I really hate it when these nostalgia cases go—it’s even worse than when some piece of media-dubbed royalty drops dead at 50—for the same reason it’s hard not to shudder thinking about what PBS pledge-drives are going to look like in 20 or 30 years. I mean, the pledge-drives today are already a horrorshow, what with the pot-bellied, balding buzzards and their mamas in Khaftans swaying back and forth—in their chairs—whispering “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” But where Boomers are commonly thought to be lost in the past, they have hearts of stone compared to every generation that’s succeeded them. It’s the post-Boomers who pony up for the Woodstock revivals and carry skateboards around in their thirties, and who’ve been fueling the whole superhero boom in movies. If we’re already having nostalgia crazes for the Nineties, their dotage promises to be one long orgy of retro navel-gazing, and by the time their grandkids roll around, we’ll be celebrating nostalgia crazes for yesterday.
I’ll go to my grave believing that American Graffiti had something seminal to do with kicking over the first domino here, for that was just about the time that nostalgia became such an aggressive force in our society, and when growing numbers of people (with a lot of prodding from the media and entertainment industry) began thinking of themselves in terms of “their” generation (and their youth), as opposed to simply remembering the past, and being content to recognize, with nothing more tangled than fondness at stake, what part it played in creating their adult selves. I’d also lay some of the blame on that whole “Where were you when JFK was shot?” thing. Each succeeding generation has yearned accordingly, even wistfully, for its own “defining moment.” It’s important to remember, though, that nobody was looking for—and certainly nobody wanted—the JFK “moment” to happen, and its meaning only was agreed upon (we’ll never know what it truly was) until well after the Vietnam debacle was underway. Today it’s common for people, when asked why they’re sitting on the courthouse steps waiting for the Michael Jackson verdict, to say that they want to “be part of history,” as if one of the final dips in a fading pop star’s career somehow equates to Hiroshima or the end of apartheid.
Nobody ever flew off the handle when Fess Parker or Edd “Kookie” Byrnes was ridiculed, but if you dis Star Wars, The Brady Bunch, Bruce Lee or Spiderman today, you best be ready to go to Fist City. The pop loves of childhood and adolescence have become the keystones and buttresses of a million personal sagas, the foundations of a romantic myth that’s been twisted into a definition of selfhood, and because this Vaseline-smeared view serves as their mental armor in the world, it makes the people who engage in it insanely protective of their personal taste even though its bedrock is sentimental goo. That’s why there’s no percentage in going after someone like John Hughes no matter how false his view of the world was: too many people will take it as an attack on their parentage.