News & Views » Cover Story

Six meditations on living in the present


Welcome to Now. It might not be the prettiest, cleanest, sanest place to live, but no matter how hard you vilify it or try to escape it, the fact remains: Now is the only place you'll ever be.

The obviousness of that truth, of course, is not enough to have prevented the reappearance of swing dancers in recent years, nor has it had any impact on the enduring subcultures of rockabilly greasers, tie-died Deadheads or spike-'doed punkers commonly encountered from Little Five Points to the Cobb Galleria. These walking anachronisms have proven it is, in fact, physically possible to live in Now without ever actually sullying one's feet on its pop-culture thoroughfares. They serve as daily reminders that taking the Retro straight out of Now, to a place that rests safely in the suburban cemetery of cultural currency, remains an ever-present option.

Sure, opting out of Now has its benefits. For one, it means never having to choose between Britney and Christina or between 'N Sync and the Backstreet Boys. It also means not really having to choose much at all; in Retro-land, the options -- say, between the Beatles and the Dave Clark Five, or between Elvis Presley and Pat Boone -- already have been whittled down and laid out for you.

On the other hand, there are a hell of a lot of choices in Now -- more than ever -- from good to mediocre to reprehensible. So many choices and no guides to steer you. You're forced to just sort of make it up as you go, navigating that shaky course through Jennifer Lopez and Fatboy Slim, DMX and O-Town and SR-71. No wonder so many want to escape to the comfort of yesteryear.

But when you're right here, getting dirty in the mess of Now, you find something transcendent that you can never get from wandering the neatly rowed cemeteries of the past. It's the challenge of a blank slate, the call for creativity, the sense of participating in the future being made (rather than history being re-enacted) -- that's the stuff that makes life thrilling.

Engaging the popular culture that we collectively encounter is the closest thing there is, in Now, to attending a massive town-hall meeting. It's a means of gauging the mood, attitudes, sense of humor and emotional buttons of society. It adds up to a grand conversation, open to anyone, on the desires and values of the world we're in. And by having us take part in it -- not only buying into it, but also voicing displeasure (as is often the dynamic between smart people and mass culture) -- we connect to real folks of different regions, religions, ethnicities and class in a way that no communion with the past could allow.

Beware: Nostalgia.
No matter who you are, at some point you will entertain the notion that things were a lot better way back when. You will remember when life was simpler, when produce was cheaper, when folks were friendlier and the music was sweeter. Of course you probably won't also recall when inequality was greater, when exploitation was grander, when people died younger, when Leif Garrett scored higher on the cultural register than the Clash and when the music was a less honest reflection of society.

There's no limit to the ridiculous ideas nostalgia will inspire in you: That rock 'n' roll needs a Hall of Fame, even while enduring genres from jazz to chamber music have not yet warranted one. That surf rock is a noble style worthy of perpetuation, whereas newer, equally dynamic and more popular forms such as hip-hop and techno don't even qualify as music. Even the measured, reasonable logic that some music of today is higher in quality than some music was back then gets ignored.

Resist nostalgia. Just as nostalgia provides tangible proof that you are alive (since all breathing humans experience it), it's simultaneously the first sign that you're dying. Your brain is slowly being nudged toward obsolescence. As soon as you can't recognize anything in the present as being potentially as praiseworthy as something in the past, you stop growing -- and you cease being of any constructive use to your community.

Warning to all: Terminal nostalgiacs sometimes fancy themselves a useful source for teaching younger generations about history, but that folly is only a further sign of impending irrelevance. Truth is, their perception of history is so warped by this point, they can't even be relied upon to offer accurate information about how far they walked to school and in what kind of weather.

Our hero, Zeitgeist.
It's a handy German word that roughly means "of the times."

One example of what has captured today's zeitgeist: Destiny's Child's "Independent Woman Part I," which is not only a great pop song but recently spent 11 consecutive weeks atop the Billboard singles chart. The song is thoroughly modern in production, of a kind with its contemporaries (recent hits "No Scrubs," "Bills, Bills, Bills" and "Love Don't Cost a Thing" come to mind), reflects the day's defining social factors (the ever-increasing financial clout of women) and is linked with another distinctly "now" bit of pop culture (it's the theme song to the Charlie's Angels remake).

Add a comment