Friday, August 24, 2012

rust belt chicanery

There was a discussion in a class I took last semester where the prof took issue with the writer of our book saying that a certain group is constantly looking back to and trying to recapture a golden age that existed in one form or another. I said that everyone does this, it's a universal human trait like creating or fighting or whatever, and of course I was wrong, because that's not what he believed. 

So we look back on our golden years, when there were jobs and whatnot, and there's talk of some renaissance in the form of taking ownership of our culture, but it doesn't ring true to me which is strange because all the stuff that's celebrated is stuff I kind of like, but I don't like the way it's being done, in part because I'm a bit cynical of bandwagons as a rule. 

So, rust belt chic.

It's a construct of underdogness,  a love of regional Midwest industrial culture by the young folks, a buzzword for this "creative class" that evidently has lots of money and no children and probably has some technocratic advertising gig, so uncool it's cool, which we've been recycling since Douglas Coupland codified the Gen-X irony and concepts like McJobs and Nutritional Slumming, but instead of being a wry look at the absurdity of modern life, it's become this kind of twee thing where it's way more shiny and perky and accentuate the positive than I'm comfortable with, and I think it's the preciousness of the approach that rankles me more than anything else. The quote about jaded anorexic vampires from cool cities like New York also somewhat rings false to me, because if anything we're not much of a blip on the radar anywhere else anyway, and we've got plenty of those types here that eat their own and relish being a big fish in a small pond.

But I think this is more some kind of escapism for people my age and demographic with some degree of disposable income looking for a new and in this case, a very affordable and available trend, capitalizing on the zeitgeist of kitsch, a low-budget conspicuous consumption that's not quite as weird as being a Bronie.  

Is it a proverbial going back to the womb? An escapist reaction to the current ennui?
  I told Randal I blame Wes Anderson in part, and maybe the whole Instagram aesthetic that infuses everything with this goldenrod tinge of retro, conjuring a comforting fuzzy memory that's some amalgam of childhood experiences that may or may not even be terribly Rust Belt per se but that were common collective memories of middle-class and blue-collar existence in the inner ring suburbs. 

Things like the houses our grandmas lived in, the afghans of cataract-fueled colors we were wrapped in as babies, tchotchkes made of seashells and matchbooks piled up in Dutch butter cookie tins celebrating Chuck and Di and exhorting you to Vote For This Guy back when cigarettes were more socially acceptable. Things that reminded us of a more innocent time when we were too young to be aware of the social problems around us like segregation and race riots and the Cold War, just the pop culture detritus of classic rock and Saturday morning cartoons and Star Wars, the graphics we remember as children, a selective approach to throwback clothing... vintage-style t-shirts yes, polyester muumuus and leisure suits not so much.

And then there's the comfort food we ate in the houses of our grandparents, in this area mostly of the Eastern European extraction, fuzzy VHS camcorder memories of going to weddings where there's polka bands, Catholic schools when they still had nuns, and hanging out at bowling alleys and corner watering holes where the decor hasn't changed in 30 years, the same . Ethnic identity was more of what your last name was than any long-held grudge from the Old World or any real sense of history except for maybe the street names in the hoods your grandparents once lived in before they hightailed it for post-war bungalows in the suburbs and on the outskirts.

Also, certain selective aspects of clothing from that era that mostly involve 50/50 poly cotton t-shirts with names of old bar league softball teams and trucking companies that no longer exist and quite possibly hair metal bands that may or may not be loved ironically. It's a very specific cultural memory for people who grew up on the West Side and then may or may not have majored in English lit at a state school, that conveniently forgets about the segregation, pollution, and other inconvenient truths of that time.

Is this maybe the northern equivalent to the southern nostalgia for the antebellum days? I wouldn't be the one to know, but it's a convenient revisionism that sentimentalizes and softens the edges, and maybe it's not so much wrong as something I just hope goes away sometime soon. 


  1. I miss Saturday morning cartoons. Golden years are, just like now, often wasted years. Shit.

    Too bad one can't post comments in 70s pea green.

  2. kitsch calls out for composting

  3. Sorry Ms. Wolfe you can't go home again. The good ole days weren't as good as we remember them. The old homestead's been torn down and they put up a parking lot. A google street search will verify that. So when it's all said and done all you have left are the memories. But the whole idea is nothing more than how our brains work. We seek the endorphins of past pleasures and have them neatly tucked in our grey matter. The smell of pie baking in grandmas' kitchen will always be there but now only as a memory.

  4. It's not all b.s., Prunella.

    This is real.

    And when the rich people who run the country say to themselves, damn, look at all this debt we ran up...It's time to cut Social Security!, it's only going to get worse.