The classic ride parked in the carport of a mid-century home at the top of a well-watered green hill. A rundown gas station, desolate, neon glowing in the mist of night. A laundromat full of chrome, empty except for a handsome young man in a white T-shirt, jeans, and red Converse high-tops. The scenes of an America once hailed the world over as prosperous, advanced; an America gone; one that, perhaps, only ever existed in our imagination.
People like me — millennials and the younger Gen Z — who grew up in the post-9/11 years, we grew up in an America that was forever in precipitous decline, and we were aware of it. Our parents, who rode the high of peak empire, constantly lamented how things had gone wrong. We had won the Cold War, our movies were seen the world over, our technological innovations unparalleled. Some even claimed it was the “End of History”, the world frozen in our image sometime around the time Bill Clinton was moonlighting as a TV jazzman. So what happened?
That expanse of time, when Windows was all the rage, American capitalism was giving the Iron Curtain a heavy cleaning, and all was happy-go-lucky ended in 2001. The attack on the World Trade Center, beacons of all we valued crumbled, while America helplessly watched.
After that, we became our worst selves, the part we’d always been able to look past. We watched in horror, and contention, as we tortured innocent people; as we sent young patriots to die for ambiguous strategic objectives, if not simply for oil. We demonized a whole religion, and anyone our ignorance made us think could be “one of them”. Plus, our modern connectivity made the truths of racism and social injustice unavoidable.
There was not a whole lot from 2001 onward to give Americans that good feeling an ice-box full of cold Coca-Cola used to. We no longer had the big wins that let us overlook things like Jim Crow, the Vietnam War, and codified sexism. Now, without much to inculcate pride, we have been forced to reckon with all the ugliness of our past, present, and future. The Bush years ended in moral and financial collapse, Obama’s terms brought ugly social undercurrents to the foreground, and Trump… well, you get the point.
Just as Hollywood has recognized we’d rather have our own version of the past, giving us a decade of remakes, social media is full of contemporary nostalgica. Americans, and the world that became enamored by the image we exported, can’t stop double-tapping these images, shot on a pre-digital medium, an ode to a pre-digital time.
The creatives of our fallen generations bring us grainy shots of highways Out West, of cowboy aesthetic travelers, diners with that classic look, motels with large neon signs, VW buses and Winnebago vans parked in dense forests, and carnivals with wooden roller coasters. The feeling of getting away from it all, hitting the road, and driving not to a place so much as a time. It all brings us back to an image of America where people had pocket money, it didn’t take five years experience (minimum) to get an entry level job, and life was just for living, not posting.
Now in the second year of a pandemic, the specter of civil war just as close post-election, and any number of other negative topics to tune in to on the small screen in our hand, or the big one on the living room wall, Americans are not soon to lose our lust for a bygone era, to relive a mythology that made us forget we have always been this broken.