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Boomers: Nostalgic For a Lack of Nostalgia That Never Existed

Boomers are confused by their kids’ preferences for comic books, young-adult novels, and other trappings of a Millennial childhood. But they forget the nostalgia boom of their own past, and how it resonates today.

The ruins of Disco Demolition Night, July 1979   Photo: Carl Hugare/Chicago Tribune

Recently A.O. Scott, one of the chief film critics for the New York Times, published a lament to adulthood in trying to explain the cultural, aesthetic, and sociolgical wheel-spinning of Millennials. (Full disclosure: born in 1980, I’m theoretically on the tail-end of Gen X, two years shy of the generation we happen to be lamenting now.)

Scott was born in 1966, two years too late to be an official Baby Boomer. Perhaps as a result—or because he’s the child of a groundbreaking gender historian who taught at UIC and Northwestern—he’s a lot less crotchety than the typical Boomer journalist wagging his finger at the postgrads reading Harry Potter at the coin-op arcade bar when they should have gotten married and started popping out babies while working in, I dunno, plastics. (Today, Benjamin Braddock would be encouraged to buy a MakerBot.)

And so his essay is well-read, wide-ranging, and thoughtful, a thumbnail history of American high-pop culture. His overarching point, that the “adulthood” that we killed was in many ways toxic and patriarchal, is well-taken.

Scott, of course, doesn’t touch on everything that killed adulthood. In a fantastic and in many ways superior response from a representative of that generation, Sady Doyle, points to the brutal IOU economy that late-Gen X and Millennials inherited:

My generation didn’t choose childhood. Childhood chose us, or rather, it refused to let us go…. We get older and older, but our lifestyles stay the same age; and, not having the means to make heavy investments, we still pay for little things, like concerts and movie tickets. Yet the culture continues to conceive of its core audience as comprised of teens and 22-year-olds, and we, hungry for distraction and trained to consume, keep eagerly purchasing accounts of a time in our lives that is fast fading in the rearview mirror…. [I]f you don’t accrue accomplishments as you age, getting older just feels like running out of time.

It’s a heartbreaking take on the economic piece missing from Scott’s essay. Another factor missing is the terrible hash that Boomers made of marriage. Born into dying marriages, the past couple generations worked out for themselves that later marriages last longer.

And there’s one more very important thing. A good rule when being told How Everything Changed is to consider How It Didn’t. Which I might have missed completely if I hadn’t just read Rick Perlstein’s Invisible Bridge: The Fall of Nixon and the Rise of Reagan.

As Perlstein told me when I interviewed him, the book is not just a political history about Nixon and Reagan. It’s a cultural history of America about the unsettling and deeply unsettled period between Watergate and the election of Jimmy Carter. It was a very bad time; to paraphrase something Perlstein told me after the interview, the 1970s had all the chaos of the 1960s but none of the promise, echoing the wave speech in Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. America had gone through the disgrace of Nixon and a long, failed war. Terrorism was on the rise. Gerald Ford survived two attempted assassinations within a month, one a follower of Charles Manson and the other an accountant obsessed with Patty Hearst. OPEC tightened the country’s blood supply.

Americans did what any sensible person would do, including the Boomers who were then in and around Millennial age today: they regressed, into their own childhoods or that of their parents. “Nostalgia was becoming a cult,” Perlstein writes.

Comic books were big; at the Nostalgia ‘73 convention in Chicago you could buy a copy of Superman No. 1 for a thousand dollars, like it was a Picasso or something. “It’s a form of escape,” one collector told the Tribune. “It’s just like you want to recapture the past.” (This gentleman so obsessed with recapturing the past was nineteen years old.)

Comic books, you say? The idea of a nostalgia convention has been rattling around in my head since I read The Invisible Bridge, so I took the Tribune’s time machine for a spin around the time Boomers were coming of age in a wrecked economy.

And it looks eerily like our own. In 1975, the Trib profiled “tomorrow’s nostalgia market” in a remarkably prescient piece: “The trash of our youth becomes a sacred object in middle age, an icon from the past…. A speculator who cornered the market on contemporary junk (more politely known as kitsch might make a real killing in the year 2000, when there could well be a brisk trading in 1970s nostalgia.”

To game this emotional arbitrage, the Tribune enlisted Joe Sarno, “owner of Chicago’s Nostalgia Shop,” and “scholars in the popular-culture centers of our universities, who presumably contemplate this very question when not compiling Spiderman bibliographies or writing monographs on Howdy Doody.” And they made some solid predictions, conceptually if not specifically.

  • TV Guides: “Nostalgia junkies of the future, Sarno believes, will get high by poring over storylines for such current series as ‘Hawaii Five-O,’ ‘Medical Center,’ and ‘Caribe,’ by rereading profiles of Darren McGavin, Connie Stevens, and Oscar the Grouch.”
  • Beer Cans: “The beer can’s potential as future nostalgia was advanced by J. Fred MacDonald, chairman of the Institute for Popular Culture Studies at Northeastern Illinois University. ‘I would suggest you go out and get at least one can of every brand on the market,’ he says. ‘Better yet, buy a whole case.’ The traffic in beer cans got heavy in the 1970s, MacDonald adds, and obscure, short-lived brands like Soul and James Bond 007 are already as coveted as Tang Dynasty porcelain horses.”
  • Conan comics: “With antique dime comics being hawked for thousands of dollars, it seems apparent that some current ones will have equally lucrative value…. Conan is not yet as hot a property among comic freaks as his fellow members of the Marvel stock company, Spiderman and the Fantastic Four. But Sarno thinks the comic’s future is extremely bullish.”

Comic books? Old beers? Stupid TV shows? Mom, dad, why didn’t you tell us you were hipsters?

(They were way off on one thing, roach clips: “Liberalization of drug laws could turn these marijuana holders into quaint artifacts for future collectors.” Oops. That was Boomers’ own fault, though; the drug wars really killed that investment.)

Speaking of stuff post-kids these days look back on with a mix of nostalgia and irony, Grease was riding this wave of nostalgia; well before it became a movie in 1978, the musical went from its debut in 1971, to off-Broadway in the Village in 1972, Broadway later that year, and all the way back to Chicago in a touring-company show in 1973. The Tribune reflected on its return:

It doesn’t seem possible that it was as long ago as Feb. 5, 1971, that “Grease” opened at the Kingston Mines on Lincoln Avenue, and we wrote: “Nostalgia usually is sweet. When it’s dished up with a reeking flavor of cynicism, it’s funny instead. This was a look at high school life in the ’50s, written by a couple of Chicago actors who had been there.

The lads wore duck’s tail [we cleaned that up] haircuts with plenty of grease in them. The girls wore bobby socks and saddle shoes and skirts just below the knee. They were a realistically earthy bunch of louts and tough broads, and they sang some clever songs, redolent of the early years of rock, when a listener still could understand the lyrics.

If you want to revisit that revisiting, Fox is airing a live version next year, something the whole ouroboros can enjoy.

That same year a young Gene Siskel, sporting a Frank Zappa mustache in his columnist portrait, reviewed Let the Good Times Roll, “a film billed as ‘a recreation of the 1950s.’”

Remember, That’s what it’s all about, of course, and to some the booming nostalgia business is an alarming trend. While the legitimate stage is filled with revivals of 1920s musicals for the older set, the movies are doing a back-pressure-arm-lift on the music of the ’50s. Is today that awful?

Must have been; the ’70s were a nostalgia bender. In a parallel to the $160 UO x Crosley ’50s-styled portable turntable with USB you can pick up at Millennial haunt Urban Outfitters—“the world’s number-one vinyl seller”—Philco brought back the then-four-decade-old Philco-Ford “Cathedral” radio, this time with a tape jack. (No word on whether the sound was more “warm.")

Buyers could expect to hear the swingin’ sounds of the recent past, the Trib reported in 1973: “Only six of Billboard Magazine’s top 50 singles could be classified even remotely as products of new talent. The AM charts seem calcified with hardy perennials like Dawn, Marvin Gaye and Grand Funk.” It wasn’t just that “nostalgia is big today—a ‘monster’”; a payola scandal, running alongside Watergate, brought down the legendary Clive Davis and scared DJs off of promotion men. As in politics, the industry hunkered down in safe sounds while the ground moved around them.

(Soon disco would emerge as an antidote to Grand Funk: interracial, gay and straight, futuristic, mechanized, dangerous. Chicagoans literally rioted over disco. “White guys, already insecure about their employment future, now faced threats to everything else they thought they could rely upon: racial identity, masculinity, and, what by then had become a safely white genre, rock ‘n’ roll,” writes Jefferson Cowie in Stayin’ Alive: The 1970s and the Last Days of the Working Class. “The protest was not simply about racism or deviance; it was about something far more threatening… impotence.")

Already weary of PR pitches like the Philco, in 1972 the Tribune asked “What Gimmick Follows Nostalgia?” Local creatives were invited tried to drag culture out of its backward funk. One offered “‘dialog advertising’ that invites the viewer into the communication” (you know, brand engagement). Another, “‘hard sell with some class’ will continue as long as the advertisers are frightened, as they now are, by the economy.”

The economy frightened the audience itself into Nostalgia ‘72. Nostalgia ‘73 was the second annual nostalgia convention. Nostalgia trundled on, regurgitating the past.

Some years passed. Shortly after I was born in 1980, the legendary cultural critic George W.S. Trow, published an epic, odd essay called “Within the Context of No Context,” an “brilliant, scary version of a cultural end time,” sort of “The Waste Land” for the Me Generation (emphasis mine):

It divided the world into a time when the world was whole, made sense, and after, when life was still possible but the culture had been ruined. Many factors were to blame, but perhaps the most poisonous force was television—certainly the most representative of all that had brought the kingdom of history and learning and liberal arts and newspapers and fedoras to its knees. The book made sense of people’s sense of loss, especially that of well-educated young people who by other measures might be said to have lost nothing. Stylistically, it was remarkable, a hypnotic procession of aphorisms that was probably the most extreme work of nonfiction The New Yorker has ever published; some readers questioned the sanity of a man who could produce such a shriek.

It remains a touchstone of cultural criticism; in many ways, writers like Scott are working in Trow’s wake. The essay’s gnomic asides could fit within 140 characters or a blog post, somewhere between Nietzsche, Jenny Holzer, and Weird Twitter.

See if any of this sounds familiar.

The Decline of Adulthood

During the nineteen-sixties, there was conflict between the generation born during (and soon after) the Second World War and the generation born during (and soon after) the First World War. There was also a debate…. Much of the debate had to do with power and the abuse of power, but no one ever asked if the men in positions of control who were being confronted with evidence of their abuse of power had any right to be considered powerful in the first place. No one inquired into the nature of the connection between the men who had fashioned conventional white society and the men of forty or fifty or sixty who were its contemporaries….

The Decline of Adulthood

During the nineteen-sixties, a young black man in a university class described the Dutch painters of the seventeenth century as “belonging” to the white students in the room, and not to him…. [The white students] offered to discuss, at any length, their inherited power to oppress. It was thought at the time that reactions of this type had to do with “white guilt” or “white masochism.” No. No. It was white euphoria. Many, many white children that day felt the power of their inheritance for the first time in the act of rejecting it, and they insisted on rejecting it and rejecting it and rejecting it, so that they might continue to feel the power of that connection.

The Decline of Adulthood [Ed. note: Trow repeats headers over and over; like I said, it’s a weird essay]

“Adulthood” in the last generations has very little to do with “adulthood” as that word would have been understood by adults in any previous generation. Rather, “adulthood” has been defined as “a position of control in the world of childhood.”

The Adolescent Orthodoxy

Ambitious Americans, sensing this, have preferred to remain adolescents, year after year.

[snip]

Scale

The permission given by television is permission to make tiny choices, within the context of total permission infected with a sense of no permission at all.

These fragments we have shored against our ruins, again and again. Recall what Doyle wrote: “We get older and older, but our lifestyles stay the same age; and, not having the means to make heavy investments, we still pay for little things, like concerts and movie tickets.” Tiny choices, total permission infected with a sense of no permission at all.

As the 1970s have moved out of nostalgia and into the realm of actual history—The Invisible Bridge, Stayin’ Alive, hell, even the Bowie retrospective at the MCA—I’ve grown more sympathetic to my parents’ generation. Like us, they grew up during an age of immense wealth creation; like us, they came of age in an era of immense wealth destruction, as Cowie writes:

The year 1972 was also the apex of earnings for male workers. Starting in the 1973-74 years, real earnings began to stagnate and then slide as workers began their painful dismissal from their troubled partnership with postwar liberalism. By mid-decade the record-breaking strikes, rank-and-file movements, and vibrant organizing drives that had once promised a new day for workers were reduced to a trickle in the new economic climate. They were then replaced by layoffs, plant closures, and union decertification drives. White male workers’ incomes had risen an astonishing 42 percent since 1960, but those incomes stagnated or fell for the next quarter century following the early seventies. Real earnings first stagnated and then were driven down by oil shocks and inflation; deindustrialization plant closings, and anti-unionism; and a global restructuring of work itself that would continue over the ensuing decades. Most telling of the lost opportunities was that even the relative rise of women’s wages since the 1970s was greatly attributable to the decline in male earnings.

That was their early adulthood. When they moved from adulthood towards the precipice of old age, the financial collapse killed their investments in housing and the stock market. In that context, their increasing conservatism in the face of a declining economy makes more sense.

“The median influencer in these [ailing, developed] economies is not a billionaire, but an older citizen of some affluence who has mostly endowed her own future consumption,” writes Steven Randy Waldman in “Depression Is a Choice.” “She would like to be richer, of course. But she is content with her present wealth, and is panicked by the prospect of becoming poorer. For such a person, the depression status quo is unfortunate but tolerable. The risks associated with expansionary policy, on the other hand, are absolutely terrifying.”

“Although I understand where it comes from,” Waldman continues, “I detest the preference for depression revealed by my polity. Perhaps you do too.”

In return, the Boomers detest us, for supporting policies that put their own perilous financial existence, the foundation of their twilight years, at risk:

This is a revolt of the grandparents’ generation — at least the conservative grandparents — and they are worried the feckless youth are taking over the country and emptying the state’s coffers. These young “freeloaders” include the Tea Partiers’ own relatives. “Charles” told the researchers, “My grandson, he’s 14 and he asked, ‘Why should I work, why can’t I just get free money?”’ “Nancy” complained about a nephew who had “been on welfare his whole life.”

“The conditions for young adults to establish themselves have changed radically,” Ms. Skocpol told me. “It is harder for young adults. They may live at home longer. And that manifests itself in ways that are easy to condemn morally. The older generation is having a little trouble understanding what is happening to their children and especially grandchildren.”

The irony, of course, is that, while this is clearly no longer the country of their youth, it’s so much like it in many ways. Nostalgia is a defense mechanism, barricading a happy past to retreat into. In doing so, it makes the unhappy past all the more fearsome. Fear leads to anger; anger leads to hate; hate leads to suffering, as a Boomer favorite once wrote, channeling the adventure stories of his own childhood.

Boomers would do well to look through their nostalgia of today back to the nostalgia of their past, how both come from a similar place, and what that echo means for themselves, their children, and their grandchildren. Millennials would do well to carry their nostalgia forward—and the critical framework they’ve placed it in—for their own children and grandchildren, for the next time everything falls apart.

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