Living in the past: A meditation on Jesse McCartney and relevance

Nov. 1, 2017, 1:01 a.m.

This past Saturday, former teen idol Jesse McCartney performed at Stanford, and I of course went. Dinkelspiel Auditorium was a strange environment before Jesse began his performance, half of us drunk and in costumes for the night’s Halloween-related festivities – adding an intoxicated giddiness to the auditorium – and the other half of us unsure.

Around the room was questioning chatter, voices wondering why their celebrity crush from 13 years ago was playing at universities? What has he been doing since the mid-2000s? There were a few shocked “He’s 30!?” yelps around the audience.

I found his performance pleasantly surprising: It was a great time and he knew how to entertain a crowd. After the show, which  ended of course with a performance of the classic “Beautiful Soul,” I watched people turn to their friends, glowingly admitting that it was better than they expected and that they really had fun.

People compared the pictures and videos they got of Jesse and discussed their favorite songs. We all breathed a sigh of relief, as we were saved from the uncomfortable experience of a person trying to hold on to their relevance well past their time. Instead, Jesse proved that he can still contribute to today’s pop culture scene.

This got me thinking about our relationship to the past here at Stanford, a place so wholly focused on producing the future. Currently, nostalgia is a cultural force – one that constantly reminds us of how long ago Mean Girls came out and how old the Sprouse twins are through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Tumblr, everything.

Despite the fact that we’re only 18-22 years old (or older, for my grad students out there), we act as if society has drastically changed  over the last 10 years, like the late 90s and mid-2000s were the golden years of entertainment. And it gets worse. We dress ourselves in “vintage” clothing bought at Urban Outfitters or Free People, obsess over shows like “Stranger Things” and “Daria” for the aesthetics of the time period. We aren’t just claiming our own childhoods with our nostalgia, but the cultural hallmarks of times during which we weren’t even alive.

Despite all this glorification of the past, Stanford students can also be very uncomfortable with some of the past’s realities – God forbid that someone has a fourth generation iPhone, or older. Around campus you can hear snippets: “Facebook is so dead,” “That meme is from forever ago, dude,” “I hate seeing people from high school, it’s so weird.”

In today’s pop culture landscape, relevance is only a matter of months as new memes, new Netflix shows, new social media platforms and new celebrities come into the spotlight. A good proportion of us dream of being the creator of the next big thing, yet we laugh at the next big things that came before us.

So as we sat there waiting for Jesse McCartney to come out on stage, we were all wondering how this violation of our concepts of past and present would work. Would it be embarrassing and uncomfortable, or as if it were 2004 all over again? Turns out it was neither. Both the audience and Jesse were too aware of how much time had passed, yet none of us tried to force it. We somehow managed to recognize that this was a celebration of the past, not a recreation of it. It was this effort to celebrate instead of recreate that allowed for all of us to face the past and not diminish it. For a night, we all learned that the past can become the future.


Contact Arianna Lombard at ariannal ‘at’

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