Monday, March 22, 2004
Wherefore Nostalgia?

Nostalgia isn't the right term, if you want to be correct about such things. Strictly defined, nostalgia is a sense of pain and loss at the thought of a past one cannot reclaim. It isn't the flattened camp of retro or the glorious celebration of a better time. That clarification made, I will now proceed to butcher the concept.

OK, no actual butchering is to follow-- rather my 3/4-assed theories on retro. Last night I was reminded of the existence of Magnapop (apparently they're back together and touring) and dug out my old copy of Hot Boxing. The songs were neither as tight nor as fierce as I remember them being... in hindsight, and through the lens of the music I moved onto, many of the bands during the pop-culture shift from grunge (Nirvana) to punk (Green Day) seem poppier and less heavy than they did at the time. Then I realized the problem: I remember the bands from when they were current, how they seemed back then. New. A revelation. Not enough time has passed, Magnapop is not long enough forgotten. Instead we get stale early-80s retreads or (much rarer) bracing early-80s reimaginings.

And much of the audience for this music was too young at the time to be fully into the music. For them it's barely-remembered, something they heard briefly from their older siblings' bedrooms before it was cast aside as old-hat. Wait! they silently cried, What was that? I wanted to hear more! And at long last they have the chance to hear it, and it has the power of the new combined with the sheen of a half-remembered dream, a sense of deja vu. Like finding a new edition of that bedtime story you always suspected you'd made up.

But does the music drive the fashion or vice versa? My theory of fashion retro is one of thrift-store ecology. In the 90s, young hipsters scoured every local salvation army for polyester and t-shirts with slogans meaningless out of context. The t-shirts are still out there for the bin-divers, but all the cast-off clothing from the 70s has been bought up. The retro moves to the Urban Outfitters of the world, recreating more expensive versions of the fashion for trendies, but the hipster remains in the thrift store.

The thrift store: a bleak landscape, victim of a fashionista Tragedy of the Commons. Nothing to be had, until the hipster starts noticing the previously overlooked 80s castoffs. One niche ravaged, the species fits itself to another as yet unfilled, thereby beginning another cycle of fashion retro.

So, do the clothes follow the music or vice versa? Or is it all a brilliantly timed dance of convergent evolution? As soon as I exhaust my grant to study why people in DC are always walking backwards or sideways without looking where they're going (and, further, why this movement is always either in my direction or intersects with my intended path), I will turn my scientific eye to a study of the matter.
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