With her soon-to-be-released new single 'Figure 8' directly inspired by it, British artist FKA Twigs has brought 80's dance 'voguing' back in a big way. But with a twist, by inserting it in her dark, delicate, sexually charged performances. Completely at odds with its original context (a highly stylized, modern house dance that evolved out of the Harlem ballroom scene in the 1980s, associated with Gay, Black and Latino Americans), it is utterly spellbinding, and feels visionary -- like we might be witnessing the next evolution of music as we know it.
This kind of re-mixing is often labeled a type of cultural nostalgia. Like the current popularity of Birkenstocks, fanny packs, cereal cafes. It's billed as indication of a culture that craves a bygone era, the security of what we once knew.
But what if that's not it at all? What if borrowing from the past is actually the best proof that culture is constantly seeking the new?
Analyzing cultural patterns is one way to make sense of all the inputs that shape consumers deepest longings - and inform their behaviors. We call this "Cultural Strategy." Within the discipline, the 'old' or 'saturated' is termed: residual. But it's a mistake to think that when something becomes residual, its life is over. Rather, we exist in a world of reinterpretation. The 'old' never really comes back in replica. Rather, it is recycled, reconfigured, re-referenced - history providing rich stimulus to be reinterpreted in ways that bring new joy and meaning to people's lives within the construct of the (at least partially) familiar.
Similarly if something is culturally emergent, that does not mean there is a formula for how to tap into and express that theme. For example, the way Taylor Swift's #girlsquad, peppered with strong young (and beautiful) women including Gigi Hadid and Haim the band, speaks to the culturally resonant notion of 'Girl Power' is completely different to that of Verizon's social initiative 'Inspire Her Mind', which aims to get more young girls into typically 'male' interests, such as science. Further, the really great 'new' comes from smashing two cultural 'codes' together to create different (and interesting) meaning. Smashing things together creates a tension; that tension gives rise to new ideas.
Take, for instance, Method. By smashing the code of green and non-toxic ingredients with that of simplistic 'Apple'-esque design, they created a range of lifestyle products that has ushered in a new, aesthetic-led, chapter in countertop-worthy home cleaning.
How about we try a thought experiment: Everyone knows what a chain restaurant is, looks and feels like. It isn't a new or headline grabbing concept in any way: cookie cutter design, a standard menu that's the same whether it's New York or Ohio, and overly perky wait staff. As a concept, these institutions are a residual vestige of dining society. Now, let's take the restaurant concept that's been most lauded and written up over the last five years, particularly in New York and London. Restaurants all about a single dish, often small and intimate, without the ability to book in advance (queuing, we discovered, is a sport). Now what if we smashed those two things together? A restaurant that borrows from the premise of the cookie cutter chain model, but no phones allowed - for example - and while we're at it there are only five dishes on the menu, all ethically sourced from local producers. Suddenly you have a restaurant concept that borrows from the residual (or old) and references the emergent(ish) to introduce something truly new and interesting.
Let's take it one step further. Take the chain restaurant model, add the obsession with gym culture and smatter with the more emergent emphasis on spirituality and mindfulness.
You know what you get? You get SoulCycle.
As the old saying about creativity goes, you can't break the rules until you know them. The same goes for culture. For a brand to employ culture effectively it needs to understand what 'codes' are out there, and which are most culturally salient in order to smash, break and combine them into something that is truly vibrant, new and culturally on point. Of course, many of the most successful/ breakthrough 'new' things - 'experimental rappers' Young Fathers, whose album won the UK-based Mercury Music Prize award last December, lifestyle knitting-circle Wool & The Gang, whose fashion-forward creations have been sent down the runway, and New York-based Melt Shop, a modern, artisanally-sourced grilled cheese sandwich spot with queues regularly out the door - have a thread of the familiar. That doesn't make them nostalgic - that helps make them iconic.