Just before the calendar flipped to 2015, Kanye West released “Only One,” a heartfelt ballad that, the mercurial MC said, was inspired in large part by his late mother, Donda West. The track also featured input from former Beatle Paul McCartney, one of a handful of songs that the pair recorded together during sessions last year.
The collaboration between one of hip-hop’s biggest names and a former member of rock purists’ gold standard, which is slated to appear on West’s forthcoming album, grabbed headlines, and it also inspired a bit of ribbing from the social-media peanut gallery.
Kanye has a great ear for talent. This Paul McCartney guy gonna be huge.— Desus Nice (@desusnice) January 1, 2015
What happened next, to borrow a phrase, will probably not astound you: These one-off jokes were taken as examples of Kids Today not knowing their history — or at the very least not knowing how to behave on social media when members of the rock canon were involved in a piece of music news.
The quick-and-dirty “look at these people on Twitter not knowing about this important figure” post has become something of a stock in trade for media outlets looking for ways to position themselves above particular generational frays; indeed, McCartney himself was the subject of similar roundups back in 2012. But this time, the news broke even more widely, with even network affiliates getting in on the action.
Thanks to the figures involved — the lightning-rod West, the boomer-beloved McCartney — this combination of one-off Twitter jokes being misinterpreted by people looking for quick-hit boomer outrage being stoked is still social media gold five days into the new year. But the way this news popped up, and then stuck around, speaks volumes about how nostalgia culture has in many ways become culture itself.
2015’s biggest pre-emptive pop-cultural splash happened 30 years ago, when the Michael J. Fox time-travel comedy “Back to the Future” came out. The movie, in which Fox’s Marty McFly was sent back to the soda shops of 1955 in order to save the world (and his parents’ romance), ended with McFly and Christopher Lloyd’s mad genius Doc Brown hyperspeeding to the present day, an era where “we don’t need roads” because vehicular transportation was limited to hovercars. That future is now, although cars still need wheels to get from point A to point B.
In that movie, the visual comparisons between 1985 and 1955 are fairly stark: bobby sox, malteds, dance bands in suits. To compare the fashions of 2015 to the 1985 present depicted in “Future,” however, is to see more subtle differences — a white Apple-produced headphone cord dangling from a pocket here, a train wrapped in a full-body ad there. Technologically, 2015 is much more advanced than its 30-years-prior counterpart, even if commutes aren’t yet conducted entirely above-ground. But the baseline in many other ways hasn’t changed much: Classic rock stations still have their identities rooted in the ’60s and ’70s; “Star Wars” remains at the forefront of the pop-cultural conversation; McCartney’s collaborations with younger stars are making waves on the charts.
But these shared cultural phenomena operate in tandem with the way culture is produced and consumed now, in which a much more chaotic marketplace — the exponential increase in cable channels, open-ended access to music and videos via streaming services, utterly personalizable news diets thanks to social media — results in certain ideals of the past remaining fixed. The way “Seinfeld” and “Law & Order” appear in what seems like perpetual reruns act as a time machine, only instead of requiring plutonium and lightning to work it’s summoned by the press of a button.
Last week, the writer Tim Urban wrote a piece called "It's 2015, And You're In The Future," in which he compared the present year to various moments in the pop-cultural past. Among them: “‘The Wonder Years’ aired from 1988–1993 and covered the years 1968–1973. If it were made today, it would cover the years 1995–2000.”
2015’s version of “The Wonder Years” isn’t a look back at the past, but instead a blast from it: “Friends,” the NBC sitcom that in many ways defined the 1990s, spawning a number of cultural touchstones that included Jennifer Aniston’s haircut and Matthew Perry’s leading-man career, arrived in toto on the streaming-video service Netflix on Jan. 1. It was presented as an entertainment to be enjoyed in that most 2010s of ways — to be binge-watched — and many viewers agreed, tweeting their observations about Ross and Rachel and the gang as they fired up episode after episode.
The hubbub was almost enough to make you forget that the show debuted 20 years ago, or 24 years after the Beatles released their final album. (Squint hard enough and those haircuts could be seen as ones worn proudly by ironists.) And with that shifted idea of the present comes a shifted idea of the past, which makes the Beatles seem as if they’re much more of a recent phenomenon — even though the 50th-anniversary parties celebrating their arrival on these shores only occurred a few months ago.
That McCartney and West collaborated shouldn’t be too much of a surprise to anyone looking deeper than either artist’s most superficial public image; McCartney has shown his affinity for the present through his collaborations with the Welsh psych-pop outfit Super Furry Animals and the electro outfit Bloody Beetroots, while West has paid homage to classic rock’s past by working with Elton John and sampling King Crimson. What is surprising, though, is how much time has elapsed between McCartney’s burst onto the pop music scene and now — and how, thanks to the way nostalgia is becoming more crucial to shared entertainments, that half a century seems like the blink of an eye.
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