March 16, 2009

Retro Manifesto

Our culture is dying, if it's not already dead. I date the decline at about 1996, the year The Adventures of Pete and Pete went off the air. I've been wearing my black armband ever since. It could have started earlier -- say, the year Pee Wee whipped out his pee pee in public -- but exact dates don't really matter. What matters is that our culture is pretty much cashed and nobody seems to care. Pop music is for shit, for the most part, with the only vitality left existing in the underground garage rock/punk scene. And yeah, I listen to Vampire Weekend and The Killers and some other radio regs, but a few new gems don't make up for the decline of the whole. Same goes for movies. There are some good recent movies. There will always be some good things in any medium. But the movies in general are stagnant. Hollywood either gives us garbage mind candy or pretentious borefests. The indie scene is still stuck shocking the middle class values of 1994.

Television is maybe the only bright spot. There's a dichotomy on the tube right now between shows that are valiantly trying to be pop art (Pushing Daisies, Mad Men, Chuck, Flight of the Conchords, Battlestar Galactica, Lost) and trashy/bland game shows that seem to devour any network or cable channel they touch. I've got nothing against game shows, but let's have some fun with them. Idol and Dancing with the Stars and Biggest Loser and all the other contest shows are as stale as Star Search. It doesn't help that the state of music and dance and all the other arts are in such decline, because that's all most reality shows are today: variety shows with shitty variety acts. Even our personalities are bad-trash, vapid nothings. These people didn't have to struggle for years honing their craft in vaudeville and night clubs; they didn't have the benefit of learning from true Hollywood craftsmen who were working to make something of value, like in the old days of American entertainment. Instead we get boring, plastic Bratz dolls and unfun phony "freaks" and before you know it MTV, TV Land, Nick at Nite, A&E, etc. have ceased to be the channels they were intended to be (music videos, classic television, arts and culture), and have instead been packed with a dusk-till-dawn, never-ending stream of reality television vomit mind-crack. The networks bump good shows from their line-ups and replace them with cheapy reality show knock-offs of rival network hits. Gone is Pushing Daisies; welcome back, a third night of Dancing with the Stars!

And let's not blame the artists alone. It is the audience that enables them. The audience watches/listens/buys tickets for this shite and the artists and media makers respond with more, more, more. The culture is dying because everybody -- the artists, the executives, the audience -- has ignored our cultural history. That's my grand theory. Only a handful of people have any interest in the pop art of the past, the rest just glide through life pretending history started the day they were born. And don't tell me that's how it's always been. Say what you will about the Baby Boomers (stupid hippie fuckers), but when they were in their twenties they worshiped Bette Davis. Even the culture of the 80s and early 90s knew enough to know that cool had existed long before 1969. Today, ask a kid if he likes old movies and he'll say, "Sure, Star Wars Episode IV" -- blargh! -- "is pretty good, but a little cheesy. Al Pacino was badass in Scarface." That's right: 1977 is "old movies."

A little bit of truth: The pinnacle of American popular culture was from about the 1920s to the mid-1960s. Deal with it, retro haters. After that there was mostly decline, though pockets of genius existed and still do, i.e. movies in the 1970s, New Wave music in the 1980s, the television renaissance that started with The Sopranos and seems to be in its last phase as I type this. A culture can always produce quality stuff, even if it's living in Guttersville in general. But for about 45 years, American culture was tops. Golden Age Hollywood, jazz and jitterbugging, Chuck Jones and Tex Avery, I Love Lucy, Sinatra. It was our gift to the world! It was the true American spirit at work in the arts! You're welcome, everybody. (But yeah, sorry, World, about the Deal or No Deal-ification of culture we've got going on now. I'm working on it.)

Nobody's saying "copy the past," but: Know the past, appreciate the past, respect the past, learn from the past. Hang on to the old masters and use them as your teachers and guides both as producers of culture and as consumers of culture. If a sitcom is twenty steps down from the hilarity of Lucy -- watch Lucy and wait for the new guys to come up with something better. If rock music on the radio is samebland, samebland, samebland -- keep rocking out to the Cramps and the Ramones until something equally good or better comes along.

Usually, if today's culture produces anything of value it's because the artists are aware of and have respect for their cultural past. Why is Mad Men so good? 'Cause those dudes know their early '60s pop art! Why is Lost a modern masterpiece? 'Cause they're trying to replicate the glory days of their youth, when The Twilight Zone and The Outer Limits were a sci fi geek's parallel dimension heaven! Why are the Detroit Cobras the kings/queens of the Detroit rock scene? Because all they do is cover old mid-century music with a garage punk sound! It's not that these artists are stealing from the past or out of ideas or copycats. Don't mistake Matt Weiner or Quentin Tarantino for the people who keep shoveling out shit sandwiches like The Dukes of Hazzard movie or the Knight Rider remake. The ones who cynically try to make money by remaking stuff from the past aren't retro lovers; they have no respect or passion for old stuff. They simply have no imaginations of their own and just want to make a quick buck on people's nostalgia. The dedicated artists, the ones with their eyes and hearts steeped in the past, don't even necessarily have to make retro-tinged products, they simply have to know and appreciate their cultural heritage and their art will be better and more lasting because of it.

I hold my biggest bitch stick for the audience though. There are a few good egg artists out there making stuff in Music Land and Movie World and on TV's vast Trash Heap. But the audience keeps lapping up crap, so there's no incentive for the culture to get better. The Obamabot youths of America have zero critical thinking skills in their facebooked brains, so their ability to be curious or intellectually adventurous in their media consumption is practically nil. They can't seem to figure out the images of a black and white world, so they fluff it off as irrelevant. And that's the god of 21st century education: Relevance. Unless it's "relevant" to the kiddies' limited, echo chamber world (meaning it's something that fits in their comfort zone and doesn't challenge any of their notions about art or the world or their teleprompter Jesus), then teachers will reject it. I know of what I speak. When I tried exposing students to culture from the 30s, 40s, and 50s, most reacted with antipathy or confusion or indifference and who can blame them really. Why should they and why would they care if they've never had to confront anything else like this stuff for the previous eleven years of their schooling?

Retro needs to be the watch word. If we're going to salvage the culture in any way, we need to start championing the great stuff from America's past and blaring the best stuff back out into the culture at large so that it remains ever vibrant and vital to the everyday people who consume popular culture unthinkingly. Maybe if our culture can rediscover the pride of American pop art we can have a second golden age (though I don't hold my breath for that starry-eyed fantasy). I'm not talking about hiding out in our little online communities of die-hards and obsessives either. We already know and love the past; right now we're just circle jerking ourselves. But the ignorant kids and brain-dead twenty-somethings need a shake-up, and their parents too need to be reminded that there were better days, even fifteen years ago when Nick at Nite still played shows in black and white. I'm talking about going out like missionaries to spread the gospel of retro to the wide world.

Retro forever! Retro IS better! America's culture was better in the past, get used to it relativists and crapweasal enablers of the empty cgi anorexic pop culture of today.

If you can't tell that Cary Grant is infinitely, objectively better than lame-O George Clooney then you're an idiot who should just do the rest of us all a favor and crawl back into your basement and play your X-box until your brain melts. Keep your dirty dreams off our internet, liberal weeny mouth-breathers!

Retro forever! Retro IS better! Viva 1947!

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