Grafton Tanner discusses ‘Stranger Things,’ retromania and the role of commodities in the nostalgia industry, from Taylor Swift to Donald Trump. Accompanying image by Jeremy Simmons.
Post-Recession American culture suffers from a particular strain of retro-baiting, the kind that recycles the clichés of bygone films, television, and music in order to present a reductionist version of history. This retromania permeates popular culture and is split along party lines. What is nostalgic to the Right is quite different from the Left, and in fact both parties have used the rhetoric of nostalgia to spread free-market ideology and American exceptionalism for decades. From the naïve yarns of Ronald Reagan – that great illusionist – we have learned to look to the circus of electoral politics and the media monopolies for cultural narratives that validate our amnesia. Now, both Left and Right forms of nostalgia draw on false memories of a pre-digital, pre-9/11 society – a time before the Internet, economic precarity, perpetual war, and the “present shock” that accompanies a life tethered to mobile devices. What have cropped up are industries of distraction and nostalgia that purportedly offer consumers the salve for media overload, while political personalities exploit an amnesiac population by rewriting history.
The nostalgia industry hawks stress-relieving coloring books and tickets to superhero films. Taylor Swift is a commodity in the nostalgia industry. So is Donald Trump. The Netflix reboot of Full House – the unimaginatively titled Fuller House – represents the nostalgia industry really stretching to sell us the past. Retromania distorts history and then hands us the leftover clichés. The “decade of nightmares” that was the 1980s is now not even a memory anymore. If the 80s were nightmarish, the 2010s are childish.
Image for the HKRB by Jeremy Simmons
But Stranger Things marks the point at which 1980s pop nostalgia jumped the shark. In any other American decade, the Netflix series would have been written off as subpar fodder, yet despite – or perhaps, because of – its co-opting of Poltergeist (1982), Stephen King, and John Carpenter (in score alone; I think Carpenter would laugh at the series’ past-gazing), it has become a cultural flashpoint. The show is endlessly meme-ified, and members of the cast are routinely trotted out alongside millennial icons to parody/praise the series. Public relations teams and the media machine drool at the thought of a Stranger Things sketch on SNL starring Lin-Manuel Miranda, himself a shareholder in the nostalgia industry. And in a surreal twist, synth pioneers Tangerine Dream covered the show’s original soundtrack, feasibly as nothing more than a PR move to capitalize on the hype.
Like Hamilton, Stranger Things engages in smoke-and-mirrors politics. What may initially scan as progressive entertainment is nothing more than the same old song and dance (check out Lyra Monteiro’s “Race-Conscious Casting and the Erasure of the Black Past in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton” in The Public Historian). Both are millennial dreams come true. Both continue to maintain the neoliberal status quo. Both water down the past.
But the “past” presented in Stranger Things is more bizarre than the white history still told in Hamilton. Set in 1983 in fictional Hawkins, Indiana, Stranger Things is further proof contemporary digital society is haunted by the analog past. These hauntings appear throughout post-Recession Western culture in such forms as lo-fi music, retrofuturism, and the fetishization of dated media technologies. Stranger Things is not a show about people, government conspiracies, or monsters, regardless of what the synopsis says. It’s about analog media technologies and the iconography of 80s mundanity. The dated telephones, televisions, walkie-talkies, furniture, fashion, and toys fill up every inch of the mise-en-scene, threatening to eclipse the actors themselves. The images of the past are the stars of the show.
In a scene from the episode “Holly, Jolly,” the psychokinetic Eleven explores Mike Wheeler’s house in which she is kept hidden. She reclines in a cushioned La-Z-Boy, hears for the first time the dial tone on a landline, and surfs the channels on an analog television. We encounter these pieces of furniture and technologies along with her, gawking like visitors in a reliquary of 80s style. In a prolonged scene in “The Weirdo On Maple,” Joyce, the mother of the missing Will Byers, installs a new telephone after her old phone is short-circuited by an unknown force. In a show less reliant on media nostalgia to keep it afloat, this scene would have been drastically edited – perhaps even left out altogether. But the scene is a curiosity exhibition for smartphone-addled viewers, and it’s not without a moment of meme-worthy humor. Joyce realizes the phone cord is not long enough, so she scoots a chair closer to the jack, sits, and waits for a call. Even in this derivative version of the past, she dreams of cellphones. But it is really our dream distanced by irony. How funny it must have been to use a corded phone.
What is saddest about Stranger Things is its popularity communicates a cultural wish for its setting to be our setting. The time period, no matter how historically inaccurate, in which the show takes place is one of working-class values and neighborhoods, where young kids can ride bikes around the town, where the local police don’t engage in militaristic violence, and where some things are left unknown. If there is a defining characteristic of the twenty-first century so far, it is the obliteration of all unknowns. There is no longer any such thing as getting lost, and privacy is a myth. If we aren’t being surveilled by the NSA, then we are being watched by the loaded eye of social media. “[The] loss of privacy is the price of individualism,” writes philosopher John Gray. “Anyone can achieve a momentary fame, but for nearly everyone today fifteen minutes of anonymity has become an impossible dream.” Without the benefit of getting lost, we grow anxious when we don’t know things. Information has become our comfort blanket in a collapsing world, yet the more information we consume, the more we seek solace in the clichés of the past. The mainstream creative industries understand this and green-light shows like Stranger Things that idealize the past. Only when Will Byers disappears do the parents worry about where their kids are. Without any cellphones, the kids in the show remain freer than those of us watching.
For the entirety of the first season of Stranger Things, history allows us to poke holes in it, unlike another 2016 piece of retro-bait, 11.22.63. That eight-part series, based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, also objectifies the minutiae of history, but when the Jake Epping character tries to alter the past to thwart the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the past “pushes back,” sending him on a grueling journey that takes nearly everything from him. The personification of the past as a violent force in 11.22.63 can be read as an indictment of our revisionist culture, as nostalgia loses its sting and surface-level depictions of a simpler, freer past proliferate. In 11.22.63, the past is anything but simple; it is racist, divided, surveilled, and chaotic. Much like 2016.
There is no sign of retromania ending soon. The fringe Right will romanticize the nativist past when America was last “great.” People will pay money to attend “Adult Preschool” at which they can finger paint and have naptime. Coloring books will keep Barnes & Noble from tanking. Future Star Wars sequels will break records even as the last oil is sucked from the earth. This reactionary nostalgia indicates a failure of the future and a purity of the past that can be regained only through consumption. Neoliberalism adapts and knows what to commodify next.
Stranger Things is a window through which the present-shocked can gaze at a clichéd past. The acting is maudlin; the storyline, threadbare; and the music, gutless (Bandcamp offers dozens of synthwave albums that are far more interesting than the OST). If the creators had spent less time trying to cop the set design of E.T. and more on dialogue, acting, and removing tired clichés, then maybe the series would bring something new to a culture fixated on the old. Instead, Stranger Things is wish fulfillment, and its refusal to make comments about the actual 1980s reveals its shallowness and lack of political import. Then again, it was created and marketed for an apolitical generation, one that yearns for earlier iterations of capitalism, for Taylor Swift’s 1989 and not the 1989 that ushered in a more viral breed of free-market ideology, effectively erasing a place like Hawkins, Indiana, from ever existing again. Stranger Things is a meme and the equivalent of googling “80s fashion” on an iPhone. The surface reigns.
Grafton Tanner is a writer and musician from Georgia. His writing has appeared in Paste magazine, Film Matters, and The Blue Indian, and his debut book, Babbling Corpse: Vaporwave and the Commodification of Ghosts, will be out via Zero Books in summer 2016. He is a classically trained percussionist and music educator, and he writes and performs music as Superpuppet.
Jeremy Simmons is a writer, artist and game designer who keeps very late hours. His writing explores dreams (and nightmares), time and the inexplicable nature of the human condition. His work has appeared in Best Modern Voices, ShortVine and The News Record, among others.