Like an army of Sentinel robots from the ‘90s X-Men cartoon, nostalgia has invaded and destroyed the entertainment industry. No longer just a spice used to liven up the flavor, nostalgia is the prevailing taste, the salient storytelling and music-selling motif of today’s creators. I, of course, am not telling you anything you don’t already know. Between the remakes, reboots, sequels, reunions, anniversary tours, repressings, Buzzfeed articles, retrospective podcasts and NickSplat! programming, we are inundated with nostalgia.
Using nostalgia as the primary hook to spin a story or create art does not automatically make it bad. Stranger Things was fun. The Force Awakens was fine. A Broadway musical based on Groundhog Day sounds delightful. These offerings should exist as part of a well-balanced culture feast. But in recent years the feast has been lopsided. Ultimately, no matter how creative the integration (Ready Player One) or how surreal the reunion (Guns N’ Roses), our brains will eventually desire fresh nutrients. Or as DMX so famously put it, “Somethin’ new.”
It wasn’t until watching the phenomenal reboot of TV’s Twin Peaks and listening to Brand New’s latest album, Science Fiction, that I realized how much I was craving progressive art. And that’s what those two triumphant pieces of pop culture gave me. Each offering bucked today’s trends by stretching mediums, elevating crafts and using nostalgia as a tool, not as a crutch, to move the needle forward.
(Warning: minor Twin Peaks: The Return spoilers ahead.)
By definition, Twin Peaks: The Return is nostalgia-driven entertainment. A reboot of a 27-year-old cult classic television show, Twin Peaks: The Return premiered this summer on Showtime for an 18-episode run. Details were scarce. After filming completed, a daunting list of 200 cast members was released. A short, blurry video of David Lynch’s Gordon Cole character counted as the only promotional trailer until a week before air, when an ambiguous, minute-long teaser was released. That was it for marketing. Diehard fans were left with nothing to chew on, except for, of course, rumors. And nostalgia.
Co-creators David Lynch and Mark Frost could have picked up right where they left off. Bring back the amiable Agent Cooper with a box of donuts and damn fine coffee. Sprinkle back in the Laura Palmer mystery. Catch up with the lovely Audrey Horne. No one would’ve batted an eye. The scripts almost write themselves.
But this is David Lynch we’re talking about, an auteur known for unpredictable filmmaking that leaves you uncomfortable and unsettled. You can’t pin him down and that’s what excites his viewers. (It’s worth noting that Mark Frost rarely gets the praise he’s due. Pick up The Secret History of Twin Peaks to see his immersive world-building at work.) And while the reboot definitely embraces nostalgia, it’s mostly used to upend audience expectations.
To the surprise of almost every viewer, most of The Return occurs outside the town of Twin Peaks. The first episode is especially brutal. Most of the its runtime is, in fact, burned in New York City. It goes like this. In a high-rise building there is a secret facility conducting an experiment with a glass box that opens to the outside via a circular hole. Cameras are set up all over the room, randomly taking pictures of the glass box. A man sits on a couch and stares at the glass box. It is quiet. Every so often, he has to change a memory card or some sort of microchip. A female guest keeps bringing him coffee. This setup alone kills 25 minutes.
While there are a few brief returns to the town of Twin Peaks, the rest of the non-NYC runtime is dedicated to South Dakota, with a whole new set of characters there. Right off the bat, it’s as if Lynch and Frost are saying, “Welcome back to Twin Peaks. Don’t drop your bags.” In other words, this isn’t going to be easy.
By continuously contrasting setting—mountainous Washington state, industrial New York, shiny and bright Las Vegas, backwoods Montana, wasteland Texas, dark and dusty country roads, simple motels, more dark country roads—many have speculated the overarching theme of the entire series is, “You can’t go home again.” Or put another way, nostalgia is an endless road that leads to nowhere. (The finale only works to confirm this theory.)
Returning for a moment to the above-mentioned “glass box,” we find another encoded message about nostalgia: The glass box represents television. In this interpretation, we find a man sitting on a couch staring at an empty TV set. Eventually—again, spoiler alert—it kills him. This interpretation admittedly reads preachy, but with David Lynch, subtly and overtness often take turns leading the dance.
However, Twin Peaks: The Return isn’t powerful because it knocks nostalgia; rather, its power comes from a commitment to not let nostalgia dictate the direction.
Take Agent Cooper’s character arc, which may be some of the most challenging writing in TV history. Kyle MacLachlan’s Cooper, the charming FBI agent who won over ABC audiences in the 1990s and Netflix Millennials in the 2010s, is the series’ lynchpin. Morally centered. Open minded. Hearty appetite. He’s what you think of when you think of Twin Peaks. So what did Lynch and Frost do? They turned Cooper into Frankenstein’s monster. A slow-moving, drooling blank slate who had to relearn humanity by soaking up the actions of those around him. Dougie Jones, i.e., Cooper’s idiot, is a name that should now be synonymous with anti-nostalgia. If you were watching week-to-week, you had to deal with Dougie Jones for three months.
Kyle MacLachlan as Dougie Jones/Agent Dale Cooper © SHOWTIME
In the world of Twin Peaks, characters are not stationary or behave predictably. Besides Cooper, they have not been sitting around for the last two decades like avatars, waiting for the game to unpause. They are alive. They are subject to the current of life, which pushes and pulls into streams that are mundane, extraordinary and occasionally irrational. Characters make decisions and say things that aren’t in their best interest or simply don’t make sense, but that’s because people don’t make sense. People don’t follow plotlines.
Unsurprisingly, the characters who have remained stationary are often the saddest or most deranged. (Looking at you, faceless Sarah Palmer). And this is what makes Cooper’s storyline so satisfying. The original character could never exist in our current world. Our world has moved forward. The moment Cooper moves forward, he’s changed. This arc embodies a poignant realization for viewers: That the past can never—and should never—exist again as it once was. Like a memory or a dream, if you attempt to access it, you will inevitably change it. Cooper, then, isn’t just putting on a new face when he becomes Dougie Jones; he’s unmasking nostalgia for what it is, a false memory.
Altogether, this unnerving, understated storytelling unraveled across 18 segments. The experience as a viewer of Twin Peaks: The Return was one of joy, confusion, invigoration, infuriation and camp. Not nostalgia.
I would be lying if I said at times I wasn’t frustrated. Yes, I wanted Cooper back faster. Yes, I wanted to spend more time in Twin Peaks. Yes, I wanted to know what the hell was up with Audrey Horne. But that’s the beauty of it all: I wasn’t in control. I honestly didn’t know if I’d get any of it. And that was thrilling. TV wasn’t pandering to my expectations, TV wasn’t safe. TV was barely even TV.
One more note: Did I mention almost every episode ends with a musical performance? Stick to nostalgia’s template and that never would’ve happened either. There has never been anything like Twin Peaks: The Return, and there may never be anything like it ever again.
Laura Dern and Kyle MacLachlan © SHOWTIME
For many Millennial music lovers, Brand New is the quintessential nostalgia band. Their debut, Your Favorite Weapon, came out during my freshman year of high school. I was a junior when Deja Entendu, their career-making follow-up, was released. Their legacy-making third album, The Devil and God Are Raging Inside Me, came out in the directionless years of early adulthood when I cashiered at a gas station. The point is the band hit their stride in my most formative years.
Brand New were “the band” for so many types of listeners: pop-punkers, emo kids, angry adolescents, progressive believers, recovering Christians, etc. Mark me as all of the above.
In 2009, Brand New released Daisy, a sonically messy, lyrically over-indulgent work that sharply divided fans and plateaued the band’s career (leaving a weird taste in fans’ mouths for many years, much like David Lynch’s Twin Peaks divisive prequel, Fire Walk with Me, did). For the following eight years, Brand New lived in the bardo and fans awaited whatever would come next, if anything.
Which is all setup, of course, for Science Fiction, released last month.
Photo by Brandon Sloter
As I wrote in the Behind the Setlist round table, this is not the album I would’ve chosen, but I’m so glad it’s the one they released. Much like Twin Peaks, at first all I wanted to do was take a nostalgic trip with a familiar piece of pop culture. Just give me some overlapping harmonies and witty, thoughtful lyrics draped across a sonic scenery of post pop-punk.
Thank you. See you next time, Brand New.
And if Brand New listened to the noise, that’s undoubtedly what would’ve happened. Look at their contemporaries at similar points in their careers and you’ll find pandering in place of progression. Taking Back Sunday mildly flirts with experimentation but never strays far. Jimmy Eat World recently released one of the stronger albums in their catalogue, but only because it adequately mimics earlier material. And while mewithoutYou initially made wide genre leaps with each album, their last couple records have normalized into something more predictable and less interesting.
On Science Fiction, we find a familiar band in peculiar clothes. Songs like “In the Water” and “451” are especially compelling, the former being their most instrumentally diverse song with mandolin, organ and harmonica. “Lit Me Up,” “Same Logic/Teeth,” “137” and “Desert” excel with explorative and breathable song structures. Interlude recordings fill in the white spaces, creating an album texture that both solidifies cohesion and bridges back to Daisy, doubling down and further validating the fans’ least favorite record. (What does this suggest about nostalgia? That my high school days are really no concern of theirs.)
Science Fiction begins with “Lit Me Up,” an underwhelming opener that earns its place upon repeat listens. The tempo is slow and the tone is quiet, almost sleepy, as if the band is awakening from hibernation. Across their discography, this is the first opener that doesn’t care about making an immediate impression. It does make a statement, however. Drawing comparisons (again) to David Lynch, like the first episode of The Return, Brand New’s mission statement reads, “Welcome back. Don’t get comfortable.” In other words, the tune effectively disarms us, rendering expectations and preconceived ideals as secondary to the art itself.
And yes, while it could be argued Jesse Lacey’s lyrics are more of the same, it could also be argued Lacey has never been more ambitious, flirting with his past while exploring his future. “Could Never Be Heaven” is a terrific example that demands explication.
At face value, we have a love song dedicated to the narrator’s family, his wife especially, who centers him in times of mental anguish:
Do you know the words that make the hidden door open?
Can you speak my secret name and fix me?
I have no heart, I have no brain. Lord, I have no courage.
Can you get me home again?
In that stanza, we can dig a little deeper and find not only a Wizard of Oz reference (taking on the missing traits of the Tin Man, Scarecrow and Lion) but also a Lord of the Rings reference about the hidden entrance to the Mines of Moria (insight from Genius). Both references suggest the narrator has been on a quest. It may also suggest he is at a point, similar to both stories referenced, where the narrator recognizes he must ask for help and support if he is ever to finish.
It’s common knowledge Jesse Lacey struggles with being a public figure and rightfully cherishes his privacy. Knowing what we know about the band, who have “promised” to break up in 2018, we can rightfully accept the premise that the narrator’s quest will be completed when Brand New quits making music. As interpreters, we can reasonably deduce the narrator’s quest has been one of personal torment.
But the above verse could also be read in a completely different light: An overt homage to fans, equal parts apology and confession. “I’m sorry it took so long for us to make new music, but I honestly couldn’t do it. I have forgotten how to write music and I lost my way.” In this reading, the referenced “home” may be a stage or a recording studio. (To confirm this hypothesis, we can use the album’s intertextuality and interpret the song “Can’t Get It Out” as a reference to the narrator’s inability to fulfill his duty to create.)
Next we have a simple chorus with big implications:
Could never be heaven without you.
Could never be heaven without you.
Never be heaven without you.
Heaven, of course, suggests a finish line.
But what is he really saying here? Is it another billet doux to the narrator’s wife, suggesting she’s some sort of guardian angel that guides him to safety? Is it a subtle callback to the eerie line from Devil and God’s “You Won’t Know:” “They say in heaven there’s no husbands and wives”? Or are we simply stepping back into Lacey’s on-again/off-again relationship with religion and faith—that if there’s no heaven without his wife, why should he pursue it?
The answer is staring directly at us in the title of that 2006 cut: “You won’t know.”
What does this all have to do with nostalgia? Two things. First, it has nothing to do with nostalgia and everything to do with layered lyricism and satisfying songwriting—art prioritized. Sure, “Could Never Be Heaven” can be read as a nostalgic tip of the hat to fans, but that’s not its primary reading. Its primary objective is something much more powerful: good music.
Second, Lacey & co. effectively employ nostalgia, but like in Twin Peaks: The Return, it lives and breathes underneath the surface, not on top. Here, nostalgia is your own familiarity working against you, and by the end, you are left in the wilderness. Uncertain of your way back home.
So what can we learn from David Lynch and Brand New about nostalgia? Certainly, there are many takeaways. I’ve focused on three that I believe capture the spirit of their recent successes.
Lesson 1: Elevate Your Craft
As music-industry insider Scott Waldman recently told me, the first goal should always be to “write and record the best song possible.” Fans will only put up with so much. The primary reason Science Fiction succeeds where Daisy failed is that, simply, the songs are better.
The same could be argued for Fire Walk with Me versus Twin Peaks: The Return. Fire Walk with Me is a cult classic, sure, but it’s also rough and, as a standalone story, unsatisfying. (As part of the larger framework, however, FWWM is required viewing). The Return challenges its audience in similar ways its predecessor did, but here, the viewer’s patience is better rewarded.
Make. Good. Content. Don’t. Make. Nostalgia.
Lesson 2: Ignore Your Audience
Twitter is the fan’s platform to collectively yell “Freebird!” at artists and creators. But there is a saying in sports I’ve always loved: “Listen too closely to the fans, and soon you’ll be sitting with them.” In the age of social media and the internet, I believe creators are often too connected to their audiences. Fan service is the side effect of this connectedness. It’s a big reason we see so many forgettable anniversary tours, for example, or unsatisfying TV reboots (the bigger reason being, of course, money).
Why not give the fans what they want? Because they don’t know what’s good for them. More often than not fans will choose nostalgia, and as we discussed earlier, it is a malnutritioned diet destined to creatively kill us all.
What I’m not saying here is that artists should ignore their audience’s criticism. Damon Lindelof is a prime example of someone who has effectively used “the noise” to elevate his craft. Speaking to The Ringer about HBO’s The Leftovers, which he co-created, Lindelof admitted he’s paying attention: “I’m really interested in what the critical community is saying, because I look at what you and your peers do as a free resource. I may take issue with what you say, but I do listen to it.”
By almost all accounts, The Leftovers went on to become one of the most critically-acclaimed (and fan-loved) dramas in the history of cable television, low ratings be damned. But it wasn’t because Lindelof was continuously scanning Twitter. He deleted his Twitter account years ago after the Lost finale blowback. On the contrary, he was seeking constructive criticism that was in the best interest of his art and his audience.
Lesson 3: Expect More Out of Your Audience
Fans will hold artists up to the standards of previous work because it is human nature to do so. It is one of the reasons why we fall over and over again for nostalgia. As consumers, it’s the only perspective we have.
But author Derek Thompson suggests another reason for our love affair with the past:
“I think to a certain extent there’s a comfort food element of pop culture right now. You see this reemergence of nostalgia as the fundamental animating principle. That is inherently tied up in the anxieties of abundance. As we’re surrounded by more and more and more, we retreat sometimes into that which is extremely familiar.”
I agree, nostalgia is a comfort food. (And as mentioned earlier, I love comfort food as much as anyone else does.) But I have to believe most consumers of pop culture genuinely want to be challenged. They want familiarity and fresh nutrients. They want creators—i.e., the record labels and film studios who fund the creators—to think more highly of them than they do right now.
The problem, in Hollywood at least, is that preexisting intellectual property is king. It’s a predictable model and a proven moneymaker. Similarly, the mainstream music industry is taking less chances on younger, unproven artists. Long gone are the days of “being discovered” and developed over many years by a single major label. There are endless amounts of thought-pieces, essays and Twitter rants attempting to explain why the entertainment industry is the way it is. Many blame technology and innovation, others over saturation, others still, mass segmentation.
Whatever the reason, the entertainment industry must recognize the path forward will not be built by excuses, but with progressive art. Prestige TV is a movement that proves fans crave challenging and diverse entertainment—albeit in smaller, niche segments. But the fact is widespread appeal for this type of product remains elusive. Better Call Saul, Halt and Catch Fire, Fargo, The Americans, Insecure and Atlanta, to name a few, never come close to reaching even the average ratings of mainstream fodder like NCIS, Modern Family or Grey’s Anatomy. But it shouldn’t discourage the industry. Put simply, progressive art isn’t concerned with appealing to everyone. That’s partly what makes it satisfying, and definitely what makes it important.
Like Indiana Jones taking a leap of faith on an invisible walkway (see, I like nostalgia!), progressive art is the next and most logical step forward for today’s modern media ecosystem. This will help us reach a future where nostalgia is once again the salt and not the main dish. Where fresh stories are being told and forward-thinking artists are given the spotlight. Where talent is cherished above the template. Call it science fiction, but David Lynch and Brand New have reminded us such a future is possible.