Relentless Nostalgia Is Numbing Our Brains

I never thought I’d be sentimental for Budweiser’s “Whassup?” commercials. But after this year’s woefully derivative slate of Super Bowl ads — including a “Clueless” revival to promote a shopping app and a home internet ad that took a page from “Grease” while rolling in the stars of “Scrubs” — I was downright wistful. On advertising’s biggest day, I longed for anything that would propel our popular culture or even create a new catch phrase rather than tepid nostalgia recycling random celebrities.

For those of you born after Bill Clinton took office, the original “Whassup?” ad depicted a group of guys “watching the game, having a Bud” and greeting each other over a landline with “Whassup?” in a jocular crescendo. “Whassup?” debuted in 1999 during “Monday Night Football,” but really reached cultural prominence during the 2000 Super Bowl. For years afterward, mildly annoying dudes would earnestly or ironically shout “Whassup?” at one another, wearing out what started as a clever take on male bonding.

I remember being amused when I first saw the commercial as a high schooler. And the spot didn’t lack for acclaim: “Whassup?” won a pile of industry awards at the time, including a Clio. But if you’d told me that nearly a quarter-century later I’d lament the lost artistry of a beer ad, I wouldn’t have believed you.

This is a symptom of a bigger cultural problem — not one restricted to advertising and not a new one, either. As Elizabeth Nelson wrote this month for The New York Times Magazine: “Hollywood’s dependence on old intellectual property has been a source of hand-wringing for at least the past two decades.”

She argues that what was once a complaint about blockbuster movies (Are we really on the 10th “Fast & Furious”?) has now, ahem, drifted to television, where the cornier offerings of yore like “Night Court” and “That ’70s Show” have been rebooted for no apparent reason beyond the expectation that familiar brands will break through the noise of our content glut. Few of these resulting shows seem like must-watch TV — the only one I can think of is the delightful “Wednesday,” less of a reboot than a reimagining. As Nelson explains, it’s a predicament: “The reboot that changes nothing will be uncanny and lifeless; the one that thinks itself more clever than its predecessor will turn out cynical and sour.”

This goes beyond TV and movies: Our internet experience is suffused with unearned and soulless nostalgia, disconnected from any original source of true feeling. Over a decade ago, BuzzFeed realized it was easy to make cheap nostalgia go viral and introduced a section “geared to bringing you back in time.” Among other things, BuzzFeed has reminisced about the 20th anniversary of “The Lizzie McGuire Movie” and “35 Extremely Specific Things Every Single Millennial Hasn’t Thought About in a Decade.” (Perhaps we haven’t thought about MTV’s “Celebrity Deathmatch” in a decade because it wasn’t meant to endure.)

TikTok has pushed all this further and faster: At first, it was refreshing to be reminded of Kate Bush’s 1985 classic “Running Up That Hill,” which got a second life after being featured on Netflix’s ’80s period series “Stranger Things.” But for months afterward, the tune was the backdrop of an endless stream of TikTok videos, almost none of which evoked the song’s spirit. But the algorithm liked it, so TikTokers obliged and this went on and on and on.

Though the song has faded from the platform, a snippet of “Running Up That Hill” will periodically rotate into my brain’s inner Muzak, a bit of audio detritus that reminds me of absolutely nothing. It’s as if Proust’s madeleine was made of Soylent. I have the same reaction when Facebook or Instagram serves me an image from “this day” umpteen years ago: Why do I need to be reminded of the moment I was trying to sell an old bureau?

I can only speak for myself, but this lack of innovation, the numbing repetition of entertainment and social media, may be breaking my brain. It’s harder to have new ideas when everything is pulling you back to the past — not in a way that inspires, or draws from a well of keen emotion, but in a way that rewards you for just repeating or reliving it.

Fittingly, Budweiser Canada and Uber rebooted “Whassup?” for the 2020 Super Bowl. This time, instead of friends connecting with each other, it was a bunch of smart devices in an apartment talking to each other before their human overlord enters and interrupts the party. You know, just some fun-loving robots wishing they were watching the game, having a Bud.

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