Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Where the Hell Are We Going?

I was (of course) watching this video of Madonna performing "Hung Up" at Roseland Ballroom a few weeks ago during my lunch break at work today when I had a thought. This thought came in response to Madonna shouting "Fuck the present!" at the crowd before launching into an "oldie but goodie" (albeit an "oldie" released three years ago.)

To those who say that Madge isn't aware of her age or the passing of time, I say, watch this. It's another "Hung Up" performance video, from her album-promoting Confessions tour. Wait for the call-and-response part of the video--it's towards the end. Yes, I was there, and yes, it was actually a really cool moment in person, but looking back, it's kind of sad. What does the aging star have her adoring crowd repeat? The lyric "Time goes by so slowly." Now, a psychologist would have a field day exploring why she felt the need to ingrain this line in her listeners' minds, but I think it essentially boils down to: Madonna misses being young, and is scared of growing old. She wants to go back in time. Both Confessions on a Dance Floor and Hard Candy, for all their forward-thinking production values and big-name collaborators, are musical love letters written to a time long since passed, when Madonna truly was the queen of pop, when she set trends instead of following them, when she wasn't, as Pitchfork said, "like your friend's mom dressed up embarrassingly for Halloween." Sometimes it works--the Hard Candy track "She's Not Me" is just way too much fun to criticize--but other times, like when she's bordering on fifty and standing, sweating, in front of a crowd half her age in a New York club, shouting at her fans that she wants to go back in time--other times, it's sad.

What happened? When exactly did Madonna stop concerning herself with making music for the here and now and start frantically trying to reclaim her youthful personae? The same question, slightly tweaked, could be asked about our culture in general: when exactly did we become so obsessed with the past, and what does that mean for the present and the future?

This article, decrying the rise of modern-day hipsterdom and citing it as the cause of our impending cultural ruin, makes one big mistake: it limits itself to the world of hipsters. But what's going on right now affects everybody. We're caught in a retro whirlpool.

The biggest movie of the year so far has been The Dark Knight, and although it took Batman and his adversaries in a whole new direction, it isn't based off an original idea; Batman's been around far longer than I have.

The biggest, or at least most talked about, TV shows are The Hills and Gossip Girl, both of which can be considered "reality" soap operas--for really, what was Dallas but Gossip Girl set in Texas? Elsewhere on television, The Colbert Report is an offshoot of The Daily Show, and the top-rated Nielsen program is currently America's Got Talent, which is pretty much a talent show in the vein of the variety acts of Vaudeville and the musical mishmash of American Bandstand (which can also, of course, be compared to American Idol.) Besides, the talent show is one of the most primitive forms of competitive entertainment, seen in elementary schools across the country for decades and, in all its variations, parodied, described, and criticized in a variety of media.

Even New York clubbing, a cultural phenomenon supposedly on the cusp of societal ins and outs, has been looking back recently. The Beatrice Inn--where every celebrity ever goes on an almost nightly basis--is a throwback to the speakeasies of Prohibition. Ruff Club, the very first club-party Jess and I went to in New York, is little more than an updated 90s European (or Eurotrashy, depending on who you ask) rave. And the current hot spot, Lit (especially on Wednesdays), is a dive bar that specializes in playing rock classics from the 70s and 80s. Are these places fun? I think so. But they also don't represent anything new. Sure, the examples I gave for New York nightlife are rather skewed towards the hipster, but for a cultural niche that has long prided itself (while pretending not to pride itself) on being cutting-edge and avant-garde, all this feels a little...well, tired. Old. Like New York's not even trying anymore, and it's just coasting on the cocaine fumes of former revelers now too old to make it past midnight.

(I'd do a paragraph on fashion, but just go here. Oversized cardigans? Hi, eighties.)

The Internet has played a major role in this. Before, nostalgia was limited to the minds of those who could remember and whatever major revival stuck with the greater American populace. But now, if I want to watch old clips from, say, Clarissa Explains It All (loved that show!), all I have to do is go to YouTube. Then you have sites like Retro Junk that bring all your favorite childhood memories to one place.

And so on, and so on.

I'm not criticizing these sites, or even the idea of nostalgia. I love nostalgia. I get just as big a kick as you do out of playing Super Mario online. I just think the Internet has made us lazy. Why take risks by trying something new when we can just replicate the past--or better yet, watch the actual past unfold again, from the comfort of our own computer screens?

The problem is that eventually the well runs dry. Sooner or later, we're going to run out of retro things to romanticize and bring back. Or, failing that, we'll have children and grandchildren who don't appreciate the nostalgic value of things like eighties cartoons. They'll see the Speed Racer movie not as a high-tech throwback but as the products our supposedly modern imaginations had created, and the cycle will continue--they'll remake what we've remade, and culture will forever be caught in a Möbius strip of ideas, each one building off each other but never leaving that reproduced loop born from our parents and grandparents. We live in a world where the new new is whatever nostalgic stone has yet to be uncovered, where innovation has been replaced by recycled dreams and updated classics. Eventually, the loop is going to run out of steam, and culture as we know it will come to a crash, its proprietors decked out in neon t-shirts and old-school Nikes, desperately adapting Motown and Ray Charles to its hip-hop and disco standards to its pop.

Is there any hope?

I see one possible way out of this, and it's not even directly tied to culture: the green movement. The foundation of eco-friendly living is an awareness of the future and a desire to change the path onto which we've forged ourselves. I see nothing else like this forward thinking in any other aspect of modern thought. As environmentally-conscious movies and movements gain prevalence in society, perhaps this forward thinking will carry over into other aspects of our culture and remind us that there is indeed a tomorrow, and it's waiting for us to come up with the Next Great Thing.

But we've got to be willing to risk it, to not just fall back on past ideas and faded movements. Look, nostalgia has its place, but when it comes to dominate a mode of thought, it loses its values and simply becomes an aggregate cop-out. We have the Internet. We have technology at our fingertips so vast and innovative that we still don't really know how to use it. But there's got to be some errors with the trials we put into action for us to collectively move on. We don't have to leave the past behind; indeed, we can look back to see what worked and what didn't. But we can't be satisfied with rehashing past successes, nor we can we even simply adapt them to newish ideas. Rather, we have to understand why they worked, and apply those findings to purely new concepts.

If Madonna realizes that her early singles were hits because of the tension they entailed--religious tension in "Like a Prayer," romantic tension in "Borderline" and "Like a Virgin," consumerist tension in "Material Girl"--then maybe she can put out a record that incorporates the new tensions in her life, like her involvement in solving the plight of African orphans or the scariness of turning fifty. (Okay, so American Life kind of touched on these things, but it carries more of an "I'm not that girl anymore" message than a "This is who I am now" declaration.) And maybe club owners will see the excitement that came with illegal drinking in speakeasies and the lasers and lights of raves, and try to craft a new kind of excitement, one which even the most jaded night owls have never seen. And maybe we all will be able to look back when we grow old--nostalgia is always more appropriate when you're old--and take pride in accomplishments that are our own, instead of ideas borrowed from our parents and remixed for a tired youth. And maybe we'll do that looking back in a cleaner world, to boot.



Marshall said...

Peabody! Pulitzer! Oscar! Immediately!

Jess and Josh said...

Seriously. I think this is one of Josh's best posts ever.

Samantha said...

agreed. thats everything I've been thinking lately but just haven't been able to articulate. Thanks josh.

Anonymous said...

This is not a comment on the accuracy of your post, but I do want to let you know that the line from Madonna "Time goes by so slowly", is actually a line from a song from 1989 "Like a Prayer" album- the song "Love Song" which is her duet with Prince. I don't know if that only speaks more to a nostalgic desire on her part, but she did say, at the time, that everyone else was borrowing from her so she might as well borrow from herself for once. Also, it has to do with her legendary trait of impatience.

Anonymous said...

wow. that was really fantastic.

what a more interesting world we'd live in if people were themselves and were not defined by labels or a past idea of what they used to be.

i had just finished reading the "hipster" article, but i am glad you took it a step further and applied it to culture as a whole.

one of your best posts by far...

Cali Angel said...

well I think that she may fear aging, but she's going about it all wrong. Look at Cher, she's come back lots of times, and to not give in to time is just loony! I think she's had a good run, and is still running, but she shouldn't obsess.

Mazi said...

yeah I think you've tackled a very relevant idea here josh, I personally live in the past a lot and am constantly thinking about how people lived even their day-to-day lives in the 40s, 50s, 60s...etc.

Anonymous said...

i too am in awe of this post. i love it. honestly, i had never thought of it that way before, but it makes perfect sense & i agree with it. great post.