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Sunday, November 16, 2008

Apropos of my birthday, this post from Kottke on "timeline twins."

When I was a kid, "oldies" music and movies seemed ancient. Even though I'm now in my 30s, the entertainment that I watched and listened to in my youth still feels pretty recent to me. Raiders of the Lost Ark wasn't all that long ago, right? But comparing my distorted recall of childhood favorites to the oldies of the time jogs my memory in unpleasant ways. For example:

Listening to Michael Jackson's Thriller today is equivalent to listening to Elvis Presley's first album (1956) at the time of Thriller's release in 1982. Elvis singles in 1956 included Blue Suede Shoes, Hound Dog, and Love Me Tender.
Lots more examples in the post and in Kottke's comments. Surely every generation experiences this to some extent or another—but it seems to me there really is good reason to think there's more cultural distance between Hound Dog and Thriller than between Thriller and now. (Though I must admit that to my comfortable perch on this side of thirty Thriller doesn't seem especially fresh.)

First, the political, cultural, and technological revolutions of the '60s and '70s really were far more radical than anything that has been experienced since. Not every set of 36 years is identically tumultuous.

But the way we consume media has also changed in a way that has tended to ensure continuity, in two senses—first, technologies like the explosion of niche cable networks, DVDs, MP3s, YouTube, etc. allow media-cultural events to have cultural vitality for far longer, and second, repeated quotation and citation as both self-referentiality and nostalgia (famously characteristic of postmodernism) has in general helped keep these things alive.

Against future shock, call it future drag: things no longer seem to change, time no longer seems to pass, the past is always at our fingertips.

I also like the analogy improbable makes to oil painting:
Lots of other fields have the same property of developing rapidly once the technology is there. We've had oil paints for how many centuries? The first few decades saw rapid innovation, and the grand masters are from not long after that.
So music back then really was newer, fresher, and better. That's why we're still listening: it's still the best there is.