Pop culture: a thing of the past

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It’s all over the television and radio, infiltrating closets and clothing stores. Nostalgia is an epidemic, all about today’s generation wanting nothing more than to be a thing of the past.

Current popular culture embodies music, fashion and culture that belongs to another time.  Everything is borrowed and recycled, tailored to today’s tastes. Trends in pop culture are undeniably referential, mirroring the styles of decades past.

Look around, the Beatles are still playing on any iPod’s shuffle, T-shirts emblazoned with Pink Floyd album covers line the aisles of Target and “The Help” dominated the box office last summer. At some point in recent history, being outdated became cool.

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A fascination with the past propels today's trends in popular culture.
Scott Church, an adjunct professor in the Department of Communications, credits this trend to the very nature of popular culture.

“Popular culture is obsessed with making something new out of its abundance of old materials,” Church said. “Plus, living in an age where film is over a century old and rock music is approaching 60, one could arguably say that ‘it’s all been done before’ in popular culture. So, it endlessly recycles and repackages itself.”

This phenomenon can be neatly summed up in a single adjective: retro. While some embrace this ideology more fully than others, traces of it are hard to avoid.  Popular television shows like  “Gilmore Girls” and “Community” owe their cult-like followings to an audience fluent in the language of established pop culture, Church said.  Even people that don’t gravitate toward obvious retro trends have most likely participated.

Simon Reynolds, the author of “Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to It’s Own Past,”  describes the entertainment content of the past decade as one reeking of unoriginality.

“We live in a pop age gone loco for retro and crazy for commemoration, band re-formations and reunion tours, expanded reissues of classic albums and outtake-crammed box sets, remakes and sequels, tribute albums and mash-ups,” Reynolds said in a blurb about his book.

This sense of nostalgia covers a wide spectrum.  Music and movies aside, today’s fashion runs rampant with details of aged styles. “Vintage” is a term that has been grossly glamorized, adding considerable appeal to clothes that, by any other name, are simply old.  Thrift stores, the temporary home for these garments between their fashion-forward owners, are evidence of this trend, boasting sales that have boomed in recent years.

Brad Tuttle of Time magazine reported on the booming economic status of thrift stores earlier this summer.

“It’s a great time to be in the thrift store business,” Tuttle said in Time magazine. “Thrift stores run by the likes of Goodwill, the Salvation Army and Savers have all been reporting better-than-average business lately.”

Decades, a thrift store in Salt Lake City with an especially unique collection of vintage apparel, supports a wide customer base that falls prey to the allure of vintage clothing.

Michael, who declined to give his last name, is the owner of Decades.  He pinpointed themed parties as a reasons many customers scour his vintage selection.

“Lots of people come in looking for ’70s outfits for nostalgic parties,” Michael said. “We get asked for a lot of bell-bottoms and disco outfits. The last while it’s been all about the 1920s, everyone wants a flapper-era dress.”

While local fashion is reminiscent of the ’20s and ’70s, the ’60s have seemed to dominate pop culture at large.  Books, music and life in the ’60s has overflowed into general pop culture interests, overwhelming a formerly small niche.

Evidence of this ’60s fever is best found in AMC’s television series “Mad Men.”  During the course of four seasons, this show has grown wildly popular, a popularity many credit to its thorough depiction of life in the 1960s.

Scott Nash, a senior from Little Chute, Wis., studying communications studies, theorizes the basis of the show’s appeal is the attention to detail about life during the ’60s.

“‘Mad Men’ depicts everything that people in our day and age want,” Nash said. “Today, our society seems really tied down with things that limit us and our freedom. Not to say that they didn’t have any of those things in the 60’s, but ‘Mad Men’ depicts this fantasy world where men and women can do anything they want.”

Beyond the content of the show, “Mad Men” uses technology of the ’60s in filming and producing the show.  For Nash, this detail adds an undeniable charm.

“I find it really interesting how ‘Mad Men’ is shot all on film in this technology driven age where HD cameras are the norm,” Nash said. “There’s a sense of nostalgia that comes from the grainy feel of film.”

This idea of using film, rather than more advanced technology, is a trend reiterated throughout this pop culture phenomena.  Best exemplified through the resurgence of vinyl records and turn tables, the revival of formerly obsolete mediums is evidence of the dedication some have to this nostalgic lifestyle.  More and more often, people choose the more cumbersome and far less convenient means to listen to the same music found on almost any iPod.

This obsession with revival and nostalgia begs certain questions, namely, why today’s youth are determined to live through history. Rebecca de Schweinitz, an assistant professor of history, considers the trends to be reflective of today’s political climate.

“It wasn’t just a decade of political activism, it was time where we saw the rise of far-right politics,” de Schweinitz said. “There was a period of increasing acceptance of difference in America, it was all about expanding people’s rights.  That fits perfectly with today’s political and social trends.”

According to de Schweinitz, the ’60s were all about the outsiders.  The role of these outsiders align with one of today’s revered archetypes: the underdog.  Characters like Holden Caulfield, the hero of J.D. Salinger’s novel “Catcher in the Rye,” have been glorified for questioning society as outsiders.

With this reasoning, the ’60s trends of today’s popular culture have obvious political underpinnings.  Today’s youth seek inspiration from the ’60s for the revolutionary flair, but perhaps even more so for the mirrored social climate.

It was a time of change when people sought to alter the state of their situation, promoting moral rectification and acceptance.  In light of the recent “Occupy” movement, these trends draw even more similarities, de Schweinitz said.

“The ‘60s was a time when people were asking questions about quality of life, questioning the way things were,” de Schweinitz said. ” A catchphrase of the late 1960s was ‘do your own thing.’  It was all about acceptance and respecting everyone.  That has a resonance today.”

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