Everything Old Is New Again: Notes on Retro and Fan Culture
by Claus Tieber — University of Vienna
November 18, 2016 – 09:10
By Hanna Klien and Claus Tieber
1. The amount of remakes, reboots and remixes within popular culture in recent times may be called a "retromania". (Simon Reynolds). Although revivalist strategies are not new, the current trend and its embrace within fan cultures indicate an increased need for continuity that is provided by focused frames of references.
2. Technological developments play an important role in this process, since popular culture’s archives are available for everyone today at all times. The increased speed of distribution and immediacy of access contributes to shorter cycles of revision. Generally, the wide availability of different versions (approved or disliked) heightens the pleasure in choice and diversifies identity options for consumers, in particular fans.
3. In industry terms an archive when owned by the company is called the back catalogue. For consumers the old and the new are separated by just a click in digital archives conforming to the same norms. Re-selling the back catalogue becomes more important when recent sales are falling, because less financial investment is needed. Remakes boost sales, but face the challenge to make a ‘property’ attractive for a new generation while not deterring (older) fans. In recent years a power shift in favour of fans has influenced such ‘generational’ relations.
4. In contrast to past underestimation of fans’ power ("The Harry Potter Wars"), the industry pursues collaborations with fan groups, also using them for their own PR. With new and social media, fan culture has an enormous influence on the success of the instalment of a new franchise, a remake, or an adaptation.
5. Retro culture is trans- and intermedial. Popular narratives are spreading around all forms of popular culture: comics, television, films, computer games, music etc. Popular narratives have no beginning and no end, they leave room for fans to fill in their versions. Since remix across genre and media boundaries are an essential part of fan practices (fan fiction, fan art, etc.), loops for perpetual meaning-making emerge in the tension between firmly established frames and signifiers of difference. Thus, the trend can also be seen as the effort of the industry to adapt to pleasures of media consumers in convergence culture.
6. Consequently, texts are increasingly multi-layered due to the necessity for producers to build references, Easter eggs and self-conscious links into their narratives. The very form and morphology of popular text is changing. Another aspect of this development is the diversification of fan communities also in terms of different generations within. Newly introduced elements in remakes can address formerly marginalised groups in fan cultures (for example, by reboots starring women in formerly male roles). Retro-culture together with a general tendency towards nostalgia in consumerism shapes bonds across such differences.
6. The high density of intertextuality does not only serve to address a variety of audiences but also holds the potential for intergenerational shared viewership. With the loss of TV as a ‘modern fireplace’, series can serve similar purposes within retro-culture. A TV show such as Stranger Things is able to reunite families in combining young characters for today's youth with a 1980s setting and loads of references for their parents. On the other hand, historical decades frequently become just a setting or a sound incorporated in consumption. Reduced to interchangeable references, signifiers of time and space are thus subjected to commodification processes, as is evident in productions such as Baz Luhrman’s The Get Down. While films such as Wild Style and Style Wars are referenced, the representation of hip hop’s origin is framed in mass consumption exemplified by over 10,000 retro sneakers by Puma, Converse and Pro-Ked manufactured for the show.
7. Due to a recent power shift remakes, reboots, and remixes pay tribute to (a sense of) proprietorship by fans, who in return consume a continuously growing number of related commodities. Thus, the media products rely on frames that provide continuity and reinforce fan identities, but leave enough room for creative versioning. Releases of such films and series have become multimedial events turning fans into essential players with varying power positions, not least based on economic means. Therefore, an important approach in generational studies of fan/popular culture is to focus on relations within fan cultures, looking at the groups that appropriate certain elements to contest others or the selective strategies in production to address particularly powerful groups (for example, by privileging a predominant reading through references).