Wednesday, May 9, 2012

Hitting the Sweet Spot of the Nostalgia Cycle

It seems time to pronounce a rule about American popular culture: the Golden Forty-Year Rule. The prime site of nostalgia is always whatever happened, or is thought to have happened, in the decade between forty and fifty years past. [...] Forty years past is the potently fascinating time just as we arrived, when our parents were youthful and in love, the Edenic period preceding the fallen state recorded in our actual memories.
--Adam Gopnik, "The Forty-Year Itch," The New Yorker, April 23, 2012
My play Pleiades is set in 1971. I didn't know about the forty-year nostalgia cycle when I was writing it, but I definitely felt that there was... something extra-resonant about writing about that era. It was a conscious effort to write a play about my mother's generation of women when they were my age: early twenties, not quite fully formed, finding their way. While I don't think that Pleiades betrays much genuine nostalgia for the early '70s (Gopnik's definition: the belief that an era "is not simply a good setting for a story but that it is a good setting for you") it does feel like we're coming to a time in our culture when we can reevaluate the '70s. When I was growing up in the '90s, my mother would dismiss the '70s as a decade of bad fashion, bad music, and bad faith. But I have to believe there's more to it than that.

Pleiades was my effort to write about my mother's generation as young women; The Rose of Youth, my '30s play, was about my grandmothers' generation. (Here's a post I wrote in 2007 discussing the parallels between Grandma's generation and my own.) Forty years in the past, and eighty years in the past. Yes, there's something to Gopnik's theory.

The new season of Mad Men prompted this New Yorker piece on nostalgia. Can I just say that the use of music in Mad Men is making me feel better about the way I used music in Pleiades? The play is bookended with two songs from a Judy Collins album, which set the mood and make thematic points, but I wondered if I was being too obvious and predictable. (Seven young women in 1971 -- of course they listen to Judy Collins!) But then I realized that Mad Men isn't always subtle in its musical cues either -- and it's not a problem. "Satisfaction" in Season 4, or "Tomorrow Never Knows" last Sunday, are iconic songs that suit the show, the themes, the characters. And I'm glad that they form part of the Mad Men sonic landscape -- that they've been deemed necessary and appropriate, rather than predictable and obvious.

Though I also appreciate how they mix iconic songs with more obscure ones -- I know a thing or two about yé-yé music, but I'd never heard "Zou Bisou Bisou" before it appeared in the Mad Men season premiere!

I do need to do a new draft of Pleiades, but Judy Collins won't get edited out.

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