Sunday, September 23, 2007

The Value of Nostalgia

Recently I purchased Robyn Hitchcock and the Egyptians' "Globe of Frogs" CD on Amazon. I'd listened to the cassette tape in high school and hadn't heard those songs since. Feeling a bit nostalgic, I purchased the CD. I'm not one given to sentiment, but recently, with the move to the apartment and taking on a roommate and the realization that I'm getting older, I'm staring into the past for some solace and comfort.
I spent my teenage years in Ronald Reagan's 1980s, a time of optimism, money, superficiality and sugar-coated banality. Anyone alive back then remembers just how saturated pop culture was with glib, meaningless slogans: "Just Say No", "The one who dies with the most toys wins", and "No pain, no gain". When authority couldn't sell us the bullshit, they had the youth do it. Being a teenager in the 1980s was tedium mixed with false euphoria. It was like being on a drug that lit you up and sent you to the mall, then let you slowly crash while realizing just how plastic and artificial the world around you was. All of my friend's parents had important jobs in offices and carried titles. It's all part of the gated communities in suburbia - planned developments with manicured lawns and swimming pools.
Yet there's something innocent and lost in those youthful days - MTV actually played music videos, Michael Jackson was the King of Pop instead of a twisted freak, and you could go to the movies and watch pablum like The Breakfast Club and not feel like a complete retard.
In recent years, I've submitted to a guilty pleasure of listening to and collecting 1980s music for my iPod, since my vinyl records are obsolete. All of the songs I thought were pop drivel, I'm savoring with a longing for school dances past, when the youth of the 1980s socialized in their gymnasiums filled with balloons and streamers and danced to Duran Duran of all things. The spiked haircuts, the skinny neckties, the colorful pins on denim jackets. Who's The Boss, The Cosby Show, ALF. Jesus Christ - ALF! It was a freaking Muppet! Too Close for Comfort, Three's Company, Mr. Belvedere. If sociologists in the future gauge the nation's mood by the television shows, they'll probably surmise everyone in America between 1980 and 1989 were either intellectually stunted or had absolutely no worries.
There were the hair bands, heavy metal, punk, and New Wave. A Flock of Seagulls. I'm sorry, but that band has become the whipping boy for all of the bad New Wave bands of the 1980s, yet their song "I Ran (So Far Away)" is an iconic representation of that time musically. Same with Tommy Tutone's "867-5309 / Jenny". Older people think 1980s pop is akin to the ebola virus, yet those stupid songs and fly by night bands led to the musical transformation in the 1990s, when New Wave gave way to grunge and pop rock and guitar bands still vibrant and successful today. But we kids during the 1980s were stuck with crap like Rat and Motley Crue. Yet a gem would come along, like Twisted Sister or Talking Heads.
I used to think the old farts with their greaser bands and stupid leather jackets and finger-snapping doo-wop were dinosaurs searching for pure nostalgia; pathetic has-beens thirsting for their bygone youth. Then I woke up and realized I'm one of those people, peering back into the looking glass to see a younger version of myself, a skinny kid wandering the halls of Cherry Hill East High School, lonely, rejected and clutching a notebook filled with short stories for the school's lit mag. The reason I'm wallowing in this swamp of nostalgia is I received an announcement my 20th high school reunion is slated for next year. Let that sink in for a moment. Twenty years. Two decades. The class of 1988. For those in the early 21st century, 1988 seems as remote in time as the Industrial Revolution. How the hell did this happen? Once a gangly teenager, now a man paying bills and writing for a living.
Why do we long for our pasts, our age of purity, of innocence? Was there ever an America not bitterly divided, cynical, ignorant? Was there ever a time before terrorists destroyed skyscrapers in New York, a time when we weren't at war, a time when music and movies weren't decided by focus groups? Was there ever a time when corporations didn't control everything we read, see and consume? A time before television pundits, before politics glutted with money, stole something from us? A time when songs about rape or murder didn't saturate the airwaves and you could hear dippy pop songs?
I'm not saying the 1980s were a pinnacle of human evolution. Far from it. But as a kid, they were far better than what kids have to grow up with now. No Columbine. No Virginia Tech. No rootless anger or fierce rage.
We didn't have the technology we have today; no Internet or cellphones. We made due with what we had. We interacted with and relied on each other.
The value of nostalgia isn't vague reminiscence of ages gone by; nostalgia is remembering how things were in relation to how we are today. It's recalling where we were to better understand where we're going.

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