Nostalgia: Our Favorite Cultural Copout

What Adele, Woody Allen and Newt Gingrich have in common and why we can't stop romanticizing the past

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Roger Arpajou / Sony Pictures Classics

Alison Pill as Zelda Fitzgerald, left, and Owen Wilson as Gil in "Midnight in Paris"

The past is the present. It hangs in the cultural air all around us like fog clouding our ability to build a unique now. What we have instead is a moment consisting of some modern elements and samples of previous eras and their aesthetics, like a moment playing dress-up in someone else’s clothes rather than expressing its own style. It’s like we’re living out the conceit of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris where Owen Wilson’s Gil Pender discovers he can move out of the present and inhabit other slices of time almost at will. At first he dives into the 1920s of Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Picasso and Dali, but later we learn other periods are accessible, too. We can all feel like we’re stepping into the Jazz Age by watching the two films that are leading the race for Best Picture at the Oscars: The Artist and Hugo. The Artist, which I’m certain will win Best Picture, is especially time machine-esque because not only does it place us at the end of the silent film era, but it is also mostly silent and mostly black and white, like an updated version of a silent film. Hugo also takes us back to the wide-eyed sense of wonder that accompanied early films when people were naive enough to duck when seeing a filmed train rushing at them. It’s quite refreshing to step into a moment so free of cynicism, when we had a pure relationship with visuals and didn’t watch movies while thinking about actors’ earnings or techniques or romantic life.

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Where the ’20s allows us to visit a moment of innocence, the ’60s is much more complex, which is part of why the ’60s will not leave the cultural stage. The ’60s is like the college senior who still hangs out at his old high school because that was when he was at his coolest. Cycles of nostalgia generally occur 20 years after a decade has ended and last a decade. So in the ’90s people bring back the ’70s and in the ’00s they bring back the ’80s. But no matter what, the ’60s is always part of the mix. This is partly because the Boomers are so numerous that they remain powerful cultural consumers just by virtue of size. It’s also because the ’60s was a special time filled with cultural and political revolution and a sense of hope and optimism that feels good to recall because no decade after that could ever be as optimistic and uncynical as they were. Tapping into the ’60s gives us access to all of that revolutionary optimism. Indeed, the best show on TV, Mad Men, creates delicious dramatic tension by playing on our knowledge that massive change is just around the corner for these early ’60s dwellers who are stuck in the Rockwellian ’50s.

I doubt The Help (which I’ve refused to see but will soon torture myself with for your enjoyment) is making many black people get that warm and fuzzy ’60s feeling, but it’s a Best Picture nominee and a commercial success because some find it heartwarming to see the story of a white girl who’s righting wrongs by speaking for oppressed segregation-era blacks. Standing up for blacks is Hollywood shorthand for signaling moral strength in whites, an emotional equation I find gross and demeaning. Many blacks are rightly sick of Hollywood stories where blacks are saved by whites and in The Help you see how historical memory functions differently for different people. And how some of this is about a longing to return to a time when race seemed less complicated because the roles were clearer, the hierarchy defined and in some cases black concerns were ignorable. Did no blacks exist in the ’20s? The Artist and Hugo would have you believe so, as would Midnight in Paris save for a brief cameo by Josephine Baker. So we were performers. Natch.

The ’60s nostalgia of Adele is far less fraught. She was the best selling artist of the year by far — her album 21 sold over 6 million copies in the U.S., more than Jay-Z and Beyonce’s two albums combined. 21 is a smart, gritty, honest, emotional, often-heartbreaking album that, I’m certain, will win Album of the Year at the Grammys. On 21 Adele gives us the sound of early ’60s soul and a sense of the sonic integrity that attended the Motown/Stax era. She’s a real singer who makes you feel her meaning in your bones. She’s no Autotune achiever. She reminds you of a time when you felt you could trust that singers could really sing. There are obvious racial parallels between Adele and The Help — in both there are well-intentioned, sweet, sensitive white girls who go deep into black culture and learn about its essence and return to speak of that essence in a way that’s palatable for white people. It’s the Elvis Effect. As done by Cinderella. Of course Adele’s not offensive because she’s excellent, and she’s not trying to save anyone, she’s merely working in an idiom that fits her voice and matches her bluesy story of being dumped by the love of her life.

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This is not just about culture. The rise of Newt Gingrich makes me want to check the calendar. He’s literally the return of the ’90s when he was ascendant but culturally he evokes the late ’60s when his true antecedent, Richard Nixon, was dominant. Both are angry, insecure, grandiose, smart political lifers. I can’t do a better job unpacking that connection than Jon Meacham did, but I can shine a light on why we’re so wrapped up in nostalgia. It’s about fear.

We’re in an era of tremendous anxiety. Widespread economic trepidation. Protests in the streets over class inequality. Racial tensions bubbling hot. If we don’t feel comfortable in the present and we’re nervous about the future then we must take refuge in a romanticized past, finding solace in its relative innocence. The past can function as comfort food. It’s reassuring to curl up inside comparatively halcyon periods when, not coincidentally, we were dealing with war and economic challenges and racial division and, crucially, we came through it. These cultural products are like mom’s chicken soup taking you back to when you were small and so were your problems and making you feel, for a moment, like everything’s going to be alright. Even as you know it isn’t.