Retreating to the past: Interpreting (and Lamenting) the Current Retromania

The other day, while waiting for my plane to board, I was treated to a throaty remake of the Beatles classic “Penny Lane” running over the airport PA system. Didn’t catch the artist, but didn’t need to: The re-make, of very recent vintage, was decent, but it didn’t ring half as true to my forty-something ears as the original.

The airwaves, Internet, and public space today are cluttered with mediocre musical re-makes and mash-ups. It isn’t just music. Many of 2011’s big films were remakes or established franchises (Mission Impossible, anyone? Captain America?), and 80s movie classics like Steel Magnolia, Footloose and Dirty Dancing are waiting in the wings in the months and years to come. On the boob tube, we’ve already seen Hawaii 5-0, and Dallas is next in line, even though we already know who shot J.R.

Product marketing seems obsessed with a walk down memory lane. Click “retro” on Zappho and almost 2,000 items come up, from diaper bags to bikinis, puma jackets to Panini grills. Not long ago, Mashable offered its top ten list of “modern gadgets with retro styling,” including a camera, a set of headphones, and a calculator. Open the current People Magazine, and you’ll find an ad for Campbell’s “Slow Kettle style” soups.  Ah, the comforts of yesteryear.

What’s going on here? Why are we looking back? Where’s our creative mojo? In his 2011 book Retromania, music critic Simon Reynolds laments what he terms a “recession of creativity”: “What was lacking in the 2000s was movements and movement. One manifestation of the sense of deceleration: 2010 didn’t feel that different from 2009, or even 2004. Whereas in the past, the difference between years…felt intense.”

A sensitive soul might be forgiven for wondering if real originality ground to a halt during the Presidency of Bill Clinton (interesting, by the way, how freely commentators throw around his strategy of triangulation these days when talking about Barack Obama, as if even political strategies have become derivative).

A really sensitive soul might fret over the wholesale decline of Western civilization. Reynolds again: “The world economy was brought down by derivatives and bad debt; music has been depleted of meaning through derivativeness and indebtedness.”

Responding to my email questions, Marian Salzman, CEO of Euro RSCG Worldwide PR North America, reassured me that originality is not dead, although it needs some revitalization. “I think genuinely original people today can still think of genuinely original ideas. What’s different, though, is that collaboration is much easier now, and inspiration just a search term away, so it’s also easier to do a lot of research, put a nice package together, and seem original without actually doing original work.”

Salzman buttressed her argument by pointing to what she sees as a profusion of laziness that is preventing marketers from creating truly great work:

The real enemy of great today is laziness spun out of the confusion of what’s life and what’s work, and of the blurring of the boundaries between home and office, friends and colleagues, networking and socializing, even researching and recreational reading. We’ve lost some of the discipline that the Greatest Generation inflicted upon us when the work day was 9AM-6PM and when the work week was Monday to Friday, and we’ve replaced it with a boundary-less world where good enough is sometimes good enough, and that’s really a bad thing. Today the walls are gone, the rules missing in action, and we have to hope that a spirit of greatness drives someone to go fresh, be fresh, and actually break and sustain a sweat.

One thing seems clear: The person who does will stand to benefit. Depressing as it may look, retromania represents a huge opportunity for those relatively few firms willing and able to go bold.

Salzman counsels firms to cultivate originality by welcoming in the unconventional. “Maybe its partner a 62 year old with a 22 year old, or a Hispanic art director with and Orthodox Jewish copywriter. Mix it up!” More broadly, firms might strive to create a culture where originality is valued above all else and people feel free to try crazy things, even if that means sometimes looking stupid in the process. Such a culture would allow employees to structure their work experience in ways that encourage originality, most notably by building in a certain amount of solitude, slowness, and freedom from technology. As Pico Iyer pointed out in a recent New York Times op-ed, “We have more and more ways to communicate…but less and less to say. Partly because we’re so busy communicating. And … we’re rushing to meet so many deadlines that we hardly register that what we need most are lifelines.”

Do you think culture and marketing have lost the edge? Or is all this talk about retromania itself so much nostalgia for a past that wasn’t nearly as bold, fresh, or interesting as it seems? We want to know!

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