Relationships

The Trouble With Secondhand Nostalgia

Why the packaging and selling of cultural eras and events — of other peoples’ experience — bothers me

My gym friend is in his usual place on the Stairmaster. I climb up to meet him and we chat side by side for half an hour, climbing to nowhere. I don’t remember his name but he is a lively guy, a therapist, and we usually jump right in to a topic. It makes the time and the torture go quickly.

I didn’t think much of his ubiquitous tie-dyed T-shirt, granny glasses and long ponytail, his devotion to the Grateful Dead, or other references to the '60s — just figured he was an aging hippie — until one day I asked his age. 50. I did the math. That means he was born in 1963: Too young to be reliving the '60s as an adult in that time.

Later, on the weight machines, I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror; brow furrowed, lips pursed. I was bothered. My gym friend made me feel tricked. Not through intent or malice, but because he was presenting '60s nostalgia as if he had been there firsthand.

“Secondhand nostalgia,” is what I thought, as I did another bicep curl. He wasn’t there. He’s not authentic or “real.” His interpretation of the '60s does not include the complexities of the time, like the rampant sexism, but a cultural interpretation from media; an idealized popular culture version with the gritty parts filtered out.

I’m not always bothered by secondhand nostalgia. Take music, for example: When a song comes on that evokes bittersweet memories, it’s because that song reminds us of a particular moment in our life. It doesn’t really matter whether we were around during the time the music was recorded. Music is timeless that way. We like what we like and we attach meaning to it for a myriad of reasons; it’s self-referential. And it’s universally understood that people can love music without having to be a part of the time, place or culture in which it was created — nor pretend to be.

An ordinary person can swoon to Frank Sinatra without having to wear a fedora and sip a martini to be a fan (I’m purposefully leaving out Elvis impersonators and other types of fan culture that go beyond nostalgia into reenactment). Even Obama had the PR savvy to dress Etta James up as Beyoncé for his inaugural dance, bringing the past into the present so he seemed hip, not jaded.

Speaking of hip, on the other end of the secondhand nostalgia spectrum is the hipster. I appreciate this population for one reason — the way they do nostalgia. It’s pure performance. The mustaches, watch caps, schlumpy dresses, record players, kitschy stuff, urban farming, and '50s bar drinks are not about nostalgia, no false longing for a time past, no, not from the unaffected generation; instead they appropriate, actually “sample” is a better word, artifacts and culture from the past and make it theirs — with “irony.”

Irony is the opposite of nostalgia — it’s unsentimental, a flippant "I Don’t Care What You Think and I Don’t Care About Any Of This Culture Stuff Anyway." Of course that’s not true. It’s a manufactured casualness. They probably care deeply; it’s a very insecure generation, but the performance is good.

(Aside: I am sitting in a café in a college town surrounded by young people playing board games, knitting and listening to music with headphones the size of ear muffs. To one side of me is a young woman with a Cub Scout shirt sitting with a guy whose buzz cut gives way to a tuft of hair in the front of his head which falls like a donkey tail in his face. On the other side is a tamer hipster couple but with all the visible hallmarks.

“Excuse me,” I say to the hipster couple. “Can I ask you a question for an article I’m writing?”

“OK,” they respond in unison.

“Do you relate to the term “hipster”?” I ask.

They looked at one another. “Well,” said the young man, “people would call us that but it’s not what we call ourselves.” He said this in an annoyed voice.

“I understand. Can I read you a short list of attributes that I think are applicable to ‘hipsters’ and you tell me if they are?” I then read them the list above from “mustaches” to “bar drinks.”

“Well yes, but that’s offensive,” said the guy.

I explained that I’m taking a favorable viewpoint on hipsters and told them the “secondhand nostalgia” theory. They repeated “secondhand nostalgia” a couple times, nodding knowingly. Maybe they’ll start using it. And heck, why attribute it to an older woman writing an article in a café?)

I am ambivalent about my reaction to my gym friend. Am I actually the ultimate nostalgist for insisting on authenticity? Or am I just no fun anymore?

The packaging and selling of cultural eras and events, of other peoples’ experience, bothers me. It is intending to give the feeling of “being there” to an increasingly isolated humanity in the high-tech western world. Whether it is punk on display at the Met — a recent phenomenon compared to, say, King Tut’s tomb — or cultural tourism in which westerners pay a high price to be among the “real” of a society, or a heterosexual couple saying “we’re pregnant” (no, you’re not). The fallout is a first-world problem — how to create experience when the past is open for your colonization and the present is a cultural disconnect. Extreme nostalgia, I guess.