So, this afternoon VH1 went through their “Top 100 Greatest Songs of the 80’s.”  It lasted five hours, a programming monotony that was cunningly hidden by the way the show title on my cable guide changed after an hour to “Top 80 Greatest Songs of the 80’s,” and thereafter descended until a person wandering along after four hours would be pleased to catch the “Top 20 Greatest songs of the 80’s” without realising how much valuable content was lost forever in being four hours too late.

I’ll cheerfully admit that I started watching mostly because it was a lazy Sunday afternoon, and idly reading while listening to music was a pleasant way to end a day spent mostly at the swimming pool.  However, I have to admit that I also really enjoyed listening to music that I often hadn’t heard in years, and there were a few gems that were distantly familiar in a way suggesting I actually hadn’t heard them at all since the 80’s.  There was also a certain slow-down-to-gawk-at-an-accident quality to finding out about the current lives of these former stars.  Did you know that Michael Jackson is working on a new album, with an anticipated release in 2007?  Good job VH1; even your nostalgia is out-of-date.

Nostalgia is an interesting thing.  I’m old enough now to appreciate that my memories are definitely clouded by a layer of… something, that isn’t simply the squint of looking at an object in the distance.  There’s a warm and comforting familiarity to some of my experiences that, objectively and logically, I know perfectly well shouldn’t be there.  I hated high school.  I distinctly remember finding it tedious, aimless, and miserable.  My friends were there, sure, but that didn’t nearly make up for how much I resented being in that building at 8:20 every morning, learning things that didn’t matter from teachers who didn’t care.  Now, that also is a distortion – I’m quite sure that much of what I learned mattered, and that quite a few of my teachers cared.  But, at the time, my perspective was decidedly negative, and I remember clearly enough to know that.  So, why is there a warm blanket around most of my memories of high school, encouraging me to pine vaguely for better days that I know perfectly well were not the least bit better?  I’m sure that for some, life descended into mediocrity and unfulfilling repetition after high school (“When I graduate, my dad says he can get me a job at the Wal-Mart!”), and so they look back fondly at a time that might legitimately offer the happiest memories of their lives.  But, it’s not that way for me, or for most of the people I know.  I suspect that for a majority of today’s young, educated people, things got quite a bit better after high school.  I know that I personally remember being an undergrad with a fondness that seems a lot more reasonable, given that I actually had a pretty good time.

A few years ago I attended the Engineer’s Spring Prom at my school as the guest of one of seemingly very few women in the department, which I suspect earned me dirty looks from some of the unattached men at the event.  This past year’s Engineering Prom had a 90’s theme.  The first one had an 80’s theme.  The one in the middle was a Disco Prom.  Now, there are an awful lot of other possible themes for a dance, but there’s no denying that people generally gravitate to by-gone eras as source for costume and design inspiration.  My prediction for this year’s theme: 60’s dance.  If that’s not it, my money says that turnover should have been high enough for the 80’s to not feel like a repeat, and they go with that again.  I’m sure that other possible themes will be considered – Sci-Fi Prom, Toga Prom, Drunken Sexual-Identity Confusion Prom – but there is something intrinsically comforting about the past, and we always seem to come back to that when given the chance.

All of this makes me wonder: if times are good (and for a roomful of drunken Engineers – some about to graduate with valuable professional degrees, and many eagerly anticipating their first hook-up in perhaps some time – times are good, regardless of what things may be like in the outside world), why look backwards?  I could understand hindsight as the reflex of a troubled time, but we seem to do it whether things are bad or good, whether we are successful or struggling, happy or not.  It’s hard not to see nostalgia as some sort of shelter, a reconstruction of better times to gird us against the inadequacies of the present.  It raises the question, what are we afraid of?  Are people by nature so nervous and insecure that even when everything is going well, the indeterminacy of the present drives us to seek comfort in the certainty of the past?

It’s something to think about.  I’m going to pop a delicious, cold Zima and ponder it for a bit.  I wonder if you can still get the “new” Coke?

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One Comment on “Nostalgia”

  1. domusgrata Says:

    Is nostalgia always benevolent? Is it fair to say that hating High School is a bit nostalgic? Is it always romantic? I fell in love in High School, of course, and I played lots of 60’s music, and I truly despised the day by day torment of being in this mental prison for so long….

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