Saturday, January 21, 2012

Nostalgic for the Present

The other day, my "little" brother posted on Facebook that the song "All My Friends" by LCD Soundsystem made him nostalgic...for things that haven't even happened yet. In a strange twist of meta-irony, this comment made me nostalgic for an Onion article that I read about 15 years ago, which commented on the acceleration of nostalgia--an article I was able to unearth thanks to the retroectionary power of the Internet (I made the word up the word "retroection" to describe the resurrection of something retroactive. I don't expect it to catch on, though). The money quote from the article: "We are talking about a potentially devastating crisis situation in which our society will express nostalgia for events which have yet to occur."

Taking away the hyperbole, however, and the 1997 article actually emerges as a fascinating and incredibly prescient analysis of cultural consumption of nostalgia. (And the fact that the article predicts retroactivity may just make this the most ironic thing ever produced by an entity built on irony). I was struck by this quote:
"Before long," Williams warned, "the National Retro Clock will hit 1992, and we will witness a massive grunge-retro explosion, which will overlap with the late-period, mainstream-pop remnants of the original grunge movement itself. For the first time in history, a phenomenon and nostalgia for that particular phenomenon will actually meet."

And that actually kind of happened. A few years later bands like Creed and Nickelback would emerge as spot-on iterations of "late-period, mainstream-pop remnants of the original grunge movement," at the same time MTV was putting out specials around the fifth anniversary of Kurt Cobain's death. (And in recent years the National Retro Clock flipped back to 1992 again).

Then consider this quote from the Onion:
According to the report, retro-kitsch aesthetics—previously the domain of a tiny group of forward-thinking, backward-looking alterna-hipsters, or "retro-cognoscenti"—have become so prevalent in the national pop-culture psyche over the last decade that they have been absorbed into the marketing strategies of major retail chains and mass-media promotional campaigns.

And compare with this quote from Simon Reynolds in the Slate article linked above (which was published last year):
what is striking about the recent "9ties R Back!" blather is the absence of any real sense of "by popular demand." The retrospection feels rote, the predictable upshot of the way that commemorative cycles have become a structural, in-built component of the media and entertainment industry. This revival is largely top-down, not grass-roots.

The Onion
also identifies 2005 as the year when the "nation will entirely run out of past," which is about the time Facebook started taking off and our culture arguably shifted from innovating to curating. In his book Retromania, Reynolds argues that this shift is to be lamented. While The Onion jokes about a "national retro crisis," Reynolds believes that this is precisely what has occurred to our culture, that we are too obsessed with the past to forge new trails.

But I'm not totally convinced that new trails are all that necessary. Perhaps this is the predictably conservative sentiment of a thirtysomething parent who has seen enough change in pop culture to be satiated and content with stasis. But I also consider the implications of the conviction that creative innovation is necessary. To urge society to "progress" is on some level to condemn the past. Is it a fact that someone who died prior to 1950 lived a lesser life than us for having never known rock and roll? Is someone who died in 1990, old and full of years, to be pitied for having missed the grunge explosion? Are we to shed a tear for all those who passed on before they were entertained by Seinfeld or The Sopranos? For that matter, for all the souls who have departed this Earth prior to the invention of television, are we to feel that they have missed an essential experience of what it means to be human? (Or is it more likely that raised up to peer at our existence, they might levy that exact judgement against us?)

If we admit that it is possible to have lived a fulfilling existence prior to any particular idiom's genesis, then we have to admit that it is okay for us to wallow in stasis and in "retromania." And it is not like the last decade saw no worthwhile innovation...we had LCD Soundsystem, after all.


Blogger VicTim said...

Great idea; and thanks for taking me to the Onion article, which made me nostalgic for Twin Peaks: "One day, that gum you like is going to come back in style."
To your larger point, though, this makes me wonder if those "based on a true story" movies will start to be produced before the events happen? The key to those crap-fests is timing. Who is Pvt. Jessica Lynch again, and why did we save her? Are the Navy Seals a new act at Sea World featuring our men in blue? The public will someday demand that the producers of our culture get out in front of these events. Instead of "Made for TV reality movies" we can start making Made for Reality TV Events.

3:13 PM  

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