Ready Player One is a set of flash cards elevated into profitability by an audience eager to be pandered to in the most facile manner imaginable. It’s nostalgia at its namedropping laziest. It epitomizes everything I despise about retro-gazing culture, yet there’s a part of me that wonders if that isn’t a little hypocritical on my part.
Back in my teenage years, a pal told me that a “poser” was “any punk that isn’t part of your circle of pals.” While I didn’t want to admit at the time, there was more than a grain of truth to that assessment. Are my recursive retro-ramblings any better than a bald-faced grab for a backwards-leaning brass ring? After all, that fucker got a book and movie deal while I dick around in relative obscurity as content mill fuckers plunder my archives for content. My friends tell me what I do is “different,” which is something I can simultaneously appreciate and dismiss as the type of thing one’s friend’s feel obligated to say.
Nostalgia plays a huge part in my writing, but it’s rarely an end in itself. I fell into the this nonsense after my mother died, leaving a gaping void and an unceasing hunger to make sense of things. My concept of time was already out-of-sync due to the social isolation caused by a dysfunctional family. While my adolescent peers were grooving to Madonna and the Beastie Boys, I lost myself in the flood of Boomer-directed reveries about a mythologized Sixties — Easy Rider and Stax/Volt and The Ventures and the cinematic-sentimental redemption of the Vietnam debacle. (Even when I did get into more contemporary shit — such as Dungeons and Dragons — it tended to be well after its faddish phase had cooled off.)
My embrace of punk rock was just a semi-lateral move, a change in tunes and fashion sense but equally retrograde in nature. Punk was pretty much dead by 1989, but it also was — from my maladjusted perspective — The Last Big Thing. The whole trash-camp aesthetic was written into the scene’s DNA by acts like The Ramones and The Rezillos. Even as the Berlin Wall crumbled and the so-called End of History unfolded, I was walled up in my room listening to decade old chants about nuclear war, Reagan, and hippies.
This anachronistic aimlessness was what drew me to my punk rock pal Leech in college. He, too, was a tragic (and somewhat comedic) case who operated in a backwards-gazing bubble. We shared enough childhood touchstones kindle a common bond, and enough differences to keep things interesting. We fixated on the early Eighties because of the punk thing, because of childhood nostalgia, and because it had become the stuff of damnatio memoriae among the wider popcult scene. (No joke, I had people throw shit at me when I put the first Living in Oblivion comp into the Sci-Fi Club’s boombox.)
Flouting that un-hipness became a mark of pride, whether it involved buying fifty-cent copies of used Duran Duran LPs while the Second Coming clerk sneered at us or slamming back Mello Yello while watching John Hughes flicks on basic cable. It was great fun while it lasted, but eventually ran afoul of our divergent goals. I was seeking an after-the-fact resolution of childhood traumas. Leech was looking for a roadmap to a version of Never-Never Land which conformed to the previous decade’s fantasies (which is why he made an unsuccessful play for Maura inspired by Pretty in Pink).
Even after we went our separate ways, I stayed in that comfortable lane for a good stretch of the Nineties. It wasn’t as if there was much else going on, certainly nothing as enticing as the steady trickle of out-of-print, reissued, or collected media from the dawn of Reagan Era which started to show up on shelves towards the middle of the decade. Why the hell would I care about the Goo Goo Dolls when I could pop Namco Museum into my Playstation and crank up the fifth volume of Just Can’t Get Enough?
I walled myself up in nostalgia to an absurd degree, trying to summon a long-dissipated zeitgeist in vain hope it would somehow heal those old psychic wounds. Looking back, it makes absolutely no sense to think that my pain could be salved though perfectly conceptualizing the world as
it existed I remembered at age ten, but sure felt like I was damned close at certain moments. I could feel it just beyond my fingertips, like a curtain I could pull back and achieve retro-apotheosis.
Failing that, I turned toward books, scores upon scores of them pulled from the stacks and read during my ghost town Saturday shifts at the campus library. I pulled them because of subject matter — Eighties television, nuclear war fiction, horror flicks, teen movies, post-WW2 American pop culture — but the critical frameworks they offered were more educational than the specific topics. It was the type of stuff typically covered by fan wank publications, but discussed using the tools and methods associated with “serious” history and literature scholarship.
Even if the writers got some of the details wrong or indulged in critical overreach, just knowing this type of interdisciplinary analysis existed was a mind-blowing concept. “Hey, remember that thing” gave way to “hey, did you realize that thing ties back to this other thing as a part of a longer cultural trend.” Understanding the bigger picture made it easier to place my personal perspectives in context. I got hung up in nostalgia because I was looking for a way to make sense of things, and here was a methodology for doing just that.
It didn’t cure me of that ol’ nostalgic itch, but it helped channel it towards more constructive ends (though your definition of “constructive” may vary from mine). I’ll still chase that quick hit when the urge strikes me, but it’s more interesting to see where it eventually leads. It’s the underbrush that obscures a far more extensive set of ruins to explore. I started reading the Billboard archives because I was curious about the rise of punk rock and the Eighties videogame industry, but ended up dwelling on the legal battles surrounding home video technology and the emergence of the classic rock format as a response to labels pushing “college rock” acts as the “new mainstream.”
Nostalgia lives in the flashy guitar riffs, but the truly significant shit resides in the bassline.
As a result, a lot of the familiar nostalgic touchstones have lost their hold on me. There was a time when I’d drop everything to catch an airing of Ghostbusters or Back to the Future or The Breakfast Club, but now I’m more likely to skip over them unless there’s fuck all else on at the moment. Part of it comes from a sense of familiarity that makes watching it feel redundant, where the only parts that still register a response are the problematic ones. For me, “too much of a good thing” leads to “discovering it’s actually a pretty mediocre one.” I’d rather watch some less familiar shitty knock-off or period obscurity instead.
The same applies to music, comics, and retrogaming. It’s possible to stay rooted in the past without confining oneself to an established canon of artists and offerings, to fixate on the consensually “correct” shit that you’ve experienced countless times already. It’s why I fixated upon K-Tel compilations, as they exist in a particular moment where Devo rubs shoulders with Rick James and REO Speedwagon and revisionist narratives be damned. Would I consider myself a fan of Genesis or the Commodores? Not really, but in the context of the Retro Active collection they fit just fine.
The Proustian concept of nostalgia was defined by small, deeply personal triggers that carried one back to particular moment or flash of sentiment. There’s nothing wrong with that, and sometimes it’s healthy to be periodically reminded of one’s roots or departed loved ones. The current incarnation of nostalgia, however, is less a meditation and more a marketing scheme where one can entomb themself in an echo chamber of perpetually regurgitated IP. It’s not just retrograde, but highly revisionist — based on a selective and reductive interpretation of the past which omits crucial (and discomforting) details as a shoddy form of insulation against an uncertain present and future. In doing so, it encourages a host of ugly behaviors — from defending problematic parts of revered icons to obnoxious gatekeeping.
That shit didn’t save the world when it was new. It’s not going to do jack now.