It’s a classic Onion headline: “U.S. Dept. Of Retro Warns: ‘We May Be Running Out Of Past.’” Literally classic: it’s from 25 years ago. Its prescience goes beyond the satirical: we do indeed seem to have run out of retro, because we’ve been so mired in nostalgia for the past decade that 20 years ago barely feels past. It feels impossible to be nostalgic for, say, the 14-year-old Iron Man when we’re still in the midst of an ongoing cycle of Marvel movies.
(FYI, I first referenced this bit of brilliance from the Onion a decade ago when, in January 2012, I asked: “Have we reached a point of cultural stagnation?”)
Almost all of the movies that have topped the annual US box office since 1999 has been a sequel or based on pre-existing popular IP. (One of them is a sequel — Finding Dory — to one of only two original movies in that list: Finding Nemo. The other original, Avatar, is about to spawn its own sequels.) There’s a shocking sameness to the past 20 years of popular movies that is nowhere near as evident when you look at the decades before that… but plenty of those 80s and 90s movies are also now getting revisited.
Worse than sequels and reboots dominating the movie and TV landscape is how, way too often, those sequels and reboots feel like little more than winking callbacks and in-jokes (see: Jurassic World Dominion and Obi-Wan Kenobi). These do-overs don’t advance their overarching stories: they look back rather than move forward.
So: Is nostalgia out of control?
I feel like if it is, this may be partly down to the forces that prompted last week’s Loaded Question: Is fandom out of control? One new example of the clash of out-of-control fandom and extreme nostalgia: Kim Kardashian did permanent damage to a vintage Marilyn Monroe dress she wore on the Met Gala red carpet last month.
What do you think?
ETA 06.15.22: The brilliant thinker Umair Haque, in his latest essay at Eudaimonia & Co, “Life Feels Terrible Right About Now — And It’s OK to Admit It,” has this to say that feels relevant (emphasis mine):
Maximizing misery. It seems to be what our society exists for at this point. Hey, can I exploit you, trick you, con you, get you in some way? Can I take your money? Can I take your self-esteem, your sense of meaning, your pride, can I crush your spirit, and replace it with heart-stopping dread and a feeling of being really, really small?
That’s the feeling of a downwardly mobile society, and you can literally feel it everywhere. From the way that Zoomers seem to have gone numb, as a kind of defense mechanism. To the apathy and resignation that meets politics. To the way culture is one giant escapism now, instead of a search for meaning. You can see it in the incredibly grim economic statistics, which say crazy, crazy things like “billionaires got so much richer during the pandemic they could’ve ended world hunger several times over — but everyone else is getting poorer, at light speed.”
This feels like a good explanation of why nostalgia seems to be so rampant now. Everything is awful, and doesn’t seem likely to get better, so looking forward won’t make us feel good. So all that’s left is looking back (and, by extension, looking back with rose-colored glasses).