During a recent afternoon browsing the job boards, I encountered an ad for a new social networking service in need of copywriters. The creators of the site claimed that this would be the “first completely nostalgia-based social network.” Users could create a profile, and essentially “like” (as those Facebook kids like to say these days) and talk about all the television shows, movies, music, books, toys, etc. that they grew up with.
“Hey, which was the scariest Goosebumps book?!?!”
“I can’t believe they don’t have Ecto-Cooler anymore!”
“Kids these days will never get to watch All That! The original cast, I mean. WHATEVER HAPPENED TO LORI-BETH DENBERG???”
Indeed, how will kids these days survive without knowing who Repairman(man man man) or Ear Boy were? They’ll probably graduate from high school without having been exposed to such lofty entertainments and crush under the pressure of the real world because they failed to listen to Clarissa explain it all. Or, they’ll spend their formative years enjoying their own Nickelodeon and Disney Channel shows, and then hopefully grow up without remorse for their lost childhoods.
Don’t get me wrong, I love the pop culture I grew up, but unlike seemingly everybody in my age range on the internet, I can acknowledge that I love it because I grew up with it. Nobody has the most discerning taste in the fourth grade. I loved Rugrats, Doug, Angry Beavers, Rocko’s Modern Life and Spongebob Squarepants because those were the shows that were placed in front of me by my parents. I played with Pogs and Pokémon cards because those were the toys my classmates played with. I have a fondness for them because they remind me of a simpler time, before my life was complicated by puberty and part-time barista jobs and awareness of the decline of the global economy. The Pagemaster transports me back to a more innocent time in which every movie was watched from within a pillow fort. It makes me feel all gooey inside.
Nostalgia can be a powerful force, helping to relieve the tensions of today by filling us with the feelings of yesterday. However, just as powerful as nostalgia’s ability to comfort, is its ability to create an unhealthy disconnect with the world around us. Every day, I see a new article online about how my generation is screwed. The economy is in the shitter, we’re becoming increasingly illiterate, global warming will fry us all before we’re old enough to collect the social security that won’t exist because the economy is in the shitter. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the way people my age are choosing to deal with our fate as a doomed generation is by ignoring our present and reminiscing about our past.
Buzzfeed has become one of the biggest perpetrators of this phenomenon: last year they launched their new “Rewind” vertical devoted to anything and everything retro. True, this occasionally includes interesting commentary on Mad Men era advertisements or completely deserved shrines to Shirley Bassey’s fabulousness, but mostly it’s just lists of 90s things for you to scroll through and go “OMG I remember that!” Sometimes the lists focus on one particular cultural trend (such as these signs that you liked New Kids On The Block) but sometimes they refuse to even establish a façade suggesting a list is nothing more than a cheap attempt to pull at your childhood’s heartstrings (like these 35 VHS movies that apparently everybody, not just the writer of this article, grew up with).
My generation has become a group of middle aged dads complaining to their kids that the music we grew up with is the best that ever was or ever will be. Bolstered by our control of social media, we’ve created sanctuaries to our pasts and forced everyone around us to re-experience our childhoods with us. Recently, Nickelodeon gave in to our cries for attention by creating a “90s Are All That” block of retro programming. In the same way Nick at Nite and TV Land were created to appease old folk who didn’t like the new shows they were seeing on their televisions, Nickelodeon gave us these two hours so we could relive our glory days. Why would they do this?
Like my generation, Nickelodeon isn’t exactly in its prime. After 17 years as the ratings leader in children’s programming, Nickelodeon came in second to the Disney Channel in 2011. The channel simply isn’t as ubiquitous when it comes to children’s entertainment as it once was. Disney has been growing in popularity with young girls since the Hannah Montana-fication of the network that led to the uprisings of Miley Cyrus, Selena Gomez and Demi Lovato. Cartoon Network has experienced a creative renaissance, and now produces the weird but kid-accessible shows (Adventure Time, Regular Show) Nick used to specialize in. Nickelodeon is no longer the one-stop shop for kid’s TV, so they decided to reunite with the twenty-somethings they made sweet, sweet pop culture with back in the 90s to see if they could rekindle some of that old magic.
On the first night of the “90s Are All That” block, I got together with my friends to watch because I was still in college and it beat trying to read Naked Lunch for my American Lit class. First up was Doug, and you can’t really go wrong with that. I know that the point of this blog post is to rail against the fetishization of our childhoods, but it should be said that the Nicktoons we grew up with truly were great and have aged incredibly well. Doug is still one of the best representations of the everyman and the awkwardness of growing up I’ve seen.
Then we came to the live-action shows, and the lacquer on my childhood started to dull. Kenan & Kel was good, albeit a bit aged; All That, which I was always thought of as stupid-funny, was stupider and less funny than I remembered; and Clarissa Explains It All, the shining paragon 90s enthusiasts have been holding up as proof of our generation’s superiority, was basically unwatchable. The talking to the camera, the look-at-me-and-my-quirkiness style choices, the constant squiggly line pie-charts appearing out of nowhere helping Clarissa explain what’s important to teens (spoiler alert: pizza); all of it left me feeling hollow. Maybe there was a point when this was the pinnacle of entertainment, but not anymore. I wish I hadn’t re-watched Clarissa; now, it no longer exists in my mind as sweet nostalgia. Now, it’s just a reminder that the shows I watched as a kid were probably all this stupid. Watching a show you loved when you were eight is like going back to Disney World: you might have fun if you’re with good friends, but you’re more likely to get depressed by the 400-pound man walking his kid on a leash. (Okay, not a perfect metaphor.) So, I’m not going to watch The Secret World of Alex Mack or Salute Your Shorts when the opportunity presents itself. They can continue to exist as perfect shows through my rose-colored childhood glasses.
So, let’s get over ourselves. Let’s resist the urge to join social media machines designed to collect page views by reminding us of Power Rangers. Everyone thinks our generation is fucked, and hiding behind our ironic Double Dare shirts we purchased at Hot Topic isn’t helping. Read a book that isn’t Harry Potter. Don’t buy tickets to the new Backstreet Boys/New Kids On The Block tour. And stop telling your nieces and nephews they have to watch Clarissa Explains It All, because they don’t, and she doesn’t.