Retromania! From Pony Cars to Lady Ga Ga, is pop culture addicted to the past?

July 21, 2011


Yearning for what came before…

Retromania is the title of a new book by Simon Reynolds. I haven’t read it but it’s about “pop culture’s addiction to it’s own past.” Indeed, most new pop music does seem awfully familiar. Like a lot of people over 30, the first time I heard Lady Ga Ga’s “Born this Way” I immediately thought of Madonna. Looking at her does nothing to dispel the notion. What’s going on? By definition isn’t “pop” supposed to explode…out of nowhere?

I’ll never forget something my former creative partner, Mark Faulkner once told me in regard to his preference for modern architecture over older forms: “Why would anyone want to live in the past?”

It’s a good question (and one pertaining to far more than living arrangements). And the answer is a lot of us. The other day I read a story in the Chicago Tribune (the paper version) about four different area trend setters who make their hay on antiquated, lo-fi technology: buttons, magazines, cassettes and vinyl recordings. Trendsetters living in the past…


Owen Wilson pining for a “Movable Feast.”

The surprise sleeper movie of the summer is Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, a love letter to Paris but also to the recent past, in this case the Paris of Hemingway and Gertrude Stein. The main character in the movie, played by Owen Wilson, is a jaded screenwriter who yearns for a more romantic time in the most romantic city in the world. He wants to uproot his highly lucrative career in Hollywood (writing crappy blockbuster movies) and move to Paris, where he might finish his novel (not screenplay) about the caretaker of a nostalgia shop. There are layers and layers of “oldness” in the synopsis alone! Woody Allen, by way of his protagonist, pines for the “good old days,” or as Michael Kammen put it “history without guilt.”

This is not the first time Woody Allen has explored better times (Zelig) and it won’t be the last. Allen adores the past. And so do we. Though the contemporary (and mostly unfortunate) trend of reality TV is manifest, many of us make special exceptions for shows like Mad Men and Boardwalk Empire. The clothes were better. The sex was better. Men were men and women were women. And so on…

Nostalgia makes us feel good. And the examples are everywhere. I myself live in a renovated Victorian home. Unlike my former partner, I like the feel of old wood and the way the sun looks coming through a stained glass window. Parked on the street out front are Ford Mustangs, Dodge Challengers and Chevy Camaros; all cars that experienced halcyon days decades ago but are now back with a vengeance.


2011 Dodge Challenger (8-track not included)

The first blockbuster movie of the summer: Super 8.

In marketing parlance, we sometimes call this “retro chic.” At least that’s the phrase I used when talking about campaigns we did for Altoids and Johnny Walker. For GM, I wrote: “This is the new generation of Olds.”

Fetishizing the past for commercial purposes is big business. Fashion mines the 60’s and 70’s for its bold prints and collar shapes. A perfect pair of imperfect Levis can cost several thousand dollars. We all have and wear favorite tee shirts emblazoned with logos and messages from the recent past. Seeing us an alien might think Led Zeppelin and Adidas were modern things. And the alien would be right…sort of.


Adidas, more trendy than ever…

This could easily turn into a college dissertation. As a matter of fact here’s an excellent essay on the topic from the University of Virginia.

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6 Responses to “Retromania! From Pony Cars to Lady Ga Ga, is pop culture addicted to the past?”

  1. jim schmidt said

    “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”
    The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald

  2. [...] the long-lost joy of lawn mowing and building model cars. After reading my friend and ex-CCO’s post on the trendy obsession with “retro” culture, it occurred to me that I fit right in there with the aging hipsters of today working so hard to [...]

    • SRP said

      Curtis-

      Long time “old” friend… Read your post, enjoying it tremendously. I also mow my lawn w/ a hand mower no less!

  3. Tracy said

    I wallow in nostalgia. I admit it and I thoroughly enjoy it being exploited for commercial or entertainment purposes — so long as it is what it is. What bothers me is when nostalgia (or “some old stuff, from, like, the 80s/70s/60s/50s/40s”) is expropriated and treated as some new invention of its, usually twenty-something, owner.

    I’m looking at you, Lady Ga Ga.

  4. SRP said

    Foreigner, Journey & Night Ranger on tour NOW.
    I rest my case: http://www.ticketmaster.com/event/040046630A4F443A?dma_id=328

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