It creeps up on you when you’re not looking. It stalks you with every passing week, month and year of the calendar. If you survive all of the calamities of the world – disease, war, fire, earthquake, tsunami, famine, tornado, hurricane – if you simply manage to get a year older you get ever closer to fighting the most familiar enemy of aging – NOSTALGIA.
Nostalgia creeps up on you when you’re not looking. You’re not even aware of it swimming in your bloodstream, infecting your brain cells, taking over your body until it’s already too late. It happens the first time you see some relic of your childhood and think “Boy do I miss those days.” As a man born in the 1970’s who grew up in the 1980’s, my flashpoints have always been hip-hop, pro wrestling and video games. If I play a Galaga machine at Dave & Busters, it takes me back to those days growing up when you’d see a coin-operated video game everywhere. I mean that literally – EVERYWHERE. The convenience store. The grocery store. Restaurants. School cafeterias. Bowling alleys. The proliferation of home consoles and handhelds has made the idea of a single game that takes up that much retail space an antiquated notion that is now celebrated in private collections and public conventions.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking “Things were better back then. Games that were easy to learn but difficult to master. Run, jump, shoot. 2-4 buttons to worry about at the most. No strategy guides required.” It’s the same kind of thinking that can be found in hip-hop nostalgia as well. Sugarhill Gang. Treacherous Three. Run-D.M.C. Whodini. Ice-T. LL Cool J. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. If you grew up in the 1980’s you can hear one of these songs and it can transport you back to the past like a time machine. Through rose colored glasses everything seems better back then. Rap music was a positive expression of a vibrant culture that was just beginning to take the world by storm. It was for me an expansion beyond the limited worldview of the place I grew up in that I wholeheartedly embraced, and I can be as nostalgic as anybody about that area – I still have the records and tapes and even the means to play them.
The trick of memory is that when you view things through the eyes of nostalgia, you don’t always remember the negative aspects of an era. Looking back at the 1980’s a little more objectively, there were plenty of things no one would be nostalgic for. Anybody want to relive nuclear arms proliferation? I doubt it. The Iran-Contra Affair? Everybody involved has tried their best to forget it. Reaganomics? Apartheid in South Africa? The spread of HIV around the world, and the unreasonable and foolish fear it caused? (Don’t sit on a public toilet – you might get AIDS. People actually used to believe foolish crap like that.) I’m sure anybody who lived through the gang wars that flourished alongside crack sales for control of the lucrative market for illegal drugs isn’t nostalgic about it.
Sure it’s fun to remember when Hulk Hogan, King Kong Bundy, Macho Man and the Junkyard Dog were the kings of professional wrestling. It’s also worth remembering that rampant abuse of drugs and steroids during the wrestling boom shortened the lives of many of the sport’s top stars. The so-called “rock ‘n roll lifestyle” got its name from the fact that the excesses of rock music were equally destructive not just in my generation but the generation that came before. Hip-Hop certainly isn’t immune to those excesses, although the violence of blighted urban neighborhoods where rap was born and came of age often overshadows it – you can die by a bullet long before you would overdose on coke or heroin. Still if you grew up in the 1980’s, you can’t forget Len Bias. He had the world on a silver platter after being drafted by the Boston Celtics to the NBA – and two days later he was pushing up daisies.
“I Love the 80’s” as much as the next man or woman – probably moreso if you were to look at some of the relics of my childhood I went back and acquired – particularly the ones that due to geography or poverty I could never have back then. I’m also increasingly aware of the danger of falling into the trap of thinking everything was better back then. Hand held computers were science fiction back then – Star Trek: Next Generation stuff. Nowadays you probably have a phone in your pocket more powerful than anything a child in the 1980’s could have imagined. Speaking of which cell phones were an exorbitant luxury, bigger than a brick and just as heavy – only the mega-rich had them. Now they’re so common that criminals buy “burners” and simply destroy and dispose of them when done – but at least they’re affordable for legal uses too. No world wide web in the 1980’s, no wi-fi, no iPods, and forget about Blu-Ray – you couldn’t even rent a DVD.
Yeah Tetris was great – but now you can play Tetris on any device you want any time you want. I enjoy nostalgia and going back to revisit the classics. Kool G. Rap, N.W.A. and De La Soul. WrestleMania III. Super Mario Bros. That shit is always going to be fun. I don’t want to live in the past though, because the good old days were also the bad old days. I don’t miss the Berlin Wall. I don’t miss HIV being an automatic death sentence. I definitely don’t miss the cold war, and I’m uncomfortable with seeing Vladimir Putin push the world back to the brink of a new one. I like the 2010’s. I like everything being wi-fi connected, and being able to check out library books on your Kindle, and streaming entire albums on Bandcamp. Sure there are a lot of buttons to learn when you play Halo 2, 3 or 4 but your reward is a cinematic movie experience no video game in my youth ever came close to. Public Enemy was cool – and so is Odd Future. There are good and bad rappers now – there were back then too.
Here’s hoping I never completely succumb to the enemy that is nostalgia. I don’t just want to relive the good old days – I want to enjoy good new days. I don’t just review albums for the benefit of the readers – I do so because if I’m always listening to something new I don’t get stuck in the trap of always fondly listening to something old.