Monday, July 20, 1998

The Retro-Apocalypse

Why are so many motorcyclists caught in a whirling mass of nostalgia? The nostalgia tornado is so pervasive that we might be headed for a "retro-apocalypse" in which we are so nostalgic for nostalgia that the biker culture, as we know it, collapses.

Perhaps we are so ravenous for the retro-cycling experience because we're frustrated living in a society that moves faster than Bill Clinton on a first date. The vast majority of our culture evolves so rapidly that we need to look back. Baby boomers pine for black-light posters and sit-ins, Jimi Hendrix and motorcycles that barely existed back then.

Manufacturers that formerly made us miserable by pushing new culture at breakneck intervals are now feeding us benign, sanitized, old culture. Instead of inventing a new culture, they are redesigning the past - giving us a new package and watching us gobble it up like bar peanuts. And there's something more perverse going on. Corporations are using nostalgia to depict American culture and society as something that it isn't - altering time-lines and blurring reality.

The Harley Davidson Heritage Softail Classic is an example of a 1950s fictional resurrection sold to the public in much the same way that "Leave it to Beaver" appears to be a documentary depicting family values in a utopian society. There's something about a bike made to recreate the 50's that you just can't accomplish with something state of the art. The Heritage Softail Classic fits the bill in this respect.

In reality, it was the Bristish motorcycles that dominated the 50s, not Harleys. Americans were exposed to bikes that could actually make it around the bend as well as go fast while they were on their tours of duty. They lost interest in the fat, sluggish Arkansas Travelers of the time. Only the '57 Sportster had the looks and balls to fill a few blood sinuses and that was at the end of the decade.

The Heritage Softail Classic is marketed to Boomers so that they can experience an unrealistically idyllic 1950s - so they can feel young again by riding the bikes they wouldn't have been old enough even to reach the handle bars on. A symbiotic relationship exists between the boomers who want to mix nostalgia with their stool softener and the manufacturers who are selling distorted historical representations as a means to curb the aging process or re-live the an illusionary past.

Nostalgia anchors us to our past, and it also anchors technological development in a retro-crazed market. If this retro-overdose continues at its current velocity - if manufacturers have to reach further and further into the past for design inspiration - we'll likely see the Steam Velocipede resurface. This will signal the end... the retro-apocalypse.

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