BeastStyle

06.17.14

Memory Porn: America’s Obscene Anniversary Obsession

We’ve just had the 20th anniversary of the Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman murders. Coming up: 25 years since the fall of the Berlin Wall. And it’s only going to get worse.

On Sunday night, inert and dead-eyed like a shark washed up on a beach, I was hypnotized by NBC’s The People vs. O.J. Simpson: What The Jury Never Heard. It wasn’t so much what the jury had or hadn’t heard that was preoccupying me but the realization that I would never be free of Kato Kaelin. We are revisiting the world of bloodied footprints and runaway Broncos because it’s 20 years since Simpson’s wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend Ronald Goldman were found stabbed to death at the Simpsons’ one-time marital home.

A program that should be anything but reassuring—it is about two grisly murders and the hazy, crazy nexus of celebrity, race, and justice—oddly has such a familiar ring to it that it is now a piece of reassuring retro, as buffed as a favorite pop video or Ewing barbecue fistfight. What the 20th anniversary O.J. recycling comes to be is the all too familiar stock footage of the darkened path toward the Simpsons’ front door, of Marcia Clark and Johnnie Cochran and stern Judge Ito; of a trial involving a celebrity accumulating a cast of celebrities itself, chief among them the mullet-haired Kaelin. And if it’s 20 years since the murders, that means in October 2015 it will be 20 years since Simpson was found not guilty, and then in February 2017 20 years since a civil court jury ordered him to pay $33 million to Brown Simpson and Goldman’s families. We will never be free of O.J. Simpson anniversaries.

That’s if we’re not counting the anniversaries in five-year spans, too, in which case we also could look for random Kaelin-in-the-dock videotape replays at 25 and 35 years. We are anniversary-addicted, suckers for memory porn, with the news cycle getting ever quicker and ready to consume even more wars, violence, natural disasters, mass murders, school shootings, spacewalks, momentous events, marriages, and deaths. These events come and go so quickly now that the anniversaries rain down ever harder. Every day we not only have the new news but old news, with a handy, retrospective round number attached to it.

“The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there,” L.P. Hartley famously wrote in The Go-Between. But no matter that difference, we crave to own and co-opt, rather than necessarily understand, it. This is nostalgia as a recording exercise rather than a lesson in empathy or comprehension. We’re worried about losing a grip on history. We like the idea of a past, even if we’re unsure we want to spend that long enmeshed in its gnarliness.

Just as I will never be free of Kaelin, so I will never be free of the Beatles’ plane touching down in the United States, and women screaming and holding “Elvis Is dead, Long Live The Beatles” signs, which I saw all over again in February, when it was the 50th anniversary of the Beatles attaining their first U.S. No. 1. I am readying myself for the inevitable footage of David Hasselhoff in that black leather jacket with the twinkling lights, singing “Looking for Freedom,” when the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall comes around this November.

Our culture seems to be in a constant state of valorizing the novel and breaking news, while also memorializing past anniversaries, making them simple and bite-sized.

“The problem, as the O.J. coverage shows, is that we don’t look back and learn. We look back for the pretty or grotesque pictures, and shake our heads at the circus.”

Already this year we have had the 10th anniversary of the first episode of The Apprentice; the 40th anniversary of the first episode of Happy Days (January 15); the 10th anniversary of the Janet Jackson nipple slip at Super Bowl XXXVIII (February 1); the 10th anniversary of the launch of Facebook (February 4); the 25th anniversary of Soviet troops leaving Afghanistan (February 15); the 10th anniversary of the final episode of Sex and the City (February 22); the 50th anniversary of Cassius Clay becoming world heavyweight champion (February 25); the 10th anniversary of the Madrid train bombings (March 11); and the 50th year since Richard Burton and Elizabeth Taylor first married (March 15). It has been 125 years since the inauguration of the Eiffel Tower (March 31), 20 years since the death of Kurt Cobain (April 8), 25 years since the Hillsborough football disaster in Sheffield, England (April 15); 50 years since the Rolling Stones released their debut album (April 16); 15 years since the Columbine High School massacre (April 20); 20 years since the death of Ayrton Senna (May 1); 60 years since Roger Bannister broke the four-minute mile (May 6); 25 years since the Tiananmen Square massacre (June 4); and 70 years since D-Day.

Still to come, just so you can mark your already crowded international calendars: 100 years since Babe Ruth made his Major League Baseball debut (July 11); 100 years since the start of World War I (July 28); 40 years since Richard Nixon resigned; 70 years since the liberation of Paris in World War II (August 19); 50 years since the premiere of Mary Poppins (August 27); 50 years since Martin Luther King Jr. was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize (October 14); and 100 years since the birth of poet Dylan Thomas (October 27).

All that anniversary goal-hunting will surely only get much worse with the Kardashians: Imagine the number of births, marriages, divorces, and red carpet wardrobe malfunctions we will have to mark on their behalf alone. The problem with anniversary addiction is one of significance: If everything has an anniversary, if there is a growing plenitude of events and personalities to mark, where is the quality line to be drawn?

As a child, I was taught significant dates in history—the Wars of the Roses, 1455-87, and the Magna Carta, 1215 (both of which I just had to look up)—but there wasn’t an anniversary fever. For a British child of the 1970s, the queen’s Silver Jubilee (1977, I just about remember the bunting), was the only event that stood out. But perhaps it’s a result of culture speeding up, and the notion of what counts as significant and interesting becoming more embracing—when the world of pop culture butts heads with the world of war zones. There’s more news, so more to record, and so more anniversaries.

The problem, as all the O.J. coverage shows, is that we don’t look back and learn. We look back for the pretty or grotesque pictures, and shake our heads at the circus. Our first thought isn’t “Gosh, that was so significant” but “1994? That makes me feel so old.” And just as there are many anniversaries to mark, so memory itself has gotten shorter. We capture things, photograph them, record them, on myriad social platforms. The present becomes the past in a flash, and those same social platforms endow us, and our memories, with an outsize significance, too. Bad news, bloody news, massacres, and dreadful human rights abuses have to be really bad to imprint themselves on our imaginations now, because the news every night is a dizzying revolving door of extremes, each house concealing women kept in enslavement for more than 20 years trying to outdo some other “couldn’t make it up” piece of awfulness or weirdness.

Our anniversary addiction is perhaps a way of imposing order on this charabanc of crazy. Or it’s just pornographic and road-crashy. So what if we don’t learn anything by the constant scrolling of significant dates, so what if—numb to events, funny and sad, big and small—we can only summon up a “Is it really that long?” as the familiar images play over again. We know that right after the white Bronco exits stage left (it’ll be back in a few years), we can soon thrill to the faces of those savoring wartime liberation in Paris, the mordant resignation of Nixon, and some stirring footage of MLK.

Hartley was right: The past is a different country, and, like any tourist, we want to travel there and back at our own convenience. Like another country, the past is separate to us but always tantalizing. So mark it in your planning-ahead diaries now: October 17, 2023, “10th anniversary of Kim Kardashian’s butt selfie.”