In director Noah Baumbach’s latest movie, While We’re Young, an older couple Josh (Ben Stiller) and Cornelia (Naomi Watts) meets a younger pair, Jamie (Adam Driver) and Darby (Amanda Seyfried). Jamie and Darby are what most would call hipsters. At one point in the film, Josh and Jamie both express their appreciation for a commercial jingle from Josh’s youth. Later on, Josh expresses his frustration to Cornelia that, to Jamie, the ad is “just some kitschy thing he saw on YouTube,” whereas it’s a genuine part of his youth.
During the story’s climax, Jamie expresses his entitlement to pop culture, stating that a culture — be it a song, movie or TV show — belongs to him, as it does everybody upon release. While Jamie definitely comes off as a frustratingly spoiled in this exchange, the world — specifically the online world — shares this view, whether they know it or not.
As I’m writing this, the end of my Return of the Jedi Blu-ray plays in the background with the revamped celebration that John Williams composed for the Special Edition, yet I can watch the original “Yub Nub” celebration with a quick YouTube search.
This fossilization of pop culture is possible thanks to the internet and the hundreds upon thousands of blog posts, stories and lists dedicated to the nostalgia for toys, movies, video games and tech from from decades past, particularly the 80s and 90s. While the rise of this content is due to its creators being those that experienced said culture firsthand, everything written about Rugrats, Pogs and The Mighty Ducks movies will be available for consumption long after their original audiences are gone. When that time comes our cultural world is going to look a lot like that of Ernest Cline’s cult-science fiction novel and soon-to-be Steven Spielberg movie, Ready Player One.
Cline’s novel takes place in a 2041 dystopia where a virtual reality universe, “The Oasis,” is home to the best schools, night clubs, and a nearly endless supply of planets filled with references to every movie, song, video game and any other piece of pop culture from the 1980s. This is because James Halliday — The Oasis’ Willy Wonka-esque programmer and creator — grew up in the “Me” decade and like everyone else, believes the pop culture from his childhood is superior to all others.
To further that cultural importance, Halliday created a scavenger hunt, the winner of which will inherent Halliday’s fortune and the ownership of the nerd-topia. Users can complete the hunt by solving special challenges based on the knowledge of Halliday’s favorite pieces of said culture. To find those challenges, users must solve cryptic riddles revolving around references to other pieces of the era’s pop culture. This has a profound effect on the current pop culture which the book describes.
“This led to a global fascination with 1980s pop culture. Fifty years after the decade had ended, the movies, music, games, and fashions of the 1980s were all the rage once again. By 2041, spiked hair and acid washed jeans were back in style, and covers of hit ’80s pop songs by contemporary bands dominated the music charts. People who had actually been teenagers in the 1980s, all now approaching old age, had the strange experience of seeing the fads and fashions of their youth embraced and studied by their grandchildren.”
The fortunes awaiting the contest winner results in hundreds of users, including the protagonist Wade Watts, dedicating their lives to consuming every piece of Halliday’s favorite shows, movies and video games. Watts has computers and hard drives full of it all. In fact, the only original media in this book is “The Oasis” and its surrounding culture. It’s the ultimate old-man nerd fantasy, creating a culture that is forced to absorb your favorite texts in favor of all others.
Today, this is almost a reality with people claiming nostalgia for the 90s, despite being unable to form a complete sentence until the early 2000s and abandoning a large part of the world that would fill that space.
Save for the lack of a contest, Cline’s vision of the future is already a reality, with vast media libraries available from an internet connection. People can form an infinite number of cultural interests. A childhood can now consist of classic episodes of The Simpsons, Christopher Reeve’s Superman and Playstation 4. In While We’re Young, Josh revels in Jamie and Darby’s equal reverence for Citizen Kane and The Goonies (on VHS, of course).
This nichification of pop culture makes one wonder what sites like Buzzfeed will look like in 20 years when they can’t dedicate lists to childhood nostalgia because the only unified pop culture will consist of infinite combinations of texts. The aughts might be the last time period in which we can carbon-date our pop culture. Of course, shows like Adventure Time and Yo Gabba Gabba! will find their way into many of these cultural fingerprints. But as soon as those kids graduate from Huggies to Pull-Ups to Spider-Man briefs to boxer shorts, they’ll adopt past pop culture, along with anything else they pick up on the way.