Monday, April 4, 2022

pre-echoes of Retromania #5 - "the nostalgia gap"

A piece by Tom Vanderbilt from The Baffler way back in December 1993, classified as a "salvo" and titled on the cover "Toward the Retro Apocalypse", but inside the magazine itself headlined "The Nostalgia Gap". He detects a malaise of '70s nostalgia among twentysomethings aka Gen X, whose "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."

"....  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 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.... 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?...

"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.

"....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. ...

"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.” 

"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 previous month’s Top 40 will appear in boxed-CD sets...

Vanderbilt muses upon the snake-eating-its-own-tail, ouruborus nature of revivalism... 

".... 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."

A difficulty with thinking these issues through is that you can get in a muddle by confusing personal biographic/generational nostalgia with the phenomenon of nostalgia for something you didn't live through (which falls into the domain of retro, whereas the painful personal kind of nostalgia doesn't necessarily - unless you start making music that sounds like the music of that lost golden age). The nostalgia-for-something-didn't-live through is disconnected from an individual's seasons-of-life rhythms (looking back that starts as soon as you've accumulated enough stuff to look back at).  And then there's actually a third set of rhythms, the fashion economy - here there can be recycling  that started much, much sooner than the normal generational rhythms of 20 years or whatever. That is a process that doesn't really have anything to do with nostalgia, in the sense of ache for a bygone time. Fashion recycling is based in the desperate hunger for something novel in comparison to what was only just a la mode.  

Only the first of these three forms of retrospection is ruly nostalgic - the second is actually more like discovery, things from the past that are new to you, the surprise of the charming specificity of the past,. And the third mode is just the senseless churn of trendiness, the inbuilt emptiness of the fashion economy. 

Vanderbilt does introduce this nuance, talking about "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?"

He also deploys a nifty, typically stern quote from Christopher Lasch: “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.

Vanderbilt continues:

"....  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."

And notes:  

"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 calendars, their patron regimes long discredited." 

He seems to have read the recently published (well two years earlier) big fat tome by Fredric Jameson. 

But there was quite a bit of this sort of talk around then - that same season of '93, I wrote the record collection rock article in New York Times, indeed had roached similar concerns a few years earlier, while the emerging concept of post-rock was motivated in part as an alternative to the retrospective turn in alternative rock, a path forward. 


  1. Genuine lol at your attempt to establish Gentle Giant and Foghat as hipster touchstones in 1994. Although, to be fair, King Crimson was pretty well on the money for the Math Rock moment

    1. whimiscal speculation rather than prediction / identification of any happening trend.

      but who knew then, the way things were going. and more surprising things happened later - the canonisation of New Age for instance