Monday, January 21, 2013

The Reminiscence Bump

I just read a post on Andrew Sullivan’s website that hit home in terms of how we remember as adults, and why we over-romanticize our late-teen and early-adult years.  He was referring to this Slate article by Katy Waldman that examines why people focus so intensely on that time period as some measurement of who they are a decade or two removed.

The money quote is from author Joshua Foer, who “describes a study in which researchers found that most movie adaptations and remakes occur exactly 20 years after the originals come out. Apparently, whatever touches people as young adults looms so large for the rest of their lives that when they reach the age at which their generation starts to create the culture—around 40—books and screens fill up with the arcana of 20 years ago. ‘So look out for a new Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles film any day now,’ Foer finished.”

I’ve been noticing this since my early 30s and have written about it many times, but didn’t come up with a novel term like “reminiscence bump” which does work fine.  My big novel term was fonzia, which I fully describe in this post.  A different kind of nostalgia, one that’s more longing for an age in which one never lived and for which one has a highly romanticized vision.

I think Foer’s equation is a little off time-wise in terms of pop culture.  In fact, I know it is.  People harken back to their teen years culturally, not their 20s, which is a huge difference in time and perception. Thus, they go through these nostalgia binges in their early-to-mid 30s, not in their 40s.  (I don't know many people in their 40s who are nostaglic for anything ... most of us are old enough to recognize death on the horizon, and that's a real nostalgia killer.)  But I do agree with the 20-year assessment.  Let’s use the 70s as an example.  Twenty years on from the 70s is roughly the mid to late 1990s.  At which time, you had shows like That 70s Show, and movies like Dazed and Confused mining the 70s for all they were worth.  Dazed and Confused in particular is an excellent guide to how the 70s were for kids, although I don’t recall them being that druggy.  (Of course, my brothers who were a few years older, do.)

Turn of the century, and a show like Freaks and Geeks perfectly nailed the turning of the 1970s into the 1980s.  Never mind that the show was excellent in and of itself – this short-lived series exactly replicates how I felt at the time and matches up to my age group.  Thus heralding in the return to the 80s so much of the 00s represented, especially in music.  I think the reason I’ve fallen out with so much newer indie rock is that to me, starting with a band like The Strokes, it all sounds like warmed-over/once-removed 80s indie music, whether we’re talking mumbly surf rock bands like Jesus & the Mary Chain or the vast sea of 80s synth pop which has morphed into any number of sub-trends in the past decade.  I heard it all before, and most of it was better the first time around.  Honestly, most of what I hear now sounds like fucking Heaven 17 demos with the roadies singing lead vocals.  I have to believe people raving about indie music in the last decade are either age specific and relatively innocent/don’t know their musical history, or they’re older and trying desperately to keep their jobs by lying to themselves and their audience.

I can attest that they were many 70s-based cultural projects in the mid-late 90s.  I saw more than a few re-creations of Brady Bunch episodes by a troupe of actors in Manhattan that were uproariously funny to audiences who had this show burned into their memories.  Rhino Records, slightly ahead of the curve in the early 90s, came out with their monumental 25-disc Have aNice Day series that more accurately recounts exactly what was popular with kids in the 70s.  (Critics tend to rewrite history to match their tastes … punk and new wave were relatively minor trends at the time.  Exciting as hell, but by no means Top 10 popular.)  70s-themed bars and dance clubs sprung up here and there in Manhattan, which would morph into 80s-themed bars and dance clubs a decade or two later.

These 20-year nostalgia binges are based on culture, mainly music and fashions that kids, teenage kids, loved at the time.  Not people in their 20s.  People in their 20s, I can assure you, looked back on culture that was less than a decade old with disdain.  So that 20 years on, somebody who was, say 25 in 1976, would have very little interest, circa 1996, going to see a bunch of actors re-creating Brady Bunch episodes in a Manhattan studio space (like I did about a half dozen times as someone who wasn’t even a teenager in 1976).  Now, if those same actors were re-creating episodes of, say, Dark Shadows, that might be a different story.  (The recent Tim Burton movie remake of Dark Shadows bombing at the box office is a good example of being years off, as people now in ther 50s would really dig this, save they don't go to movies all that much; the remake would have made much more sense and done huge box office circa 1985-90.  I haven't seen this movie yet, but suspect I will like it.)

The teen/twentysomething gulf is an important distinction to make in terms of culture.  But I do agree with Foer in terms of overall memory as people age, that they do cling to their early-mid 20s as this golden age of self-discovery and freedom.  When all I can recall now, with a pretty vivid memory and a good eye for the past, was how awkward and mildly depressed I felt upon entering the adult world and realizing this shit had nothing to do with the freedom and creativity I had nurtured in college!  Sure, I looked great, at my peak physically, could eat whatever I wanted, stay up all night and look like a million dollars the next day, but for however good I looked, it was equally matched by how insecure and out of place I felt in those years.

Maybe because I was looking forward more than backward, and realizing I wasn’t fully prepared to deal with this thing called work that I was expected to do for the rest of my days?  I don’t recall feeling all that nostalgic in my 20s, save for the continuation of romanticizing all the “wild” things I had done in my teen and college years, which we would be romanticizing form the day following any given wild night.  Which were no more or less wild than your “wild” nights, I’d imagine.  It also occurred to me, fairly fast, that the “freedom” of my those years was tempered by the fact that I couldn’t support myself, that if it wasn’t for my parents helping to support me financially, I would not have had the time or inclination to sense that sort of freedom most of us had in those years.

To be honest, I have much more vivid memories about being a teenager than I do about my 20s.  I started writing this blog to recapture a lot of college memories before it was “too late” in some sense and I had completely forgotten them.  And my time in New York, which took up my 20s from the age of 24 or so onwards, was such a comparatively odd experience, living in a boarding house in the Bronx, a completely alien environment to the small-town/college town worlds I understood, that I tend not to romanticize those days.

I don’t quite understand the article’s assumption, and that of many of the commenters, that the 20s are singled out as some time period when you’re defining who you are.  Shit … you’re doing the same when your eight years old, or 15, or 35, or 45.  It never ends.  Granted, you’re a lot more sure of yourself come your 30s and 40s, but you’re still figuring things out, how you’re going to live your life, what changes you can make along the way, things you want to try, ways you want to start or stop living.  It never ends.  Simple routine ensures that we become more set in our ways, but within that context, change and growth still occur. 

And I don’t recall it occurring any more radically or quickly in my 20s, or that this was the start of that process.  Any changes I went through, real changes, occurred gradually over the course of years, as opposed to any half-assed stabs at making dramatic gestures to change.  Think of people who alter their looks physically on a regular basis, or dump friends with alarming regularity.  The point is, the changes they put forth are pretty much surface and temporary, and I think you’ll find, people shedding relationships in their 20s are doing the same damn thing in their 40s, as they continually “out grow” friends and acquaintances who frankly don’t give a rat’s ass about their “personal growth” or some other such shit they've concocted to mask their emotional rootlessness.

I’d say “who we are” is pretty much determined in our childhoods.  I’m speaking of our personalities, our demeanors, how we inter-act with other people.  You can fool yourself into thinking that you can affect change in your adult life with these traits, but I don’t think you can.  I think of people I’ve known most of my life, and I can’t single out one person as someone who has changed all that radically from how we were as children or teenagers.  Again, I’m thinking core personality traits, how we deal with the world and each other.  And so much of that is determined by our parents, not so much what they do with us, but simply who they are.  I can clearly see, in my 40s, that so much of who I am now, so much of who I was in the past, is directly related to how my parents are/were.  My father was always quiet and stoic, the kind of person who kept a lot to himself but would occasionally let you in with a nice conversation.  My mother is a very warm, open-hearted person who has a knack for talking to perfect strangers and immediately making that person feel just as open and somehow happy as she is.  They presented a very yin/yang version of personality types which worked well together.

And I can see both those sides in me, all the time, looking back over the course of decades.  People who don’t know me so well probably only see that father side of me, but those who know me get both.  And Dad could be a real prick some time … surprise, so can I!  But generally not as a rule, only when I’m being pushed or pressured.  I learned a lot about privacy from Dad, which seems at odds with some people in my life, but fucking A, they should know me better by now.  That’s another thing I’ve also learned about myself. I tend to know people in my life really well, to the point where I know what to look out for in terms of pleasing or offending that person.  My parents always taught me to think of others, not so much in a compassionate sense, but more to simply understand that my point of view would not be theirs.  And life goes better when you understand the people around you, or at least make the effort to do so.

But that’s getting away from this whole 20-year cycle thing.  In any event, an interesting article that you’ll find I dwell on a lot on this website.  I think we’d all be better off if we all remember our 20s, and our youths in general, as they were.  Just another piece of the puzzle, and one that is problematic and pleasing as any other.


Beatles Comment Guy said...

I know this may sounded biased, as someone who was born around 1980, but there is some reason for nostalgia/retro stuff in the 90s: that decade sucked. Your mileage may vary, but apart from some of the tech/computer stuff, it really wasn't so fun for a lot of those of us who were teenagers at the time. Maybe some eras are at least slightly better.

For a bit of perspective: Dazed and Confused was released in '93- only 17 years after the story takes place. I cannot imagine a movie coming out today that takes place in 1996. For whatever reason, '76 felt more distant and nostalgic at the time than 1996 does today. Sure, there must have been some romanticism attached to the 60s and 70s, but I really suspect that there was at least some element of truth in there somewhere. The 80s and 90s never have had that same aura, even now removed all these years after the fact. Some do look back on them fondly, yes, but I suspect it's not so much because they like the period in and of itself, but just because it reminds them of their youths. For me, the "look back fondly" time is not high school, but the interim between high school and college (took a few years off). The stress of my family, high school, etc, faded away and I was able just enjoy life before moving on to something more serious. The music, movies, politics, trends, and all that aren't what stand out in my mind. It was my friends, what we did, places we went, and that sort of thing. Of course, this is an individual thing-but when I'm nostalgic, it's the plot and not the setting/backdrop that stands out.

Beatles Comment Guy said...

Thinking about this general idea reminded me of a few things. Has anyone who is reading this ever:

Had to make or receive a phone call at a specific time, so that (hopefully) no one else in the house would notice it?

Make plans to meet in advance, because pre-cell phone and pre-email ubiquity it was harder to get in touch with people in general, much less when someone was on the go?

Listen all night for a certain song on the radio, maybe even with the intentions of taping it, because you didn't have the cash to buy it, or the record store was far away from your town? Never mind today when can probably hear practicaly any song on YouTube for free or buy it instantly on the cheap from iTunes! (WRRK out of Pittsburgh played an entire classic album every Tuesday night--blank tapes were something like a buck or two.)

I know that many will disagree, but I maintain that we do sometimes lose the fine human details when we gain something in convenience.