As we look back on a decade, it should be bloody awful. Tacky and trite and embarrassing and laughable and unfashionable; downright bloody awful in every sense. But in the most wonderful way, of course.
It might be mortifying when a girlfriend flicks through a photo album of your family’s holiday snaps from 1984, wherein you appear to be balancing a small dog on your head and wearing a brown and orange Draylon shirt with a collar that could take you hang gliding. But it’s proof that the ’80s, in this example, made a sincere and concerted effort to break from tradition and secure itself a notable, if tasteless, footnote in history.
Pity the decade that boasts no humiliating haircuts or musical tragedies. Sure, things happen in the news – wars come and go, disasters wipe out corners of the globe and airplanes explode, but it’s the fashions, TV shows and trends that we remember. Not to suggest this is a world where superficiality is king, but an optimistic glance toward the past is generally preferable. Remembering the 1980s for The A-Team rather than Margaret Thatcher makes good psychological sense and helps keep the suicide rate among the working classes under control.
How, then, in the years to come, will we remember this decade and the trends that define it? The last eight or so years have been spent in a decadent and meticulous revival of decades past, so what will there be to celebrate? What about the dawn of the new millennium, if anything, will mortify us when the digital photo albums are brought out in 2030?
While the last century was quite fortunate in that most every decade differentiated itself admirably from the previous one, things began to falter as the fluorescent ’80s drew to a close. The ’90s bore the burden of a half century of teeny bopping, disco dancing, punk rocking, jive talking gaudiness, and the children of that decade chose to be depressingly discerning. The fools refused to sacrifice themselves on the ostentatious altar of bad taste, and while this might make holiday photos far more tolerable 10 years hence, an entire decade now goes unrecognized.
No one ever says, “Oh my god. That’s, like, soooo ’90s.” And why would you? People were well dressed, comedy was intelligent, the general populous worked hard (and smart), music was tuneful; it was boring as fuck. Not so much as a Fablon-covered radio alarm clock or turtleneck leather waistcoat got past the 1990s’ Fashion Police. The knock-on effect of this yawn-inducing decade is that the 2000s have had nothing to rebel against. It’s as though the Good Taste-O-Meter was reset at the beginning of the millennium.
The extremity of this non-identity is quite profound. As I write this article, I find myself wondering how our current decade is even denominated. The ’70s, the ’80s, the ’90s, the … Zeroes? The Aughts? The 2000s? Who knows, and more poignantly, who cares?
The first two definitions, the Zeroes and Aughts, strike a particularly ironic accord with this lost decade. Not that it’s been a miserable time – I’ve quite enjoyed most of it – but contemporary culture’s revivalist impulses have been stretched thin. Nostalgia has become emotional gold. All the research has been done, and the development left to distill for at least 20 years – all the entertainment industry had to do was repackage it, and the vogue of the Aughts meant we’d lap it up. Movies, TV, games and fashions – everything that’s worth remembering about a decade long gone has been recycled, rebranded and re-celebrated to feed the melancholy desires of the new millennium’s first 10 years.
It’s been pretty damn entertaining. Wearing a T-shirt with a ZX Spectrum on it – and actually looking good – is a thing of beauty for those of us who were persecuted as nerds when computers first hit store shelves. To see King Kong climb a building without looking like a pair of cashmere gloves with a blonde strapped to them was certainly not a bad thing. The Hoff regained his credibility overnight and the two Georges (Lucas and Romero) rightly decided that audiences were primed for them to return to the director’s chair.
Even the millions of dollars poured into next-generation gaming consoles included an offset lynchpin that fixed them firmly to the past. This retro gaming angle has provided a brilliant financial safety net for the new systems. Maybe the vast array of classic games is money for old rope, but it’s a reassurance that the people with their hands on their wallets have a nostalgic interest in testing out a new system instead of blowing the dust off a 25-year-old computer they’ve got squirreled away in the attic.
As the Zeroes draw to an anticlimactic close, however, frivolous revivalism isn’t the selling point it was five years ago. Just as it’s historically unfair to throw a Rubik’s Cube, a full-priced CD, a B.A. Baracus lunchbox and a VCR the size of a cast iron radiator into a box and label it “The ’80s,” the vast nostalgic experiment that is the 2000s is also subject to drifting opinions. Lately, when we hear of another remake in the works – regardless of the medium – a chorus of knowing groans can generally be heard echoing through the entertainment industries.
The massive interest in revivalism has reached the saturation point. There’s nothing left to revive, so the nostalgia machine seems to be returning to the beginning of the track to go around again. Worse still, these increasingly strained attempts to reawaken our childhood memories are beginning to introduce defects into that valuable and hallowed substance. When every old idea has been plundered, pillaged and raped, perhaps the only remaining course of action is to burn it down and be done with it.
With the end of the decade in sight, a distinct change can be felt in the melancholic breeze. Selling us another Star Wars film or Mario game doesn’t stir up nostalgia the same as it did five years ago. Another old game given a ‘next gen’ coat of paint seems stale and uninspired. It’s no one’s fault, but the consumer has always reserved the right to act irrationally fickle, and no trend lasts forever – we make sure of that. What’s interesting, however, is the way in which the revivalist craze is mutating. Fed up with watered down nostalgia (and suffering from a creeping awareness that maybe things weren’t quite so brilliant and different when we were young) people are turning to their own hands, once again, to bring them something new.
My mother would often tell how women of her generation would make their own clothes to go nightclubbing in during the ’50s and ’60s. This wasn’t because they were disenchanted by poor-quality, high-cost designer fashions like we are today – it was simply the only affordable way to stay current with the styles of the era. My grandmother would explain how that war revolutionized the way women dressed – working in munitions factories made it acceptable for them to don shirts and trousers for the first time in British history. The circumstances might be quite different in the 2000s, but the results are strikingly similar.
Fashions, whether in filmmaking, game development or clothing, are being reclaimed by ordinary people. The best part is, our recent fixation with revivalism has prepared us to learn very quickly from the decades that have previously benefited from DIY entertainment. The independent filmmaking in the ’30s, the adoption of completely new fashion concepts in the ’40s, the home industry of the ’60s, the technological striving of the ’70s and the self-indulgent experimentation of the ’80s are all areas of accessible inspiration on which we can now draw.
We’ve tried reviving these eras, often all at once, and while it’s provided an enjoyable distraction, verbatim regurgitation doesn’t have much staying power. But it has reignited our desire to create once again. As shops become simultaneously flooded with astronomically-priced designer clothing and a deluge of “fast fashion” (both of which are probably manufactured in the same Chinese sweat shops), the trend-setters are shunning the corporations and taking to their own sewing machines instead.
Quality, low-budget independent movies are dominating film festivals and tearing up the charts. Gamers are once again creating new and original titles in their bedrooms. All of this is born from the realization that “the past” is precisely that.
It might have come at the eleventh hour, but this decade is finally forging an identity for itself. Five years ago, that identity seemed destined to be remembered as neo-revivalism, the plagiarist years or the decade when imagination died – and in many respects that’s probably how the cynical will look back at it. But the Zeroes are also incubating a new and independent approach to culture; not so much a silent revolution against the corporate-run world as a growing indifference to it. It’s an attitude that the global mega-corporations will have a far greater time combating than consumer insurrection.
These final years of the 2000s are proving to be wonderfully inspirational. A return to self for the people who’ve run out of nostalgic steam; an exciting reawakening of the independent spirit, and the beginnings of a much needed and, hopefully, mortifying identity.
Spanner has written articles for several publications, including Retro Gamer. He is a self-proclaimed horror junkie, with a deep appreciation for all things Romero.