DigComm - Jan 2016

Week 1 Reflection: Cultural Nostalgia and the Skyscraper Phenomenon

nostalgia

Many of the ideas presented in this chapter were interesting, as they presented a well-rounded view of the current state of digital communication. Both sides of every issue were presented and gave me a lot to think about as I begin my first week of class. However, there were a few things in particular that stuck out to me.

The idea of high and low culture, along with the cultural skyscraper, is something that has been around for a very long time. While the cultural rankings can seem to be arbitrary at times, what I found most intriguing about this chapter were the points about nostalgia. Collectively, critics and cultural purists seem to be of the opinion that culture was better before modern-day popular culture was introduced. Things like the popularization of reality television, autotuned music, and famous celebrities without marketable talents are seen as parts of society that have “ruined” culture.

I have observed what the book calls “a call to return to ‘the good old days’” many times before, across just about every genre of books, film, television, and music there is. Even sectors of pop culture, such as rap music, that aren’t usually thought of as having a ‘good old days’ period face comments and critiques from people who thought that rap music was better ‘before.’ The book lists a few examples of this and states that they have become cultural ‘classics’ (jazz, ragtime, silent movies, and the waltz). However, while certain cultural purists may look fondly at these classics and call for a return to them, the overwhelming majority of people see no need for a return of the silent movie. For all the complaining about new films and the way they are presented, no one would go to a movie theater next week and pay twelve dollars to see a silent film.

The authors of our textbook seem to believe that cultural nostalgia comes from a place of fear by people who are uncomfortable with the changing tides of popular culture. However, this phenomena isn’t only evidenced in older generations who dislike the amount of hip hop played on the radio. Just a few years ago, the Nickelodeon network found that the 18-34 demographic was experiencing nostalgia for old, 1990s programming. After reintroducing a few ‘classics’ into the lineup, their ratings skyrocketed.

So this nostalgia isn’t something that only older generations experience. Every person seems capable of looking at current popular culture and commenting that some aspect of it was better ‘before.’ I can’t help but wonder if this is how future generations will act. Will there ever be a day when a forty- or fifty-something adult scoffs at their radio and claims that popular music was better when it was performed by artists like Katy Perry and Ke$ha?

I liked the ideas presented in this chapter a lot. I felt they laid the ground for a very interesting semester. There are many points in this chapter that I am excited to discuss with my fellow graduate students in class. As a younger person (I’m not a fan of the term ‘millennial’), I was surprised to find that the ideas about cultural nostalgia even applied to me, but they do. Things like the current state of Nickelodeon and The Disney Channel evoke a fierce nostalgia from me, and my fellow 90s kids. I’ve seen countless postings on the internet to the tune of ‘like if you remember when so-and-so was like this.’

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I guess I have the same question that the textbook poses: how can we tell what the future has in store for popular culture? With cultural values constantly changing, and things like social media, media convergence, and media multitasking changing the landscape of digital communication every day, how can someone even begin to attempt to predict where culture may be in five years, let alone ten or twenty or a hundred?

Maybe finding out why pop culture has changed in the way that it has is a good next step towards predicting these changes. Along with analyzing why people from every generation can all experience cultural nostalgia towards something, this seems like an important starting point for anyone interested in looking towards the future.

In class, we discussed what makes certain media higher or lower on the cultural skyscraper. It seems like some of the same things that we think make media seen as ‘refined’ or ‘trashy’ (thematic content, public opinion, societal values, and talent, to name a few) could also produce nostalgia in viewers. Perhaps people nostalgically long for ‘wholesome’ shows like I Love Lucy or The Brady Bunch because they also long for the cultural values of that time. Isn’t this why 90s kids miss the ‘old’ Disney channel, and why we are so fascinated whenever we see a grown-up picture of Selena Gomez or Miley Cyrus?

Part of my personal nostalgia for old media, or a return to the classics, certainly comes from a longing to return to a time that has passed. In class, we also mentioned two themes that seemed prevalent in everyone’s stories about their first interaction with media: isolation and togetherness. The experience of participating with media was something many people in class  noted as an important part of their first media experience. Is this what we’re really longing for when we participate in cultural nostalgia? It seems plausible. When I look fondly back on experiencing the Harry Potter books for the first time (my first experience with media) I always remember the experience of making friends with Harry, and ending my isolation by stepping into J.K. Rowling’s world.

Cultural nostalgia is an odd concept, because there seems to be no fix for it. If all media returned to the types of media that were popular in the 1950s and 60s tomorrow, there would undoubtedly be critics and disappointment worldwide. People long for old media while consuming new media, and thus cultural nostalgia is more of a paradox than anything else. Yet we all experience it, even if it is difficult to explain where it comes from or why. This makes it an interesting part of communication and an integral part of most discussions about popular culture – although not one that is likely to be fully understood anytime soon.

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