Past Perfect
By Tabitha Lasley
Friday, June 29, 2012

Pop culture has become increasingly retrospective, and it’s making hopeless nostalgics of us all. But is dwelling on 
the past really what we need right now?

LP Hartley once said that the past is a foreign country; they do things differently there. These days, the past is more like a nearby principality: adjacent, accessible, with a shared vernacular. They do things pretty much the same there. You only need take a quick look at our current cultural landscape to see that.

Artists like Adele, Eliza Doolittle and Mumford & Sons, who have a distinctly déjà vu sound. Bands like Take That and The Stone Roses, rebooted and riding high on second-wave nostalgia. Even Beyonce, who ten years ago peddled bracingly modern pop, last year released a retro-sounding record in 4. Billed as a ‘bar-raising’ piece of work, it sounds like most of it was made in 1991. So much so that when erstwhile boy band New Edition saw her video for Love on Top, they threatened to sue for plagiarism.

Can they really blame her though? We live in an age where the past is constantly present. Take a typical weekday of mine. Yesterday, I downloaded some early garage onto my iPod before going to the gym. When I got there, the screen above my treadmill was running a Britney Spears retrospective. Afterwards, I queued for coffee behind some teenagers channelling grunge-era Kate Moss. Later, I posted a link on my friend’s Facebook wall — a clip from an ‘80s film we were briefly obsessed by a decade ago — only to be confronted by our faces (circa 2008) on her timeline. Every day, we’re besieged by references to our recent history. And we’re becoming hooked on looking back.

“People have a different relationship with the past now,” says music critic Simon Reynolds, author of Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to its Own Past. “It feels less lost somehow. When I was growing up, you had to really search for stuff. Lots of records were deleted. If you wanted to see an old movie, you had to belong to a film club. But YouTube is like an audio library. You could learn the entire history of popular music through it.”

The Internet means we consume culture very differently to the way we did even a decade ago. What’s on our iPods doesn’t bear much relation to what’s in the charts. Old films, TV shows, articles and albums can all be accessed at the click of a button. And there’s been an attendant shift in the way we perceive what’s been and gone.

But is that all there is to it? Trend analyst Martin Lindstom thinks not: “Studies show we’re very nostalgic by nature. When you ask people to think about the past, they feel safer. They feel that the past is a more positive, more emotionally engaging time.”

It’s a tendency that ratchets up when the present is wracked with doubt. We don’t mind facing forward when the future looks bright and hopeful. When the future looks frightening, it’s a different matter. So until the recession loosens its grip, we can expect more of the same. More reunion tours, more pop pastiche, more TV shows like Mad Men, Pan Am, Downton Abbey, The Hour. 

Of course it’s tempting to draw comfort from the certainty of things that have already happened. But it also occasions a new set of problems. For one thing, if we continue to pillage the past, we’ll stall innovation.

Reynolds compares today’s risk-averse records to the come-forward feel of the ‘60s, or the future-shock sound of early hardcore: “I was involved in the rave scene, and it felt like we were hurtling into the future. My expectations are based round that. If everything is a repetition or a tweak of the past, then it’s not adding much, it’s not contributing anything to the future of music. You can’t build on it or take it anywhere. It will never be revived.”

Reynolds says pop culture revivals run on a 20-year cycle, which means in eight years’ time, we’ll have to revisit the noughties. But this was an era that had no clear-cut identity of its own.

The disco stylings de rigueur at the turn of the century were lifted straight from the ‘70s. The acid brights and icy electro around at the mid-point of the decade were directly transposed from the mid-‘80s. The ‘nu-rave’ of 2006 supposedly recalled 1988, the second summer of love.

We’re now in the throes of a ‘90s revival, but what will come after that? Will we end up locked in a retrospective loop, forever referencing revivals of revivals of revivals? Let’s hope not, because it will be boring. But besides the deadening effect of cultural stasis, there are more pressing reasons not to fixate on the past.

“We edit our personal memories to suggest that our biographies are positive, exciting narratives,” says Oliver Burkeman, author of Help! How to Become Slightly Happier and Get a Bit More Done. “When we’re specifically engaged in nostalgic reminiscence, we’re not reflecting on the past in a neutral fashion — we’re scanning it for evidence of how great things used to be, (often) to find evidence for our belief that things are much worse today.”

Just as we’re rarely able to access the full weight of a truly miserable memory, we tend to recast neutral memories in a rosy light. Harmless enough, you might think, but mainlining nostalgia can infect your vision of now. If you see the past as perfect, your current situation will always look worse by comparison.

The present may be challenging. But is giving up and retreating into daydreams of a gentler age really the best way to deal with it? As Burkeman points out: “The past and future are in a very significant sense non-existent. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t choose to spend some of your ‘now’ engaged in pleasurable reminiscence. But to see the present entirely through the lens of the past is in some sense not to be fully alive.”


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