In his 2011 book, Retromania, Simon Reynolds worried about the recent, forceful, ‘retro’ trend in popular culture. It was a year out from the end of the first decade of the new millennium, and looking back one could understandably wonder what had actually been accomplished, culturally.
He described our current obsession with our own immediate past as the “dominant force in our culture, to a point where it feels like we’ve reached some kind of tipping point.” He wondered whether all this nostalgia was limiting to cultural progress, or whether culture had “stopped moving forward,” thereby making nostalgia a necessity? “But what happens when we run out of past?” he asked.
Two years later, there appears to be an answer.
If living through the 2000s was like a decade-long trip through the decades that preceded it, flipping through Buzzfeed.com every day is like doing it all again in a few minutes. And then again the next day. The site has long been known for its ability to not only create the odd online viral trend, but to capture those that occur elsewhere in the online ether, if only for a moment, as they whiz by.
Much of its own content creation relies on lists – what news editors have long known as the one thing really everyone truly loves (or hates, but reads anyway). And Buzzfeed has perfected one kind in particular: the ‘You Know You Grew Up In “Decade X” When...’ list, the only goal of which is to enumerate trivial consumer products, teen pop stars, or TV shows that might have flirted briefly with mega-popularity for a moment in some recently finished decade – mostly the 1970s, 80s, and 90s. The lists are the trend of ‘retro’ perfected, in that they both remind people of those items for which they may already have built a sense of nostalgia, or actually spawn it.
Which is why it was probably only a matter of time before the site provided some kind of answer to Reynolds’ final question about what happens when you run out of past? Buzzfeed’s answer was this: a list of ‘Things 2000s Kids Will Be Nostalgic About’. Included were things like “skinny jeans,” the term “YOLO,” “Family Guy,” and “auto-tuned music.” It was really just a bunch of things that either exist or are popular at the moment. In other words, the answer is that when you run out of past, you get nostalgic for the now.
Which might not be totally unexpected, but still ought to strike us as worrisome.
We’re far down the path Jean Baudrillard described as he explained what he saw as an overall retreat of history in the age of simulation. That retreat, he said, leaves behind “an indifferent nebula, transversed by currents, but emptied of references,” and it’s into the void that’s created, “that the phantasms of a past history recede, the panoply of events, ideologies, retro fashions – no longer so much because people believe in them or still place some hope in them, but simply to resurrect the period when at least there was a history.”
It is in “proportion to this distress,” Baudrillard said, “that all content can be evoked pell-mell, that all previous history is resurrected in bulk – a controlling idea no longer selects, only nostalgia endlessly accumulates.”
Eventually, that starts to have an effect on people.
In March, Yale senior Raisa Bruner penned a lengthy piece for the Yale Daily on the university’s “SWUGs” (Senior Washed-Up Girls). Much of what Bruner describes as SWUG seems to simply be a manifestation of the feeling you get halfway through university when you realize that you really are no longer a child, and that life – perhaps even a long-term relationship and some commitment – awaits just around the corner. The SWUG trend nods to questions about coming-of-age, sex, and modern feminism, but what’s most striking about it is the term “Washed-Up.” It’s as if everyone is just really tired. Already. At 22.
At one point Bruner wonders about whether women decline “as they age” – a phrase at which a Yale professor scoffs. “That’s really a body blow,” she tells Bruner. It is, but coming from a young woman who has likely spent her entire life in a culture that is forever looking backward, it’s hardly surprising that the future looks grim.
This is the problem with the perpetual remembering, the trend of the fleetingly retro-ironic, that has taken over our culture. It’s not so much that our collective reference points are behind us, but that we dwell on them, celebrate them and, above all, repeat them over and over, making forward momentum difficult or impossible. Cultural progression for so many decades (including during many of those which we now reference so often in our retro pastiche) was always about abandoning old ways and facing the future in a manner that had never been imagined before. This was particularly the case among the young, who were often the vanguard of change. Now, they are caught up in an endless re-cycling of everyone else’s cultural past that acts as a stand-in for their present. No wonder that, in their early 20s, they already feel old.
On Tuesday, one online report said NBC is considering a 'Friends' reunion season. Of course.