A singer named Robyn recently made an appearance on Saturday Night Live. She wore neon-patterned tights and platform shoes, capped by a nuclear-mushroom shaped platinum-blonde haircut. A cordless microphone her only instrument, Robyn snapped her limbs in tune to a synth disco cacophony – any actual singing had suffocated to death beneath an avalanche of backing tracks – with all the looseness of an inflexible cheerleader playing Dance Dance Revolution.
At one point, a somersault occurred.
Hmmm, I thought, growing increasingly uncomfortable: Where have I seen this before – and why must I relive it again? It seems that, along with little meatballs and dragon tattoos, Sweden also exports blond studio born pop stars: Robyn is the new Roxette, chanteuse behind the ear-worm It Must Have Been Love. In the late 1980s, the above description of Robyn pretty much summed up Roxette, too (somersaulting unconfirmed).
Manufactured bubblegum pop was the seminal sound of my eighties youth, and now I can’t get away from it. Yet, as a Gen Xer, I’m supposed to be rolling joyously in catnip nostalgia, in thrall to my “reminiscence bump.”
That term, coined by psychologists in the late 1990s, was investigated in a recent University of Amsterdam online study.
Presented with the names of 190 popular soccer players and asked to list the five best players of all time, 619 people aged 16 to 80 overwhelmingly named players whose careers were mid-point when the study’s participants were in their teens and early 20s. This confirmed the “reminiscence bump” theory: Events from adolescence and early adulthood affect our preferences for the rest of our lives. Favoured music, film, books and soccer players all nest in our psyches during our formative years, forever shaping our tastes.
But what about the negative reminiscence bump? I went back and listened to Robyn’s Call Your Girlfriend and found it shamefully catchy the second time around (SNL’s Taran Killam agrees, having created a viral sensation with his own affectionate reenactment of the video). Apparently, the 14-year-old in me who ran from Debbie Gibson needed to give in. My reminiscence bump had worked against me, affecting not my preferences, but my aversions.
Fashion, in particular, is the one area of taste where reminiscence revulsion does – and perhaps should – take hold. It may be okay to listen to retro music alone in our cars, but it’s probably not okay to have giant bangs or dangly plastic earrings when one also has children. The most satisfying episodes of any makeover show star people who are tragically locked in their youths: the guy with the leftover ponytail that makes his bald head look like a donkey’s derriere, the woman who refuses to hand over the stirrup pants. Stylists love nothing more than bringing fashion refugees from the past back to the present.
Some reinterpretation of fashion history is a given – and those Doc Martenesque lace-up boots actually look pretty good – but many of the revived styles from the eighties and nineties appeal only to people who weren’t there and don’t carry with them the mortifying personal memories of bad perms and fingerless gloves.
Puncturing romantic nostalgia is a winning theme of Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, wherein characters long for epochs they’ve never seen and then, through time travel, meet people from those epochs who long for the time before that one.
Likewise, I have come here from the 1980s to tell you to put away the shoulder pads.
In the book Retromania, British music writer Simon Reynolds rails against the recycling of popular culture, arguing that punk rock reunion tours or the musical dominance of Adele (read: Mariah Carey) signals creative stagnation – a cultural lack of innovation.
He writes that the present is now “crowded out by the past, whether in the form of archived memories of yesteryear or retro-rock leeching off ancient styles. Instead of being about itself, the 2000s has been about every other decade happening again all at once.”
Technology allows for snatching references from every corner of history; never has it been easier to access a living catalogue of pop ephemera and stuff it back into current trends.
So the cycle of nostalgia accelerates, but acceleration is the opposite of immersion.
According to Reynolds, “every gain in consumer-empowering convenience has come at the cost of disempowering… art to dominate our attention, to induce a state of aesthetic surrender.”
The magpie flitting between generational pleasures is fun and easy (and marketable), but it rarely leads to ecstasy.
Psychologists aren’t entirely sure why we experience the reminiscence bump: Perhaps it’s because our memories are more efficient in our teens and 20s or because the most novel events occur during that time – the first kiss or first job. But what matters most from that crucial period really happened outside pop culture: leaving home, being loved, loving. Those songs and books and really bad haircuts are just the glitter around the true reminiscences that shape not what we buy, but who we are.