The Speed of Retro

Entertainment-industry tastemakers who've hung around long enough to become senior VPs may naturally gravitate to the things they enjoyed as teens, and the public responds.
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Sometimes you feel real old, older than you are. Nothing makes you feel older than seeing the records you loved as a teenager reappear as two-disc 20th anniversary special editions, with lavish booklets featuring photos of unfortunate hair and liner notes that discuss outdated recording technology.

It used to be easy to figure out when things were going to come back. The 20-year cycle seemed predictable enough. As we struggled through the 1970s, Happy Days, Grease and American Graffiti looked back on the era of Eisenhower. By 1987, the Grateful Dead were in the top 40, and tie-dyes started appearing in department stores. Was it any surprise that the 1990s gave us the return of disco, That 70s Show, an onslaught of noodly jam bands, and the rise of 1970s-derived grunge music?

For some, it's a way to experience the fun of being young again, without the requisite awkwardness. Nostalgia kicks in most fiercely just as the mid-life crisis begins, prompting consumers in their mid-30s with ample disposable income to try to buy back their wild years. Entertainment-industry tastemakers who've hung around long enough to become senior VPs may naturally gravitate to the things they enjoyed as teens, and the public responds.

But before you dish out $95 for that Def Leppard-Styx-Foreigner summer tour, then, consider whether the speed of retro is accelerating, or just plain fragmenting. As one popular news source noted 10 years ago, we may be running out of past. The "retro-present warp" may be a mathematical impossibility, but VH-1's 2004 airing of I Love 1999 was an unmistakable sign that the cycle has begun to go awry.

We've already burned out on Eighties Night, and headed straight to the era when "alternative" shifted from adjective to noun. The essence of Smashing Pumpkins has returned in the form of Silversun Pickups, a Los Angeles outfit that seems to prefer the initialism "SSPU" for embarrassingly obvious reasons. (The Pumpkins themselves are "reuniting" at least two members for a new album and a series of shows this summer.) Third-generation grunge bands like the inexplicably popular Hinder have bypassed the genre's awkward rap-rock middle years, and returned straight to its sludgy roots (as well as its misogynistic side). Even old-school revivalists Jurassic 5 draw more from A Tribe Called Quest's The Low End Theory (1991) than from early-80s rap pioneer Grandmaster Flash.

At the same time, other signals are baffling. Backward-facing bands like Jet and The Darkness, the breakout acts of 2003, drew from a rock continuum of the Beatles, Queen, AC/DC, the hair-metal years, and even Oasis, leaving retro ambiguity in their wake. Maroon 5's current number-one hit "Makes Me Wonder" descends more directly from Off The Wall and K.C. and the Sunshine Band than Bad or synth-pop, while Entertainment Weekly compared the new Wilco album to an Eagles record. Are these homages to the 1970s, or might they symbolize a creeping nostalgia for the first revival of that decade's music -- in the mid-1990s?

The predictive habits of the early-adopting indie community aren't any help, either. New psychedelic folk artists draw upon an earthy late-60s/early-70s vibe, while the Hold Steady looks to mid-70s Springsteen and Thin Lizzy for inspiration. Bloc Party and Franz Ferdinand are clearly fans of the Gang of Four's Entertainment (1979), and Hot Chip revives frenetic 80s dancepunk.

So why has the speed of retro accelerated? Marketers trying to be the first to revive an idea hasten its return; the snarkiest critics, in turn, are first to dismiss them, thereby opening a void for the next taste before the last one can be properly savored. Moreover, the extraordinary emphasis on youth culture that has risen over the past two decades, combined with increased marketing to kids younger than age 13, may be causing ideas and styles to return sooner than expected.

Two things are happening here: One, the thing being revived was originally popular among a younger group of people, and two, the new target audience isn't old enough to remember it anyway. (Think of the disquieting example of Billy Ray Cyrus on kiddie TV here.) Don't forget, Kurt Cobain might as well be Jim Morrison to these people -- the current high-school senior class was just five years old when Cobain died.

All this could mean that you'll feel a little older a little sooner. Or, if you're lucky, you'll get another chance to be in style when your favorites come around for the third time.

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