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Everything Old Is New Again, And I Like It

Dec 18, 2011

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Sarah Handel

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"The past is a foreign country," Kurt Andersen writes in Vanity Fair. Just 20 years ago, we had no Internet as we know it, computers were huge, and, he says, the words al-Qaida and Osama bin Laden had never been printed in the New York Times. But, he laments, "the recent past — the 00s, the 90s, even a lot of the 80s — looks almost identical to the present."

He's got a point. 90s fashion has come back in a big way (think jean jackets, flannel, and, shudder, stacked-heel loafers), and as he points out, "Jay-Z and Wilco are still Jay-Z and Wilco." He nods to the economy — bad times can deter innovation (if it ain't broke, don't fix it) and the destabilizing effect of constantly getting used to new technology as reasons for this cultural recycling. But he concludes, woefully,

We seem to have trapped ourselves in a vicious cycle — economic progress and innovation stagnated, except in information technology; which leads us to embrace the past and turn the present into a pleasantly eclectic for-profit museum; which deprives the cultures of innovation of the fuel they need to conjure genuinely new ideas and forms; which deters radical change, reinforcing the economic (and political) stagnation. I've been a big believer in historical pendulum swings — American sociopolitical cycles that tend to last, according to historians, about 30 years. So maybe we are coming to the end of this cultural era of the Same Old Same Old. As the baby-boomers who brought about this ice age finally shuffle off, maybe America and the rich world are on the verge of a cascade of the wildly new and insanely great. Or maybe, I worry some days, this is the way that Western civilization declines, not with a bang but with a long, nostalgic whimper.

But I'm a bit of a Pollyanna, and contrarian to boot, so I haven't been able to get his thesis out of my mind. And the question I keep posing to the Kurt Andersen in my head is, "But is that so bad?" Sure, Jay-Z and Wilco are still Jay-Z and Wilco, but you know what? They're both still really, really good. And to that pair I'd add a third, the Beastie Boys, who followed up* 1994's Ill Communication with 2011's Hot Sauce Committee Part 2, and somehow sound as relevant as ever. And I could go on.

Sure, there are plenty of 90s artists I can't really see a reason for (Red Hot Chili Peppers, here's looking at you), but when 90s holdovers are innovating like Jay-Z is, why do we need something new? Of course, it's kind of a straw man argument, and I don't mean to discredit Andersen's piece — after all, it really got me thinking. I'm with him that aspects of the 90s should have stayed there. But in music, anyway, I'm delighted 2011 looks so much like — and so different from — 1991 and 2001.

*Loosely. They released several albums in the interim.

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