Paul McCartney, an entertainer whose artistic peak occurred several years before my birth, earned more money from touring in 2013 than any other performer. The $106 million that Beatle Paul grossed from his traveling act more than quadrupled the amount taken in by the nearest competitor (Kanye West).
When Frank Sinatra hit #1 in 1966 during The Beatles’ heyday, it struck the era’s pop stars as a bizarre anachronism. “Stranger things have happened,” a bemused Mick Jagger offered. Yet, Sinatra was but fifty years young when he claimed the top spot on both sides of the Atlantic with “Strangers in the Night.” Touring juggernaut McCartney now sings “When I’m Sixty Four” as nostalgia trip instead of glimpse into the distant future.
Mick Jagger continued in the same interview to lament international concert tours and the prospect of old age. “I’m dreading it,” he confessed. “There are only very few old people who are happy. When their minds stop thinking about the present and stay wrapped up in the past, they are awfully dull.”
America has become awfully dull.
The top-ten box-office draws of 2013 include one live-action film (Gravity) that was neither a sequel nor based on a decades-old comic-book character. The originality, however meager, was actually an improvement on recent annual box office tallies. The Fast and the Furious 6, Iron Man 3, and Star Trek into Darkness exemplify how ours is a stagnant culture living off the past’s creativity, so much as car-crash movies rely upon creativity rather than destruction.
Primetime rolls out such retread fare as The Tomorrow People, Dracula, and Sleepy Hollow. Network execs hope they break out like Hawaii Five-O rather than bust like V. Given that each of them has been market tested in some earlier incarnation, these hopes aren’t unfounded.
We use our futuristic devices to play ancient music. Starting sometime in 2012, catalog albums outsold new releases (eighteen-months old or younger) for the first time since Soundscan began tracking sales. When stale tastes better than fresh, something’s gone terribly wrong with the market where you shop.
Given the everything-old-is-new-again zeitgeist, I write reiterations of this sentiment every nine months or so. My rehashing the argument is either proof that I haven’t persuaded the copycat culture or that they have persuaded me. If you can’t beat ’em, be them, I guess.
The irony of modern gizmos is that demand for them stems in large part from their ability to help users flee to simpler times. We use tomorrow’s technology to run off to yesterday. Should you live your life free from digital distractions, the Cult of Jobs ridicules you as an atavist. But who truly suffers from chronological wanderlust?
Remember when you slow danced in eighth grade to “Almost Paradise”? You can relive the moment over and over again by paying iTunes 99 cents. Your long, lost teammate from intramural basketball? He’s knocking on your inbox asking to be your Facebook Friend. Those reruns of Barney Miller you used to surf UHF in search of? They’re waiting to reunite with you on DVD, complete with Sgt. Fish commentaries thrown in the special features for added enticement.
We chronicle much not worth chronicling through Wikipedia and YouTube. Pop culture has become one giant repeat, producing the second rate (Texas Chainsaw 3D, 21 Jump Street, Dark Shadows) a second time around. We invent new gizmos to preserve, and in doing so spoil current creations.
Bell bottoms, CB radios, and Saturday Night Fever scream “seventies.” Pac Man, John Hughes, and MTV immediately evoke the eighties. What do we bequeath in 2014’s time capsule? The dearth of truly popular and remotely cultural pop culture is enough to make one feel sorry for posterity employing postmodern technology to relive the early 21st century.
The past regarded nostalgia as a mental illness. We experience it as a normal aspect of contemporary life. What does this say of our collective health?
Our preference for Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumours” over Frank Turner’s “Tape Deck Heart” isn’t an indication of the superiority of the past to the present. It merely demonstrates the choke that memory lane holds over current creativity. Great is out there. But you have to look in spots that are really out there.
But we continue to visit iTunes, YouTube, and Hulu as vacations from now. And whenever we turn to our futuristic gadgets to escape the present, we all hear, however faintly, the geriatric top-grossing concert draw of today melancholically rhapsodize, “Yesterday, all my troubles seem so far away… I believe in yesterday.”