Culture Club: The Case Against Nostalgia

By Tim Grierson

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Culture Club: The Case Against Nostalgia:

“The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” If William Faulkner was writing that line today, he might add, “And it’s taking up far too much of your life.” We’re living in the most technologically advanced moment in history, but for those of us in our 30s, we’re spending more and more of our time looking back, not forward. And the entertainment industry is cashing in, happily catering to our love of stuff that was important to us when we were younger.

I’m not the only one to complain recently about our dependence on the familiar. Just last month Keith Phipps, formerly of The A.V. Club and now editorial director and founder of the film site The Dissolve, made the radical suggestion that Hollywood pledge not to produce any remakes, reboots or sequels in 2017, the first year without a smorgasbord of those sorts of movies already on the release calendar. (2014 has Transformers: Age of Extinction; 2015 brings us Jurassic World; and in 2016, we’re getting the Finding Nemo sequel Finding Dory.) “Moviegoers get fresh concepts, while studios get a break from their dependence on old ideas,” Phipps argued. He later added, “Good or bad, it’s time to put some new ideas out there. The old ones have started to wear thin.”

Phipps’ proposal is a great start—it just needs to be expanded. We need to cut out as much nostalgia as we can from our lives. This won’t be easy—for example, eight of this year’s ten highest-grossing movies are based on something that came before it. But no matter the medium, we’ve got to stop indulging our obsession with our past. As much as we loved Nirvana, we don’t need to buy the 20th-anniversary deluxe edition of In Utero. (The extras—instrumentals, remixed album tracks—aren’t that great.) Even if it’s done in a thoughtful, touching way, we must resist getting all schmaltzy writing (and reading) pieces about what it was like to show Star Wars to our kids for the first time. (While we’re at it, let’s start skipping every single Star Wars mashup and parody, too.) And no matter how much of our childhood was spent going to Blockbuster, we don’t need to use the news of the company closing as an excuse to reminisce about the good old days of video stores. (Let’s stop kidding ourselves: Blockbuster sucked.)

Nostalgia is so seductive precisely because it taps into warm, inviting emotions: It’s like a big, soft hug that’s always held for just the right amount of time. The present is constantly filled with uncertainty, but the things we used to love never let us down. The songs that were the soundtrack to our first love or our college years have embedded themselves in our hearts—they’re always going to be special to us in ways that the most acclaimed new album never will be. And those shared cultural totems also become a way to bond with our likeminded brethren. Part of the reason that people attend a 25th anniversary screening of The Princess Bride at the Film Society of Lincoln Center or a kitschy Sound of Music sing-along (complete with costumes) is that they want to be around other people who “get” an emotional, elemental part of them.

I’m not immune to nostalgia: I’ll go see a restored print of a favorite older film because it connects me to a community that I maybe wouldn’t stumble upon otherwise. And as someone who spends a lot of time thinking about movies and music, I’m constantly revisiting the past, comparing older works with current ones and thinking about new entertainment in relation to what’s come before. I couldn’t do that if I started by assuming that the past automatically trumps the present—that “they don’t make ‘em like they used to.” Closing my mind to new possibilities is such a depressing way to go through life.

Unfortunately, as people get older, there’s a tendency to stop being culturally curious. On one level, it’s understandable: Hey, we’ve got to worry about kids and families and jobs and debt—we don’t have time to care about the new Janelle Monáe album. But the problem comes when we start telling ourselves that we don’t need to bother with the new stuff—that our old stuff is inherently better than what’s being released now. That’s ridiculous. Being territorial about the pop culture from one’s formative years—to delude oneself into thinking it’s somehow superior to other generations’—is the worst kind of self-absorption.

Plus, it leaves the door open for developing uninformed (and, potentially, straight-up bad) taste. For example, when Will Leitch and I ranked all 28 of Steven Spielberg’s movies last year for Vulture—a task that was itself an act of nostalgia—we got plenty of angry responses from people who couldn’t believe we had placed the critical bomb Hook near the bottom. For Leitch and me, Hook was clearly misguided garbage—but for those younger than us, it apparently was a powerfully formative childhood experience. (“I’m admittedly partial to Hook because I have fond memories of watching it when I was a kid,” went one of the kinder dissenting comments. Others were less reasonable: “Didn’t even read past the 2nd paragraph because shutup Hook is amazing! … I’ve never met someone who was a child in the late 80s/90s who doesn’t love Hook.” And: “Hook at [No.] 27? Who hurt you as a child?”)

Of course, lists like that are subjective. But it revealed the blind spots we can have when it comes to our memories of the things we discovered as kids. Those albums, movies and TV shows got in there early and won’t let us go, whether or not they were any good.

Yet instead of questioning our taste and offering new items to broaden our horizon, American culture mostly indulges our nostalgia. One of the downsides of the limitlessness of the Internet is that writers and editors have to come up with something in order to keep churning out content—every day, every hour, every minute, every second. That means endless best-of lists, most of those ranking the greatest things that came before. There’s value in some lists, which can direct people to forgotten artifactsworth rediscovering, but largely they allow us to marinate in all the entertainment we already know intimately. When we click on, say, “The 25 Best Horror Movies Since The Shining,” are we looking to see which films we’ve missed? Or do we really want the list-makers to agree with our own favorites?

A healthy respect for the past is a good thing. (There’s nothing more annoying than people who immediately slag the Beatles or Rolling Stones because they don’t like “old music.”) But too much nostalgia is a symptom of a perpetual adolescence and a lack of curiosity about what else is out there. In a sense, none of us have grown up—we’re still clinging to our childhood entertainment as a way to stay connected to our younger, presumably more innocent and happier selves. And the movie and music businesses know this: They keep rebooting and remaking what we once loved and repackaging the albums we used to own. Jack Ryan: Shadow Recruit, Death Cab for Cutie’s reissued Transatlanticism, a new version of RoboCop—our new entertainment options are just the old ones in different clothes.

We all have a soft spot for our own beloved cultural highpoints—I’m not suggesting that we throw them away. But I do think that we should look critically at why we’re so enamored with what we already know. “You glorify the past when the future dries up,” Bono warned in a song he wrote in the late 1980s. And then a couple decades later, he asked us to buy a deluxe 20th-anniversary edition of Achtung Baby.

Tim Grierson is Playboy for iPhone’s critic-at-large. His new biography of Wilco, Sunken Treasure, is available on Amazon. You can follow him on Twitter.


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