From The Archive
Tom Vanderbilt
No. 5  December 1993

The Nostalgia Gap

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There is something unsettling about the pattern of 1970s nostalgia which has afflicted “twentysomething” thinking over the last several years, something beyond the immediate banality of an entire generation reveling in the luminescent wash of The Brady Bunch and the kitsch-laden Top 40 hits from what T.S. Eliot might have lamented as “the cruelest decade” (as we stumble about in our own Waste Land, seeking shards of the seventies, “mixing Memory and desire”). The deeper insidiousness lies in the speed with which we arrived to this time of 1970s nostalgia, when it seems that only a few short years ago America was still in the twilight of its homage to the 1960s.

Dating the origins of 1960s nostalgia to The Big Chill the twentieth-anniversaries of Woodstock and Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, we face a rough nostalgia window of 1982 to 1989. This was the time when moneyed urban professionals attempted to resolve the contradictions within their collective psyche (bridging the gap between Mother Jones and Dow Jones, to paraphrase an ad for socially-conscious investment funds), through a not-quite-twelve-step recovery process of watching the yuppie verité of Thirtysomething and listening to Buffalo Springfield and Motown. Corporate America joined in this era of good feelings by using 1960s songs to sell everything from California raisins to frequent flyer memberships. To non-Boomer observers, it seemed a fairly simple exercise.

What is strange about this equation is that the people celebrating seventies nostalgia are for the most part early twentysomethings.

The process of 1970s nostalgia is a much wilier creature, as are its consumers. Whatever the current parlance—13th Gen, Twentysomething, Generation X—here is the generation that was thrust into the zenith of political and social upheaval in the United States in the twentieth century, only to wilt in the merciless apolitical drought which followed. They shrugged off the liberal and conservative crackups and read vague references to the fiscal orgy they were told was bankrupting their future. And in the long shadow of Reagan’s morning-in-America rule they sought refuge in an evocation of the collective inner child of a decade in which their most poignant cultural expression was replacing the bedroom wall poster of a toothy Farah Fawcett with the garish tones of Kiss, only to later have that symbolism undermined as Kiss was ritually unmasked (and stripped of drummer Peter Criss). It was a time when Donahue was the only day-time talk show that mattered, as peopled poured out traumas without the nineties addition of a post-show, on-site counselor. Meanwhile, as adults reveled in what Christopher Lasch termed the “culture of narcissism,” hordes of soon-to-be disaffected youth reached for the latchkeys.

In the spring of 1991, these memories came back in droves. In typical pack-fashion, the media reported—or created—the trend: “Boogeying on Back to the 1970s: The Ultra-Hip Embrace the Days of Gold Chains, Polyester, Platform Shoes and The Partridge Family,” announced the Los Angeles Times. “70s (“Stayin’ Alive”) Won’t Die (Signs of 1970s Revival)” heralded the New York Times. Like some nightmare vision of Left Bank intellectuals gone awry, people coalesced in seventies preservation societies, adopting the trappings of some artistic vanguard (THE PAST EXISTS FOR OUR PLEASURE, their graffiti might read). They hashed out mythopoetical tales of the Brady trip to the Grand Canyon (and here the seventies nostalgia version of the Grand Canyon contrasts with the sixties version, Lawrence Kasdan’s 1991 film of the same name—you decide which was more resonant) and played digitally remastered versions of “Midnight at the Oasis.” What is strange about this equation is that the people celebrating seventies nostalgia are for the most part early twentysomethings, whereas the sixties nostalgia was powered by early thirties Baby Boomers. Somewhere in nostalgia’s hall of mirrors, we seem to have lost—or skipped—an entire decade.

According to the historical precedent, the early twentysomethings should not be reminiscing about the 1970s, but the mid-to-late 1980s, when their formative tastes in music, film, and literature were being consolidated and they were blossoming into the much desired 18-24 demographic. And this should happen in the next few years. But why did we not wait? Why did we jump the nostalgia gun? If the Baby Boomers had done what we have done they would have been listening to young Elvis and Dean Martin and watching Rifleman reruns, not wallowing in Jefferson Airplane and Hair. If we had followed the historical precedent correctly we would be dragging out collections of 1980s music by the Human League, dusting off the digital watches and the simple one-button joysticks of the pre-Nintendo era, and watching Hill Street Blues. The answer seems to be that the speed of nostalgia has increased.

We find ourselves in the strange condition of time sped up—a shrinking of the future to look back on the past. The rise of a global media network means that events, styles, trends, fashion and other sources of future nostalgia are disseminated instantly, and as each new trend is promoted and participated in, a previous one is made obsolete. Culture, like technology and consumer goods, is now run on an assumption of planned obsolescence. “In the eighties,” Robert Hughes wrote, “bulimia, that neurotic cycle of gorge and puke, the driven consumption and regurgitation of images and reputations, became our main cultural metaphor.” Take, for instance, Duran Duran, a band that cultivated a string of pop hits in the early-to-mid eighties, which later fell out of fashion and become a target of camp, only to emerge a few years later with a refashioned, bankable image and a new Top 10 hit. It would be misleading to call this a comeback. The band’s new media identity shares only a name with its previous incarnation, and the two are radically fragmented: while their early songs serve as kitsch-fest fodder, their new material captures healthy market shares. The speed of consumption has accelerated to the point where things that happened only a few years ago already seem laughably archaic, distant from memory and covered by a creeping nostalgia. In the face of this “instant-,” or “hyper-” nostalgia, such recent events as the “grunge” movement, the Savings and Loan scandals, or the “Earth Summit” in Rio seem like quaint, if not embarrassing, relics of a simpler age.

There is some concern that with our increased nostalgia speed—a rush to remember—we will miss the 1980s in the blink of an eye, the decade reduced to some peeling billboard on a slick, open road to the halcyon days of the 1970s. Relax. In the New York Times “Styles” section, a kind of Weather Channel for predicting which way the winds of mainstream taste are blowing, a recent headline announced: “Barely Gone, 80’s are Back.” In the article, Village Voice columnist Michael Musto claims that “we’ve sped up to the point where we’re looking back to three years ago … everything’s happening faster in popular culture.” Indeed, with this eighties outbreak, we may become the first generation to be nostalgic for two decades at the same time. Quentin Tarrantino’s remarkable film Reservoir Dogs may have hit upon this point: a “sounds of the ’70s” radio show hosted by an eighties comedian (Steven Wright) plays over DeNiro-esque noir-violence (also eighties)—and the result is eerily 1990s. The mingling of nostalgia poses intriguing philosophical questions: Would a future 1990s nostalgia take into account this decade’s 1970s and 1980s nostalgia, and then by extension the 1950s or 1960s nostalgia of those decades? Like Magritte’s La réproduction interdite, in which a man looks at a painting of himself looking at a painting of himself, stretching into eventual nothingness, a true nostalgia would envelop all previous nostalgias, a rather dizzying prospect indeed.

Were the 1970s not also the decade when 500,000-strong anti-Vietnam War rallies filled the nation’s capital, Sandinista rebels overthrew the corrupt, U.S.-backed Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua, and Indonesia, with tacit U.S. consent, invaded East Timor in a bloody “annexation”?

To even talk of 1970s (or any decade’s) nostalgia is to assume some sort of unified vision of what the Mood Ring of Decades actually was. If the 1960s were codified as the hippy-era, when in fact only a small part of the population could have been considered actual hippies, the 1970s nostalgia we are served comes direct from the most lukewarm waters of the mainstream. In popular music, for example, songs such as C.W. McCalls’s “Convoy” and disco singles resurface, but are presented with the hollow snickers of irony (postmodernism’s laugh track), denying any of the slight cultural or political significance they might have once had. This portrayal denies the real artistic importance of a decade of which Robert Christgau in 1981 felt compelled to write, “Rock and roll’s first quarter century produced well under a thousand excellent albums. Close to two-thirds of them appeared during its last and least romantic decade.” For such bands as Wire the year 1977 was “nearly heaven,” as they sang on their debut album Pink Flag yet it had little to do with disco or bell-bottoms. The importance of the 1970s in musical terms has yet to be fully realized: the current revisionism ignores the work of such artists as Miles Davis, Parliament, Isaac Hayes, and Gil-Scott Heron, artists who defined a vibrant musical subculture. Were it not for hip-hop music, which routinely samples the beats of these musicians, this side of the seventies might have dropped into obscurity. For many a song such as Glenn Campbell’s “Rhinestone Cowboy” somehow sounds more like the 1970s, which begs the questions: what were the 1970s, or even, when were the 1970s?

The answers to these questions are effectively up for grabs, and the producers of nostalgic culture are just one more party vying to sell their version of the 1970s. While our generation may have been too young to realize the scope and nature of political events occurring in the 1970s, does that still condemn us, once we have acquired the cognitive ability to place the changes of that decade in historical context, to dither on endlessly about the 1970s as the time of The Partridge Family, CB Radios, and Gloria Gaynor? Can we not break free of nostalgia’s grasp? Were the 1970s not also the decade when 500,000-strong anti-Vietnam War rallies filled the nation’s capital, Sandinista rebels overthrew the corrupt, U.S.-backed Somoza dynasty in Nicaragua, and Indonesia, with tacit U.S. consent, invaded East Timor in a bloody “annexation”? Could we hark back to the 1973 collapse of the Bretton Woods agreement, when fixed exchange rates against the dollar were replaced by highly unstable floating rates, laying the groundwork for future unregulated speculation and financial chaos? The obvious argument against this line of thinking is that it would be impossible to be truly nostalgic about these events, as they were not part of our everyday childhood reality.

But in the process of reconstructing the 1970s one has to wonder how much of nostalgia is based on memory or history and how much is pure contrivance. How, for example, can we account for the strange sensation of “displaced nostalgia,” where one generation is nostalgic for the music and fashion of a period which passed before they were born? We need only remember the popularity of the The Big Chill and its soundtrack amongst college-aged youth when the film was released, or the recent acclaim of Richard Linklater’s Dazed and Confused, which in large part came from audiences for whom high school was but a far-off contingency in 1976. Linklater’s film is devoid of the cheap surface emblems of current seventies nostalgia, and it doesn’t seek to answer any grand questions about that decade; rather, it attempts to sort out the simple yet poignant dramas of his youth. Its feel and look is disarmingly authentic, resembling some seventies teen-exploitation film (e.g. Over the Edge) one might stumble upon on late-night cable television, save for the occasional slipping signifiers of actors whose looks are too hip to be sincere, nineties versions of the seventies (or, as a colleague noted, “Kate Moss seventies”).

Nostalgia is a form of propaganda, an exercise in laughter and forgetting, in which the right visual iconography and perceived authenticity can create a longing for an existence which is no longer possible and was in fact never possible. The popularity of the Reagan presidency amongst younger voters was driven by this manufactured nostalgia, as his White House “character” was based on a mixture of the unfettered Cold War hardliner, the tough lawman of Hollywood Westerns, and a traditional religious “family man.” The fact that he was twice-divorced and rarely attended church seemed a peripheral issue. As Garry Wills argued, the power of Reagan’s appeal lay in “the great joint confession that we cannot live with our real past, that we not only prefer but need a substitute. Because of that, we will a belief in all his stories.”

The triumph of this will jettisons all hopes for what Walter Benjamin called “revolutionary nostalgia”; namely, an attempt to counter the present political order through an active summoning of the traditions of the oppressed in previous generations. Surveying the present, this vision appears pathetically inadequate. Nostalgia, like most forms of consciousness in late capitalist society, has been sanitized and streamlined for market competition, and to stray outside its confines is a risky endeavor. In his landmark study The Culture of Narcissism, Christopher Lasch writes: “Having trivialized the past by equating it with outmoded styles of consumption, discarded fashions and attitudes, people today resent anyone who draws on the past in serious discussions of contemporary conditions or attempts to use the past as a standard by which to judge the present.”

History becomes, in the infamous phrase, “just another lifestyle choice.” The correct cuttings and pastings of fashion, the consumption of products whose value has been wildly inflated in the retro market: the most banal efforts of the heroic consumer are rendered as some artistic “statement.” One exudes the stylistic elements of an era without bearing any of its historical costs.

We have 1970s parties to both mock and worship that final decade of real innocence, and you get the discomforting impression that we might rather be in that decade.

The fashion lines of Ralph Lauren, for example, conjure images of the old untamed West, the graceful reign of colonialism in Africa, the splendor of pre-revolutionary Russia, or the realm of the stately English manor. In the Safari line, for example, Lauren’s empire of nostalgia offers its participants a chance to relive the days of the tragically doomed upper-class engaging in their white mischief on the plains of the Serengeti; lost in any of this aesthetic splendor is the notion of what Renato Rosaldo calls “imperialist nostalgia,” the mourning for what one has by one’s own action destroyed. The Safari line laments the passing of the colonial era as if it were some natural thing, part of a grand existing order, a system that has wafted away on the gentle breeze of history and not through its inherent instability.

Rather than confront the undefined future or the insecure present, the current seventies revivalists reincarnate the culture we once loved (Top 40, network television), then reacted against (with punk, independent film making), then came to love again (but with a safe, jaded sense of camp). We have 1970s parties to both mock and worship that final decade of real innocence (for our generation, the 1980s were imagined innocence), and you get the discomforting impression that we might rather be in that decade. But more often than not what is romanticized is “the way we never were,” and history, the one thing that the media-constructed “twentysomething” generation honestly shares, is lost amidst the celebrating. As Fredric Jameson warns in Postmodernism: The Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism, “we are condemned to seek History by way of our own pop images and simulacra of that history, which itself remains forever out of reach.”

The future of an artistic vanguard seems equally threatened. The notion of a radical “vanguard” has itself already become the stuff of memories, catalogued in so many retrospectives, the work of Constructivists and Situationists resigned to coffee mugs and calenders, their patron regimes long discredited. The great artistic forms such as allegory and parody seem hopelessly lost to us, as we witness staged, line-by-line reenactments of The Brady Bunch done less for satire’s sake than pure verisimilitude. With arbiters of hip such as Madonna in the audience, viewers of the performance spoke with excited reverence of the actors’ exacting resemblance to the original cast. Yet, like the replicants in the film Bladerunner, they were clever reproductions whose sole function was mimetic performance, a mimesis not of nature but of television. In this context, it should seem no surprise that the French social theorist Jean Baudrillard has logged so much academic mileage with his theory of the hyperreal, “the meticulous reduplication of the real, preferably through another reproductive medium, such as photography”; i.e. more real than the real itself. The search for the real, in Baudrillard’s phrase, is no more than “a fetishism of the lost object.” We turn instead to simulations of simulations, “real live” versions of the 1970s televised imagination.

“With the collapse of the high-modernist ideology of styles,” Fredric Jameson writes, “the producers of culture have nowhere to turn but to the past: the imitation of dead styles, speech through all the masks and voices stored up in the imaginary museum of a now global culture.” While the most vibrant and compelling art has always counterpoised tradition with innovation, the opportunistic bottom-feeders who plumb the depths of retro offer little more than vulgar spectacles, exhuming cultural corpses in servile prostration to the ever-changing style market. Their art gives no answers and asks no questions. Hollywood, which has always depended on the past, either by remaking films or producing films from novels, milks the profit principle with the following batch of recycled culture: The Coneheads, Tom and Jerry, The Flintstones, The Addams Family, Dragnet, The Untouchables, The Fugitive, I Spy, Batman. Bands such as Suede or Urge Overkill, after adding a few fashion flourishes and playing the obligatory Cheap Trick power-chords, are loosely described as “70s-ish,” an appellation which should at this point seem almost meaningless.

Scenarios of the future, given a continuation of this speed in nostalgia, border on the absurd. We will look wistfully back to last week’s television. The pages of a book will turn yellow and musty as we read. This fall, the Franklin Mint will issue commemorative plates for the first 200 days of the Clinton Administration (some may be more nostalgic for Mr. Clinton’s campaign pledges, now products of election campaign nostalgia) The previous month’s Top 40 will appear in boxed-CD sets, as television commercials intone: “Do you remember what it was like in April, to be young and carefree, listening to the music that made you feel that way?” Hey man, is that April Rock? Well, turn it up!

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