Friday, June 15, 2012

A little light culture: Nostalgia

The golden forty year rule of nostalgia was proposed by Adam Gopnik in a New Yorker article about Mad Men, written this past April. It's one of those things that is so obviously wrong and trite and yet there is a little something about it that is right and I want to try and tease that out. Here is the rule he proposes:
 The prime site of nostalgia is always whatever happened, or is thought to have happened, in the decade between forty and fifty years past. (And the particular force of nostalgia, one should bear in mind, is not simply that it is a good setting for a story but that it is a good setting for you.)
And he goes on to cite examples of how the 1940s had nostalgia for the aughts, the 1950s had nostalgia or the First World War, the 1960s had nostalgia for the 1920s, the 1970s had nostalgia for the 1930s and the 1980s had nostalgia for the 1940s.

Well, there is a huge problem here and it's the 1950s and early 1960s. The 1980s was my decade and we had a huge nostalgia going for the 1950s and early 1960s only thirty years earlier. The massive sales of The Official Preppy Handbook were driven by nostalgia for the values of that era. And it wasn't just us:
  • One of the huge successes at Woodstock was a lame 1950s revival band called Sha Na Na.
  • American Graffiti, released in 1973, was set in the 1950s. 
  • The hugely popular Happy Days, which ran from 1974 to 1984, was set only twenty years earlier in the 1950s.
  • Grease, released in 1978, was set in the 1950s.
  • Animal House, also released in 1978, was set in 1962.
  • Diner, released in 1982 was set only 23 years earlier in 1959.
  • In Back to the Future, released in 1985, had its hero travel back to 1955.
And I could go on and on.

Gopnik notes in his piece that the even the Beatles were a nostalgia act and he correctly notes they did a lot of 1920s nostalgia but they started with 1950s nostalgia because that was the kind of rock and roll they played on their first records. 1950s nostalgia sprang up in the 1960s and, like bird crap that the sun has baked onto a shiny chrome bumper, it's very hard to get rid of.

We've had lots of nostalgia for other eras too. Music and fashion in recent decades seems to be nostalgically drawn to the 1970s the way a lonely man stuck in his apartment with nothing else to do is drawn to on-line porn. And there have been bits of nostalgia for the 19th century and the earlier decades of the twentieth century. But it is that 1950s and early 1960s nostalgia that rules the roost.

Why? I think to get at that we have to see that the really big mistake that Gopnik makes is actually the reason he gives for nostalgia:
And the particular force of nostalgia, one should bear in mind, is not simply that it is a good setting for a story but that it is a good setting for you.
This is the same lame reason that the credentialed elite have always given for nostalgia. They think that nostalgia appeals to people who want to turn back the clock. That is exactly backwards: nostalgia's appeal is precisely because you cannot turn back the clock. Nostalgia is driven by loss.

Loss is inevitable so there will always be some people who are nostalgic for any era. But there are also some eras for which lots of people are nostalgic. These are eras of great loss. We had something in the 1950s and early 1960s that we don't have anymore. As Vincent Kartheiser, the actor who plays Pete Campbell put it:
“There is a large portion of America that doesn’t feel about America the way we did in 1960, and I think we want to know why we don’t,” said Mr. Kartheiser, 29. “We want to know what went wrong.”
Note the "we" in that sentence. Kartheiser, like most of the people who watch Mad Men, has no memories of the 1960s because he wasn't born yet. The loss he and people like him have is for something they feel was taken from them before they were born. That is true even of Matt Weiner who was born in 1965. In fact, anyone born from the late 1950s on would have no real memories of this era beyond the usual childhood ones but would have lived their entire lives with the sense that something happened in the late 1960s that changed everything forever.

Note also the resentment in what Kartheiser says: "We want to now what went wrong". And here we can see a different forty year rule that makes more sense than Gopnik's. Forty years after the fact the people who have set and controlled the narrative about an era begin to lose their grip on it. (If they were real people, Megan, Peggy and Don would respectively be in their seventies, eighties and nineties now.) If you studied the late 1950s and early 1960s in university any time in the past few decades, you would have been told that this was an era when mindless conformity and complacency were set aside in the name of real progress. This is still the narrative that a lot of people want to tell. They are the people who want the show to "deal with race" because that is their trump card against the late 1950s and early 1960s; that whatever good you might say about that era it was racist.

But a lot of us don't buy that reductionist view. And we shouldn't have to. A more accurate history would tell the story of how getting the civil rights acts passed and enforced was the work of men of the same generations and not unlike Roger Sterling and Don Draper. For it certainly wasn't the baby boomers who passed civil rights, most of them couldn't even vote at the time. And if you sweep that bit of self-serving twaddle aside, a very different picture emerges. Take that away and we can see an era that was full of confidence and an era that had real style that is about to be swept aside by a new era that has neither. We want to know what went wrong and we aren't going to listen to the bullshit anymore.

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