Nostalgia Sure Ain’t What It Used To Be, or The Pop Cultural Sweet Spot
It’s the providence of cranky old farts everywhere to state things-were-so-much-better-in-the-old-days and young-people-today-don’t-know-what’s-good-anymore.
I’m not here to make those claims, but I think I can prove there was a sweet spot for pop culture in the West (and a few parts of Asia) where the maximum amount of people were exposed to the widest eras of pop culture and that the unique circumstances that made that period possible have now faded.
First off, how do we define pop culture?
We know a lot about the culture of ancient Greece, for example, because what has survived to us from that era has been in the form of “high ticket” items that were of value and hence better protected and / or more strongly constructed.
Architecture, statues, even plays and poems were the province of the wealthy.
What was going on at street level is often a mystery.
We have some vague ideas to changes in clothing styles and hair fashion (typically when it’s found in solid form through statues or mosaics) but no real clear picture.
The gap between so-called “high culture” and low or pop culture has always existed, but thanks to Gutenberg we’re now able to better track those differences.
While pop culture has existed in the West for centuries in the form of printed materials (broadsheets, books, newspapers, magazines) and staged performances (music halls, circuses, plays, concerts, etc.), the arrival of commercial motion pictures and radio added two new twists to the mix.
A modestly successful motion picture could be seen by more people in a single week than the most successful stage play in its entire run.
Further, the motion picture audience had all experienced the exact same thing; there was no variety from performance to performance, company to company.
Motion pictures gave the dramatic form the same sense of permanence that print provided to published work.
Like staged performances, radio operated on a timetable the consumer had to adhere to in order to enjoy it.
But like print media, it was possible to enjoy radio in the comfort of your own home.
This meant it was possible for millions of people -- who could not all fit into even the largest public venue -- to listen simultaneously to the same performance and comment on it the following day.
For the first time it became possible for literally millions of people around the globe to share the same identical forms of pop culture.
For the first time it was possible for millions of people in geographically and ethnically diverse regions to share and experience the culture of millions of others.
All this was just the foundation for the sweet spot.
After World War Two -- and thanks in no small part to the development of radar and the mass production of radar tubes and the desire of radar tube manufacturers to find a new market for their product once the war ended -- television exploded across the Western world (and those parts of the world occupied by Western military).
Radio had always been perceived of as a live medium: You heard what someone was saying in a studio at that exact moment.
Yes, there were plenty of examples of recorded programming all the way back to the dawn of the commercial radio era, but they were exceptions rather than the rule (although radio did pioneer the concept of re-runs).
But while television certainly had a large live appeal -- news, sports, drama -- it also had the capacity -- both technical and in audience demand -- to run previously recorded programming.
Who had tens of thousands of hours of previously recorded programming on hand, ready to go in 1948?
Children and teens growing up in the late 1940s through the late 1980s were not just exposed to the current popular culture (most famously rock & roll) but to the popular culture of generations before.
One of the key points about the importance of popular culture that typically gets overlooked is that pop culture frequently comments directly and indirectly on what is happening around it in an unfiltered manner.
Too often what we define as high culture is too self-conscious when commenting directly on the events of its era.
It pre-shapes and pre-forms its commentary based on a reflection of values that the high culture has about itself.
Pop culture just throws it out there.
As a child of the 1950s, I grew up with Betty Boop and Bugs Bunny and Popeye and the Little Rascals / Our Gang and Laurel & Hardy and the Marx Brothers and The Three Stooges and Hop-a-long Cassidy and old movies and serials from the 1930s and 40s as well as more contemporaneous programing from the 1950s.
And I learned about the Depression and the Dust Bowl and World War Two rationing and a myriad of other historical and cultural details through the popular entertainments of that era which were shown and repeatedly shown to those of my generation.
And while new things were always being added to the mix, if you lived in a Western nation between 1948 and 1980, you had an enormous opportunity to see programming from another era.
Note that word: Programming.
Because it was difficult bordering impossible to access all this media on your own.
Sure, there used to be outfits like Films Incorporated that would rent 16mm films to non-profit organizations and clubs and schools, and there’s always been a not altogether legitimate collectors’ market in films, but by and large audiences would see what was presented to them at the time it was appointed to be presented.
As a kid, there would be a block of early morning cartoons and comedy shorts before school, an afternoon block of the same after school, and depending on the channel perhaps an Early Show movie (i.e., late afternoon).
Add to that regularly scheduled blocks for cowboy movies, sci-fi / horror / monster movies, Late Shows, and Million Dollar Movies (i.e., local stations running Hollywood features during prime time),
When I was 12 I started keeping a list of every feature film I had seen.
I stopped counting when I had topped 10,000 features.
I was a junior in high school at that point.
The more one saw of films from an older era, the more accessible that era became.
It was possible to see the similarities and the differences, and to appreciate them for their relative strengths.
And it was not just TV programming that did this, though I give credit to TV being the driving engine.
Although examples existed before then, in the 1960s oldies radio became a genre unto itself, and before long it was being sub-divided further: Big band, country swing, oldies rock, even 1920s jazz stations.
A huge nostalgia craze started in the late 1950s and continued through to the 1980s: Books, magazines (I could -- and maybe will -- write an entire post on the enormous impact of Forry Ackerman’s Famous Monsters Of Filmland magazine on two generations of film fans and film makers), comics, compilation films.
Revival movie houses flourished where one could see uncut classic films in their original format.
And the old media influenced the new.
Let’s take the Beatles as just one example among many:
Sgt. Pepper is a love song to old forms of music, and far from the only example of the Beatles as a group or individually mining long established veins.
All this happened because it was -- for lack of a better word -- curated.
And by that I mean somebody somewhere, even if it was just a lowly employee at a bargain basement UHF TV station, had to pick specific programing to air and a specific time on a specific channel.
It kind of forced audiences to be media savvy…or at the very least, exposed to media education.
See, if you wanted to be entertained, if you wanted to see something, you had to watch to what they (whoever “they” were) presented to you.
Maybe you thought 1930s B-mysteries were corny, and many of them no doubt are.
But the fact they were made in the 1930s, and as mentioned above, the fact they were showing the 1930s unfiltered meant you were learning (or at least absorbing through osmosis).
However, in the 1980s things began changing thanks to videotape and time shifting.
On the one hand, taped programming is a tremendous boon: Not only are you not tied down to someone else’s schedule, you’re not tied down to their menu.
The plus side of that is the freedom to enjoy what you want to enjoy.
The negative is that you’re no longer compelled to watch anything you might not initially want to watch.
And because of that,
you’re losing out.
There’s also the problem of fast forwarding or skipping through a film or TV show -- lord knows I’m guilty of that! -- meaning you do not experience the media as intended. Sometimes this makes no difference; other times it makes all the difference in the world.
Because while it’s bad enough many younger audiences don’t want to watch anything filmed in black and white -- or for that matter, anything without spoken dialog and a soundtrack -- a large number of younger people are irritated by the story telling and editing pace of older films and TV shows even when they’re in color.
But there’s nothing compelling us to watch it, even in the gentle fashion of saying, “Here’s a Betty Boop cartoon”.
You don’t have to watch it if you don’t want to.
But the less familiar you are with something, the less you want to watch it.
And if you don’t watch it, the harder it is to understand.
I see media that I found fascinating and vastly entertaining now being overlooked and ignored.
And in many specific cases, I can understand why:
If an audience doesn’t understand the context of the material,
they’re less likely to understand the material itself.
The digital age provides us with many wonders.
But it also makes it too easy to avoid other wonders as well.
© Buzz Dixon