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Why Are We So Obsessed with Nostalgia?

The roots of the hunt for authenticity go deep.

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It’s no secret that we’re in an intensely nostalgic place these days. Our politicians, our songwriters, our video game designers, our barbers, tailors, chefs and bartenders, all seem to be fixated on a golden age of American life that likely never existed but that nevertheless holds a mythic power over our imaginations. “There has never been a society in human history so obsessed with the cultural artifacts of its own immediate past,” writes Simon Reynolds in Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past.

Reynolds is mostly talking about popular music, but he might as well have lumped in hickory-smoked pork shoulder, Prohibition-era cocktails, fixed-gear bicycles, vintage Smith Coronas, handlebar mustaches, whitetail taxidermy, antique doorknobs and knitting. Subtly yet unambiguously, nostalgia (that “infidelity to the present,” as the writer Mark Slouka puts it, a “need to pull out the past like a letter that still carries the scent — or so you imagine — of someone you loved”) has become an omnipresent force in our private and public lives, perhaps the principal medium through which we filter our keenest desires.

Nowhere is this more apparent than the marketplace. Take Shinola, the luxury goods brand that has fused its image with Detroit, America’s former manufacturing mecca (although Shinola actually took its name and logo from a defunct New York shoe polish company founded in 1907). Just a couple of years ago, Detroit was widely construed as an “American Pompeii,” a forsaken, post-industrial dystopia that stirred up web headlines like “Behold These Hauntingly Beautiful Photos of the Ruins of Modern Detroit” and was, according to Detroit suburbanite Ted Nugent, populated by “pimps and whores and welfare brats.” Today, the struggling majority-black city with dirt-cheap housing has found itself to be a motherlode of cultural cachet; its aesthetic imperfections, its political mismanagement, even its long-suffering NFL team, the Lions, have been recast as the essence of “grit” and “authenticity.” As Shinola shrewdly intuited, Detroit became a favorite national comeback story. By purchasing a $900 watch, $2,500 turntable, or $350 laptop case, its customers can acquire a token of hardscrabble American innovation with a measure of white-glove exclusivity.

Or take “craft” cocktails. Drawing, as they do, on the bedrock ingredients of prewar American life — corn, potatoes, sugar, and suspenders — cocktails tap into some slow-dying ideas about authenticity and the American idyll. In the absinthe-fueled pungency of every $17 Sazerac lies the scent-trace of a bygone era. The same can be said of barbecue, which has undergone a parallel rebranding over the recent decade. Once thought of as a provincial backwater to “traditional” American cooking — the cuisine of a largely rural, black underclass — barbecue is now widely sold as the “original comfort food”: classic, unfussy, and genuine.

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(It’s worth making a quick stop at what I believe is one notable exception to the nostalgia rule: hip-hop. While it’s rare to find much that’s new in pop music — rock-and-roll being the most nostalgic genre and totally incapable, it seems, of adaptation — hip-hop is remarkably forward-facing, in part because the recording and dissemination technology on which rappers and producers rely is constantly evolving. Kanye West’s decision not to release his album The Life of Pablo in physical form, and online only — followed by an announcement that he’ll never release albums on CD again — and then continually revising it, is a defiantly futuristic take.)

And, by the way, it’s not just chronically over-educated, northern urban aesthetes who crave relics of the recent past. As we saw in the presidential election, Midwestern and Southern voters went in for a nostalgia-merchant of the highest order. Ah, the wonder years of proxy wars, nuclear proliferation, and assembly-line drudgery! Among the countless imponderables of Trump’s ascent, he routinely polled as the most “authentic” of candidates. Myths, as someone once said, are as important as reality.

All of this is hardly a new phenomenon. In the 1920s, while Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald sailed to Paris, dozens of American writers and artists — Langston Hughes, D. H. Lawrence, Waldo Frank, André Breton, John Dewey and more — fled to Mexico in search of a closer source of lost authenticity. The issues they discussed were the same as in Parisian cafes: social revolution, industrialization, the inclusion of native people in arts and politics. The Beats were inspired by similar stuff; On the Road captures the Beats’ general fascination with rural experience: a rudderless explorer, seeking an antidote to the commonplace “rushing-about” of city living, whores his way across the American west, eventually landing in Mexico City. What Kerouac ultimately encountered didn’t truck with his mythologized preconceptions – at one point he picks cotton with migrant farmhands while fantasizing about cowboys and Indians – and it inevitably disappoints him.

Perhaps recent cultural artifacts are a new version of this same search for authenticity. For some, a stuffed fox squirrel strumming a banjo can be a signpost of the old, weird America that died out long ago. As my wife likes to point out after a few glasses of wine at a dinner party, I maintain a borderline codependent relationship with a glut of vintage knickknacks I’ve obsessively arranged in our home in Cambridge, Massachusetts: a coyote skull from Bozeman; a deer-leg lamp I got for a song in Rupert, Idaho; an old ship’s wheel and heirloom fishing tackle from Gloucester; hundreds and hundreds of moribund LPs from god-knows-where; and a banged-up Craftsman toolbox bought at a garage sale in Vermont – a beautiful steel contraption that holds no tools to speak of and, like much of what I own, is a showpiece with little practical application — to name just a few.

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These are anchors of my domestic milieu. And I’ll be the first to admit they’re figurative stand-ins for “authentic experience” — a distant, dreamed-of life that remains cruelly removed from my own: Endless dashboard vistas, sockless weather, an abundance of peace and quiet, and perhaps a ranch-hand gig in cow-country, where, ironically, I suspect that I’d find far less “authenticity” than anticipated, and much that’s familiar to me — like, I don’t know, hipster cocktail bars in Sledge, Mississippi, and “boutique” hotels in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico.

As such, these old artifacts comprise far too much of my identity. But they’re also great conversation starters. Part of what’s so intoxicating about nostalgia is that it bends effortlessly to our unique desires — subject as they are to infinite subtle shades and nitpicky idiosyncrasies. I take mine dinged and musty. Maybe you hew towards the gilded and brassy, like last year’s “classically inspired” aviation chronograph.

To be sure, our present “Mexico” is more mundane but probably more satisfying than Hughes’s, Lawrence’s and Kerouac’s; by and large, we indulge our myth-making in the marketplace, through vintage timepieces, reclaimed credenzas, analog stereo equipment, and 15-ingredient Gilded Age cocktails. And, as David Sax writes in The Revenge of Analog: Real Things and Why They Matter, an obsession with the recent past can be understood as an act of resistance, a way of carving mental space for ourselves amidst the maelstrom of modernity and our rapidly globalizing world. A widespread cultural movement is afoot, he contends, to reclaim ground in our increasingly automated lives.

We have lots to be nostalgic about, and good reason to be scared to death of the future. A scratchy Fleetwood Mac LP, a mind-blowing batch of homemade saltwater taffy, and a dominant run in Yahtzee offer counter-narratives to the alienation and loneliness that a Facebook feed inevitably engenders. Those simple acts — flipping to side B of Rumours again while sipping an expertly made Rum Swizzle — regressive or radical, might show us a way forward.

Of course, none of it will ever be as good as it used to be.

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