On Retromania And The Present Obsession With The Past

On Retromania

I was catching up on old issues of New York Magazine that I had piled up on my desk a few weeks ago and stumbled upon a really great book review that really struck me. The review was for Simon Reynolds newly released book, Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction To Its Own Past.

While I’ve only read a review of the book, talk of people being obsessed with the past, tied to constant references in art to the past, and an inability to create something new is something that has recently been on my mind. As someone who works as a writer concentrated around entertainment, I contribute to a lot of different sites and networks, all of which are great and super fantastic outlets for Internet conversations. Some of them, however, are seemingly entrenched with the notion of childhood and what was cool “when we were little.” There’s nothing wrong with nostalgia or a shared cultural memory of things we adored growing up. That is fine. That is great. I love talking about how much I loved Sister Act and the Spice Girls! Give me a tiny soapbox and I will preach about those two pop cultural moments at length.

The problem that we are running into though is that we’re sinking in this conversation. What this talk sounds like is, “Oh, wasn’t it great to be young? That was fun.”, when the conversation actually sounds more like, “Oh, wasn’t it great to be young? I wish I was still young.” The difference is somewhat terrifying and that’s what’s been haunting me. While at work, I was working on Twitter and couldn’t help but notice that the only items trending were Keenan and Kel, All That, and Clarissa Explains It All. I was wondering why other things weren’t trending but realized what was going on: the seemingly well-intentioned–and something I supported when the press release was announced–90s Are All That was broadcasting.

The idea of 90s Are All That is something that sounds brilliant and is something we have all talked about with our friends: a desire to see shows from our childhood re-aired for our enjoyment now. Sounds great, right? Well, it is. The problem, though, is that these shows haven’t changed. These shows that are re-aired are the same things we used to distract ourselves from schoolwork as children and now, as adults, we have these late night distractions masked in nostalgia that we’ve been craving distracting us from living a life. Like avoiding homework as kids, perhaps the reason why it was trending on Twitter and continued to trend on Twitter for weeks now and is clogging the pages of Buzzfeed is because we are associating these shows with “happy times,” aka when we didn’t have responsibility.

Maybe I’m just examining this too caustically, but even the fact that Keenan Thompson is on SNL, Urban Outfitters is selling shirts with Kelly Kapowski on them, and we have songs like Don’t Wanna Go Home by Jason Derulo, which mashes both Robin S.’s 90’s dance hit “Show Me Love” with Beetlejuice made famous Day-O by Harry Belafonte. All of these sound great and, in theory, they are great but in reality they are quite disgusting, gratuitous pop culture vomits that seem to have been the product of a Human Centipede-like process.

I would place this blame on the Internet and the popularization of the Ironic. We can share moments of, “Hey, remember this? It was awesome!” so easily and without research or without an organic cue to remember these things that the rediscovery isn’t discover at all but a moment of boredom manifesting itself via a YouTube video showcasing the opening sequence to Eureka’s Castle. It’s intended to be ironic and funny and cute to share these things but, at a certain point, it becomes miserable. It becomes intolerable. It becomes this excuse for a person’s lack of diversity in how they entertain him or herself. It’s lazy and it’s boring: you already lived through the experience of this entertainment, why re-experience it?

We want to re-experience it because we 20-something and early 30-something adults are not adults: we are adult children. We’re stuck in this Neverland complex of not wanting to grow up, therefore we seek solace in artifacts from our youth, from happier times. Entertainers know this and abuse this privilege because we let them. There is a market for Retromania. Instead of the occasional movie based on a comic book or remake of a movie or song or sequel to anything, we are being bombarded with a constant stream of recreation that do not need recreating in order for us to re-experience experiences we’ve already experienced.

Don’t get me wrong: when I heard Xiu Xiu was covering Rihanna’s Only Girl In The World or that The Thing was getting a redo, I about pooped onto already pooped poops. Why? I wanted to see a new take on an old form of entertainment. That’s the intention behind any remake or reboot: bringing back something people remember after they’ve forgotten about it.

But, when you think about it, both things I just mentioned are a little despicable: Rihanna’s Only Girl In The World, although fantastic, is a song from an artist who interpolated a Soft Cell song for her first single only to go on to blatantly rip off late 1990s European techno’s drop out chorus format; moreover, 1985’s The Thing, although brilliant source material, is a remake of 1951’s The Thing From Another World but updated with actual frights. Remaking and rethinking is a wonderful thing, but when we have Spiderman getting rebooted and Wonder Woman having tried to get rebooted and, as NY Mag even said, Ariel Pink sounding like “they’re hallucinating the records they might have owned in some alternate-universe version of the eighties,” one has to draw a line and admit we are getting lazy as an audience for putting up with this shit.

I understand that you readers are well aware of this phenomena and are not champions of Retromania. However, if you aren’t already doing this, you need to be pushing through this entertaining trash to create things that are different and are, maybe, inspired by the past, but are not “the past.” Moreover, you cannot allow yourself to be simply entertained by recycling. Don’t let things like hipsterdom distract you to crusade to get a shoe made popular in a movie made in real life. Things like that sound cool but, really, who are they helping? What are you doing when you leave the house in high-waisted jeans your mom once wore (aka, “Mom Jeans“) you recently purchased from a cool store? What are you doing when you rip off Barbara Kruger by making some “clever” Keep Calm And Carry On based piece of art? What are you doing when you make a song that, essentially, is Daft Punk but not as good? What are you doing when you aspire to make a new car but the car is just an old car you made with a new paint job?

You are not doing much. You may be working hard, yes, but you are not doing much. You’ve brought something to the dinner table, yes, but it was old fruit that are edible but boring. Creativity is about making something new. Anything you have to create should not be preoccupied with the past but with the future. I remember my aunt, who has worked as a professional musician for over twenty years now, explained her job to my father: she said that her job is to “constantly create something out of nothing” and then try to sell it. I feel that is the perfect definition of creativity.

We are in a doldrum of creative media and need to rethink how we are entertained and how we entertain. Instead of being individuals, we are abusing our past by way of the Internet. We are being lazy. We are not being creative. We are stuck in nostalgia and the retro: the past will undoubtedly backfire into the future. Even though I have not read Retromania yet, I know it is going to be at the top of my 2011 book list. With that, I leave you with an excerpt from 2010’s You Are Not A Gadget by Jaron Lanier.

Pop culture has entered into a nostalgic malaise. Online culture is dominated by trivial mashups of the culture that existed before the onset of mashups, and by fandom responding to the dwindling outposts of centralized mass media. It is a culture of reaction without action.


August 15, 2011 / By