For some time now I’ve been concerned about the direction our culture was taking, but I’ve been reluctant to write about it, because there’s nothing more annoying than some old guy waxing pathetic about the good old days.
I needn’t have worried; the kids did it for me. This is a generation that loves to look backwards. They revel in the past, the past is cool, it’s Mad Men and guys in fedoras, it’s ’67 Buick Skylarks and women with big perms and nose-cone bras.
There is something more significant than a wink-and-nod affectation of kitsch in the kids’ love of Dodge Chargers and Rat Pack antiheroes. It’s an admission of something lacking in their cultural ambitions. Like they don’t have the effrontery to do anything truly new.
We are living in a culture with its eyes fixed firmly on the past, but don’t call it nostalgia. The kids who are writing the steamy dramas drunk with the hot passions of days gone by weren’t alive to see them. They’re celebrating glory days they never lived. It’s a kind of past-envy, a sign of a society that doesn’t believe in its own future.
There are different cultural moments. Confident ones produce forward looking, utopian visions like Star Trek or silly ones like the Jetsons. Times of diminished expectations produce backwards looking things like Mad Men or Game of Thrones. Medieval fantasy or fifties ferment, their creators’ eyes are fixed longingly on the past.
I wish I could say these backward-looking TV shows, books and movies are just a fad. The past has always held some fascination for the present, though not as much as the future. But today the future is nobody’s muse. Futuristic art, dreams, plans: they all take an optimism this age is lacking. When a movie about the future is made these days, it’s always a dystopian future. It’s “The Day After Tomorrow,” or “2012;” it’s some ragtag gang trying to survive the flesh-eating mutants at the end of the world. This is no fad, this is deep, cultural pessimism.
The irony here is that we live in a time with more cultural outlets than ever. Technology is changing at light speed. A decade ago AOL was cutting edge, half a decade ago, My Space. Facebook conquered the world two years ago and it’s already passé. I can’t even pretend to know what bleeding edge technology has young hipsters glued to their iPhones, if hipsters still use iPhones. Whatever it is, it loses its cachet in three months and gets bought by Google.
But the content of that new tech has been less inspiring. The creativity is in the medium, not the message.
When I saw the new, connected age arising, I was foolishly optimistic. Content is king; I didn’t originate that thought but I believed it. Lots of people did. But you don’t hear that so much anymore, because content turned out to be a dwarf. Content turned out to be 140 character mental burps about nothing.
The kid who works the front desk at my gym told me, “My parents like punk but I’m really into Zeppelin.” On the surface of things, an unremarkable statement. Led Zeppelin, The Who, Black Sabbath and classic rock in general are all over the place, they’re 40 years old and they’ve never left us.
But put it in perspective. If my generation had the same time horizon we’d have said, “My parents liked big bands but I’m all about Fanny Brice.”
The last, great, world changing music, loved by the young and hated by their parents, was Hip hop. Hip hop is 35 years old. Thirty five years before the Beatles is Al Jolson in blackface singing “Mammy.”
Hope and drive and progress and confidence are out of favor now. They seem corny. Unless you put them in a historical context where they were not.
So the kids make movies about the high passions and unbounded ambitions of fake kings in phony Medieval fantasy worlds. They make TV shows about slick, Scotch-swilling, endlessly confident ad guys in the fifties. They produce this stuff like they were starving for a time when naked striving and raw animal spirits walked the earth without irony. When the future was still to be played out, instead of being played out.
I hope I’m wrong. I hope the kids turn confidently towards the future and create some Big New Thing. If they do, they’ll have big fun. I know what it feels like, but I’m not saying.
Because this is not a nostalgia column.