Look around pop culture these days and you can’t help but notice how nostalgia has seeped into just about every form of entertainment we have now. Some people are looking at this as a great trip down memory lane. Others are looking at it as a stifling of new creativity. Nostalgia is a tricky beast to nail down, especially given that access to things that make us nostalgic are at our fingertips literally whenever we want. Think about it: once upon at time if you wanted to hear your favorite song from childhood you would have to actually go out and buy it. You had to commit a physical effort to reclaim that piece of your childhood. Now you don’t even have to pay a single red cent because, hey, You Tube is free (for now).
So what does this ease of access to the things from our past say about our generation and our seeming reliance on nostalgia? Being honest, I say it means a lot more good than bad. However, for argument’s sake, I’m going to start with the bad. Here it is: Hipsters. Hipsterism is not a new thing, and I’m certainly not one of those people who likes to bash on hipsters every chance they get. To me they’re the next step in a continuing trend of social fringe cliques. We had greasers, then hippies, then goths, then emo kids, and finally it’s all culminated in hipsters. It’s a natural progression and I’m sure that the next stage of this sociological progression will be even more hated by the mass majority than the last.
What’s So Bad About Hipsters?
So what makes hipsterism a bad thing? Nothing, in and of itself. The problem is that hipsterism comes with a level of self deception that hides behind a sorely abused word: irony. Admit it, at one point or another you got with a group of friends and decided to go bowling. Not out of any desire to actually go bowling (because bowling is lame, right?) but because you want to go bowling because it would be so ironic. The problem with this is that if you think about it there’s zero irony involved. You’re not making some hilarious inside joke about how lame bowling is. You’re there because you legitimately wanted to go bowling.
What’s the point I’m trying to make in all this? Hipsterism is a defense mechanism created so that you can like whatever it is you like and not have to face the scorn or snobbery of the outside world that would surely look down on you for liking that thing you like. I mean seriously, if you admitted to some of your friends that you legitimately like this song:
you would probably have a hard time not playing the “only because it’s so cheesy!” card. It’s something even my wife does. My wife likes Twilight. A lot. But even she’s at a point where she tells people she likes it because it’s ridiculous. You can’t deny that that is a defense mechanism because, seriously, look how people treat anyone who doesn’t have a burning hatred of Twilight.
And before anyone thinks I’m picking on my wife I’ll throw myself out there too: I love Phil Collins music. Going further than that I love 1980s/early 1990s RnB. Luther Vandross, Freddie Jackson, Sade, etc. And it took me a long time to get to a high enough point of not giving a crap what others thought to feel comfortable saying it out loud. I know there are people out there who find some of the stuff I like to be laughably cheesy, and some would even say kitschy. But at the same time there’s a reason nostalgia for that kind of stuff is coming around, and this is where I get into the good side of nostalgia.
Nostalgia Vindicates Art
There’s a reason we believe that good art “stands the test of time.” Because it’s true. But great art of any kind, whether it’s a movie, paintings, music, or anything like that goes through a cycle. First great art will be great art. Then it will become kitsch. And then, finally, it will become great art again. It is guaranteed to happen with every single generation. This is because trends repeat, but they also weed out the good from the bad. When the Matrix came out, how many slow motion, black trench coat, twin pistol, philosophy spewing John Woo movie knock offs came out? Too many to count. But how many of those works do we actually remember? I can only think of two: The Matrix and Equilibrium. But for a little while even those movies were thought of as old hat because we got tired of them. We needed a break from that kind of art.
Flash forward to today and look at what we’ve been through in terms of entertainment trends. We went through this phase of constant shaky-cam action films and now we’re going through a phase of staunch realism. And audiences are already getting tired of it…but I can tell you right now the Bourne movies will be fondly remembered by people who remember seeing them when they first came out. Nostalgia vindicates art that was original. Because through that nostalgia you remember the works that actually stood out in a sea of imitators. Think about how many bands tried to be the Beatles after the Beatles first came out. Now try and name a few. Now try and name a few that were actually good. Not so easy, huh?
What’s Old is New Again
So if nostalgia isn’t holding new art back, what is it doing? Simple: It’s informing new art. It’s influencing. There’s something that we grab onto emotionally with stuff that’s nostalgia to us. Take my fascination with 80s/90s pop/RnB: I know that in terms of technical prowess music today is better than its ever been. But look at the attitude that today’s music is written in. There is (whether it be an illusion created by marketing or be it legitimate) a cynicism to today’s music. The songs I like, though? There seemed to be a boundless optimism and hope to those songs and to the movies from that era, too. I won’t deny that there was a decided effort for those works to be that way, but that’s the point I’m making.
Nostalgia is influencing our entertainment today because of the feeling that there was something in the entertainment and art that was in our formative years that was more meaningful than what’s currently out there. Consider the fact that the new Evil Dead movie is being reported as having no CGI at all. That’s because the director was tired of the over-use of CGI in horror films. Why do you think martial arts films like The Raid are making a comeback? Because we’re tired of shaky cam. This brings me to the point of why Nostalgia is so important to the artistic process.
It’s Our Artistic Compass
Nostalgia gives us an emotional filter by which we decide what we want out of art. It gives us our artistic flavor palette. It informs the kind of art we wish to create. But most of all it is a tool that undermines how self aware artists have become. You can work and work and work on a piece of art and “try” to make it something completely divorced from your influences. The majority of the time you’ll just end up with work you don’t like. Nostalgia gives us an artistic through-line. It reminds us that our influences make up who we are, as both artists and people. To hide from our influences, from the things we love, is to deny part of ourselves. And I’ve already addressed what happens when you deny that part of yourself early on. There’s so much more that can be said but I think we’ve covered enough. It took me over a thousand words to basically say this: Like what you like because whether you choose to acknowledge it or not, it’s part of you and more importantly it’s part of all of us.