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.


7 Comments On Retromania And The Present Obsession With The Past

  1. Chris August 15, 2011 at 11:23 AM

    This is a real problem in my household. My wife, through Facebook and Spotify and other online services, spends a huge amount of time living in the past. It’s become very painful to me, because I was never a part of her past experiences. It’s created a rift, and I’ve been frustrated about her living in the past with friends and experiences she’ll never really have again, rather than building a life and experiences with me right now.

  2. LP August 15, 2011 at 11:40 AM

    This seems a little overly acerbic to me, almost to the point of bittnerness. You might think certain things just sound/look like rip-offs of past things, so where do you draw the line on inspiration vs. just “being” the past? For example, Ariel Pink doesn’t really sound like anything I ever heard in the ’80s, Justice is less electro and more clubby than Daft Punk (and I’m not even a huge Justice fan), and maybe people like the classic design of the older Mustang but want the modern amenities a new model can get them?

  3. Thorsten Schmidt August 15, 2011 at 11:45 AM

    what a great great article!!
    “constantly create something out of nothing” that‘s it! couple years ago when the Helevtica font turned 50 years old everybody had to design a poster with the subject. Minimalistic at its design, posted on the web. yeah, we got it – you like Helvetica, too … In Germany there was this retro trend that everybody sits in his favorite bar and listens to old radio plays on old tapes from the childhood. Come on … Same as shoe design. I skateboard and desperately trying to find some new shoes that dont look like the classic vans. And yes we have noticed all the classic tattoos. Where is all the art, the entertainment, the science we have NOT seen? If the future is now, whats behind? thanks, great article!

  4. Marc August 16, 2011 at 6:11 AM

    Unbelievable awesome article! Don’t expect an article that close to a topic that is consistently in my mind for years now. I try to spend a lot of time thinking about myself and my behavior and how I can “improve” and from time to time I really thought: “Why I’m so fascinated and excited about living in the (my) past! Why I’m ‘obsessed’ with my wish to be a child or at least a teenager again?” This question and finding the answer to this ate me inside myself… I’m not sure if I already know the “whole” answer to myself but this article really reflects some big and common reasons why I and the majority of other people really try to get back into the past. For them and maybe for me it’s some kind of need and desire to “relive” the good old times… Don’t get me wrong: I love the good old times – but we / and I (of course) really have to get up and start living our “new” life or at least the new upcoming parts of our life… We should learn from the past and the rich experiences, sometimes we should and can look back, being a little bit melancholic, but we shouldn’t lose ourself in a strong desire to “get back” to the good old times… This is one mistake that I’ve made and sometimes I caught myself to revert back to old habits, looking and wishing myself back into the past- but after reading this article, especially after reading this article, I’m really concerned and determined to “create” something new and to face the unexpectable parts of our upcoming life – that only life that is ahead to all of us…

    All the best…

  5. Luis August 17, 2011 at 4:58 PM

    I’d say it’s mostly a byproduct of the fact that 50 years ago the world had half the population it has now and that has a lot more people with access to a no-need-to-think-no-need-to-research-no-need-to-read-a-lot culture (the real pop culture maybe?), through Internet, TV, computer games and so on.

    On the other hand, 50 years ago, most kids with the age of 15 were probably already working somewhere, being young adults (and behaving like it) while it isn’t uncommon to see 25 year olds, now, that never had a job in their life (besides studying that is) being “old children”, with no responsibility whatsoever, still living with their parents and without a lot of adulthood in them (read: having to pay bills, take care of themselves and so on).

    We used to have two kinds of people: 1. someone that didn’t had the opportunity to study, so they started working early which meant a fast maturing process, most of the times not so much culturally but with a real life experience; 2. someone that did have the opportunity to study and as such would be quite “intellectually developed” and very culturally mature.

    In nowadays, we’re all above that person that had to start working at a young age, as we all read, write and so on, but most of us are well bellow that culturally mature person, since we don’t really have to be it (it’s so much more fun to be in front of the tv, computer, xbox and all those things that don’t really make us crave or achieve that “next stage”).
    Making us all, in essence, more culturally equal yet, it’s still not the amount of culture we’re supposed to be happy with.

    Being that, all this “culture” and awareness that it’s ok “not to worry” about your short term future (everyone aims for that perfect job, house and family, but not many work for it), is what allows for this constant boredom and lack of responsibility that expresses itself with those youtube moments, days spent in front of Facebook, the proliferation of memes or that “back in the day…”.

    I’d say that one of the “easy fixes” for this would be, on one hand, having interesting teachers teaching (besides our family, those are the ones that start molding us first and that can captivate us) and on the other hand – on a more desperate note -, start handing out some real responsibility to the present generations, as that will make them stop having time to waste in the past, facebook, xbox and so on.

    On the subject of creativity, I go back to my first premise, as there’s more people in the world, there’s probably even more good creative work out there, it’s probably just the case that with the internet and other media, that anyone can access to, we tend to get avalanched with more and more “not so interesting work”, simply because there’s more of it and they over shadow the rest, but not because there’s, in essence, a lack of good work.

    As a bottom line, I’m not too worried, good stuff will always appear and there will always be interesting people out there, somewhere. It’s just a matter of having to be on the look out for it, sometimes in the places you least expect it.

    Note 1: All this is from an urban point of view (even when I mention the increase in world population – which means that in proportion it will also increase in urban areas, probably even more, but due to other factors) as more rural areas will have other dynamics (even though most are diluted with the access all the new media) and an underdeveloped country will have their handful with other “problems”.

    Note 2: English isn’t my first language and when I use the term “culture” I’m referring to the more broad/global sense of the term that contains knowledge, critical thinking and so on, that I’d say enables us to create those “new things” (that on a personal opinion I believe also come from understanding the past and having mixed references that lead to something new – unless you’re Jean Michel Basquiat).

  6. Tim Denee August 17, 2011 at 10:30 PM

    One could just as easily argue that novelty-for-the-sake-novelty is also redundant and pointless. It may seem like we’re doing a lot of cultural recycling lately, but there’s nothing wrong with refining the existing rather than constantly trying to invent new stuff. Some of the most amazing artwork in human history was the result of hundreds of years of cultural recycling, of refining an aesthetic (look at, say, traditional Japanese aesthetics — the result of hundreds of years of refining one aesthetic voice).

    I guess what I’m saying is, perhaps it’s the 20th century culture of endless innovation and novelty that was the aberration?

    At the end of the day good art is good art, good design is good design, and all we can focus on is trying to do what feels good.

  7. Y August 22, 2011 at 8:10 PM

    You have great articles, Kyle. I’ve also enjyed your past analyses of hipster (and DIY) culture. Do you read Cyborgology at all? There’s a great essay on there discussing a “nostalgia for the present” through the faux vintage photography medium (goo.gl/yha8f).

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