point, but when was America “great?” The 50s, when there were three recessions, lynchings, McCarthyism and the second Red Scare, and the nuclear threat? The 80s, with the Cold War still going on, the AIDs epidemic, explosion of crack, and the Iran-Contra scandal? Or was it way back when we won the Revolutionary War—ah yes, the days of freedom and liberation—when you could indulge in the pursuit of life, liberty, and happiness so long as you were a white, male landowner?
And great in what sense? Economically? Socially? Don’t forget, scandal, corruption, and collusion are woven throughout our entire history.
No period in time varies in this sense from any other period. But the lens of nostalgia has blocked out the failings of those times so that we only see the good in them, whether that’s all we choose to look at or not. The past becomes this fairy-tale dreamscape of wonder and innocence that we can frolic through anytime we want, thanks to the internet.
But all that means is that we’re ignoring the problems of today; we’re not considering the fact that it isn’t the answer that lies in the past, but the problem, and that maybe we can find the answer in today’s world. I think the only people who’ll see an answer in our time will be the next generation, who will look back to now with the same nostalgia goggles as ours and reminisce, think about how the times used to be, and wish that everything can be simple again, just…like…now.
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