"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 9 December 1997. Updated every WEEKDAY.
The Way We Weren't


[the rain is faling and the sun is shining]

Memories may be beautiful, some

movie director once crooned. And

yet what's too painful to

remember, we simply choose to

forget. But if such tidy

psychological mathematics

balance the books on our dim

recollections of God, country,

and classic Detroit

craftsmanship, why don't they

ring even faintly true when it

comes to pop culture?


Apparently, when your Fright

Factory is stocked with enough

Plastigoop, nothing's too

excruciating to revive. The

latest in an increasingly

familiar line of dumpster-

divertissement, Retro Hell:

Life in the '70s and '80s

from Afros to Zotz seems engineered

to tuck neatly alongside

Alt.Culture, Thrift Score,

and a host of other guides to the

rerun ruins. Collated by the

editors of Ben is Dead, Retro

Hell features the


the-park-reminiscing of a

Salvation Army's worth of

hipsters (several of whom

contribute to this site). But

all too often, the effort's

white-elephant stampede over the

idiot meadows of youth tramples

blindly over well-marked cliffs.

At its best, the pet rock they

polish is vintage glam. At its

worst, the book's faux ironic

distance comes off as a meager

substitute for either genuine

enthusiasm or outright contempt.

Everything old is old again, and

again, and again.


[tahoe will have tons o snow]

In their guilty lamentations of

"frozen memories," the Retro

Hell correspondents tend to

forget that the hell of retro is

only as frigid as you make it.

When contributor Bruce Elliot

poses a set of moral choices in

the book's introduction - wisdom

versus information, adolescence

against adulthood - culminating

in the "future belonging to us

... or to retro," it's as if the

closing speech of The Brothers

Karamazov were only aging

fiction, after all: "There is

nothing nobler, stronger,

healthier, and more helpful in

life than a good remembrance,

particularly a remembrance from

our childhood."


Trapped in a mental Malachi

crunch between retro-hell and

what Anne Burdick called

neomania, today's aesthetes - the Ben

is Dead cabal, the Alt.Cultists,

and admittedly ourselves - smack

into the half-inflated airbags

of irony and skepticism. The

predicament isn't new, and

others have extricated

themselves from such wrecks. In

1914, salvaging the least

doctrinaire elements of both

futurism and conservatism,

Walter Lippmann saw not only

that "the loss of the sense of

the past has come to mean a

definite emancipation" but also

that "the past can be a way to

freedom.... Wherever routine and

convention become unbearable

weights, the abundance of the

past is a source of liberty."


[something from the 50s, Holy Crow!]

If retro has felt more hellish

than liberating of late, it's

precisely because mining the

past's abundance has become

routine and conventional.

Instead of just reiterating the

manifest daftiny of Warren

Beatty's sister - "Shirley

[MacLaine] disgraced the

Rat Pack and all her fans

by going mega-hard-core New Age"

(Retro Hell, p. 140) -

point instead to her super

performance in Being There.

That neglected 1982 Hal

Ashby classic manages to convert

goofy TV references such as

Basketball Jones into sublime

criticism. And as such, it's a

model for anyone who hopes to

deploy popcultural literacy

without abetting fashion in

smashing the true meaning of it.


It's not that kitsch can't be

sublime. Rather, our

categorizing impulses block our

capacity for sheer

transportation. Lovers of

process, not progress, we "don't

want to talk about anything

else," as a Repo Man once

proclaimed. "We're just

dedicated to our favorite shows

- Saturday Night Live, Monday Night

Football, Dallas, The

Jefferson's, Gilligan's Island,

The Flintstones."


Could it be that it was all so

simple then, or has time

rewritten every line? Um, the

second part. To revisit simple

pleasures without becoming

simpletons, retro must give way

to repo. The difference is more

than a couple of keystrokes, and

is best expressed in terms of

pop music, which is always

transparent about its

influences. A song like "Living

Thing" merits a fresh airing not

because it caps the joyless

exercise that is Boogie Nights,

nor because the ELO concept

never fails to raise titters,

but because Jeff Lynne was a

first-rate craftsman whose

creative misreadings of The

Beatles led to some original and

really just gorgeous music.


[janes or porno?]

When life feels generic, it is

often for the most literal

reason: We were trained to

filter everything in terms of

genre. The turning point for

retrohellions came with the

release of the movie version of

the Priscilla, Queen of the

Desert soundtrack. By

celebrating lost '70s hits

through camp fashion, it forced

songs like "Dancing Queen" to be

seen, not heard, through the

lens of style and genre. You no

longer listened to an old song

because you liked it, but

because it made you titter

knowingly. Watch a video or

notice an actress, and one's

overdeveloped associative reflex

kicks right in. (The Verve?

Leonard Cohen meets ELO. Gwyneth

Paltrow? Ingrid Bergman mates

Joe Camel.)


The first step from retro to

repo is simple attitude

adjustment: the will to strip

oldies but goodies of historic

trappings. Once your karma

policeman stops handing out

style tickets, a lot of

previously untouchable material

springs from the shadows. It's a

lot easier to get pleasure out

of a standard like "That's All"

once you make peace with Phil

Collins' downward spiral into



[diet or regular?  pepsi or coke?]

While the retroist submerges

himself in a Mr. Bubble bath of

nostalgia, the repoist finds

ways to remember the reason for

bathing at all. Remove the type

from a logo or package to see

its design anew. Mix down the

anthemic chorus from an old hit

to better hear its always

subtler verse and bridge - "Life

During Wartime" without parties

and discos, "Our House" without

middles of the street. What's

left is not form divested of

content, but content divested of

misleading generic cues.


As for Retro Hell itself: Put

the book under your mattress and

let it age 10 years or so. When

you finally dust it off, you can

indulge in nostalgia for our

nostalgic, metamannered late

'90s. (Omigod! Remember Suck?

Hey, one more jibe for all the

old jibes!)


So long as we're looking

backward, Bellamy-style, you may

recall some variation on this

brain twister beloved of all

algebra teachers: A hipster is

moving from San Francisco to New

York. Each day she roadtrips

exactly half the distance

remaining across country. When

will she arrive?


[bonsai tree or christmas?]

Now (hold that thought) the '90s

looking glass has already

reflected trends through

Reagan's first term, not

excluding breakdancing and

cocaine. If the arbitrary energy

building behind millennialism

can be harnessed for any good

purpose, it should be to wipe

our 21st-century slate clean - a

collective New Year's resolution

to get all retroism out of our

system before Christ returns to

accept his Lifetime Achievement

VH1 Fashion Award.


Dividing by two's like our

roadtripping hipster in an

ever-accelerating drive toward

31 December 1999, we should whip

through the late '80s in the

next six months, arrive in

Grunge and the Gulf by fall,

then enter final approach to the

dizzying asymptote of the Future

Present. The final seconds of

the century will be thus spent

reviewing the moments

immediately preceding, investing

new but fatal meaning in the

phrase, "that was so five

seconds ago."


And then if - as the song goes -

we had to do it all again, we

not only couldn't, we also


courtesy of Ersatz