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Why we like old, stupid things

Published: October 1, 2007
Section: Arts, Etc.


I like Transformers. A lot. In fact, a few of you might say that I have an unhealthy love for those plastic robots that came to Earth in the 1980s in order to beat each other up in front of us.

Not only do I have the 1986 movie, I am the proud owner of 28 of the original toys as well, which I painstakingly re-acquired over the past few years (much to the chagrin of my checkbook).

Now I realize that, for all intents and purposes, this fascination can and should be described with words such as juvenile, or excessive, or even just plain stupid, however, that doesnt seem to phase me.

I am not the only one who seems to have a particularly dumb fascination with a lot of the junk that was preeminent two decades ago. (Otherwise why would a major studio fund something as ridiculous as a Transformers movie in this day and age?)

Crappy pastel spandex pants, boomboxes, and that horrific plague known as synth-pop are all fully embraced by our current pop culture. Im not about to pass it off as some retro is cool phase though. There must be more to it.
Is the celebration of these objects an attempt to resurrect our youth? If so, why haven't hair metal and Michael Bolton experienced a giant resurgence? What about an appreciation of just how ludicrous and useless most of this stuff is? Is there even any logical reason why I bought the first two seasons of Pete and Pete?

I guess the first logical explanation for what fuels this behavior would be some sort of pseudo-psychological reasoning stating that this is all just a means to recapture a bit of lost youth. Certainly there is some truth to this. While the Transformers movie came out a year before I was born, it was indeed a staple of my youth.

I remember my parents managed to tape a special where the entire first two seasons of the Transformers television show aired back to back followed by the movie. So I certainly have fond memories of Transformers, as it was prime TV-watching material. I must have watched that tape a hundred times. Perhaps the connection made to these characters, even as a youngster, remains.

Certainly the rationale behind owning the first couple seasons of Nickelodeon programs like Pete and Pete and Ren and Stimpy is similar. My dad used to secretly love both programs, and would remind me every time they were on so that we could watch them together.

Of all the TV programs Ive seen from my childhood (and there were some good ones), the ones I've made the effort to buy and re-watch are the ones I watched with my father. So theres that bit of bonding there. The feeling of nostalgia provoked by those shows fuels my continued interest in such things. It certainly isnt the quality of the shows.

People also appreciate the utter ridiculousness of these nostalgia trips. The original Transformers series is among the most clichd, over the top things Ive ever seen. Watching it is an exercise in unintentional comedy.

There are plenty of current bands attempting to resurrect the over-the-top aesthetic and hilarity of 80's synth-pop. The lasting appeal of movie crap-fests like Robo-Cop or Red Dawn is rooted in how unrealistic and stupid they are. Also Ive never heard better one-liners than in John Carpenter movies (if you havent seen Big Trouble in Little China then you havent lived).

Watching old Nickelodeon shows like Salute Your Shorts or Hey Dude! isnt all that funny to the untrained viewer. They do become utterly hilarious when you think about how all these terrible attempts at G-rated slapstick were when you were seven years old. How preposterous is Power Rangers? Its all funny to us now, and perhaps that humor is heightened because when we were kids completely missed this.

However, I feel a huge reason we think older things are hilarious has to do with the advances in modern technology seen over the past two decades or so. The DeLorean in Back to the Future is an example of this. To audiences seeing it for the first time, it must have seemed state-of-the-art. However, we all know in hindsight how terrible those vehicles are.

I remember when the only way we could listen to music was with my dads car stereo, which ate cassette tapes for breakfast. Now, in a world ruled by the MP3 and IPods, this all seems so grungy.

I remember my first introduction to MS-DOS and floppy disks. There was a point when screensavers were the coolest things in the world.

The irony in all of this is that the pop culture of the past has been so accurately captured, all we have to do is find an early-90s advertisement or movie to observe the excitement people had towards technology that we now perceive as ridiculously obsolete.

We can also revel in how dumb childrens entertainment was at the time (compare the likes of Transformers and G.I. Joe to current Pixar creations like Finding Nemo or the Incredibles) to the rather intelligent childrens cinema of today.

So I see my fascination with all this stuff as rooted in reason, irony, and nostalgia. Owning Transformers is not the manifestation of some immature man-boy, although it is openly geeky and I am well aware I probably could have found a better way to spend my hard-earned cash.

Certainly the nostalgia for late-80's television is only a small part of what is an overwhelming trend in pop culture celebrating the excess, ridiculousness, and (relatively) uninformed technology of the past few decades.