The other night, I found myself sitting in a concert hall with a thousand other people having an absolutely A+ time at one of the few North American dates on the farewell tour for Euro pop icons a-ha. Yes, a-ha. No matter that I'm not old enough to have fully appreciated their short-lived American heyday (although they've never ceased to be a presence on the other side of the Atlantic) in the mid-80s. I learned about them via the Pop-up Video treatment ( I'm sure there are even readers who are too young to appreciate that show) of "Take on Me" and more seriously, their concert participation in Live 8.
Photo by Whistling in the Dark
As I sang along with "The Living Daylights" and "The Sun Always Shines on TV," I started thinking about nostalgia. Specifically, Gen Y's relationship to nostalgia. I can't be the only one to see that the proximity of what counts as bygone days has been increasing dramatically in recent years. Under no circumstances did I think I'd be facing the fashion dominance of leggings twice in my young lifetime. And I'm not even 30! It's not a case of everything old is new again, it's everything slightly less-new is repackaged again. How else to explain remakes of the Karate Kid and a new Nightmare on Elm Street flick? The image makeovers and relaunching of Strawberry Shortcake, Rainbow Brite and the Care Bears? Or how about a blockbuster movie franchise based on...Transformers? Or the fact that Diablo Cody is hard at work penning a Sweet Valley movie? The Glee cast getting down to "Ice, Ice Baby" and "U Can't Touch This"? Every week a new DVD release of a TV show that brings back memories of... 2001? All of this pop cultural detritus isn't new enough to be of the moment, but not old enough to tap into genuine nostalgia, or at least nostalgia as we once knew it.
Maybe it's a function of our increasingly short attention spans and the increasing speed at which pop culture (aided immensely by technology of course) moves–elevating an idea, a product, a performer to prominence and then just as quickly moving on to be the next Keyboard Cat or American Idol winner. Suddenly, five years ago seems like fifty and we genuinely start to long for Crystal Pepsi and snap bracelets. Or perhaps it's as simple (and boring) as ye olde regression and the security we feel for entertainment that reminds us of our younger days when the expectations of adulthood weren't even a dot on the horizon. After all, watching Jem episodes on YouTube is a damn fine way to kill a Sunday afternoon.
Of course, neither option addresses the weird cultural ghosting where we feel or express nostalgia for phenomena we weren't even a part of the first time around. Again, cue Glee's treatment of Madonna (arguably more a figurehead than a relevant artist to kids the age of the show's characters) or 90% of the dialogue in Juno. A 16-year old name-dropping the Thunder Cats? Gimme a break. Yes, it's possible to be a fan of something from a previous time period (the longevity of the Beatles and Rolling Stones attest to this), but to forge an emotional connection to something historically-specific when you weren't around for the original history is something different. I call it the rerun effect. For example, I consider watching episodes of WKRP in Cincinnati to be part of my childhood, and hearing the theme song makes me nostalgic for the show. I'm too young to remember its original incarnation, but I vividly recall plunking myself down in front of after school reruns. The rerun effect is the other side of the coin to the pop culture ephemera machine. Some things just keep being replayed or repurposed on a continuous loop so that they never really disappear off the radar long enough to necessitate revival and multiple generations can site experience with and/or memories of them as if they were fresh. In 30 years our children or grandchildren will likely feel the same way about The Simpsons or the Law and Order franchise.
Still doesn't explain my love of a-ha, of course, but really, what does?