Nostalgia sucks. Not the kind of nostalgia that has one reflecting on the past, reaching back to distant memories with bittersweet admiration.
I’m talking about nostalgia that motivates middle-aged men to buy Ford Mustangs – the car of their dreams when they were 16, coincidentally around the same age as their children.
I’m talking about the kind of nostalgia that convinces someone in college to buy a “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles” track jacket from Spencer’s Gifts and every season of “Clarissa Explains it All” on DVD.
The real problem is nostalgic consumerism- the commoditization and commercialization of our past. This is best demonstrated in recent cult-film phenomenon.
Somewhere in Idaho, nostalgia was combined with irony and the public’s fascination with the anti-hero to produce one of the biggest consumer traps of recent times – “Napoleon Dynamite.”
The main character Napoleon had instant appeal in a time when it’s “hip to be square.” He’s a replica of the classic John Hughes-era nerd standing in opposition to the ruling popular high school crowd.
Napoleon is an awkward, monotone demigod for the iPod generation.
Napoleon’s dialogue is a siren-song to young adults, reminding them of their own struggles against evil when they too were victims of the hegemonic forces of high school. It’s instant nostalgia, and really an effective gimmick for marketing the film.
However, in reality, most people fell into the anonymous majority between jocks and nerds, but it’s an easier and more romantic way to view the movie and bear the frustrating lack of humor.
The film is ironic, but that’s no feat these days. The bar is set rather low, which is ironic in itself since it’s practically thrown into your face.
Humor is no longer subtle, but obvious and easy. It’s no longer appreciated when it’s pointed out and quoted non-stop.
Film criticism aside, the bigger problem was the flood of merchandising following the film’s release.
“Vote for Pedro,” the T-shirts read. And their owners proudly wore them as proof that they had seen the movie and they, being in on the joke, aligned with the political platform of Napoleon’s friend.
It’s quite clever for the company that manufactures these T-shirts. However, beneath the surface, it’s an empty act for a consumer.
When consumers choose to share their nostalgic sensibilities with the world, they’re broadcasting a numbingly obvious message: that they did, indeed, have a childhood and that there’s anthropological evidence of their youth.
The proof, of course, is the pop-culture artifact – the T-shirt, the poster and the DVD set.
Caveat emptor, I say. In a few months when the popular figures these artifacts represent have fallen out of public interest, these T-shirts will sit faded, moth-eaten and unwanted on a table at a yard sale. You’ll find them right next to the “Do the Bartman” T-shirts from 1991.
The level of response that an obscure pop-culture reference from 1991 will elicit from an incurably unimpressed youth culture is amazing, but they’re only products of their time.
If you look back at the movies that have been released recently, how many are remakes, adaptations or sequels? Not that these movies aren’t worthy of their own praise, they are just prime examples of the death of original ideas.
In our insatiable demand for entertainment, we’ll take what we can get, which is often something recycled. No wonder our fixation on the past is so strong.
Without such a market for old material, VH1 could no longer exist under its present format. VH1 is the young, sexy librarian of pop-culture past and present. She’s confident, self-aware and completely unapologetic.
Why should VH1 be ashamed if there’s an audience for its programming? It should be subsidized for providing washed-up celebrities with a second chance.
If “Living on a Prayer” is a classic rock song, then “I Love the 80’s” is a historical documentary.
Of course it’s good to reflect on the past and remember our childhoods, but the art and entertainment of today is suffering.
Take inspiration from the past and go make something new and meaningful. Or at least go out and buy yourself a new T-shirt.
Brian Krier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.