Vanilla Ice is selling Kraft macaroni and cheese now. The dudes of Full House are selling Greek yogurt. Boyz II Men recently made a cameo on How I Met Your Mother. This year’s Super Bowl featured, of all people, Flea. We are having, in other words, a moment of ’90s nostalgia, one occasioned in part by millennials (or The Youths or Those Kids or whatever you want to call them) who are aging into adulthood and therefore eager to relive their childhoods.
Which leads to, among other things, Ice coming back—yet again—with a brand new invention. And he’s in good company, too. The boxed dinner he would like you to buy? Its noodles come in the shape of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.
Nostalgia, the copious literature on it suggests, comes in two basic forms. One is organic, the kind that washes over you when you see an old picture of yourself and your cousins, aged 7 and 9 and 10, giggling maniacally while innertubing on Lake Michigan. The kind that emergences unexpectedly, as a kind of pleasant pang—the stuff of sudden songs and serendipitous scents and sour-sweet Madeleines.
The other form—the form that may well feel most familiar to us at this point—is a media product. It’s the re-introduction of Uncle Joey or Dawson’s Creek'sJoey or Blossom's Joey, appropriated to arouse a vague sense that we have lost something as we’ve moved, inexorably, into our futures. This form of nostalgia is usually invoked, in one way or another, to sell us stuff. And you could, because of that, dismiss its validity (fauxstalgia?). But it will live on, inevitably, because media producers know exactly what advertisers have long understood: that nostalgia, like sex, sells.
The pep was palpable. As scenes from the 1960 presidential campaign flashed by during a screening of JFK hosted in partnership with The Atlantic, the addictive, saccharine soundtrack was mesmerizing. Political jingles cheerfully urged listeners to vote for Kennedy, then Johnson, then Nixon—men, each song manically assured, who could lead America. It felt like a rogue a cappella group had taken the auditorium hostage.
For some reason, today’s campaign songs don’t quite capture this quality—Springsteen and Kid Rock lack that special perkiness. To revive a little of our republic’s former campaigning joy, The Atlantic has dutifully assembled a sample of the political earworms unleashed on the unwitting American public in 1960.
That year’s master of the campaign song was, of course, John F. Kennedy. His famous friendship with Frank Sinatra helped him secure “High Hopes,” a 1959 hit that was tweaked a little to fit Kennedy’s campaign.
Read more. [Image: Kheel Center, Cornell University/flickr]
In a recent episode of HBO’s The Newsroom, Maggie, a young associate producer on the fictional cable show News Night, cut her long, blonde hair to a short, red pixie. This was foreshadowing. In a later episode, viewers found out why she cut her hair: She’d witnessed the death of Daniel, a little boy she made friends with, while reporting in Uganda. Cutting her hair was a way to express outwardly her inner trauma. She recalled a moment when Daniel touched her hair, during which the boy’s teacher told him that blonde hair was “nothing but trouble.” The connection between the memory and her decision doesn’t really make sense. If the blonde hair is a terrible reminder of the incident, the dye job would make sense, but not the cut. To make the chop all the more dramatic, emphasizing her emotional instability, Maggie cuts it off herself. Plenty of women cut their own bangs and trim their ends. Not many women try to cut a short, complex hairstyle themselves. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t look very good.
Maggie’s not the only TV heroine to chop off her hair in a moment of distress. At the end of the second season of another HBO show, Girls, Hannah Horvath cuts her hair off during a period of mental illness. In Season 4 of Mad Men, Sally Draper cuts her hair for reasons that may include a desire for her father’s attention, a desire for everyone’s attention, or a need to have some form of control over her life after her parents’ divorce.
The dramatic haircut has had mixed success.
Read more. [Image: HBO]
After successfully completing the flight that would make him the first American to orbit the Earth, John Glenn gave a speech at his hometown high school. His old teachers, the astronaut joked, would be “very surprised” to learn, as news accounts had it, that he had “received straight A’s all through school.” His football teammates would be similarly shocked to learn that even while Glenn had sat on the bench, they had sought guidance from him about gaining “a few more yards.” The people who knew John Glenn, The Guy before he became John Glenn, The Astronaut, the newly minted hero suggested, must be amazed to read all the gushing accounts of their classmate’s various “prowesses.”
Glenn was poking fun at the inevitable trajectories of heroism: the wide-eyed exaggerations, the casual polishings, the careful erosions of inconvenient facts. But he was poking fun, more specifically, at a legal document: a contract between the National Aeronautics and Space Administration and Life magazine. One that sold the Mercury astronauts’ life stories to the media outlet, exclusively. In exchange for this, Life agreed to obtain NASA’s approval before publishing images of and/or writings about the astronauts. And it agreed to pay for the privilege — a sum that reportedly amounted to, in 1959 currency, some $25,000 per astronaut, per year. That’s hundreds of thousands of dollars in today’s money.
Read more. [Image: Life]
Brett Martin has always been a magazine writer, not a TV critic. But after writing a behind-the-scenes companion to The Sopranos for HBO in 2007, he felt sure that something profound was happening in the world of television: Since the late 1990s, a wave of hour-long dramas had been scrapping the rules of traditional TV by introducing complicated characters and raising the quality—in terms of production, writing, and visuals—to a cinematic level.
In his new book, Difficult Men, Martin calls this era the “Third Golden Age” of TV (following its early days in the ’50s and the birth of network dramas in the ’80s).
According to Martin, The Sopranos' James Gandolfini was “the man on whose broad, burdened shoulders the Third Golden Age was borne into our lives.” Tony Soprano was the first in a line of male antiheroes—followed by several more of what Martin refers to as “difficult men,” like The Wire's Omar Little, Dexter's Dexter Morgan, Mad Men's Don Draper, Breaking Bad's Walter White, Boardwalk Empire's Nucky Thompson, and others—who challenged audiences' expectations of a main character. These were complicated male leads whose actions can be described as morally ambiguous at best. And not only have viewers tuned in to watch these men, but they actually root for them—questionable behavior and all.
Read more. [Image: HBO; AMC]
Long before she was the costume designer for AMC’s Mad Men, Janie Bryant was known at her Tennessee high school as Miss Vogue, and it seemed she was destined for a life in the world of high fashion. After studying fashion design at the American College of the Applied Arts, she moved to Paris to learn the art of couture, and then to New York’s Seventh Avenue. But the screen always beckoned, and after meeting a costume designer at a party, she transitioned into a career designing for television rather than the runway. In 2005, she won an Emmy for the HBO Western series Deadwood. As the costume designer for all five seasons of Mad Men, she has both captured a particular period — men in grey flannel suits, women in lacy dresses, everyone, for the last time, in hats — and the incremental sartorial revolution that brought the starchy ’50s into the Modish ’60s. Her designs have captivated everyone from Michael Kors, whose Fall ‘08 collection bore her influence, to Banana Republic, which recently launched its Mad Men line. Here, Bryant shares selections from her sketchbook, including an early rendering of Joan’s eye-catching dress from the Season Five premiere, and explains how a costume travels from a napkin doodle to the screen.
Read more. [Images: Janie Bryant]
Brian McGreevy published a peculiar and profane essay on Vulture last year. In the essay, “Why Don Draper Is a Far Better Vampire Than Any of Twilight’s or True Blood’s,” the screenwriter-turned-novelist laments the “emasculation” of vampires in American popular culture. Whereas we once had menacing and handsome Byronic antiheroes, upholding the genre’s Romantic tradition, McGreevy claims that we now have Twilight and True Blood, which “is essentially what you would get if a Tennessee Williams play fucked The Rocky Horror Show Picture Show.” There’s nothing to be frightened of—and in McGreevy’s view, that’s a wasted opportunity.
In his essay, McGreevy argued that the only figure in American culture worthy of Dracula’s cape was Mad Men's Don Draper: debonair, “magnetic and urbane,” and a danger to the women who get involved with him. You see, “men are predators at heart,” McGreevy wrote. “It is a killer's heart that is the motive force of masculinity and predation its spirit.” Draper has that, McGreevy says, and what's more, we'd be right to emulate him.
"You get certain people saying, ‘Oh, this is an extremely reductive point of view and offensively untrue,’" McGreevy told me in a recent interview. "And at the same time, I’d be getting private emails from women saying, ‘I want you to come over to my house and eat me.’"
McGreevy set out to correct the problem of the emasculated vampire with his first novel,Hemlock Grove, which came out last month from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Hemlock Grove is, essentially, McGreevy’s essay novelized. It’s a mystery story—who’s killing girls in the titular town, a dying Rust Belt hamlet?—and a mashup of many classic monster-story motifs. The heroes are two teenagers: Peter, a gypsy and, when the moon is right, a werewolf, and his new friend Roman, a tortured, rich, handsome, egotistical, pill-popping, girl-abusing, vampire type straight out of the Byronic mold. Roman, whose brain-damaged sister, Shelley, has been turned into a gentle, Frankensteinian giant, is the scion of the Godfrey family. The Godfreys’ steel holdings once dominated the area’s economy, but the clan has since moved into biotech. While they’re still fabulously wealthy, Roman’s mother keeps dark secrets (the least of them is that she’s having an affair with her brother-in-law). And the White Tower, the research facility founded by Roman’s dead father, is a site of strange experiments and a source of rumor and conspiracy; it may also have a role in the gruesome murders, which involve the girls’ being vivisected by some sort of wolf-like creature.
Read more. [Images: AMC/Summit Entertainment]