“Does his daddy really have a GTI?” or “Wow, it’s a GTI – come and see!”
This was a recurring exchange between us boys in the mid-eighties. I grew up in a small provincial town, and there, a Golf GTI (with the full name Golf MK1 GTI) was an at once mythical and totally real car. It actually drove around in the streets, but it was still the subject of deep fascination when you saw one. It was quite ordinary, yet built with a hidden superpower that made it able to go toe to toe with the fast Porsches and Mercedes. It also meant that you had to look carefully, since the little, square hatchback with the widely spaced circular front lights at the end of the slightly slanted hood didn’t stand out on the outside, only on the inside.
The GTI in my childhood streets was brought to my mind when I started writing this article about the increasingly intense and comprehensive revival, re-enactment, reflection of, and yearning for the 1970s in recent years. From fashion, where suede jackets, huge brown-tinted sunglasses, maxi-dresses and heavy bangs over Quaalude eyes walk down from the catwalk into the streets, and interior decoration, where deep rugs, curry-yellow and brown walls, spoon jade plants, and raw stoneware have made a comeback into the homes of hip people, to highbrow literature such as Rachel Kushner’s The Flamethrowers, Garth Risk Hallberg’s City on Fire, and Patti Smith’s autobiography Just Kids, movies like Black Mass, American Hustle, The Diary of a Teenage Girl, and last, but not least, TV series like Martin Scorsese’s and Mick Jagger’s Vinyl, Baz Luhrmann’s The Get Down, and the Netflix series Narcos.
The GTI, with is dual nature of unimposing exterior and surprising interior and its special role in the social history of the 1970s, carries the key to understanding why the 1970s suddenly speak to us with such power.
Crisis, creativity, and Gopnik’s golden rule
For one thing, the GTI, with its kitschy-cool golf-ball gearshift knob, is itself part of this trend. It first saw the light of day more than 40 years ago – in 1975 – and has since been subject to almost religious cultivation and a correspondingly exorbitant price hike. Last year, the car site Hagerty.com published a list of the youngtimers (20-30-year-old cars) that in the UK had experienced the greatest value growth, and here, the Golf had gone up 33 percent, from £ 7,890 to £ 10,463 on average – just from 2014 to 2015. The price is also rising in the Golf’s homeland, Germany. Even though it is a bit cheaper there than in the UK, you still need to fork out more than € 10,600 for it.
Golf 1 GTI and its one year older predecessor Golf 1 were huge successes for Volkswagen from 1974 forward. To date, more than 35 million of the two models of the Golf have been sold, making it VW’s bestselling model. Their huge popularity is closely tied to them being the embodiment of the reaction to the major political and economic crisis that defined the 1970s. The Golf simply used less of what there suddenly was too little of – oil. As a response to US and Western support for Israel during the Yom Kippur War, which the Israelis, after having been caught sleeping early in October 1973, easily won 20 days later, the Arabic countries by way of the oil cartel OPEC chose to introduce a range of embargoes and price hikes on oil. The consequence was a major economic crisis, recession, unemployment, and stocks heading for rock bottom. Global GDP growth fell dramatically from 6.4 percent in 1973 to 0.9 percent in 1975, petrol consumption in the US declined 20 percent, president Richard Nixon declared a national speed limit of 55 mph, and Denmark and the Netherlands introduced car-free Sundays by law. It was in this context that the relatively inexpensive and notably more fuel-efficient Golf 1 (1974) and its GTI version (1975) became so popular. They simply – together with Toyota’s Corolla E20 (1970) and Honda’s Civic (1972) – grabbed the scene from the big, wide, muscular, and hugely gas-guzzling American cars.
What does this mean in terms of explaining the return of the 1970s? Two things.
First and foremost – and quite simply – the GTI was a fixture to everybody growing up in the mid-seventies to the mid-eighties, who today at age 35-45 have become the most money-spending and taste-defining part of the population. Now it istheir turn to manipulate (and become manipulated by) the cultural industry in the revival of a more innocent time where memory, as it is apt to do, has deleted the unhappy memories and bathed the good ones in an idyllic light – among these the Golf GTI. This is the basic socio-economic explanation for the return of the 70s – also known as “Gopnik’s golden forty-year rule” after the American journalist for The New Yorker, Adam Gopnik, who presented the theory four years ago that the things which are retro at any time are things from the childhood and youth of the forty-somethings of the day.
However, there’s obviously more at stake than this. Not only consumer goods and entertainment are cultivated. Major American writers like Rachel Kushner and Garth Risk Hallberg also turn the 1970s – more specifically, the New York of the 1970s, but more on that later – into a framework and prism for understanding our existence today.
With this, we reach another and deeper point. Before I started writing this article, I actually did not know what the acronym GTI stood for (Grand Tourer Injection). Even so, the point was clear to us kids back then: GTI meant that the ordinary, financially pressed man could race down the highway as if he was sitting behind the wheel of an Alfa Romeo sports car, even though he couldn’t afford more than a mass-produced hatchback. In other words: as a product of uneasy times, the Golf MK1 GTI and its success showed that creativity, freedom, small hopes, and new opportunities – life – still was in reach of ordinary people. The human condition wasn’t entirely chained by slow economic growth and politically unstable times.
When you seek answers to why the 1970s have become de rigueur for so many people today – whether it is as a literature reader, TV viewer, fashionista, vinyl hipster, or car aficionado – well, you find various versions of this exact point. We seek the 70s, not just because they have many similarities to today, but also because there is a positive message.
New York a la Lou Reed
When you take a closer look, there’s a whole lot from the 1970s that we can reflect ourselves in today. We have mentioned the economic crisis – since 2008 we have, as in the years after 1974, had to get used to tightened circumstances and slow growth, and like then, the crisis came riding on the crest of a major upturn. As for foreign policy, the failed wars in the Middle East (particularly Iraq) stand as our times’ Vietnam War (from which the last US troops pulled out in 1974). And like Vietnam, Iraq stands as a place where the ideas of what US military power could achieve were revealed as illusions. Iraq never became the democracy that would herald a wave of democratisation throughout the Middle East. Domestically, Western voters protest-voted by electing unstable parliaments, like in the British parliamentary election in 1974, and political analysts like the famous New York Times journalist and editor James Reston began talking about how Western democracies suffered from a pervasive ‘crisis of trust’. This isn’t exactly a phenomenon we have stopped talking about since then, but it has been particularly prominent in the last few months as an explanation for the disruptive success enjoyed by populist, right-wing politicians like Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and others. Terrorism was also a fact of life for Western people in the 1970s – back then typically undertaken by radical left-wing groups like RAF and Brigate Rosse – as it is today where Islamists strike on a regular basis.
Even so, a lot of new things happened in the 1970s: disco became mainstream, hip-hop was born, with Lou Reed, Patti Smith and The Ramones rock music conquered new territory (probably for the last time), and Jean-Michel Basquiat began his art career by painting graffiti. In spite of the political and economic crises, people were able to realise more than just the perpetuation of Western, car-based mobility. Art and creativity were also unbound, even though the 1960s’ boom and The Beatles were long gone.
With this, we have reached another central element in the 1970s retro trend. Much of it is about a fascination with 1970s New York – for it was here, in spite of crime, massive public cuts and slums, that innovation could be found.
This is precisely the duality that Garth Risk Hallberg uses as the background for his novel City on Fire. It was a big sensation in US literature last year and particularly prized for catching the mood, sound, smell and feel of New York in the 1970s. I interviewed Risk Hallberg last winter when he visited Copenhagen in connection with the Danish translation of City on Fire, and he specifically mentioned how he felt a special corridor between 2007-08 and the 1970s open as he wrote the book.
“There was so much in this period, when I wrote the book, that reminded me of the time in the seventies. Many of the things we take for granted today come from that time. The major changes didn’t come in the sixties with the great utopian hopes, but in the seventies when people realised that utopia wasn’t coming. So, what do you do then? Punk starts here, hip-hop starts here, a lot of our modern art starts here – and quite a lot of it happened in New York.”
Scratch – or an Exploratorium in historic real time
The phenomenon of 1970s retro can, in other words, be seen as a sort of Exploratorium in historic real time for what is artistically and existentially possible in a time of low growth, austerity, and crisis. It is close to what the Russian cultural scientist at Harvard University, Svetlana Boym, in her 2001 book The Future of Nostalgia, calls ‘reflexive nostalgia’ – though with the difference that it isn’t so much a bittersweet re-enactment of something we are perfectly well aware is lost forever, as it is a sort of inspirational or at least comforting nostalgia. We have come through hard times before, and with a heritage we can be proud of that still speaks to us. We didn’t just survive – we lived.
This, more than anything else, is the message and primary driver of Baz Luhrmann’s TV series The Get Down, which examines how the hip-hop industry that today is a global business worth billions, began among the poor, young, black Americans in the slum of crime and burning buildings that was the Bronx. Here, struggling existences find a poetic expression in rap music and the social and urban breakdown that they otherwise have fallen victim to, mastering it by transferring it to music, mashing up old tracks, isolating and sampling beats and short phrases (scratching, backspin, etc.) to create new music. “Where there is ruin, there is a hope,” as it says on the graffiti-painted train carriages in the opening episode.
Ok. That is the positive interpretation of today’s 1970s revival. However, there are other, more critical interpretations. What if our yearning for deep rugs, warm colours on our hitherto minimalist, white-painted walls, spiced up with an authentic vinyl record of “The Message” and a hefty bank loan for a curry-yellow Golf GTI, rather than being inspirational pop-culture archaeology, simply is an expression of an innovation-lean time that can’t manage to conquer new territory, and instead has settled for curating past merits?
The standard bearer of this type of criticism is the English writer and journalist Simon Reynolds. In his Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past from 2011, he tore into his own time, particularly the 00s, for being ‘necrophilic’, and for lacking what US literary theoretician Harold Bloom calls “the anxiety of influence” and hence at once having lost the drive for original invention and the “shame of being derivative”. Instead, Reynolds says, we are stuck in mimetic repetition of our near past and live in a sort of poverty of abundance.
“Is nostalgia stopping our culture’s ability to surge forward, or are we nostalgic precisely because our culture has stopped moving forward and so we inevitably look back to more momentous and dynamic times?” he asks early in the book. As the title of his book suggests, Reynolds ultimately favours the first option: We are suffering from retromania; a digitally carried disease where YouTube, Spotify and Google readily open the doors to a near-infinite archive, only to slam the doors behind us when we have entered. Here, retro culture equals stagnation and slow suffocation.
Yet, what if it is the other way around? What if we are nostalgic precisely because ‘future as progress’ no longer is a culturally sustainable idea? What if progress as a category in the cultural sphere has ceased to be meaningful? As we wrote in the June edition of SCENARIO (04:2016; ed.), recent psychosocial research actually points to a future pessimism driven by unpredictable economic conditions, unemployment, and general uncertainty as a dominant trait of particularly Western societies today, a few years into the new millennium. More and more people in Western nations, often significant majorities, simply don’t believe in progress anymore. This doesn’t just mean that they find it very difficult to imagine and create personal visions for their individual futures, but also that the future as a category in their collective imagination is changing, and that people instead align with the past. “Trust in the future is declining,” French social psychologist Nicolas Fieulaine then said to SCENARIO, “and we focus on the past, or rather an idea of the past, as a safer and more stable time.” In addition, German philosopher at Stanford University, Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, told us how ‘progress’ was a cultural construction; something that he called a chronotope, which after 250-300 years has lost its cognitive power.
That you basically cannot – or shouldn’t – transfer technological and scientific progress to the cultural sphere, neither disruptively nor as ideology, is actually an objection that Reynolds himself towards the end of Retromania mentions as a possible counter-argument. Yet immediately afterwards, as a self-declared “to-the-bone modernist”, he rejects the idea. Like a cultural version of the Austrian-American economist Joseph Schumpeter, Reynolds clings to modernity’s idea of progress through creative destruction. As he proclaims, “art should constantly push forward into new territory, reacting against its own immediate predecessors in violent gestures of severance.”
Reynolds places the debate inside a larger debate about the relationship between modernism and postmodernism. Perhaps, however – exactly in the case of 1970s retro – it may be possible to unite the two perspectives. Nostalgia may also be a yearning for a future.
In fact, this is precisely the point that Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård, famous for his six-volume novel My Struggle, has arrived at regarding the cult of the 1970s. After My Struggle, Knausgård has over the last year published four essay collections written for his as-yet unborn daughter – one for each season. Towards the end of the second (winter) book, he has a short essay called “The 70s”. In it, he tells how his kids have become tired of his endless tirades about how everything was much worse (and hence more authentic) when he himself was a kid in the 1970s. In addition to the usual yearning for the innocence of childhood, Knausgård’s point is that the 1970s had a special future character that is missing today.
“All the technology was in place, just in a sort of gross motor variant, with telephones that were physically connected with wires, TV sets and radios that were big, wooden boxes, and rockets not much more advanced than cars, rising heavily and almost reluctantly from a hill with a huge pile of fire below, until they gradually increased speed and rose higher and higher into the clear blue 70s sky, with the astronauts strapped into the capsule as in a Volkswagen,” he writes.
It is exactly this promised, though not yet realised potential of the 1970s – not unlike the secret power hiding beneath the hood of a Golf MK1 GTI – that Knausgård believes we are longing for when yearning for the 1970s.
“Yearning for the 70s is nothing but a yearning for the future, because it existed back then; everybody knew that everything would change, but it can’t be found now, when everything has changed.”
Seen in this light, yearning for the 1970s is a function of the structural pessimism of our times, or what Knausgård calls our culture’s ‘lack of future’. Yearning for the brown decade isn’t just about nostalgia, but is directed at the future as a temporal dimension of the existence of humanity and culture.
Where there is ruin, there is a hope.