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Seventies Heaven – The Shifting Gaze of Cultural Nostalgia

Nostalgia is a funny thing.

It is infinitely more complex than most people will allow. By its very nature, it is highly fungible, intertwined with concepts like memory and politics in a way that does not always make it easy to parse. Nostalgia hits in waves, but those waves do not always hit at the same time with the same intensity. Nostalgia is not a single monolithic concept, it pulls and pushes from moment to moment. What is the nostalgia of the moment? The eighties nostalgia of Stranger Things? The nineties nostalgia of Independence Day: Resurgence?

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Trying to define a pattern in pop culture’s nostalgia is like trying to read the tea leaves, falling somewhere between a conversational art and outright hucksterism.  Still, one of the more interesting – and least discussed – aspects of the grand nostalgia industrial complex is the state of transition. Big waves become little waves, emphasis shifts, focus goes elsewhere. One of the more interesting shifts in nostalgia over the past couple of years has been a transition from a strong sixties nostalgia into something altogether more seventies.

It is a rather weird sight to behold, as if watching the popular image of one decade fade into the popular image of the other.

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There was a very strong wave of sixties nostalgia that rippled through popular consciousness towards the end of the first decade of the twentieth century. That sixties influence was felt at all levels of popular culture. Nobody was spared, whether the families sitting at home watching prestige television or the crowds pouring out to catch blockbuster movies. Towards the end of the second Bush administration, the public seemed in the mood for that species sixties aesthetic.

Mad Men remains perhaps the most obvious example of this trend. In terms of high culture, it stands at the very pinnacle. There are many who would point to Mad Men as the medium’s crowning cultural accomplishment, to the point that many would identify at as signifying the end of the so-called “golden age” of television as it ceded ground to pulpier genre-driven fare like Game of Thrones or True Detective or The Americans. This narrative of television history points to Mad Men as the end point of an evolutionary chain stretching back to The Sopranos.

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However, Mad Men was not the only such example, although it was a very influential one. Indeed, the success of prestige television shows is often judged not through anything as meagre and transitory as ratings, but through the trends that it inspires. Mad Men sparked an interest in prestige television in the decade, to the point that the short-lived and doomed Pan Am could be described as an ineffectual “knock-off.” Nevertheless, other period-specific programming followed in its wake, although their focus began to shift.

Meanwhile, at the cinema, there was a marked return to sixties properties and iconography. JJ Abrams’ rebooted Star Trek franchise is a prime example. Launching in 2009, the new film series abandoned the eighties and nineties aesthetic of the Berman in era in order to return to a move vibrant and dynamic sixties setting. Abrams revelled in the bright colours of the franchise, from red-haired women with green skin to bright primary colour shirts to a planet with fauna so red that it practically popped off the screen.

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Star Trek might be the most obvious example, but it is far from the only such illustration of the trend. When Fox decided to reboot their faltering X-Men film franchise in 2011, they did so by returning to the sixties for X-Men: First Class. Christopher Nolan decided to follow up The Dark Knight Rises with an extended tribute to fascination with the space exploration that defined the sixties in Interstellar. Fox resurrected a classic sixties franchise with Rise of the Planet of the Apes to considerable acclaim.

In some respects, this might be said to mirror the narrative unfolding in the real world around that time. If Christopher Nolan’s The Dark Knight was the defining blockbuster of the Bush era, then perhaps JJ Abrams’ Star Trek set the tone for the early years of the Obama Presidency. Barrack Obama won the Democratic nomination in 2008, but he also won the United States Presidency. Obama’s campaign was notably positive; he campaigned on “Hope”, in sharp contrast to the climate of the War on Terror.

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Obama’s narrative fits a very familiar archetype. A best-selling German biography of Barrack Obama is titled “Obama: The Black Kennedy.” While Kennedy was the first Irish-American Roman Catholic to hold the presidency, Obama was the first African American to take the office. Both Kennedy and Obama had vanquished the forces of the political establishment to win the election; Kennedy defeated former Vice-President Richard Milhous Nixon in the general election, while Obama defeated former First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Democratic primaries.

More than that, there were broader social similarities between the sixties and the end of the first decade of the twenty-first century. Much like the sixties witnessed the end of the conservative fifties, the end of the twenty-first century’s first decade saw the fading of a social and political conservatism that had been swelling since the late nineties. The moral majority that had hounded President Bill Clinton and been so firm in their support of President George Bush were reinventing themselves as an insurgent Tea Party.

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Social activism was also a massive part of the decade. Although there was nothing quite on the scale of the civil strife that marked the mid-to-late-sixties, there were a number of high-profile grass roots movements. The Occupy Movement arose in response to the Great Recession, with people like Frank Miller describing the movement in terms that many conservatives would have used to describe hippies. The campaign for equality for gay and transgender people has been described (controversially) as this generation’s “civil rights” moment.

However, something interesting has happened in the past couple of years. That nostalgia for the sixties has faded somewhat. Instead, a new nostalgia has emerged to take its place. That nostalgia… is not the wave of nineties nostalgia sweeping through cinemas and television with the release of long-delayed sequels like Jurassic World or Zoolander II. It is not the renewed interest in nineties properties like Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Out of the Shadows or American Crime Story: The People vs. O.J. Simpson. Or The X-Files.

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It is a concurrently wave of seventies nostalgia that seems to overlap (or perhaps nestle snuggly within) that wave of nineties nostalgia. After all, it could legitimately be argued that Chris Carter’s classic nineties television show The X-Files was largely a gigantic homage to seventies paranoia and pop culture, a blend of All the President’s Men with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Once again, nostalgia is a far more complicated beast than most give it credit for, intertwining and overlapping.

This seventies nostalgia seemed to really kick in towards the end of Obama’s second term. The Conjuring provided a sharp contrast to contemporary horror trends by embraced an old-school seventies aesthetic in 2013. The Conjuring II retained that seventies aesthetic to become one of the biggest (and most satisfying) box office draws of 2016. Television’s second seasons seemed to embrace the seventies, whether literally in the case of Fargo or in spirit in the case of True Detective. It appears that Patrick Wilson is our retro seventies leading man of choice. Even the second season of Daredevil had a pulpy seventies New York vibe.

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As with sixties nostalgia, that fascination with seventies ripples through all levels of popular culture. Facing the end of Game of Thrones, HBO has placed a lot of hope (and money) in Westworld, a sprawling television adaptation of a cult seventies film. Some of the smaller and more satisfying films of the summer have been seventies throwbacks like The Nice Guys or Elvis and Nixon. Even the popular culture still set within the sixties seems to be transitioning towards the end of that decade.

Even Star Trek seems to making a similar transition. Star Trek Beyond underperformed at the box office in a way that throws the JJ Abrams franchise into doubt. Meanwhile, Bryan Fuller has announce plans for Star Trek: Discovery. Although it is technically a prequel, and Fuller cannot comment on this decision for legal reasons, what little of the show has been glimpsed to date recalls the production design of artist Ralph McQuarrie on the abandoned mid-seventies Star Trek feature film Star Trek: Planet of the Titans.

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On television, David Duchovny is hunting down the serial killer Charlie Manson in Aquarius, an event that marks the end of the sixties – at least in spiritual terms. This is perhaps the most telling indication. The Manson murders seem to be back in the public consciousness. Karina Longworth hosted an excellent extended exploration of the murders on her podcast You Must Remember This over the summer. With the publication of The Girls and American Girls, Hadley Freeman dubbed 2016 “the second summer of Charles Manson.”

This is important, because it signifies the end of the sixties. If nostalgia is a linear thing, then arriving at the Manson murders means arriving at the point of transition between the sixties and seventies; it is the death of the idealism of the sixties and the emergence of the cynicism that marked so much of the seventies. Again, it is easy to put this in a social and political context. Many commentators have rushed to compare the sense of dread hanging over 2016 to that of 1968, although others have been as quick to dismiss the comparison.

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The comparisons are easy enough to make. If Hillary Clinton was cast as the 1960 version of Nixon to young Barrack Obama’s Kennedy, she is now being allowed to play the 1968 version of Nixon to an older Barrack Obama’s Lyndon B. Johnson. This is an election in which the race is effectively to determine which of the major candidates is least disliked, with none of the optimism and enthusiasm that marked the election eight years prior. This is to say nothing Donald Trump cribbing freely from Nixon’s 1968 Republican National Convention address.

There is a sense of palpable despair hanging in the air. After all, many contemporary horror movies seem to have turned to Detroit as the embodiment of American dread; Only Lovers Left Alive, Lost River, It Follows, Don’t Breathe. The fear at the heart of many contemporary horror movies is not something foreign or alien, like terrorism. Films like Green Room and 10 Cloverfield Lane suggest a more internal anxiety and uncertainty. In many ways, these films recall the anxieties of the seventies, a country dealing with recession and legacy of war.

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It is a cliché to suggest that cinema is a window into the popular consciousness, but it is fascinating to watch that shift take place in something approaching real time. Nostalgia moves like time, shifting its gaze as time moves forwards.

13 Responses

  1. Your discussion of the cynicism in the US election this year when in contrast to 2008 reminded me of the constant backtracking in American history.
    After the American Revolution, there was a revolutionary fervor that swept the nation with women even getting the right to vote in New Jersey from 1797-1807, and more attending universities. Slowly, this fervor died down, and women were soon banned from voting in New Jersey, and various thinkers begin to spread the “cult of domesticity” that argued a woman’s proper place was in the home.
    After the Civil War, there was a major effort by the Radical Republicans to reform the South and set up the basis for a prosperous African American middle class with the 40 acres and a mule plan. Unfortunately, after the election of 1877, Federal troops were withdrawn, and that ended Reconstruction. As a result, it would be a hundred years before African Americans could truly vote in the South.
    Near the end of World War I, Woodrow Wilson pushed for the US to join the League of Nations, and become more active in world affairs. Instead he had a stroke, and the US declined with the eventual result arguably being World War II.
    Bill Clinton helped the US economy get back on track, but then Bush threw it all away with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

    • Huh, I’ve had similar thoughts lately about how political revolutions seem to be followed by waves of disillusionment. Roosevelt and Reagan led two such revolutions. After they were done, their less charismatic and popular successors had to contend not only with challenges from the other party, but also third party candidacies evidencing a general anger at “the system.” Truman had Strom Thurmond’s segregationists but also, less well remembered, Henry Wallace’s challenge from the hard left. H. W. Bush had Ross Perot. This year’s election has an unusual amount of attention for Greens and Libertarians, but also Bernie Sanders who, while he never went third party, still has a loud contingent of supporters who believe the “not a dime’s worth of difference! The whole system is corrupt!” idea.

      Could be that rising expectations under people like Roosevelt, Reagan or Obama will inevitably produce a backlash when they can’t satisfy everyone whose hopes they appealed to. Could also be that critics find it easier to direct their anger at the less charismatic follow-ups.

      • I think there’s also a sense that the political establishment likes to “settle” somewhat, by following an experimental choice not with an even more experimental choice but with a more conservative choice. Candidates, even from with the incumbent party, tend to be reactive to the last cycle. I think you could even see that within the Republican Party during the Obama years, with the theoretically liberal McCain following the conservative Bush and himself followed by the more on-point Romney.

    • I think it’s not just American history. World history seems full of instances of people rushing forward into bold ideas and then backing out when (entirely predictable) complications arise. Internationalism is one such example, with countries embracing the idea of international unions as great ideas, but then balking at the ceding of national authority that is necessary for these institutions to run.

      With regards to Clinton, it’s very strange to look back at the culture wars of the nineties and see them as a period of sustained economy and social prosperity. In hindsight, they appear quite rosy, even though there was all this conspiratorial stuff bubbling in the background.

  2. I’ve actually often noticed that Senator Clinton has a certain Nixoness to her – and to be clear I have more sympathy for Nixon than most. In the 1960 election Nixon was overwhelmingly the more qualified, heavy weight candidate blown away by his callow rival’s star power. To lose to the pretty boy grandson of a bootlegger – and then see that same figure become an annointed martyr – must have been agonising for Nixon (I don’t mean to go on about politics but he was an absolutely fascinating man.)

    As someone who didn’t live through either decade I’ve never understood why the Sixties got such a good rap and the Seventies such a bad one. The Sixties saw the Cuban Missile Crisis, the peak of American involvement in South East Asia, a seemingly endless wave of assassinations and an open racist win nearly 10 million votes in a presidential election. At least the Seventies had good hair and at least as good music.

    (I also continue to be bewildered at the lionisation of ‘The Sopranos’, a show which attatched itself lamprey like to cliches born in the movies, stole almost mechanically from soap operas and sitcoms and is still somehow praised as original rather than being the McDonalds of television.)

    • I think a large part of the affection for the 1960s stems from the affection for Kennedy’s Presidency or Camelot as it was called. It was one of the last times in America’s history when people were generally optimistic about America’s future. I know my dad, who grew up during that time always watches the early seasons of Mad Men with a wishful eye.

      • One of the more interesting aspects of the past decade or so has been the chipping away of the sixties myth through shows like Mad Men. It actually warmed my heart a little to see Kennedy voted the “most overrated” president, and, while there’s a strong strand of contrarianism to it, I appreciate the recent school of music criticism that acknowledges the snobbishness of baby boomers who argue that popular music peaked in the sixties.

        None of which is to suggest that the sixties wasn’t a romantic and intriguing decade, but it’s good to see a counter-argument taking hold, acknowledging that the truth falls somewhere in the middle. (Sixties music is great, but it’s not the end of pop history! Kennedy was a charming and charismatic president who spoke to a people hoping for a better future, but he was also not the great commander-in-chief by any stretch of the imagination! The counter-culture movement was disorganised and chaotic, and tied to a number of destructive tendencies, but it was also composed of people who genuinely believed that the world could be a better place.)

    • I’d say economics are an obvious one, and possibly also Baby Boomer POV. For economics, the 1973 oil embargo is usually considered to have been the end of the postwar good times – that probably had a lot to do with people who lived through those times remembering them badly. For Boomer POV: in the sixties, the oldest ones who were just born in 1945 were going to college (not most of them, admittedly, but still far more of them than ever before) while the younger ones were in their teens. Those are phases of life that are often subject to nostalgia after the fact, as you move deeper into adulthood and you have bills to pay, responsibilities to take on, a life that’s often not matching up to what you hoped it would be… How much more so in a time of economic crisis when things *would,* in fact, be worse. (I.e. after 1973).

    • I think a lot of the praise heaped upon The Sopranos is down to doing it first, for really taking those tropes and fashioning a novel for television that was actually a weekly series (rather than a miniseries). If The Sopranos aired today, I think it would be well-regarded, but not worshipped. I think it has been surpassed by any number of shows from The Wire to Deadwood to Breaking Bad. (Even Hannibal, which is very much built on The Sopranos despite not featuring any of the language or sexual content.) But it had two advantages: (a.) it arrived at the perfect moment in terms of HBO and cable television, and (b.) it is very good. Oz deserves a lot more credit than it gets, but is was (a.) too early and (b.) too wildly inconsistent to have that same level of impact.

      With regards to Senator Clinton’s “Nixon-ness”, I should state I’m more sympathetic to both than most people are. And I don’t like making the “Clinton as Nixon” comparison because it makes me sound like a particularly crazy brand of online troll, given that Nixon is very much equated with Satan in popular consciousness. (Rather literally in The Nice Guys.) But I think the comparison is accurate in so far as they are both relatively establishment figures, conservative in the context of their party and their moment, both afforded a second shot at the nomination and the election.

      • We had weekly novels for television already: soap operas. 😉

        Seriously though, while I do recognise the shift in mainstream ‘prestige’ television I guess much of my frustration with ‘The Sopranos’ is how undeserved much of the praise for originality seems to me. When I was studying Film and Television in college more years ago than I care to recall I concentrated on the great prime time soap operas of the 1980s, particularly ‘Dallas’. Very little about ‘The Sopranos’ seemed novel to me because I had seen it all before – less polished and less consistent in the older soap operas certainly but recognisably the same brand.

        I’ve never really been able to see ‘The Sopranos’ as anything other than a primetime soap opera lightly varnished with mafia glamour and undeservedly winning accolades for serving the same food in slightly different packaging. That isn’t a bad thing in and of itself – I have a lot of respect for the craftsmanship of the older shows, and indeed ‘The Sopranos’ – but it does rob the series of much of it’s power and certainly keeps it from greatness, at least in my eyes.

      • Undoubtedly.

        And I think Emily Nussbaum makes a good point when she argues that The Sopranos gets a lot more credit than it deserves for doing things that other shows were already doing, but in a more “serious” and “masculine” context. She applied it to Buffy, but it might well stand for your soap opera analogy.

        (Although I do think that novels have endings, which soap operas do not generally have. But otherwise, I get what you’re saying. And I’d agree to a certain extent. But I still think that breaking the zeitgeist – whether through luck or skill or some ratio of one to the other – accounts for the outsized legacy that the show has. And I think it’s very good, if not as good as its reputation.)

      • Very good points. I was (and am) a huge ‘Buffy’ fan and it can be disheartening to see it ignored in critical discourse. I agree it being seen as feminine (and genre television no less) to the hyper masculine ‘Sopranos’ probably helps.

        For quality I actually much prefer ‘Oz’ to ‘The Sopranos’. I agree the consistency was all over the place but when it was on, it was really on and it seemed more genuinely experimental television (also JK Simmons was amazing.)

      • I remember being really annoyed when people who really should have known better described Simmons’ role in Whiplash as “playing against type.” This included several high-profile members of the Irish film community.

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