Cyclical Culture

December 20th, 2007

Our nostalgic bric-a-brac is recycled every 20 years

By Elliott Feedore

Funny how trends work. Something is fashionable for a few years, ridiculed for about a decade thence, brought back into popularity and then finally cast off like an ex-girlfriend that you’ve gone back to only to break up with again. Unlike erstwhile companions, however, music, apparel and pop culture phenomena resurge at relatively regular intervals: 20 years, to be exact.

While not necessarily a rule, this odd sociological quirk has recurred multiple times over the last 35 years — if not longer. Convalescing from the confusing aftermath of the previous decade, the generation coming to age in the early 70s started to become nostalgic for the simpler, earlier years of their lives. Don McLean’s disturbingly catchy 1972 tune, “American Pie,” wistfully balladized the end of what he considered the apex of rock and roll, which ceased with the untimely deaths of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Vallens and the Big Bopper in 1959. More significantly, George Lucas’s first hit film, “American Graffiti,” caused a sensation a year later, tugging at heart strings with its now-famous tagline, “Where were you in ’62?”

You’re probably thinking, 1962 was only 11 — and not 20 — years before the movie’s 1973 release date, but the “innocent” culture of cruising, malt shops and beehive hairdos that the movie depicted was taken as the zenith of 50s teen culture. New Yorker film critic Pauline Kael dismissed the movie as “the peer-group view of life” and a generalized view of the past, but it was a smash-hit nonetheless.

A year later, “Happy Days” came on the air and became synonymous with the simplified view of the 50s that has since been held by those who did not live through it. In its wake were “Grease” (the third-highest grossing picture up to that point), “The Buddy Holly Story” and “Animal House.” At the same time, musicians such as Elton John, Queen and even Led Zeppelin were releasing songs that echoed the rockabilly hits of the “American Graffiti” era: “Crocodile Rock” (1972), “Crazy Little thing Called Love” (released in 1980, but first performed the year before) and “Hot Dog” (1979), respectively.

By no means was nostalgia for events two decades past an invention of the 70s, but the pervasive sentimentality for the 50s was marked by its appeal to the young. “Period” TV programs that predate “Happy Days” — “Hogan’s Hero’s,” for instance — appealed to older generations and were marketed primarily toward generations that had lived through World War II. Although much of the “American Graffiti” audience consisted of former greasers and prom queens, by the time leather-jacketed John Travolta danced his way onto the screen in 1978, the all-important 18 to 24-year-old demographic was far too young to appreciate the 50s as anything more than blurry remembrances.

The same extends to the teenage audiences that watched “That 70s Show,” which premiered in 1998, but took place in 1976. This show did to the 70s what “Happy Days” had done to the 50s, and is most likely not coincidentally set in the same year as “Dazed and Confused,” which was itself an update of “American Graffiti.” Both the FOX television show and the Richard Linklater movie were huge successes.

Though these fictionalized versions of the 70s were more cynical than most of the 70s fictionalizations of the 50s, the decade was still viewed through a lens of warm-hearted, nostalgia; it was the 70s for teenagers — a literal pipe-dream that trivialized, at best, contemporary issues like the oil crisis or Vietnam War. (Even “The Wonder Years” — an 80s rendering of the 60s – sentimentalized the political protests and uproar to the point of becoming nostalgic goop).

Although “That 80s Show” was an utter failure, our hard-to-name decade is not without its 80s-worship — or thirst, really — for any previous decades. Although tube socks have probably been safely disposed of, bangle bracelets and polo shirts have returned to the forefront and are worn in tandem with 50s-style glasses frames, 60s-style boots and 20s-style coifs. It’s a little bit subtler than when my sister, who was in high school in the late 90s, decided to take up disco. In another way it’s all the more ubiquitous.

We live amidst a youth culture that is inundated with reruns of long-cancelled TV programs posted on Youtube and music that constantly remixes older tunes, such as Rihanna’s bastardized sampling of “Tainted Love.” More blatantly, VH1 continues to offer “I Love the 70s,” “80s” and “90s” ad infinitum (not to mention other means of exhuming old pop culture by way of “100 Greatest: One Hit Wonders,” or even premium channels, such as “VH1 Classic”). Simply put, the mass media have reached critical mass.

It’s easy to see why nostalgia is so vendible or why the powers at be are so willing to vend it. A 20-year grace period is also easily explainable; two decades ago, the generation now coming of age and into prominence was just beginning. Because we members of the current generation were but little tikes back in the Reagan era, we can only see that time as a period of innocence and simplicity because — for us — it was. People in their 20s grew up with “Transformers” the TV show, so they go to see such awful dreck as “Transformers” the movie with hopes that it’ll rekindle naïve memories of sitting too close to the television set with their fingers up their noses. And for television programmers, generational exploitation is wonderfully cost effective. While Michael Bay’s so-called movie cost millions, booking B-list comedians to comment on “I Love the 80s” does not — especially when it’s a repeat.

Further, the trend to recycle old trends is particularly salient today. Like those growing up in the 1970s, those growing up today are greeted with an unkind world — one that they hardly expected to be so inhospitable, having been raised in an environment of prosperity. The 90s, like the 60s, were a time of economic boom; the bleakest emergency suffered by our great nation was Bill Clinton’s errant penis. Today’s generation can identify with the post-60s feeling of being stuck in a rut; with terrorism, global warming and post-Nixon politics added to our plates, our rut may be even deeper. Who wouldn’t, to some degree, rather live in an artificially happy past?

The 20-year cycle, then, is a double-edged sword. Although reminders of our pop culture past can recall the halcyonic early years of our existence, they can also become a major distraction from the present day. Unlike 30 years ago, an onslaught of media is being shoved down our throats. While this exciting march of progress certainly has its merits, it is all too easy these days to become overexposed to the pop trash of our childhoods. Gooey memories are nice so long as we don’t become old farts early on and turn the present into a lost cause. We tidy up this time as best we can so that tomorrow’s present will be a bright future. Today, after all, will be the past soon enough.

This begs the question: in 20 years, if civilization as we know it continues to exist, what will it fondly look back on that’s inherited from us? It’s tough to call from this mid-to-late decade vantage point, but I’m afraid to say that reality TV shows, “Halo,” networking sites, “Mean Girls,” iPods, “Flavor of Love,” LOLCATS, and nostalgia for nostalgia will become our cultural legacy. Of course, the Iraq War and the War on Terror will be omitted from the next generation’s reminisces — that is, if they’re not still active. Nevertheless, the silly trends of this wacky, freewheeling time will certainly appeal to someone who, as of this writing, is still straddling about in a diaper.

Elliott Feedore is junior cinema and photography major who is currently working on a timeless collection of LOLCAT pogs. Email him at efeedor1[at]ithaca.edu.

Whaling Wall Matthew Farrell
Chow Feng Shui Josh Elmer
Stained Glass Ceiling Emily McNeill
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