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Stranger Things, La La Land, and Donald Trump: empty nostalgia dominated 2016

Our popular and political cultures kept returning to the idea that the past was somehow better.

Emma Stone ponders the face of Ryan Gosling while a jazz band plays
You need to care about REAL JAZZ to make it in this world.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

Halfway through La La Land, director/screenwriter Damien Chazelle’s critically beloved paean to the big-screen movie musicals of the 1950s, two characters have a conversation I’m not precisely sure the movie or Chazelle understands.

Sebastian (Ryan Gosling), a diehard nostalgist who longs for the purity of early jazz, is having second thoughts about joining The Messengers, a band headed up by his old friend and rival Keith (John Legend). The Messengers play jazz, sort of. There’s a horn section and occasionally some improvised riffs, but what they really offer is a kind of pop-R&B hybrid with subtle jazz influences on the side.

Sebastian wants to play real jazz. He worries the form is dying, that it will retreat into the past. But Keith points out that jazz has always been marked by its willingness to embrace new musical forms, to mutate and evolve. There are no hard and fast rules about what jazz is — you can make it whatever you want it to be.

In the moment, the movie presents Keith’s argument as fundamentally sound: Things only die if they can’t better position themselves to survive.

And yet the one big performance from The Messengers in the film is presented as perfectly adequate but soulless, the kind of music you’d tune out while waiting for the dentist. Keith is initially presented as the devil, sure, but the devil with some good ideas … until the movie eventually reveals him as just another sellout, chasing an unattainable future instead of guarding the past as zealously as possible. And in joining The Messengers, Sebastian loses almost everything real about himself for a time.

This is where so much of recent pop culture has found itself — hoping for a forward-looking savior like Sebastian did, but knowing one was unlikely to arrive, and summarily losing itself in an imagined past that was never as golden and halcyon as it seemed. Nostalgia is everywhere, and in more ways than the simple fact that seemingly every single movie franchise of the past is currently being slightly updated for the present.

Pop culture doesn’t play cause and effect with our political culture; art rarely has that amount of power. But the two do move in tandem, sometimes displaying eerie parallels, sometimes intersecting in odd ways, and sometimes veering toward each other, only to carom in unpredictable directions.

So if you wanted to understand the rise of Donald Trump, or Brexit, or any number of other seemingly unprecedented events, you could do worse than digging into the pop culture that makes up our collective subconscious. It’s been dreaming up ways to make America great again for years now.

But first, let’s go back to 2009, in the days after a man named Barack Obama won a very different but also unlikely election to the presidency.

Right after Barack Obama was elected, a lot of pop culture acted as if it thought he might save the world

Iron Man
And maybe he would look like Iron Man.

There’s a moment in the 2009 Christmas special of the BBC’s Doctor Who — which is, of course, not an American production, but bear with me — that captures the weird futurist hopes of the early Obama era.

In it, the characters are all awaiting a Christmas address from Barack Obama in which he’s supposed to explain his plan to save the world economy. He’s apparently come up with a foolproof idea, and he’ll tell everybody about it at a press conference. It’s up to the Doctor to make sure the world survives to the point where Obama can take over.

This premise is ludicrous, of course. By December 2009, Obama couldn’t have passed a secret plan to save the economy if the TARDIS itself had landed on the White House lawn, bearing a banner that read, “The president’s secret plan is your only hope!” Gridlock in Congress was already starting to overtake Obama’s agenda, and it was all he could do to push the Affordable Care Act through both the House and the Senate.

But that Doctor Who special marks a moment in pop culture that proved to be an odd little bump in the road — if only because the longing for an Obama-sized savior was rarely this overt.

For a couple of years in the late 2000s, in the midst of dark recession, many cultural works offered tiny glimpses of positive futurism, like a low-calorie version of the New Frontier space-age stuff that greeted John F. Kennedy’s presidency in the ’60s. In December 2009, after eight years of George W. Bush, after terrorist attacks and failed wars, and amid a crumbling economy, a new president had arrived with, many hoped, a secret plan that would, eventually, launch us to the stars.

Pop culture trends toward progressivism for a variety of reasons, most fundamentally because most stories are about changing the status quo, rather than looking for a way to preserve it. As such, the immediate start of the Obama era featured lots of movies and TV shows where humanity’s champion emerged from the darkness to lead us all toward the light.

Pop culture being pop culture, many of these heroes arrived purely coincidentally (Marvel’s many superhero films, for instance, were in development before Obama even ran for the US Senate), but they seemed part of an overall trend. The worst was over. Happy days were here again.

There’s perhaps no divide as stark as the one that overtook the Oscar Best Picture winners, which abruptly went from the morally complicated winners of Crash (not a good movie, but one superficially capable of pretending to have moral complexity) and The Departed and No Country for Old Men from 2005 through 2007 to the brighter, more uplifting tales of Slumdog Millionaire, The King’s Speech, and The Artist in 2008, 2010, and 2011. (Notable outlier: 2009’s The Hurt Locker — but even that year featured the overtly liberal Avatar as a strong runner-up.) It wasn’t that darker, more morally complicated movies were no longer being made. It was that Hollywood was more interested in celebrating feel-good tales of overcoming adversity.

The feeling didn’t last. As eight years of Obama have worn on, and especially as Republican opposition to his agenda has ended up curtailing some of his ambition, progressive pop culture has grown more and more fascinated by its own inability to convince the country of its own righteous cause (though rarely skeptical of said cause’s righteousness). Parks and Recreation’s Leslie Knope, for instance, discovered over time that essentially everybody in her town hated her. And the past three Best Picture winners — 12 Years a Slave, Birdman, and Spotlight — have trended toward detailing historical atrocities or Hollywood’s existential malaise.

By 2016, many stories had become about the fruitlessness of trying to do anything at all, about the realization that nobody is coming to save you (or the world), because only you can save yourself. The savior was just another guy, with good points and bad points, but not an immortal superhero. And here we were, stuck with a broken world.

Elliot, the hero of Mr. Robot, for instance, blames globalism for what’s wrong with him, instead of looking inward. His pushback against the new economic order only makes things worse. The characters of Arrival, meanwhile, have to deal with a government that’s much more willing to shoot aliens out of the sky than attempt to talk to them. Their only salvation could come from within.

Or, as one character on BoJack Horseman put it to another character who was looking for someone, anyone to blame for his woes: “You are everything that’s wrong with you.”

Without any obvious savior in our midst, pop culture started looking backward

Stranger Things
Stranger Things was a pitch perfect evocation of ’80s movies.

But self-reflection and blame wasn’t the only direction pop culture turned in the past couple of years. If you weren’t ready for genuine introspection, weren’t ready to accept that a lot of what was wrong lay within, there was another path to explore for both those who created pop culture and those who consumed it: You could try returning to the past.

To say that current pop culture is overwhelmed by nostalgia isn’t exactly a new argument, nor is it a new trend. In times of uncertainty, pop culture almost always returns to the tried and true. (See also: the huge wave of projects set in the 1950s that were made in the 1970s.) But what’s far more notable is the way that the latest rush toward nostalgia has aligned almost perfectly with the Obama years — and how ultimately shallow so many of these nostalgic works prove to be.

These works often have little to them beyond their slavishly recreated surfaces, even when they’re incredibly enjoyable. They’re about providing a momentary escape from the present in the warm embrace of the past, but they rarely attempt to say anything about either.

Take two of 2016’s biggest sensations: the Netflix original series Stranger Things and the aforementioned La La Land. I greatly enjoyed the experience of watching both (on two separate occasions, when it comes to the latter), then found that they evaporated from my mind almost immediately afterward.

This is not to say either is unworthy — indeed, both works do exactly what they set out to do — but they too often confuse the naked celebration of past entertainment forms with offering cultural commentary. They’re stories about what it feels like to watch other stories. That’s a tremendously hard thing to pull off without feeling derivative, but even when it’s done well, it can leave you feeling like you just ate a bunch of empty calories.

As an example, consider the character of Mia (Emma Stone) in La La Land. Removed from Stone’s tremendous performance, Mia is a bit of a cipher. She wants to be an actress, we know, and she is an Old Hollywood nostalgist (a character choice expressed more through set and costume design than in how she’s written — not that this is a bad thing, necessarily). But we rarely get a sense of her philosophy of life, or of whatever flaws she might have as a human being. She’s a perfect recreation of an archetype you’ve seen hundreds of times before, because that’s what the movie needs her to be: perfect.

This is true of just about everyone in La La Land (which, I should note, is nominally set in the present day), as well as everyone in Stranger Things or the recent Star Wars films or [fill in the blank]. They’re archetypes, not characters so much as cover versions of other characters. As a conceptual idea, that can be fun — again, I like all of these projects — but it’s not uncommon to finish watching these works and find yourself wondering if their creators have thoughts about the universe that weren’t imparted to them from a screen.

Think of Stranger Things’ Barb, who primarily existed to be killed by the show’s monster early on season one, to indicate that the show Had Stakes. (The monster, of course, didn’t kill the boy it abducted to kick off the story in the first place.) Fans glommed onto the character, not only because of her untimely end but also because they knew she existed solely as a tragic figure. She’s less a character than a set of quotation marks you can place around the function she’s supposed to serve — “Barb, the best friend who dies horribly.” She’s familiar, and her familiarity, like that of so many other recent characters, makes you comfortable.

And pop culture isn’t just overwhelmed by projects that attempt to recapture the feeling of the past. It’s also full of projects that are set in the past, including some of the very best recent films and TV shows.

Some of this stems from how difficult it is to blend modern technology, especially smartphones, with good storytelling. But just as much seems to come from a sense that somewhere along the way, we veered off track, and if we could just figure out when and where that happened, we might be able to find it again.

Nostalgia is a perpetual allure for those who would dream up a less complicated past, who would love to lose themselves in gauzy memories of beloved childhood entertainments. But the past was just as complicated as the present, filled with just as many real and human struggles and probably some nostalgia for a different past that came before. We forget that at our peril, but, then, so will our own children, looking back on the halcyon, uncomplicated days of 2016 in what now seems like the far-off future.

Here is the section where we talk about Donald Trump

Republican Presidential Nominee Donald Trump Holds Election Night Event In New York City
Nostalgia of a different sort.
Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

It’s impossible to talk about the allure of nostalgia — and of an uncomplicated hero figure who will come to save the day — without talking about how Donald Trump ruthlessly exploited both of those ideas on the campaign trail. I don’t think he was doing so purposefully. Indeed, many of his most potent ideas seem to have arrived from random, accidental chance. But like it or not, the empty nostalgia he peddled parallels the empty nostalgia we increasingly demand from our pop culture.

To be fair, if you really want to, you can connect Trump to pretty much any pop culture niche from roughly the last 20 years. Trump is a media-savvy guy, who knows how TV distorts and distends narratives. On some level, sometimes seemingly subconsciously, he knows exactly how to use that to his advantage. You could just as easily point to, say, the rise of antihero TV (usually about a white guy who won’t play by the rules) or our love of superhero stories (usually about authoritarians — but for good!) as a parallel to Trump.

But all pop culture trends have one thing in common: They’re responsive, a way to make sense of a chaotic world. If there’s one thing progressives — myself included — always underestimated about Trump, it was how good he was not just at understanding narrative, but at understanding how to make himself the protagonist of every narrative thrust upon him, something very different from being every story’s hero. He understood, intuitively, that if you’re driving the story forward, the audience is primed to sympathize.

Trump’s narrative savvy manifests itself in lots of ways. As my colleague Constance Grady recently wrote, Trump overcoming the odds to win the presidency makes it hard for lots of people to think about anything without their thoughts turning to him at one point or another. (“Once you start looking for him,” a fellow critic told me, darkly, at the Toronto International Film Festival, when a Trump victory still seemed unlikely, “he’s everywhere.”)

But it’s impossible to escape the way that Trump’s chief appeal, in the eyes of his supporters, seemed intimately tied to the past. We tried that new futurism for a while, and it didn’t work. The president’s secret plan to save the economy led to a sluggish recovery that too often benefited those at the top of the economic food chain. So why not tear it all down? The system has failed you, and the hero is coming to save the day.

To be clear: I don’t think pop culture is to blame for Trump’s rise (beyond the very specific subset of pop culture, like The Apprentice, that he was directly involved in).

Instead, I think, those who opposed Trump never quite understood the story he was selling, because it was a story so at odds with their own understanding of a cosmopolitan world coming into being before their very eyes. His was a self-created dark mirror of the pop culture Obama narrative. Instead of moving ahead, he longed to open up the floors beneath our feet and send us plunging ever backward into history.

Did Trump consciously choose to pitch himself as the candidate of the past, knowing that nostalgia sells when times are tough? I doubt it. I think he tossed off “Make America Great Again” at one point and was surprised to learn how powerful that message was when it reached people who felt left out and left behind.

This, ultimately, is what makes Trump so dangerous. The story he tells is one that can be warped and bent to fit whatever will give him the most cachet with his supporters. On the one hand, it might focus on trying to save factories in small manufacturing cities, no matter how crassly he delivers that message. On the other, it might focus on keeping America as white as possible. Again: He doesn’t care about the narrative, so long as he’s at the center, even if he’s the villain. He knows there’s immense power in making every story about yourself.

Nostalgia is dangerous not because it’s easy to lose yourself in it, but because it’s too easy to redefine the past based on whomever is in power in the present. The past is always better than the present, because we selectively remember what we want to remember. You get lost there not because it was actually better, but because you can never get back to the person you were, just as America can never become the country it was, for good and ill.

What does pop culture do now?

Westworld might be set in the future and tell a story of robots, but it’s also about the broken world we live in right now.

In the wake of Trump’s victory, I’ve talked to dozens of fellow critics and entertainment journalists who’ve wondered: What the hell do we do now? Even if you were a Trump supporter, his victory feels like a unique, seismic event in American history, a dividing line between before and after, where the “after” isn’t immediately clear.

To me, though, the answer is straightforward: Pop culture is America’s subconscious. We need to examine it more closely than ever, to try to better understand this country of ours. Trump didn’t come out of nowhere — the signs were everywhere if you cared to look for them even on a cursory basis. It’s just that many of us chose to believe they didn’t indicate what they seemed to.

I don’t want to pretend the threats that Trump presents to many American populations aren’t real. If it feels like pop culture is particularly irrelevant at the dawn of the era of Trump, that’s because it’s hard to care too overtly about Netflix remaking the ’70s sitcom One Day at a Time with a Latino family when millions of real life Latinos face the very real threat of deportation — but that doesn’t mean our popular culture and entertainment are not worth thinking about. Uncomplicated, nostalgic entertainment will always be with us, and that’s not a bad thing, especially if it’s executed as well as works like Stranger Things or La La Land.

Above all, though, we need a pop culture that is willing to engage with the world as it is, not as it was once imagined to be.

This doesn’t mean stories should only be set in the present. Indeed, one of the most potent recent discussions of the broken systems that led to both the rise of Trump and the world that seems to be following in his stead is HBO’s Westworld, a science fiction tale about robots. And it would be hard to find a show more timely than FX’s ’80s-set The Americans and its “America versus Russia, and aren’t we all the same anyway?” adventures.

But we need to remember that the past was not as happy or uncomplicated as our memories might make it out to be, and that we can never return to the cocoon. We need to keep imagining the future, because that’s the best way to remind ourselves that nothing is guaranteed. And we need to turn one eye, always, toward the present, where we’re all forced to live, the better to make sure we understand it.

Pop culture needs to re-engage, to stop looking for easy answers in the past and bold heroes in the present. Art is one of the few ways we have of imagining a different, better world. What that means for me is different from what it means for you, but there’s immense power and potential in the act of trying. We are not lost yet, and we still have each other and our collective dreams. Maybe, somehow, that will be enough.