Monday, November 30, 2009

Commentary: The Things We Like That Are Awful (or, The Qualitative Equivalency of Nostalgia)

We three disciples went uptown, way uptown, all the way up to 175th street to hear the man himself, the poet laureate of folk rock, the voice of a generation: Columbia recording artist Bob Dylan. “Who’s the opener?” Mike asked me on the way there, and I shrugged, because who cared; if there even was one, we’d figure it out when we got there. And a few minutes past 7:30, the house lights went down and the stage lights bumped up. “Are you ready for some rock and roll?” asked the stage announcer.

A collective look of horror was exchanged. No, we certainly were not ready for “some rock and roll.” We were there for Bob. What the fuck was this?

“Then please welcome Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Dion!” The three of us winced. Dion? Midlevel late 50s/early 60s pop crooner Dion? Typically dull teen idol who Dylan was a much-needed antidote to, Dion? One and the same. And you know what? The crowd went bananas. It didn’t matter that the set was jive and tacky, that the band was second-rate wedding reception quality, that Dion himself was lifeless, and that his songs weren’t terribly good forty years ago, to say nothing of today. They ate it up with a spoon.

I had presumed that those in the audience were fellow travelers, that all had come to the United Palace Theater to Kneel At The Altar Of Saint Dylan. As I scanned the crowd, cheering and dancing through a listless but faithful rendition of “Runaround Sue,” I realized that I was dead wrong. Much of this crowd was here because, by their definition, Bob Dylan was an “oldies act”—playing music from their youth, music that is now part of the rotation on whatever radio station they listen to in the hopes of being transported back to that youth.

The first rock critics and tastemakers may have seen the clear difference between the two men’s work—one a genre-bending artist who redefined American popular music, the other a bubble-gum songster who followed trends rather than set them—but the passage of time put them on the same plane, at least for some of this audience. It’s all music from the 60s. If you remember it, it’s good. Nostalgia has become the qualitative equalizer. Is the pattern set? In 2040, will I go to a Wilco show, and find that Miley Cyrus is the opener?

It feels like a relatively recent phenomenon, a result of the increased speed with which pop culture eats itself. My memories of the 1980s are that no one harbored any illusions about the 1970s—it was pretty much understood that huge swaths of what was popular in that decade (Disco, Charlie’s Angels, the Airport movies, etc.) was, by most standards, really terrible, and it would be best for everyone to pretend like much of it never happened. But the twenty-year cycle of nostalgia hit the 1990s, and suddenly, the joys of “My Sharona” and One Day at a Time were being espoused by the faux-bohemians of Reality Bites. This was the stuff they grew up on, and so it was the stuff they looked back on with fondness—quality be damned. Sure, people would often couch their appreciation in meaningless terms like “guilty pleasure,” but no one’s guilt seemed to be bothersome enough to get them to switch off that rerun of The Brady Bunch on TBS.

By the turn of the millennium, it was time to look back fondly on the 1980s, the only decade that was even more culturally empty than the 1970s, a period of soulless films, synthesized music, and cripplingly formulaic television. But by the early 2000s, nostalgia itself was television fodder; VH1 spun whole series out of fond remembrances of decades past (like I Love the 80s), and while there may have been a smug comment or two from the cast of stand-ups and sitcom sidekicks, no one seemed particularly concerned about whether the movie/TV show/music video/video game/whatever in question was actually any good. Nothing could have mattered less. The things we remember have become, in our minds, the things that were important, and the endless series of remakes and sequels and sequels-to-remakes and “reboots” and “reimaginings” (whatever the hell that actually means) that we’ve flocked to in the last decade or so reflect that trend.

As of this writing, the highest-grossing motion picture of 2009 (by a good $100 million) is Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen, which is (deep breath) a sequel to a movie based on an 80s cartoon series based on a line of children’s toys. How creatively bankrupt can one project be? How far afield from anything resembling an original thought can one film go? But nothing speaks to our cultural tastes like the things that we have poured the equivalent of a small nation’s GDP into. And Hollywood banks on that taste for familiarity. Originality is unpredictable. Nostalgia is bankable—if you fondly remember a movie or a TV show from your childhood, then perhaps you’ll open up wallet to see it again, only this time starring Will Ferrell.

By definition, nostalgia is an emotional longing, a desire to recapture a moment in one’s life. We remember our affection for bad movies and dumb television shows and vapid music and silly books because at the time we liked them, we didn’t know any better; our tastes mature, but our initial impressions never will. Which is why I’m part of an entire generation that is convinced that Top Gun is a great movie, a notion that flies right in the face of the cold, hard fact that Top Gun is a crushingly horrible movie, filled with music-video storytelling and cringe-inducing dialogue and unfortunate stereotyping—but hey, it has fast jets and Tom Cruise, and when we were 12, that was a good movie. And Diff’rent Strokes was a good TV show and “Rock Me Amadeus” was an awesome song and parachute pants were an outstanding fashion choice.

We like to snicker at those things now, as if we know better, and we’ll adopt a caustic hipster perspective about bad television and crappy movies and tacky music. But more often than not, it’s for show. A few weeks back, Christopher Cross was the musical guest on the goofy “Yacht Rock” episode of Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, and he performed his staggeringly white-bread hit “Ride Like the Wind” with the accompaniment of The Roots, who are without question the best band on television (and one of the best bands working, period). I kept playing the Hulu clip of their performance, over and over again, in the days that followed, and my excuse for playing it ad nauseam and showing it to friends and sharing it on Facebook was similar, I’m sure, to Jimmy Fallon’s reason for having an early-80s oddity like Christopher Cross on the show in the first place: we were sort of mocking him, and were impressed by how good a lame song like “Ride Like the Wind” sounded when it was played with a crew of badasses like The Roots. And all of that is true. But that’s not why I kept playing the clip; I kept playing it because the original song came out in 1980, when I was five years old, and my dad played it about as much as I played the Fallon version. And I liked it. I could dress my love for this thing up in all the sneering mockery I wanted, but the fact of the matter is, I loved this performance because I loved this song, in all of its vanilla goofiness. That copy of Over the Top on my DVD shelf is not there for the purposes of irony or cultural commentary; it’s there because, like it or not, the mood occasionally strikes me to watch Sylvester Stallone win his estranged son’s heart through the twin charms of long-haul trucking and competitive arm wrestling. The intellectual in me knows it’s a terrible movie. The 12-year-old in me couldn’t care less. He likes what he likes.

Postscript: Here's that performance I'm rambling about at the end of this piece. If you're between the ages of 30 or so and 40 or so, you'll probably love it too.

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