What’s New Is Old


A curious phenomenon I started noticing about fifteen years ago hit me as a sort of jump-cutting in time. The effect wasn’t internally consistent, though–like when I sit down to write at 7 PM, get into a groove, and suddenly it’s midnight. The temporal anomaly I’m referring to is oddly selective. What happens is that the years continue their orderly march, but out of nowhere some piece of pop culture that I still think of as new has become a dusty old artifact.

“What’s the big deal?” I can hear many of you protesting. “That’s nothing new. It happened to Boomers with the Beatles, Jonesers with disco, and Xers with Star Wars. Time sneaks up on you. It’s just a normal part of getting old.”

To which I would reply that I agree. However, I contend that this pop culture time-slippage effect has been accelerated and amplified by the explosive growth of consumerism that didn’t really kick into high gear until the 80s. I further posit that the subsequent exhaustion of the West’s cultural capital has locked in this trend.

Here are a few personal anecdotes that illustrate what I mean.

My first experience of a selective time shift came while watching a Homestar Runner cartoon. For those who are unfamiliar with homestarrunner.com, it was a flash site spun off from an unpublished children’s book by a couple of hipster brothers. The site caused something of a sensation during W’s reign for being among the first to capitalize on nostalgia for saner times–think of a less pandering, animated Ready Player One, and you’ve got the general tone.

The point is, Homestar Runner made its bones by lampooning 70s, 80s, and 90s pop culture. The site followed the adventures of a weird gang of muppets living in a time warp where 8 track tapes, the Commodore 64, and Saturday morning cartoons were contemporaneous with emo bands and dead-end call center jobs. The creators’ nostalgia fueled the whole enterprise, and new content became fewer and farther between as real life forced them to contemporize.

A brief aside: I grew up on Nintendo until high school, when I switched to the PlayStation and never looked back. The days of single-console houses weren’t quite over yet, and as a result I missed the entire N64 era.

Fast forward to the early 2000s. I’m checking out a Homestar Runner Halloween episode with a buddy. Much of the fun of HR’s yearly Halloween cartoons was trying to identify the characters’ costumes. In keeping with the site’s theme, each muppet-creature would go as some pop culture footnote from a bygone decade.

I guessed most of the costumes correctly, but there was one I just couldn’t figure out. Finally I gave up and asked my buddy.

“He’s Tingle from Majora’s Mask.”

“What’s that?”

“An N64 Zelda game.”

“You mean Ocarina of Time?”

“No. The one after that.”

“They made one after that?”

At the time, I still considered Ocarina of Time to be “that new Zelda game” because I hadn’t played it yet. The twofold revelation that a) it already had a sequel and b) the sequel was already old enough to be Homestar Runner joke fodder, proved quite unsettling.

Anecdote the Second:

Back in the day, I was an avid reader of Penny Arcade. If you don’t know what that is, it started as an amusing little nerd culture web comic with heart before metamorphosing into an event management and polo shirt corporation that dabbles in web comics.

Frankly, I checked out when the comic started requiring intimate knowledge of WoW trivia to get the jokes. You see that kind of self-ghettoization happen when content creators find a booming market niche and start chasing the puck. Soon the whole IP becomes a paean to inside baseball.

In PA’s defense, World of Warcraft was a big, lucrative ghetto. I checked back in a few years ago when I figured their WoW obsession had run its course. Sadly, the art had turned to vomit in the interim, and I’ve steered clear since.

Related: In a delicious instance of postmodern intertextuality going full circle, homestarrunner.com totally had Penny Arcade’s number in this video:

My recent post on the Thrawn Trilogy called to mind a PA strip that probably appeared within a year or two of the Homestar Halloween episode mentioned above. In the comic, Tycho–one of the slickly drawn roommates–makes an offhand allusion to a denim jacket he once owned that had a Chiss Expansionary Force patch sewn onto the shoulder.

I don’t remember anything else about the strip, except that the characters were swapping tales of their favorite Star Wars EU ephemera. You got the impression of eavesdropping on a couple of young professionals reminiscing about once-beloved diversions of their long gone high school or college freshman days.

The timeline didn’t seem to add up to me. I’d recently completed my collection of Thrawn Trilogy graphic novels from Dark Horse Comics. The story was still fresh in my mind, but Tycho was talking about a later development from Zahn’s books as if it were ancient history.

Then I realized that the last novel in the Thrawn Trilogy had come out over a decade before.

Are stories like these of pop culture leaving us behind a normal part of growing up? Absolutely. But the relatively recent substitution of pop culture for the bonds of faith and community that used to inform American life seems to have contributed to members of generations X and onward experiencing more such instances of temporal displacement.

There’s another, more sinister aspect to this phenomenon that heightens the already disorienting experience of learning that the Weird Al single you’d meant to buy on release but kept putting off is now old enough to drive–like children born on September 11, 2001 are now. It’s an empirical fact that Western pop culture–and even Western technology itself–has remained largely static since the late 1980s.

Submitted for your consideration:

  • The last two generations of iPhones have had no new features.
  • The celebrated iPod performed the same essential function as a 1970s Walkman.
  • Movies and TV are dominated by sequels to film franchises and adaptations of comic book story arcs that first gained popularity in the 70s and 80s.
  • Nintendo is still the biggest name in video games, trading on IPs it established in the 80s.
  • In terms of ordinary street clothes, popular fashion hasn’t changed substantially since the 70s. You could zap the average American twentysomething dude back to 1988 right now, and no one would bat an eye, except perhaps to comment that he looked like a slob. There would be no Marty McFly-style gaffes, e.g.: “Hey kid, you jump ship?” “I’ve never seen purple underwear before!”
The issue is bigger than a generation of kids raised on Nickelodeon turning 40. As the 21st century lumbers out of its infancy, we find that the music-makers can only sample Vanilla Ice ripoffs of Queen songs; and the dreamers can only dream of the lifestyle their parents took for granted.
We’d better get some new dreams.

Brian’s characters are as interesting as Nick Cole’s.

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