American Nostalgia

May 28, 2007
Posted by Jay Livingston

“American Graffiti” was on the other night, and I watched some of it in company with the teenager in residence. We didn’t watch the whole thing. We didn’t need to. The movie is pure nostalgia – the sounds and sights of another time – and once we soaked up enough of that, we lost interest. You don’t watch George Lucas films for character and dialogue.

I was sitting there singing along with the oldies. Occasionally, I would offer an astute cinematic comment like, “The fifty-eight Impala, what a car.” But later as we were talking about it, my son wondered what sorts of things from today would trigger the same kinds of response forty or fifty years from now. “Will we look at a movie and say, ‘Wow, a 2007 Accord!”? He didn’t think so.  He didn’t even think the music of today would have the same kind of meaning for his generation that those early rock songs have.

It wasn’t that he thought those old songs were better. (He dismissed “Sixteen Candles,” one of the first songs on the soundtrack, as sounding exactly like “Earth Angel,” which for some reason we’d heard earlier that day. And I really couldn’t argue.) But what makes “Sixteen Candles” so powerful, so evocative of an era, may be that the source of music then was much more centralized. In the 50s and 60s, a city would have only a handful of AM radio stations, most of them playing the same top-40 list. Youth today have a much greater variety of music, and they have become a much more fragmented public. For its grand finale this year,  “American Idol,” rather than use the hits of today, turned the clock back to “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” an album from forty years ago, long before any of the contestants was born.

As for cars, they are still a crucial part of American culture, but standout individual models are rare. SUVs look pretty much alike, as do sedans. More tellingly, cars may have lost their symbolic value as markers of identity.

So what objects might my son, forty years hence, point out in a period film? “Hey look, an iMac. Remember when Apple called all their products iThis and iThat?” He was right. The iPod might well be the equivalent of the those doo-wop songs. But the emblematic object is the medium (the iPod), not the message (the various songs it plays). Or if we are looking for specific items, we might do better in the electronics department than at the car lot. Movies (or whatever storytelling medium we will have in 2050) might evoke the world of 2007 with an X-box and Halo, a Play Station and Grand Theft Auto.

Billy Collins has a poem “Nostalgia.” The joke of it (its “conceit,” as English professors might say) is that nostalgia is limited to the relatively short span of our own lives. It begins:
Remember the 1340’s? We were doing a dance called the Catapult.
You always wore brown, the color craze of the decade,
and I was draped in one of those capes that were popular,
the ones with unicorns and pomegranates in needlework.
Collins might have added that nostalgia extends in one direction only — backwards, towards the “old days.” When we picture those people in the 1340s, or when we see films of those people of the 1920s walking stiffly about in black-and-white at four frames per second in their narrow suits and bowler hats; it’s hard to realize that to those people, their times were not the old days, and they themselves were not old-fashioned. They were at the cutting edge, the height of modernity.

In the same way, it’s hard to think that from the perspective of the future, our lives today are old-fashioned, and in only a few decades we’ll chuckle nostalgically to see people thumbing their Blackberries or watching downloads of “Pirates of the Caribbean” on their cell phones.

1 comment:

SARA said...

"Youth today have a much greater variety of music, and they have become a much more fragmented..." I think that sentence speaks volumes! Tooo many choices today!

We're living in different times for sure...your post made me think what some of the elder native Indians may think about the past...possibly, "remember when all this land was ours?"