The Double Nostalgia of “Stranger Things”

Spoilers for Stranger Things, including in the above recipe video, if you can believe it.

If you go by what the media tells us, the Boomer/Millennial conflict is one of the great culture battles going on under our noses. By now I’m sure you’ve seen dozens of Forbes, Fortune and New York Times headlines that talk about 20 and 30-somethings like they’re from another planet. Apparently, the Nickelodeon generation is so hard to understand that baffled middle-aged managers need countless studies, thinkpieces and instruction manuals just to get us to work for them. From this perspective, it feels like there’s some sort of inconsolable gap between the two age groups that will keep us from ever understanding each other.

The truth is, though, there’s a lot of key things Boomers and Millennials have in common. Both are social media and technology fiends, despite what you may assume. Both are unsure about the state of the country and their place in it. And both are stuck in similar tracks of nostalgia.

Look, I’m no Nate Silver, which is why I can’t substantiate much of the above with figures, just feelings and observations. Also, it’s almost bedtime and I’m writing a thinkpiece, not a doactualworkpiece. But one thing I’ve always found interesting is the parallel between Millennial nostalgia for the 80’s/90’s and Boomer nostalgia for the 50’s/60’s. Right now, the former is still in its stride, with music, films and TV shows gleefully strip-mining anything remotely connected to fuzzy feelings of the past. It’s easy for us not-so-young-ones to forget that the same thing happened a few decades earlier for our parents, and continues to soldier on, in its own way.

If you’re between 18 and 34, consider the pop culture both you and your parents grew up with. They had Captain Kangaroo. You had Sesame Street. They had Thunderbirds. You had Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. They had the British Invasion, the Jackson 5 and acid rock. You had boy bands, grunge and the hip hop golden age.

Now, age both of those generations into adulthood a bit. By the 70’s and 80’s, Boomer media was waxing reflective, with Happy Days, The Big Chill and the musical revivals of Britpop and doo wop mythologizing American life at the crux of the 20th century. Fast forward to the present day, and the Millennials are going through the same thing: in our version, we’ve got retrogaming, new synth,  “Uptown Funk” and entire movie franchises banking on our rosy tween memories. Why else would Disney decide to remake its own animated classics into humorless-looking live action movies? It’s reached the point where anything that isn’t actively a remake often feels like one somehow by association.

Which leads me, finally, to Stranger Things. It’s no secret that the show has culled the work of Stephen King for much of its inspiration. This applies not just to the typography porn of the intro sequence but the themes of the story itself: a young girl with psychic powers, children pit against supernatural monsters, government experiments gone wrong, an alcoholic protagonist, a dark world with a folksy name and the angst of suburban Americana are all mixed into an instantly familiar stew. King’s influence isn’t just nostalgia, but a kind of nostalgic nexus and part of the show’s most genius stylistic gambit.

I haven’t read that much King, myself, but even I can pick up on the interesting overlap going on. See, the man’s work is already rife with nostalgic references to his own Boomer youth, growing up in Maine on a steady diet of horror movies, rock music and weird fiction, one he recounts proudly in the first half of his book, On Writing. By 2016, we have two separate sets of generational memories converging on a single show. Though Stranger Things is set in 1983, it’s a version that echoes King’s own vision of the 80’s influenced by the 50’s and 60’s. For Millennials, it’s both our memories and our parents’ memories combined in a slick, streaming-friendly package.

And there’s yet another layer added when you consider the experience of Boomers in the 80’s being brought to bear. One parent I talked to reminisced about how Stranger Things sparked the memories she had of watching The Goonies with her daughter. The show attempts to recall the experience of both older and younger people reacting to the same cultural artifacts.

There’s no accident in the season’s plot structure, perhaps the most ingenious aspect of the show’s writing. For most of the story, we’re watching three separate 80’s throwback movies unfold: Micheal and Eleven and pals are essentially living through E.T., Nancy and Jonathan are stuck in a supernatural slasher flick and Winona Ryder joins Sheriff Hopper in a paranoid spy thriller meets ghost story. All of these are familiar enough structures for pretty much anyone to latch onto.

I wouldn’t say the show panders to both Boomers and Millennials equally, exactly. The fact that it features kids playing D&D at both the start and end of the series tips Stranger Things’ hand a little forcefully. There’s also lots of emphasis on the experience of using 80’s technology specifically as a child would. “Remember wood-paneled TV’s?” the show seems to be saying, like an unconscious version of South Park’s “Member Berries”. “And radios with antennas and record players and corded phones?” In fact, it was this sense of superficiality that left me cold at first. The show’s creators seemed so invested in reminding us of these things that there didn’t seem to be any room for Stranger Things to be about anything. And at a time when nerdy circles are desperately crying out for more diversity, the depiction of a group of all-male friends adds to the dangerous myth that there were no “real” nerdy girls in the 80’s, something far too many people still seem to believe today (if only Barb had stuck around longer to refute this stereotype).

However, after a few episodes the show’s multilayered nostalgia cake begins to reveal itself. It’s references on top of references, in a way that almost registers as camp but moves beyond into a kind of cross-generational signal fire. The show seems to be telling us that nostalgia is, at its core, the same, no matter who is feeling it or for what. The feelings King had when he wrote “The Body” or It must be on the same spectrum as the feelings we get while watching Stranger Things. The memories of a Boomer watching E.T.
with their kid intersect with that very kid’s memories of the same movie. Whether you were in your thirties or your teens when you first experienced one of the show’s source texts, revisiting it has an effect on you.

It’s not clear what happens next, though. I’m not just talking about Season 2, especially since there’s a few things obviously being set up. I’m referring more to the way our continued fascination with criticizing nostalgia will play out. Like, how many things can you really say about stuff we already know about? It’s true that every generation harvests the art that came before it for inspiration, but the consumer culture we find ourselves in now is in desperate need of new visions to give it some shape. I guess until then, we can look forward to new old-style title sequences. Not to mention more chances to eat things that vaguely resemble things from the show.