Adam Gopnik floored me a couple of months ago with this piece arguing that the popularity of Mad Men is symptomatic of a general current obsession with the 60s:
It seems time to pronounce a rule about American popular culture: the Golden Forty-Year Rule. The prime site of nostalgia is always whatever happened, or is thought to have happened, in the decade between forty and fifty years past.
Gopnik goes on to list a few wide-ranging, but slightly unconvincing, cases: a supposed 1960s dalliance with the 20s, as evidenced by music-hall tributes like the Beatles’ “When I’m Sixty-Four”; the 70s indulged in Depression obsession, with films like The Sting; the eighties harked back to the Second World War with films like Raiders of the Lost Ark, while - and this is where Gopnik really has to stretch - the 90s’ love affair with the 50s shows in the revival of Converse All-Stars and the fact that Will Smith wore a skinny tie in Men in Black.
The causal force behind this cycle of nostalgia, Gopnik explains, is the childhood nostalgia of fortysomething TV and movie executives.
What drives the cycle isn’t, in the first instance, the people watching and listening; it’s the producers who help create and nurture the preferred past and then push their work on the audience. Though pop culture is most often performed by the young, the directors and programmers and gatekeepers—the suits who control and create its conditions, who make the calls and choose the players—are, and always have been, largely forty-somethings, and the four-decade interval brings us to a period just before the forty-something was born. Forty years past is the potently fascinating time just as we arrived, when our parents were youthful and in love, the Edenic period preceding the fallen state recorded in our actual memories.
What left me so flabbergasted about this is that Gopnik is both exactly right and exactly wrong. There is a nostalgia cycle driven by the whims of fortysomething TV and movie execs; but it’s not for forty years previous, but thirty.
Since at least the 1980s, the primary focus of nostalgia has always been three decades ago. In the 80s, the 50s were far more a stylistic influence than the 1940s. Think of Levi’s Norman Rockwell-like TV ads with their early Sam Cooke soundtracks. Stonewash denim. The pastel-shaded, wide-lapel styles of the B52s and late Talking Heads. Stand by Me. Back to the Future, for Christ’s sake. Think, in fact, of Converse All-Stars: that revival began well before the Berlin Wall fell.
In the 1990s, pop culture was heartily obsessed with the 1960s. Remember that interminable period when the Anthology series was released and it seemed that, in the words of one magazine I read at the time, “the remainder of this decade has been legally handed over to the Beatles”? At the cinema, there was Austin Powers and the revival of James Bond; in music, the 60s were inescapable. Gopnik cites Arctic Monkeys as evidence of the noughties’ 60s adoration, but what about Blur, Oasis, and other Beatles-obsessed 90s bands literally too numerous to list?
The noughties, I’ll admit, were rather all over the place; it does seem as if the greater cultural complexity allowed by the shift of culture from mass platforms like TV to customisable tools like the internet will undermine this trend somewhat. But even so, a thorough thread of 70s revival ran through the noughties - think of The Strokes, skinny jeans and That 70s Show. (Towards the end of the decade, recession, energy crisis and a pervading sense of general decline also helped conjure up that dreary decade.)
And the current decade, whatever we end up calling it, has been thoroughly 80s-obsessed. Shops are full of neon, leopard-print and tribal patterns; shoulder pads, leg-warmers and even the moustache have seen a revival. Synths are unavoidable across the pop music world, while our cinemas have seen the Transformers series (which began last decade; the 80s revival did arrive ahead of schedule), The A Team, and Super 8, a film openly designed in tribute to Spielberg’s early-80s heyday.
Why thirty years ago, then, and not forty? It’s true that cultural production is dominated by men (and it is mostly men) in their forties. But the idea that people primarily look back to the period just before they were born in transparently hokum. As someone born in 1980, I don’t look back to the age of Star Wars; my older brother, who was actually alive when it came out, does. I look back to the time of Transformers, Action Force and super Nintendo; sometimes to the height of Blur-Oasis rivalry and Jarvis Cocker’s Brit Awards tomfoolery. One friend my age tells me one of his strongest first cultural memories is Suede playing the Brits in 1992. We’re nostalgic, in other words, primarily for a time between the ages of about 6 and 16; childhood, as it’s also known. When we’re married and settled and in control of a major movie studio, it’s to that time that we look back, not some imagined ‘edenic’ period just around our birth.
Or as Stand By Me - a movie set in the 50s and directed in the mid-80s by Rob Reiner, then in his mid-40s - puts it: “I never really had any friends like the ones I had when I was twelve.”