Rethinking Nostalgia

For many of us, there's no time like the present to wallow in the past

August 28, 2005|By Elizabeth Large | Elizabeth Large,Sun Staff

The past is taking over the present.

Reflect for a moment on what's "new." The Dukes of Hazzard. VW Beetles. Chuck Taylors.www Then consider that "Dust in the Wind" by the '70s rock group Kansas is background music for a new car commercial. It's just the latest in a long line of recent rock 'n' roll sell-outs, but you have to admit it's kind of nice to hear it again.

This year Hasbro Inc. introduced updated versions of classic board games like Twister and Candy Land, and sales skyrocketed. (Not that X-Box has anything to worry about.)

In June, Switzer's Licorice was revived at the All Candy Expo in Chicago. Old-fashioned licorice may be the It candy of 2005, if years have It candies.

People are actually sitting in bean-bag chairs again and sporting the '60s mod look. (Remember the fashion rule: If you're old enough to have worn it once, you're too old to wear it again.)

Nostalgia -- our longing for an idealized past -- isn't some fad of the moment, and it's not going away anytime soon. There always seems to be another decade to plunder.

"We're getting so much more efficient at repackaging the past," says Robert Thompson, professor of pop culture at Syracuse University.

What's happening? Here we are in a new millennium and we're looking backward. Unfortunately, negative explanations for the current nostalgia craze are almost more numerous than the positive ones.

"There's nothing going on that seems better than the past," says Gerald Celente, director of the Trends Research Institute in Rhinebeck, N.Y. Americans are surrounding themselves with things from former decades, and they aren't even wonderful things. Case in point, Bewitched. Maybe we've used up the wonderful things. That could be a problem, because there seems to be a dearth of original thinking and creative design right now.

Gary Hoy, for instance, has filled his Roland Park home with furnishings from the '30s and '40s.

"I'm not obsessed with the past," the 61-year-old says, "but I like the design. There's nothing to compare to it today."

Nostalgia is a way of finding pleasure by dumbing down in a world that has tough choices, suggests trend analyst Jody Turner, founder and chief executive officer of CultureofFuture.com. "Remember when? Remember when we watched Dukes of Hazzard and our brains were mush?"

Her view is perhaps a less kind version of the old "yearning for simpler times" explanation. Nostalgia, she says, "is a way of checking out when we really don't know how to address something bigger than our abilities."

The present may not be great; but there have been worse times, and not too long ago. Like the pleasant '50s, schools were segregated, children died of polio, and the A-bomb could have annihilated us all.

Luckily, nostalgia distorts history. Remember when families ate dinner together - dinners that Mom cooked - and you didn't have to lock your back door? Remember when most people went to church or synagogue and respected the flag?

"People are yearning for something that has a soul to it," Celente says, leaving aside The Dukes of Hazzard for the moment. "America has lost its soul, and Americans are looking back for pieces of it. Virtually every institution we used to believe in has failed us. That's what makes nostalgia so attractive."

Blame the usual suspects for the current wave of nostalgic longing - at least the trendmeisters do. That would be the baby boomers, sometimes described as "a pig in a python," the hugely influential bulge making its way through the population.

"None of them went to Woodstock but they remember every moment of it," says Barbara Caplan, a partner in the marketing consulting firm of Yankelovich Inc. "While the generation before them, Tom Brokaw's Greatest Generation, can get kind of weepy [when they think about the past], the boomers love it, they wallow in it."

Next year is going to be a big one for the boomers' leading edge. The oldest of them will be turning 60. For a group so defined by its youth, seeing old age and death coming is tough.

"What runs nostalgia in this country is a personal thing," says Thompson. He believes Americans, specifically boomers, aren't so much yearning for better historical times as for when they themselves were younger and happier. Recently, he says, he watched the Game Show Network for the first time. Gene Rayburn was hosting a 1970a episode of The Match Game.

"I was transformed. I was a kid home sick again watching daytime TV. It was like Proust and his madeleine. It cued a whole series of memories."

Our longing for the past, not surprisingly, has caught the eye of cultural historians. Svetlana Boym, a Harvard professor and author of The Future of Nostalgia (Basic Books, 2002), points out that nostalgia was once considered an illness. It's a pseudo-Greek word that was coined in the 17th century to describe a serious medical disorder - homesickness felt to a debilitating degree, often by soldiers.

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