Will nostalgia destroy pop culture?

From "Mad Men" to Adele, pop culture is increasingly obsessed with the past. An expert explains why that's bad

Published August 5, 2011 11:05PM (EDT)

Over the last decade, American culture has been overtaken by a curious, overwhelming sense of nostalgia. Everywhere you look, there seems to be some new form of revivalism going on. The charts are dominated by old-school-sounding acts like Adele and Mumford & Sons. The summer concert schedule is dominated by reunion tours. TV shows like VH1's "I Love the 90s" allow us to endlessly rehash the catchphrases of the recent past. And, thanks to YouTube and iTunes, new forms of music and pop culture are facing increasing competition from the ever-more-accessible catalog of older acts.

In his terrific new book, "Retromania," music writer Simon Reynolds looks at how this nostalgia obsession is playing itself out everywhere from fashion to performance art to electronic music -- and comes away with a worrying prognosis. If we continue looking backward, he argues, we'll never have transformative decades, like the 1960s, or bold movements like rock 'n' roll, again. If all we watch and listen to are things that we've seen and heard before, and revive trends that have already existed, culture becomes an inescapable feedback loop.

Salon spoke to Reynolds over the phone from Los Angeles about the importance of the 1960s, the strangeness of Mumford & Sons -- and why our future could be defined by boredom.

In the book you argue that our culture has increasingly been obsessed with looking backward, and that's a bad thing. What makes you say that?

Every day, some new snippet of news comes along that is somehow connected to reconsuming the past. Just the other day I read that the famous Redding Festival in Britain is going to be screening a 1992 Nirvana concert during their festival. These events are like cultural antimatter. They won't be remembered 20 years from now, and the more of them there are, the more alarming it is. I can understand why people want to go to them -- they're attractive and comforting. But this nostalgia seems to have crept into everything. The other day my daughter, who is 5 years old, was at camp, and they had an '80s day. How can my daughter even understand what that means? She said the counselors were dressed really weird.

One of the most obvious places this has played itself out in pop culture in recent years is all of these "I Love the '80s" and "I Love the '90s" shows that, until recently, seemed to be playing 24/7 on VH1.

It was one of the things that made me do the book. It was originally a British format but in America they went really nuts with it. It was almost like they were so successful they couldn't even wait for the decade to be over before they started doing shows about them. They were summing up the naughties in 2008! There's this idea that there's a 20-year cycle to pop culture nostalgia, but these programs are spinning faster. Now they've kind of eaten up all the past that's available. I guess that's probably why they stopped, because they ran through all the decades and they can't do "I love the '30s" because there's not many people left who can remember the '30s.

Those programs are very addictive, and the way they use quick sound bites to keep people from getting bored seems very much a product of the Internet age. You're right, though, they definitely don't have anything to add to the cultural conversation.

I've watched them and enjoyed them, but people on those shows don't have anything to say. They just re-perform a slogan or a silly song.

Why is this something we should be concerned about?

This endless regurgitation of the familiar is dulling and vaguely depressing. It's nice to think there's a future for music, for example, and that people will do things that later generations can work with and take somewhere. I think if the preponderance of the music scene is based around recycling and revivalism, then it's like bad farming. Basic common sense in farming is that you sow as well as reap. If you're just reaping from the past, you're not really giving anything back. Of course, music and culture don't necessarily work in the way farming does, and ideas don't get exhausted in the same way natural resources do, but I think it's important for the ongoing project of music to at least try to come up with things that have never been done before. Young musicians, in particular, seem to be way more fascinated by the past than the future. That's my main worry: Where is it going? Is this a practice that is infinitely sustainable? At this point, we're well into the '90s revival, and then it will be time for the naughties revival. It just seems a bit boring that that's just how it's going to proceed.

Hasn't this always been the case that older generations think that there's nothing new anymore, that young kids aren't doing anything exciting?

I don't know if that is true. Usually the narrative is more that older generations say, "This music isn't real music anymore. It's just noise." And that they make fogey-ish complaints about music being incomprehensible. My problem is that a lot of what I hear does sound very comprehensible. What disorients me is the lack of surprise. I find the existence of Mumford & Sons in 2011 to be mind-blowing, and not in a good way. When I first heard a lot of rave music, for example, it seemed really foreign and hard to get your head around. There's nothing to get your head around with Mumford & Sons or Adele or people like Fleet Foxes. The past has taken the place of the future in people's imagination.

That might have something to do with politics as well, like with what's been going on in the last few weeks with the debt ceiling. No one can quite picture a future that seems positive or exciting. At one time the future seemed to suggest grand projects. Now the space shuttle program has been shut down. If I look at what young people are watching on TV and at the movies, when they're looking for heroism and romance, they're watching quasi-historical fantasies, it's not future fantasies. It's "Game of Thrones," "Harry Potter," and that kind of thing, as opposed to going to outer space or the year 3000.

In the book you contrast our current period with the 1960s. Why do you think that decade was so inventive?

In terms of how it was covered and how it was felt at the time, the '60s was just a long period where there was a sense of hurtling forward. It was happening on multiple fronts simultaneously -- the beginning of feminism, civil rights, the space race, the Beatles and all that. In the early-to-mid-'60s, there was a lot of very modernistic space age-looking fashion. On every cultural front, people were breaking down barriers. In pop music, it's the decade the other decades have all defined themselves against. Punk was the inversion of the '60s in a lot of ways, but it still kept a little of that idealism and the belief in change. The '80s were defined in a lot of ways as a repudiation of '60s ideas, and '90s rave culture was a return to drugginess and all that.

What changed?

It was gradual, but with the arrival of the Internet, and broadband access, and the rise of this kind of strange collective archiving thing, [looking backward] became irresistible. Now people put stuff on YouTube because it feels like they're doing something worthwhile and this enormous archive has developed. You're young, but I try to remember what it was like when it was actually really hard to get hold of information. If you wanted to look at old magazines, you had to go to the library and look at microfilms. Now all the records in the known universe are basically accessible at the click of a mouse. Don't you think that's weird? I think it's weird -- but I have something to compare it to. I remember living in a culture of cultural scarcity.

I think I straddle that divide. The Internet arrived in my parents' house when I was 10 or 11 years old, in the mid-1990s, and I didn't start downloading MP3s until junior high. I think the cultural divide between my generation and the generation that comes after me is going to be much more pronounced than the one between you and I.

I think you might be part of the last generation that has a bit of that old sense of history. I think the pastness of the past is going to be very hard for people to have a sense of. They won't have any reverence toward it, or a sense of real nostalgia. There will just be stuff. Just stuff.

Even though I'm fairly young, I can definitely sense that things have changed since I was a kid. In the last decade, the length of trends became so short that they stopped even being noticeable. Right now there's an electro-goth revival going on, for example, with bands like Austra, but it still seems like such a microtrend that nobody -- let alone me -- will remember in a year.

Yeah, it's weird, There really hasn't been an overarching youth phenomenon since the end of the '90s and the arrival of broadband. The last one really was grunge, which if you include watered-down groups like Bush, lasted a good three to four years in the '90s. Hip music has become a series of microtrends that whiz by very quickly. But there's also a sense of stasis. Grime has been going on at the same level for 10 years, and it's the same with dub step. They didn't rise and explode and go away, they just carried on.

I know it takes a while for decades to define themselves, but I feel like boiling down the naughties is going to be impossible. If anything, I feel like they're defined, from a cultural standpoint, by being undefinable.

It's definitely got something to do with the Internet and what's happened to mediation because of it. One of the ways these sort of viable epochal self-images are generated is through a centralized media that can be burst into from an underground scene, and then the underground scene becomes the overground. That's the old-print-media and finite-number-of-TV-channels model. Now there is such a profusion of narrowcast media and spaces and forums so there isn't an overground to take over in the way there was with grunge, for example. Grunge really did break through. One moment you didn't have Nirvana or bands like them, and the next they were being played every hour on MTV. That doesn't seem to happen anymore.

These days, there is an army of blogs and small magazines, and even mainstream outlets like the Guardian in the U.K. are only a week or two behind them. But because there's such a profusion, they don't synchronize in the same way. The nature of digital culture seems to be centrifugal. Before, media was centripetal, pulling people toward a central hub or consensus, but digital culture seems to be about making people disagree with each other and disperse from each other.

What is your takeaway in terms of what this means for future generations? Are people going to have nostalgia for even the idea of having nostalgia?

I suppose the worst-case scenario is that things will just carry on as they are. Fukuyama's original essay about the "End of History" is pretty ambivalent, and he says that perhaps after ideology is gone, we'll just have centuries of boredom and we'll actually invent ideological schisms to make life more exciting. J.G. Ballard said something similar, that his worst fear for the future is that it will be boring. It seems like we're transitioning toward something. The next generation, the one after yours, will have a completely different consciousness of cultural time and completely different relationship to ideas of the past and future. That might be bad but it'll probably be interesting.

By Thomas Rogers

Thomas Rogers is Salon's former Arts Editor. He has written for the Globe & Mail, the Village Voice and other publications. He can be reached at @thomasmaxrogers.

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