This article from CR Men Issue 8 was originally published on March 14, 2019.
Part I: HINDSIGHT IS 2020
The early decades of a new century always suffer from the vagaries of the English language and our own Sapir-Whorf limitations—i.e., that without a name for a concept, we have a hard time recognizing it. It’s easy to forget we are almost two decades into the new millennium. After sloppy attempts at naming the 2000s (who remembers the Noughties and the Aughts?), we simply skipped the exercise for the Twenty-Teens or Two-Thousand-Tens or whatever nomenclature future generations settle on once the dust settles in the wake of our disaster decade.
While the legacy of our current unbranded decade remains tenuous at best, one thing does seem certain: next New Years will mark a perceptual shift. Gone will be the mealy mouthed decade where everyone articulated the current year with pointed ambiguity. Is it Twenty-Nineteen or Two-Thousand-Nineteen? Futurists and nostalgics disagree. When the clock strikes 12:00 on January 1, 2020, the debate will be settled once and for all. It will be Twenty-Twenty, and the future will finally have arrived.
The writing is already on the wall. My Twitter feed leapt at the opportunity to point out that 2019 is the year in which the original Blade Runner is set. The iconic title card features white-on-black Goudy font reading “Los Angeles, November 2019” and prefaces the film’s dreamscape of flying cars, oil refineries, video billboards, and ziggurat skyscrapers. The dense, wet, noir Los Angeles of Blade Runner feels far from the catastrophic aridity and sprawl of contemporary L.A., but Blade Runner’s alternate reality does rhyme with the present in one conspicuous way: nostalgia.
This is not to say Ridley Scott’s nostalgic vision has any connection to nostalgia in our moment. Blade Runner was a mix of ’80s punk and ’40s glam. The Golden Age of Hollywood if you swapped out Joan Crawford for Siouxsie Sioux and added cyberpunk tech to The Maltese Falcon. Our era however, lacks the intentional POV of Scott’s art direction. We have the nostalgia cosplay of the Riverdale universe that seems to posit “What if a town in Upstate New York decided to dress like it was the ’50s?” We have period re-creationism of Stranger Things and the literal reboots of ’80s franchises like Star Wars. And then there are, of course, the first inklings of 2000s nostalgia: the final nail in the coffin to the debate of whether or not millennials are old. The first week of December 2018 contained a trifecta of media items pointing to what’s to come: a viral GQ article about the Balenciaga-powered return of bootcut jeans, Panic! at the Disco scoring their highest-charting song ever, and the release of Ariana Grande’s anthem to the early ’00s rom-com “thank u, next”—itself containing a reference to 13 Going on 30, an ’80s nostalgia movie from the era…
Declared fashion trend of the year by Google, the overload of nostalgia seems as if it has yet to peak. This comes as no surprise. Nostalgia typically hums along at a predictable 20-year clip: the ’70s and ’80s pined for the ’50s and ’60s (think Happy Days, Back to the Future, black leather motorcycle jackets, preppy looks, The Wonder Years, Teddy Boy–inspired New Romantics) while the ’90s and ’00s pined for the ’70s and ’80s (think That ’70s Show, Boogie Nights, porny American Apparel ads, Confessions on a Dance Floor–era Madonna, vintage tees). It’s all but inevitable that the oncoming 2020s will follow our current decade’s ’90s nostalgia into the next available era for fetishization: the 2000s.
Nostalgia is a perpetual bugbear of the creative class. Fran Lebowitz has been railing against it since the ’70s and still maintains that it is cultural poison. In an era when a catchy phrase like “Make America Great Again” can get a cartoon villain reality star elected president, it’s easy to see nostalgia as a reactionary cultural force. For the Lebowitz wing of the culturati, nostalgia at its worst is the propaganda arm of resurgent fascism. And at its best, it’s just limp dick passivity, a nervous tick emblematic of a culture too tired and defeated to imagine the future as anything but a more grueling, depressing version of the present.
Points can be made for both of those takes. One can paint the 2016 presidential election as a duel between these best and worst takes. On the one hand we had Trump and the fantasy of a return to the ’50s. No immigration or feminism or civil rights, just good old-fashioned factory machismo kicking ass and burning coal. On the other, a literal ’90s pop culture icon promoting the same centrist policies that powered the last great boom era. It was no wonder the candidates were both the most disliked in American history. Their candidacies both tacitly and not-so-tacitly acknowledged how disastrous the first 15 years of the new millennium had been for most Americans. And after so much financial wreckage, the only options presented were Know-Nothingism and More of the Same.
Nostalgia is a haunting. It doesn’t inspire great passions. It’s quixotic, intriguing, counterfactual. It’s a ghost of a reality we haven’t seen and cannot understand. Imagine a world without vibrating bits of Gorilla Glass showing us infinite iterations of the same algorithmically determined five posts. SELFIE. HOT DOG LEGS. FOOD PORN. THIRST TRAP. MEME. REPEAT. It’s easier to imagine Elon Musk on Mars than to remember what we did on those endless screen-free afternoons in our sunset past. And by this I mean: nostalgia is more an invention of the present than a reflection of the past. The ghost isn’t a time traveler. He was conjured here today.
Part II: POST-SEEN
Nostalgia tends to compound, compressing like slices of sediment under the weight of time. Sofia Coppola’s The Virgin Suicides is very much a ’90s vision of the ’70s, as much a critique as a celebration: a memory of her girlhood filtered through the mood of her present. The 20-year lag of nostalgia is no more a mistake than the 20-year period that traditionally defines a generation. It’s the timespan of human maturation. Nostalgia in that sense is so deeply human even Fran Lebowitz can’t complain about it.
The difference between this human force from time immemorial and nostalgia’s present world-eating trajectory is of course the unprecedented media ecosystem we currently live in. As with most things, the Internet changed everything. The postmodern turn of the ’70s, with its focus on pastiche, irony, and a mix-and-match eclectic historicism, was only a taste of how far down the rabbit hole we would go.
Nostalgia is a force that is always with us. Sometimes it shows up as a top note, other times as a bass note. Regardless, the smell is always there. In the 2000s, as in the ’70s, nostalgia was a cultural focal point. Like all children of the 20th century, teen millennials grew up surrounded by the media detritus of the recent past: their parents’ record collections, yellowing Playboy magazines buried in the garage, mothballed estate sale fashions, daytime reruns of classic Hollywood films, family photo albums. But unlike all those that came before, they also had Google image search and YouTube. The fashions of the past no longer needed to be exhumed from the cobwebs of attics and antique stores; they now found a second life online.
If hipster culture emerged like a vast swarm of locusts ready to consume all of the 20th century’s fashions, it was simply because the Internet suddenly presented a vast crop of cultural information for consumption. The remnants of niche subcultures and indie arcana was no longer treasured and rare memorabilia. It was all digitally duplicable, itemized on Wikipedia and downloadable via torrent. Cultural knowledge became something which could be accumulated outside the traditional experiential channels. You no longer had to be there. You could cobble together vast knowledge from the ever-expanding number of secondary sources mushrooming online.
Far from democratizing culture, this development set off a cultural knowledge arms race. Like all fetishes, part of the thrill of nostalgia is its perversion. It’s not a mistake that the leather daddies in Tom of Finland’s illustrations are wearing the same jacket as cheeseball ’50s icon the Fonz. To unironically embrace the styles of the past is simply to be anachronistic. You have to go right up to edge of embracing all your childhood dreams, fully infantilizing yourself, and then, veer left. The persistence of the style from Marlon Brando to Folsom Street Fair is a testament to the power of transgressive masculinity in the adolescent imagination.
FASHION DANIEL GAINES
WORDS SEAN MONAHAN
HAIR NATHANIEL DEZAN AT OPUS BEAUTY USING ORIBE
MAKEUP WENDY OSMUNDSON
CASTING IAN DAVID MONROE
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