Everything in Retrograde

Pop Nostalgia in an Era of Slow Disaster 

The disaster, French philosopher Maurice Blanchot wrote in 1983, “ruins everything, all the while leaving everything intact.” It is a state of permanent suspension; a “sleepless night … lacking darkness but brightened by no light.” A quiet, nuclear undoing, it spells the ultimate ending and yet things continue to happen within it. The banal apocalypticism of our current moment has resulted in, among other things, a decidedly regressive, cannibalistic pop cultural landscape. The particularity of this moment’s pop-cultural poverty is up for debate, but what feels unique to it is the extreme protraction we are witnessing of nostalgia’s life cycles. If the late twentieth century was made up of decades eager to distinguish themselves from the last, we now seem to grasp onto micro-periods, every few years or months, as and when they happen.  The latest, according to Dazed magazine, is the revival of mid-aughts “Indie Sleaze”—a style marked by neon beads, smudged eyeliner, moustache tattoos and shutter shades that feels so familiar it inspires a kind of historical vertigo. 

The causes of this particular cultural sickness—a premature and overpowering nostalgia—have been picked over by numerous famous theorists. All of the causes continue: harsh economic conditions for artists and young people, stagnation caused by protracted crises, endless spreading and resurfacing on the internet. To these have been added new or newly mutated causes: a certain inward folding of digital culture, a period of wide inactivity during the pandemic, a staggering increase in the value of intellectual property. In 2010 the critic Mark Fisher compiled a broad analysis of nostalgia for music from the sixties or eighties; since then nostalgia has since become even more pervasive and more diffuse. 

All of our backwards gazing has more recently congealed into a look that is recognisably of the late 2010s and early ’20s. It involves hazy pastel and neon lighting, crystal tears, ugly Y2K T-shirts, leather or chrome bodysuits, the Bella Hadid/Ariana Grande brow lift, sparkly lip gloss or matte neutral lipstick, gelled and waved hair, Edenic greenery and Boschian hellscapes. The current algorithmic blend of trends—coordinated activewear in neutral tones, heavy metal T-shirts, cat-eye sunglasses—is upheld by fast fashion brands (Fashion Nova, Pretty Little Thing, Princess Polly, Missguided, Boohoo) that can respond at lightning speed to subtle trends and create endless inoffensive permutations of them. The feedback loop between celebrities/”influencers” and social media also means that the snake rarely has to eat anything other than its own tail. Some influencers start by crafting an aesthetic identity (which they are then paid to continue, or modify, by brands who give them clothes to shill); many now start by studying and reproducing the kind of look that will place them in the influencer category, so they too can become sponsored arbiters of taste. Thus, the ’00s, considered by Fisher to be a nothing decade, would seem, by the quantities of our references to it, remains fixed in its position at the forefront of our pop cultural imagination. 

To find a precise synthesis of the culture’s dominant aesthetic reference points, we need only look as far as middling pop starsespecially those who attract huge numbers of listeners without becoming household names in their own right—or those who make comebacks after a moment of fame fifteen years ago. Olivia O’Brien, a Gen Z singer with a large following and minimal cultural impact, is a prime example: seventies shag haircut, styling that feels like a high-definition update of nineties fashion, with the occasional sixties costume, lyrics that sound like a tweet or a T-shirt slogan. One-hit wonder artists from a decade or so ago—Aly & AJ, JoJo, Rebecca Black—have also been returning in greater numbers, remoulded seamlessly to the shape of current style (which in itself contains the familiarity of their heydays). Whereas the early 2000s culture we love to pastiche was marked by a certain camp excess—rhinestones, skirts over jeans, poorly integrated colorful streaks in wigs—the calculated simplicity of the current fashion is aware of its own potential perception in hindsight. Intent on never being deemed embarrassing or reproachable, the dominant style, then, is an overdetermined blend of references which nonetheless remain distinct, identifiable with their origins. 

In the earlier 2010s, pop stars like Taylor Swift and Lana Del Rey would make tentative side steps into other genres—trap, dubstep—when their sound needed a refresh. This blending consolidated an identity for the era by compiling some of its most culturally important sounds and styles, seeming to say: this is 2013. Now, this kind of generic blend is so ubiquitous that those artists have since made statements by stripping away the genre flirtations and making quiet, guitar-and-piano singer-songwriter albums. 

The overt blending of genres and cultures has lately become pop’s principal life force, partly because it seems the industry has figured out that one way around the moral questions attached to cultural borrowing is to simply place different styles side by side as part of an endless network of features. This cross-pollination has great promise, and does often produce genuinely interesting experiments, though most often it takes the form of K-pop or Latin artists being featured on the songs of famous American singers and rappers, and vice versa. Spotify’s Global X playlist—which at the time of writing features collaborations between Coldplay and BTS, and Justin Bieber, WizKid and Tems—bills the “rhythmic crossover hits” it curates as “the sound of a new era.” What this new era is is hard to say, but certainly existing things in new combinations are an endlessly minable resource—hence also the sampling of famous songs becoming more commonplace and more brazen. In 2018, both Drake and Cardi B sampled Lauryn Hill’s “Ex-Factor”; Hailee Steinfeld’s 2020 single “I Love You’s” samples Annie Lennox’s “No More ‘I Love You’s,” making it feel directly reminiscent of the Nicki Minaj and Jason Derülo songs that also sampled it ten years ago. 

In the past few years, when major pop stars have sought to “rebrand” for a new album or career phase, this has often taken the form of a pivot to the stylings of a decade from the late twentieth century. At least visually, a good deal of the pop landscape if laid out in order presents itself as a timeline of these decades; the sixties from Ariana Grande (Positions artwork) and Selena Gomez (“Back to You” video); the early seventies from Doja Cat, the late from Miley Cyrus; the eighties from Dua Lipa, The Weeknd, and more recently Charli XCX. The nineties and early aughts, meanwhile, are reaching a point of saturation—so thoroughly have they been folded into today’s pop culture that it would appear they ended only for a brief spell, perhaps roughly the Obama years. 

For artists needing a new sonic as well as visual direction (often celebrities-turned-musicians) pop punk is increasingly popular—especially as an angle for breakouts, rebrands and comebacks. For the most part it is performed by and marketed to people whose childhoods were soundtracked by the original music; practitioners include Lil Huddy, a TikTok star; Olivia Rodrigo, a Disney actress; and WILLOW, daughter of Will Smith and once-viral pop singer. Travis Barker, former Blink-182 drummer, has also recently masterminded rapper Machine Gun Kelly’s pivot to the genre. 

It is, to be sure, inevitable for genres and styles to cycle around. What is surprising is that they cycle back ten to fifteen years after the original swell—so pervasively as to almost mimic the force of a movement—and that the products themselves are often conceived or produced by people who were involved in the original making. For lack of other things going on, it would seem, the innovators and tastemakers are drafted back in to repeat their successes. The resulting impression is of art that has been designed by committee, planned by mood board, stitched together as a collage of visual references. 

Even more direct than the recycling of genres is the recent explosion in film and TV remakes. With intellectual property a precious commodity and appetite for new stories in apparently steady decline, the gap of time between films being made and remade is protracting vastly. Gilmore Girls and Sex and the City have been rebooted, remakes have surfaced of Charlie’s Angels, She’s All That, Gossip Girl, and countless horror movies—Grudge (2020), for example, being a reboot of the 2004 American remake of the Japanese film. On a smaller scale, a growing number of pop music videos restage cult films; But I’m A Cheerleader in MUNA’s “Silk Chiffon”; Mean Girls, Legally Blonde, 13 Going on 30, Bring it On in Ariana’s Thank U, Next

In Postmodernism, Frederic Jameson commented on the burgeoning phenomenon of “nostalgia films” set in the relatively recent past. He also, crucially, foundthe very style of nostalgia films invading and colonizing even those movies today which have contemporary settings, as though, for some reason, we were unable today to focus our own present, as though we had become incapable of achieving aesthetic representations of our own current experience.

Twenty years later, it would seem fair to say that the world is starting to look more and more like this nostalgic cocktail. There is less cycling through trends and more of a gradual accumulation of them, as they become temporary shells that can be cast off from one day to the next. The breakdown of historical time that Jameson described has advanced; retro culture comes to appear not anachronistic but purely and entirely ahistorical. Teens wear seventies flares, they want eighties swimsuit bodies, they do makeup from 90s R‘n’B videos. The ’00s, the blurry backdrop to their infancy, is like a destiny they were fated to return to. This is where the concept of the “retro” reaches its limit; it sounds outdated, unfashionable, camp, whereas, now, nostalgic pop culture is the moment.                                     

In the regressive, nostalgic art of the late ‘00s and early ‘10s Fisher saw evidence of “a culture that has lost confidence not just that the future will be good, but that any sort of future is possible.” Instead, relics from the past are continually polished and passed around, making for an unending past-as-present. Aerobics class of the 1980s or ’20s flapper-themed party costumes have been around, and TV shows and films set in the past, for a long time—but the backwards aesthetics of much current pop iconography are neither camp—knowing exactly what they are—or ironic, generally adding little spin on the original reference point. 

Within our obsession for recent pop culture, too, is often a tacit acknowledgement of it as underwhelming or insignificant: memes about the “power” and “cultural impact” of, say, a mostly-forgotten scene from a twenty-year-old sitcom feed off this knowing irony. They also function because we hear these old voices in the tone of the present day. Their innocence, not knowing they are being watched in an isolated segment, is endearing. Culture, then, is not preserved in the past and observed from a distance; it is folded into our time.

Maybe because of the endless digital mediation of culture, we seem to find it hard to access the past directly as an accessible scene in our shared memory. Our evocations of the past are often refracted; the music video for Doja Cat’s “Say So,” for instance, feels like a reimagination of the ’70s from the perspective of the 2000s. In reverse, too, we remain intrigued by the image of the future given to us by mid-century pop culture; this imagined chrome world is perhaps more authentically “retro” than most of our other borrowings. The visions of the future that are at present most concretely available to us—the unthinkable one described by climate science and the upsettingly banal promised by the “metaverse”—are not what the twentieth century imagined. The title of Dua Lipa’s disco album, Future Nostalgia, begs a related question: what about the current moment will we have to be nostalgic for? Would future cultural historians, digging through the rubble, be able to distinguish our seventies pastiches from the seventies themselves? 

The pandemic has placed the coming decade in uneasy cultural territory; it has accelerated the general tendency for nostalgia and tipped things over into what often feels like an active state of regression. There was something very sad and underwhelming about the amount of times in 2020 that actors performed Zoom table reads of films they starred in twenty years ago. It has also been widely reported that a “cultural depression” is looming, with artists’ revenue falling away and cultural institutions closing. Online, all the while, everything is intact. YouTube is a museum of the history of music; most of the films ever made are readily available. The feeling intensifies that we are wearing the salvaged furs of past eras without having the fun that used to be had in them. 

The apparent cultural appetite for nostalgia that Covid has ramped up, coupled with the staggering budget to deliver it, means that the long 1990s can continue on endlessly. It is, therefore, in the side alleys of blockbuster cultural products that it seems the industry’s real workings can be glimpsed. Under pressure to capitalise and expand, ideas with mileage are expanded out into franchises, which might include TV adaptations, novelisations, theatre shows, video games, theme park rides. This is where all the faceless billions are poured; a live show that never gets produced, a TV adaptation of an already-famous film that nobody watches, much of it is forgotten just as soon as it came to be. The creators of South Park recently signed a $900 million deal to renew the show into its thirtieth season (due in 2027) and to make fourteen spinoff movies over the next six years. The question here is—who wants this? When there already exists such a large original body of work, how many people genuinely feel the need for an extension of it? The nostalgia industry is one in which the slightest indication of demand occasions an incredible surge in supply. 

Ten years ago, in his study of musical nostalgia Retromania, Simon Reynolds argued that the explosion of remakes, reissues, tributes and borrowings from the past had tipped the culture into total nostalgia saturation. He identified in recent history the succession of “surge” decades (the ’60s; the ’90s) by “going-in-circles’ decades. But perhaps this is not the right model anymore, now that the culture’s ebbs and flows seem to happen all at the same time. 

Concomitant with the half-cynical, half-earnest embrace of the recent past is a half-joking acceptance of imminent apocalypse. When a concerning development in current affairs emerges, the internet fills with jokes about World War III or the water wars. The idea of the end of the world has attained a memed, affectless status in the culture. Eighteen-year-old singer Kid Laroi named his upcoming tour the “End of the World Tour”; when in “Good Days” SZA sings “Gotta free my mind before the end of the world” there is an understanding we all know what she means. There is a broad feeling that, in the words of a Russian proverb, today is worse than yesterday, but better than tomorrow. The culture projects itself into a future disaster that it senses to already be unfolding, but whose future reality it cannot imagine. Pre-history and post-history jostle; there is a present only insofar as there are days during which people breathe, speak, and move.  

But what happens in the middle time, before the end everyone alludes to? The state of general crisis in which the world is widely taken to be is split into different categories according to the political orientation of the thinker; political, ecological, cultural. More useful, then, for this purpose is the disaster, which is as elusive as it is all-encompassing: “since the disaster always takes place after having taken place, there cannot possibly be any experience of it.”

The writing of this disaster is, as a result, disordered and fragmented in its attempts to reckon with or represent an omnipotent blankness. A blankness that has recently been best represented by Kanye West’s chaotic durational unveiling of his album Donda—living alone in a stadium, blaring unfinished cuts to a bewildered but captivated audience that includes Kim Kardashian in a burqa-like black bridal gown. Later, at the Met Gala, she wore a black bodysuit covering every inch of her skin. It is still Balenciaga—the label that furnished the mid 10s-era Kardashian-Jenners with their camouflage-toned dresses and chainmail—but it represents a void where fashion would be. She looks like a locked video game character, or someone playing a shadow in a student play. The last place for the figureheads of fame and luxury to go is a transitive “anti” position. 

A crisis can be libidinal; the disaster is serene, total blankness.

One of the problems with this kind of diagnosis is that there is altogether too much culture to be able to make sense of it. Declarations of the end of innovation also age famously poorly. The irony of writing this essay is that the phenomena I try to describe have themselves been articulated endlessly, modified, and recycled. As I have gotten further into writing it, I have asked myself more frequently, and more seriously, what the point of it is. I don’t have anything to say that Jameson and Fisher, those two bastions of the undergraduate awakening, have not already said (save for things they could not have predicted). What made me first consider writing it was a feeling—of madness, at some new reunion, revival, or reboot, and of a certain black dread at the idea that the makers of capital-c Culture will keep on making it, out of whatever they have to hand, as the earth burns and sinks below water. 

Maybe “the new” doesn’t feel like anything. It is something which is produced that isn’t momentous but couldn’t have been produced before. Or it looks like the darkness to which we, the pop stars and us, are all turning our backs.

Julieta Caldas