Dear Hipster: I have been thinking about the popularity of retro stuff recently, at least from a pop-culture standpoint. To me, it seems like people remember the past as distinctly better than it actually was. For example, everybody — especially hipsters — likes to talk about how great ’80s music was. But for those of us who actually lived through the ’80s, well, let me tell you, a lot of the tunes on the radio back then were utterly forgettable. Really! It was pretty much the same as it is now. If you’re not convinced by that, look at how much more likely people were to die of various injuries and diseases only a few decades ago. Or, if that’s not convincing enough, consider movies. Sure, there were plenty of good movies in the ’80s (Blade Runner, amiright?), but what about Howard the Duck? If, as I suspect, nostalgia sanitizes the past, I think it becomes really hard — perhaps impossible — to be into retro, hipster-y stuff. But, then again, what if I’m wrong? What if retro stuff actually is cool because it pays homage to great moments in the past, heretofore unequaled? I guess the matter comes down to this: do you think the world really was legitimately better “then” (whenever that was), or do we now live in a better, more enlightened world? — Danae
Now, I’m not usually in the position of making value judgments about people’s preferences for arts and entertainment, so... oh, wait, hold on. Scratch that. I totally make value judgments all the time, with reckless impunity and wanton disregard for the feelings of others. It’s kind of my thing, ergo:
You’re totally right, after a fashion.
Only 32 years ago, “Kyrie” by Mr. Mister, topped the Billboard Hot 100 over better songs by better bands. Yup. You read that right, a synth-pop ode riffing on a Greek prayer outperformed “Manic Monday” and “West End Girls.” But we remember 1986 for “Papa Don’t Preach” and “Sledgehammer” dropping as singles, not “Kyrie” dominating the airwaves. There are two ways you can unpack that fact. Either (a) we selectively cherry-pick the best of the past and discard the rest to the trash-heap of history; or (b) what looks like nostalgia is just the end result of the historical process, by which the cream rises to the top.
The first option appeals to the curmudgeonly old bastard in all of us, just sitting there on the metaphorical front porch, waiting to regale the neighborhood kids with stories of “back in my day” that none of them want to hear.
The second option speaks to the hipster within, the pop-culture cognoscente who take it upon themselves to separate all the world into two piles, one cool, the other not. Knowing the difference is the whole battle.
Both of these things contain at least some truth...perhaps together they frame up a whole truth, or something close to it. In the end, it’s just difference, devoid of any value judgment outside that which we impose on it in hindsight. What you see in the past is just a reflection of how you think about the present, and maybe what you speculate for the future. So, in another sense, I guess you’ve got it backward. Play around with that a little and get back to me, unless history swoops in to render us all irrelevant.