There is that old saying popular amongst the older generations that old music is the best. Of course, every successive generation is impelled to repeat this mantra, firm in the belief that things just aren’t as good as they used to be. To take a look at today’s pop culture, however, it seems as though we all believe that things were better back in the good ole days. Two decades into the century, you could be forgiven for believing that our pop culture resembles nothing more than a trip down memory lane.
Everything from movie remakes, retro music and holograms of dead stars suggests that we have a deep yearning for the past. So far, the 21st century seems to have been defined by a longing for the previous century. Last year, only two artists to have emerged in this millennium, Adele & Justin Bieber, made it to the top 10 of highest grossing tours, whilst this summer’s movie season is expected to be dominated by movie rehashes. This suggests that we are all too willing to re-consume our past, and as long as this remains the case we will continue to be fed it, ultimately begging the question: are we fetishizing the past to the detriment of creativity and progress?
In his 2011 book, Retromania, music critic Simon Reynolds argues that we are, warning that our habit of looking back is leading to cultural stagnation. It is hard not to sympathise with his concern. This summer sees the release of at least five movie blockbusters that are either remakes or unnecessary sequels, and it is beginning to feel as though our culture is suffering from a creative deficit. Such a view of culture isn’t, however, anything new. A social cycle theory of culture has long been a key idea in sociology, and some even take the view that culture repeats itself over a 20-30 year time period, as the consumers of culture grow up to become the creators. That would explain our current obsession with the 80’s, as musicians rediscover a passion for synths and drum machines. But, then again, pop culture today appears more like a pastiche of multiple eras rather than any particular decade. More than anything, a vague longing for an ill-defined past seems to be what motivates our collective nostalgia.
‘Escaping into a romanticised past lets us forget the troubles of the present and our anxieties about the future’
Nowhere else was this sense of cultural nostalgia more keenly felt than in Donald Trump’s 2016 election campaign. His campaign slogan to ‘make America great again’ centred on the promise of recapturing a mythical America, exploiting voters’ longing for a past that never really existed, but that nevertheless resonated with their fantasies about a golden past. It is greatly troubling that such patterns in popular culture can be seen to be transferring into the political arena. Trump, after all, is an avid consumer of pop culture himself, and his use of dad rock at rallies proved to be an effective campaign strategy.
But what exactly is behind our new found fetish for all things old? Unlike any time before, the past is instantly accessible and attainable at our fingertips. One quick Google search and before you know it you’ve engaged in a sort of digital time travel. We can now experience the past in the digital present. The line between now and then is blurred; no longer does time progress in linear fashion, but the past is experienced alongside the present, and for all that this is disorienting, it is nevertheless comforting. Escaping into a romanticised past lets us forget the troubles of the present and our anxieties about the future. Popular culture never reimagines the past as it really was, of course, but eulogises it as an emblem of the good life. With the future offering little hope, the past can give us comfort, all the while the re-enactment and role-play of our fantasies surrounding the past can offer us relief. In this sense, our accessibility to the past has turned it into an aspect of our contemporary culture; and, more than anything, our nostalgia makes for good business.
‘Unlike any time before, the past is instantly accessible and attainable at our fingertips. One quick Google search and before you know it you’ve engaged in a sort of digital time travel’
Advertisers are well aware of our soft spot for the past; in fact, they probably regard it as something of a money making guarantor, consciously using nostalgia inducing tactics designed to increase our emotional attachment to brands. Moreover, whenever Hollywood is short of ideas, they can always rely on a remake of a classic to reap in the dollars. But is this really such a big deal? After all, when it comes to our creative industries, we can only count on a minority of geniuses to create something truly original and unique. Most of the time, the old is the inspiration for the new, and the combination of the two forges that right balance between what is familiar and what is alien. Besides stunting our creativity, perhaps our hyper-enthusiasm for previous decades is a new sort of cultural experience. Maybe it is wrong to long for a time when there wasn’t so much nostalgia; instead, perhaps it is time to accept that the past is now part of the present.