Us Kids (Don’t) Know

Published on July 5th, 2011

Alex takes a look at Arcade Fire, nostalgia, Betty White, the Beastie Boys, Woody Allen, and Dawson’s Creek.

It has been almost a year since Arcade Fire’s third album, The Suburbs, was released to almost universal acclaim, acclaim that was and remains wholly justified for mostly non-musical reasons. The title track is one of the better rock singles in years, and as a whole the album is musically and thematically interesting… and of course, most importantly, it rocks. Since The Suburbs’ release, Arcade Fire’s growing cultural presence has allowed us to see an incredible YouTube-sponsored Madison Square Garden performance, frontman Win Butler offering to protect Jon Stewart from lunch money-thieving bullies, and a more-than-decent meme. There are reasons this album has been so accepted by everybody but Bieber fans, but that reason is because The Suburbs’ succeeds at reminding Arcade Fire’s core audience of the time when they were the correct age to be Bieber fans. The album is as good as it is because it rocks hard enough for you to want to turn your stereo up to 11, but The Suburbs has resonated so loudly primarily because it allows its audience to turn their age back to 11.

 

Wait... what?

The Suburbs is at its core about growing up, with few exceptions present throughout its 64 minute running time. Win Butler’s favourite word has always been ‘kids,’ but even for him The Suburbs’ use of words and phrases about youth gets a little out of hand. You can read most of the songs on the album in a variety of ways, but it’s difficult to deny that most of them take a look backwards; the title track is pretty explicitly about growing up, while We Used to Wait loudly romanticizes older formats of communication. Even the lyric booklet features lines being crossed out and rewritten, like a kid was in charge of the design and left everything to the last minute in order to watch an extra few episodes of Power Rangers. The Suburbs is about trying to reclaim a type of feeling, but the feeling it reflects is one that is now almost culturally ubiquitous.

Nostalgia is present in every aspect of modern culture, be it from this summer’s most notable films, to modern music, to fashion, to memes. We seem intent on and dedicated to looking back; this why the Beastie Boys’ latest album got great reviews despite being mediocre, and how Betty White came to host Saturday Night Live in 2010, 18 years after her most famous work went off the air. It’s not so much that we missed Betty White, it was more that we missed a world where we could watch Betty White being funny on television. In January 2010, a Facebook petition decided that culture missed its favourite Golden Girl, and soon enough she was playing the “old woman saying ‘penis’” alongside Kristen Wiig and Abby Elliott in a bunch of sketches on live television. Following that were guest spots on Community and 30 Rock, a Snickers commercial (with Abe Vigoda!), and a new TV show of her own. But what Betty White shows us, and the reason that a comedienne who has kind of lost her comedic timing can still make people laugh, is that we don’t want to let her go. When we see Betty White now, we don’t really see her anymore; we see a memory of a world where she was culturally relevant. These Facebook petitioners didn’t want Betty White to host SNL, nor did they necessarily like the Beasties’ new record. They just wanted it to be 1987 again.

 

"PENIS!"

The mass acceptance of Arcade Fire’s record lies not only in its tinge of nostalgia but that the album itself, at least musically, actually sounds like something Bruce Springsteen could have made in the early 1980s. Everybody seems to like the denim deity, Arcade Fire included, so it only makes sense that this callback to a different time in music would be something we would enjoy, and to say that the 1980s are prevalent in modern music is more than a mild understatement. The majority of independent rock groups on your iPod are highly influenced by the late 70s and early 80s post-punk movement; Joy Division and the Talking Heads are to modern rock music what Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard were to the Hollywood Renaissance. This applies not just to rock music, but in the music you hear everyday on the radio or in clothing stores. Even outside of the constant comparisons to a 1980s Madonna, when Lady Gaga needed some saxophone solos for Born This Way, she enlisted (the recently-deceased) Clarence Clemons, a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band. And a short walk through Kensington is almost like walking through a pastiche of the past half-century in fashion, not to mention that half of the guys you’ll see there are probably wearing one of the Boss’ outfits in the Born to Run video. And while it seems most of these same people would think of themselves as socially conscious, I suspect that if they had a time machine they wouldn’t go back in time to prevent the Gulf Oil Spill, they’d use it to steal Tom Selleck’s mustache from the set of Magnum, P.I. The 80s are everywhere around us, but so are a number of other decades as well; it’s not so much what we are looking back to that matters, what matters is that we’re looking back at all.

 

In their defence, that thing could probably clean up all the oil spills.

Our culture is continually and exponentially speeding up, and most people appear willing to accept this through adopting new technologies, but this seemingly constant desire to reach back into our memories signifies otherwise. Arcade Fire’s We Used to Wait features a number of lines that romanticize outdated modes of communication, such as letter writing, but versions of those lyrics were probably paradoxically e-mailed between band members in the lead up to recording sessions. We miss the old technologies, media, and Betty Whites, but that doesn’t seem to want to make us reject the new ones. Yet we still wish for a simpler time, when we were kids in the suburbs waiting for letters to arrive. But now our lives are changing fast, and nothing ‘pure’ can really last.

I am not immune to this. My friend Emily and I recently started tearing through Dawson’s Creek after drunkenly stumbling across an episode on television and realizing it was hilarious. Our initial interest in the show was ironic, as we didn’t watch the show in its initial run on television, but by the end of the first season we had come to grips with the fact that we actually cared about the characters, or at least bowling shirt enthusiast Pacey. Dawson’s Creek is hopelessly dated, but that’s exactly why I continue to watch it. I have always been fascinated by teen movies, and this fascination shows no signs of going away; I probably would have seen Disney’s Prom in April had it remained in theatres even as long as Gigli did. And what Dawson’s Creek does is crystalize precisely why I care about these shows and movies that don’t include me in their target audience anymore. I am no longer young enough to have a clear memory of what being an adolescent from 1998-2003 was like, so Dawson’s Creek is what I have turned to in order to see a time when Chumbawumba, absurdly baggy khaki pants, and James Van Der Beek were unironically reflecting what that period in time was like for a certain age group.

One episode features a scene where Joey Potter (Katie Holmes’ character), is comforting a young girl who has had her romantic desires rebuked by one Dawson Leery (James Van Der Beek, or now James Van Der Meme). Joey says to this girl that “growing up sucks,” and that she just needs to keep her head down and get through it. This way of looking at teenage life is a common trend in teen media, and while growing up may have sucked to Ms. Potter, I assume she would now look back at her Capeside High days as a great time in her life, just like almost everybody else in reality does.

This summer we have seen a number of high-profile film releases that look back to childhood semi-autobiographically, like JJ Abrams’ Super 8 and Terrence Malick’s The Tree of Life, but there are also a wealth of movies that romanticize the time period they take place in. X-Men: First Class, Transformers: Dark of the Moon, and the upcoming Captain America: The First Avenger repurpose famous world events to involve these films’ characters. Perhaps most interestingly, however, is Woody Allen’s Midnight in Paris, which I won’t talk about because nobody has seen it and it’s too damn good to spoil. The movie is almost entirely about nostalgia, even more so than the movies mentioned earlier this paragraph, and Allen’s exploration of it all is both fascinating and hilarious.

That is not to say this art of nostalgia is some sort of modern phenomenon; Marion Cotillard’s Midnight in Paris character is there specifically to remind us of this. The Faces’ 1973 song Ooh La La is an interesting song because it asks one simple question: how would your life change if you could go back and live your life again with the knowledge of what you know now? Would you make a ludicrous amount of money by investing in Google? Would you be a hipster before our modern hipsters even existed, standing stoically and reading Douglas Coupland novels while your Grade 3 classmates did the Macarena at recess? Or would you just get really bored with life by the time you were 12? Name-twin Faces songwriter Ronnies Wood & Lane may wish that they knew what they know now when they were younger, but it is the impossibility of this idea that makes the ideas in the song interesting. Wood & Lane may have viewed their adolescence in the same way Joey Potter did, but once they grew up, all they wanted to do was to get back to their version of the Creek. As we get older, people seem to remain stuck on the idea that we wish we could go back to being sixteen because life was easier, or less complicated, back then. This is true only because we were dumber then; we wish that we knew what we know now when we were younger simply because sixteen year olds are fucking stupid. Sixteen year olds spend their time reading Seventeen and watching Dawson’s Creek before trying to incorporate the word ‘persnickety’ into their lexicon because Dawson and Joey say it repeatedly. As we get older, we learn things (like “never, ever use the word ‘persnickety’”), but the one thing nobody ever seems to learn is that aging is kind of fun. The adage “you learn something new everyday” is so overused that everybody seems to forget that it is 100% accurate. Looking back nostalgically at a time when the Boss, the Beasties and Betty White ruled the pop cultural landscape isn’t smart, simply because you’re romanticizing a time when you weren’t either.

Ironically, modern technology has allowed for this perpetual culture of nostalgia. The Betty White petition probably got started while its creator was watching a Golden Girls DVD, and the reason I can watch Dawson’s Creek in sequence without having to stay up until 5am every single night is because of the vast amount of content available on torrent sites. Technology allows artists to provide us with more content; Arcade Fire & Spike Jonze’s mostly-bad short film Scenes From the Suburbs almost certainly doesn’t exist 10 years ago, simply because it is so much cheaper to make a decent looking short film now. This allowed Arcade Fire and Jonze to make their heavy-handed film about a metaphorical army metaphorically stealing away a characters’ youth and his shoulder-length hairstyle of youthful freedom, but technology also allows people who never performed at MSG or directed Being John Malkovich to dabble in the art of nostalgia. Software like Adobe Photoshop and Lightroom make it easy for an amateur photographer to add a tinge of nostalgia to something that shouldn’t be nostalgic at all. A few clicks through any given photography page on Tumblr will probably end with you finding a collection of pictures tinted with yellow, orange, or whatever colour looks the coolest right now, despite the fact that they were probably crystal clear before going through Photoshop. It’s a certain style, sure, but it’s one that adds an odd layer of substance nonetheless. But maybe that’s the way it should be; maybe the increasing speed that culture moves at, combined with our new technology, has made us grow nostalgic even faster than we used to. We try to eliminate the elements we don’t like quickly, so we can focus as much as possible on the good stuff. We’re so desperate to escape our present that we watch, listen, and create media that reaches backwards, not just in history, but also, in a way, in sophistication. We used to be able to wait for the substance of bad memories to fade before focusing on the best moments, but now we can immediately just scream, “Sing the chorus again!”

 

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