June 27, 2011 1 Comment
On Mad Men, Don Draper famously defines “nostalgia” as a wound that won’t heal. Our generation has always been a sucker for nostalgia–remember the round of early emails in the late 90s that went “you are a child of the 80s if…” and then had a precise list of gutswinging generalities that made us all feel so defined and packish. We were. We had our things that others older and younger could not relate to in the same way we could (and tellingly, most of them are about consumption–apparently, you are a child of the 80s if you were middle class, suburban, and white). We were 17, and already mourning the golden times. We very much like the look and feel of that light.
We like it so much that it fills huge swathes of our mainstream comedy. With shows like The Family Guy, Community, and a billion mashups of things we loved layered with signs of how far we’ve come (GI Joe remixes are a good example of this), it is
almost an old trick now. Reference a specific beloved moment of generational consciousness, and create a passionate, writerly moment. I did this in an earlier post, referencing Whitley and Dwayne’s wedding on A Different World. I wrote it because I felt like that scene was specifically mine in some way, and therefore, specifically everybody’s. I assumed the giddy feeling, the imprint of that moment, would be like blogging glitterdust, an easy sequin, welcome in any post. And I’m not saying it wasn’t. I still love watching that clip, and talking to anybody else who has strong feelings about Dwayne and Whitley (just saying her name makes me happy, Whitley….). I did the same thing in my high school graduation speech, where I think I made 18 references to shared cultural moments, spanning from The Breakfast Club to ending with a bad joke about Saved By the Bell. It was instant speech gold, an easy in. Relatability, and connection with a hint of that great teenage battle of us vs. them.
And this kind of nostalgia does a very neat thing: when recognized, it makes the audience feel savvy and included. It creates the sense of privilege, even though the design is based on mass recognition. I would like to know if this particular flavor of nostalgia is generational singularly or eternally. In the short view, it’s obvious that the baby boomers enjoy a similar bedazzlement with themselves, but I’m guessing their congratulatory reverie started later in life. Not as teenagers, but as ex-hippies landing in suburban houses. I never saw my grandparents in this particular trend, but wonder if that is because, ultimately, television wasn’t ready and aimed at their generation. They got the early programs of the 1950s when they were already fully launched adults. The media wasn’t trying to pluck them in the same soft spot. They had no The Wonder Years to make them ache for whatever the equivalent of aluminum cups was in the 1920’s.
The current trend of nostalgia, the one we’ve carried out of the 80s, is less warm and fuzzy, and more a blitz of television references. And it is a ferocious form of self-love, also showing that we’ve been involved in the presentation of personal narratives long before Facebook and Twitter. I also think there is a tinge of sadness in all of the riffs on Mr. Belvedere and She-Ra, a tiny accusation to the baby boomers for all the latchkeys, and all those precious hours in front of the TV. We are proud of ourselves for all of it, and the it is the difficult part to really accept. These pounds of generation specific references are so swaddled in middle-class struggles of ennui and wealth, along with premature crowing, that it’s tiring. It seems communal, but it’s really a grand narcissism. We could gaze at our pasts forever (not the heavy parts where you fell in love or saw your dad cry, but jam shorts). It’s TGIF on ABC forever.
And I could do it. I will do it. I will watch Blossom. I will feel very strongly about the Anne of Green Gables editions that had the good covers, and will tell you stories about selling enough wrapping paper to win the tiny portable TV. And that is the problem with this kind of nostalgia–it feels so good. But it’s an indulgence.
This isn’t the kind of nostalgia that Willa Cather whips up in My Antonia just by writing about the smell of lilacs on a summer night. That kind of nostalgia is a wound, and a gift to the reader. Our nostalgia-lite is more of a massage, a jab and lift, a quick route to that special kind of familiarity the internet lives on.
And I won’t be stopping my own reliance on the crutch. It’s too deep in the language. I talk in old television the way that kids born in 2000 will perhaps talk in old internet memes. What it must have been like to talk in words.