Friday 23 August 2019

Back to the future: how nostalgia ruled in 2016

The world must be suffering a creak in its collective neck with all the looking back

Time warp: Stranger Things
Time warp: Stranger Things
Darragh McManus

Darragh McManus

The past, someone wrote, is another country. If this year is anything to go by, though, it's a country most of us have no intention of leaving. I used to think it was mainly Generation X-ers who were besotted with yesterday (all those t-shirts of 1970s bands and conversational quotes from old TV shows). But it's all adults now, all ages. In 2016, the past was very much present - to a large degree, the past was 2016.

The Easter Rising centenary, in Ireland at least, was the centrepiece of our retro-life. Official State functions and smaller local ones, the deluge of books, countless TV and radio documentaries, a lavish RTÉ drama, that wonderful show from the Grand Canal Theatre, music, song and dance, interpretive or otherwise…

You literally couldn't avoid 1916 in 2016. By around May, many of us were suffering a sort of centennial battle fatigue: all due respect to our heroic dead - and they were heroic - but please, no more.

Yet on it trundled, reaching absurd points of past-fetishisation. Plaques erected at a spot where such-and-such once stopped his car or came under enemy fire. Programmes and articles which drained every last splink of ephemera from 1916, no matter how tangential or, indeed, uninteresting.

Or this strange insistence that "the families" of Rising leaders had greater claim than everyone else, and must be consulted and included on each step - that probably proved the point most sharply. We acted as though these folks were the children or first cousins of Pearse, Connolly et al, not third- and fourth-generation descendants. We acted, in short, as though 1916 was recent, maybe even comparable to the present - and not the century-distant past.

Possibly the most pointless aspect was the question regularly asked: "What can the Rising teach us about today?" Given that 1916 was closer, in many ways, to 1016 than 2016, you'd have to say: very little.

All this, of course, was mixed in with Great War reminiscences, came hot on the heels of the Lockout centenary, and prefaces commemorations of the War of Independence and Civil War and… we're in for a good decade of this.

Going global, the other main manifestation of our retro-obsession was the public reaction to celebrity deaths. 2016 did seem to provide an unusually high number, although I'm not sure if, longer-term, this is statistical trend or just confirmation bias (Wikipedia lists, for example, 441 deaths of notables in 2015 - this year, so far, only 25 more).

It began with the deaths of David Bowie and Terry Wogan, ended with AA Gill and John Montague, and in between famous names from every sphere shuffled off this mortal coil. (Speaking of which: this was the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare's death - you probably read all those commemorative articles.)

The reaction to many celebrity deaths was, well, an overreaction. There was much keening and lamentation, mostly on social media but often mainstream, too. Sometimes you got the impression people were striving to outdo each other in their lachrymose effusions of sympathy and emotional despair. You'd think these folks personally knew the deceased, such was their frequent use of terms like "devastated", "in bits", "still feel empty inside", "like a part of me has died too", "literally crying".

(Or my favourite/most hated: those "we lost". We didn't lose them, though, did we? Their family and friends lost them.)

It was all rather self-indulgent, narcissistic and even a little disrespectful to the actual dead person. Journalist Camilla Long caused a minor firestorm when she wrote, in the wake of Bowie's death, "You are not 10 - you are an adult. Man the f**k up… grief should be private." She slated the "utter insincerity" and "odd mimicry" of "social media grief".

Hard to disagree, though you don't want to be too snotty about it, and in fairness, we might have always been like this to some extent - I certainly remember a night of shocked, drunken collective-consolation after Kurt Cobain's suicide.

Maybe social media has just made this nonsense louder, more public, harder to ignore. But Long is still right, and it has surely got worse in recent years: we now take celeb deaths too seriously and too personally, as if it's literally a part of our own youth being extinguished.

Nostalgia has become ever-bigger in the culture anyway. Guns N' Roses sell 80,000 tickets in a few hours, despite not releasing a decent album in almost three decades, joining the crowded ranks of "heritage" acts who are bigger than ever.

1980s homage Stranger Things was a TV sensation; Westworld, rejigging a 1970s movie, was another. RTÉ's Bridget & Eamon took a more irreverent approach to the 1980s and also scored well with audiences. Media is stacked with articles on "20 years since this movie was released" or "15 ways you know you're a 1990s kid" (I know this because I wrote some of them).

Even politics, in a funny way, reflected our infatuation with the past. People voted for Brexit and Donald Trump, to some extent, because of a yearning for how things used to be, or at least their mental image of it.

And Trump himself, with the hair and tower and aggressive power-suits and everything else, is a total 1980s throwback.

Society now seems largely defined by irony, kitsch, a refusal to grow up and an addiction to nostalgia. We see the world through a prism of post-modernism and increasingly fetishise the past, whether that's our own youth or what we imagine were more "romantic" times of yore.

Why is this? Perhaps it's down to what Bono (U2 were formed 40 years ago last September!) sang about on Rattle and Hum (30th anniversary in 2018!): "You glorify the past when the future dries up".

Is this really how the human race now feels? It's depressing enough to send you back to bed. Someone wake me for the 2116 commemorations.

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