The Incomplete Nostalgia of Youtube Rewind

I follow a lot of Youtubers; have for years. It can be a shock to some that I am quite well-versed in pop culture and celebrity news. Being a social media manager means keeping up with what’s going on in the world and that means being able to speak on and know a lot about what’s happening in the world at all times from memes to who is dating who. The Youtubers part may be less of a shock. From Jenna Marbles (please, come back to us); I’ve followed the journeys of many of these online celebrities and enjoyed their content and their personalities. John Green helped me come to terms with having OCD, Crash Course taught me new things, Mike Rugnetta helped me see the world in different ways, Hannah Hart taught me to check my cheese for poison. 

That’s to say, when Youtube Rewinds are released at the end of the year as a bit of a jaunt through the year’s events I look forward to them. I love seeing all the trends, the dancing, the mix of pop music and all the celebrities I’ve spent so much time with and I get a kick out of recognizing names and faces. 

I started really taking notice of the Youtube Rewinds in 2016 when we had one of the best rewinds ever made since they began nearly two decades ago. It was the perfect blend of the memes, humor and tone of 2016 as we mostly ignored the election and thought on all the neat things that happened before the election and our lives and country would be changed forever. In 2016 while canceling and #MeToo was a thing, most were firmly in the camp of either denial when celebrities you cared about or to just chalk it up to a messy he said/she said. Which is why people like PewdiePie who is a literal racist being in the video isn’t so strange: he was still the biggest name on the platform and even though we had heard him be awful and racist before 2016, we accepted me; I accepted it. 

Since then, there’s only been two more rewinds including 2017 which has a montage of all the bad things that happened that year but the world coming together (and it does make me cry) and 2018 which is where things had fallen off the rails.We now knew and could not ignore the problematic elements in the Youtube community from racist stars to ignoring and suppressing LGBT voices and yet the 2018 Rewind displayed not only queer creators and many of the problematic creators that we by the time the rewind aired knew were problematic. It was almost like the rewind was meant to have us ignore all of this for a candy-colored view of the world. 2018 also had its fair share of issues mostly relating to a racist president that was bent on ruining the world but Youtube Rewind was determined to be upbeat to the point of being tone deaf. There’s something to be said about trying to choose positivity in the light of what was an objectively bad year but seeing a bunch of millionaire celebrities wax philosophic about equality and things being better and that Logan Paul wasn’t a terrible person. Even in 2017 it was starting to feel a little tired when we had people who were objectively better off than the millions watching the Youtube Rewind were continuing to insist that we just keep our heads up and dance because things are okay even when they aren’t. 

But now as I find myself sequestered inside, I found the older Rewinds so comforting or at least I want to. The 2015 Rewind that focuses on back then what was a decade of Youtube and meme culture nearly brought tears to my eyes as I saw viral videos and memes that were so much part of my teenage zeitgeist that they have imprinted on my heart. The 2016 Rewind may still be one of my favorites even if it does start to feel incomplete in comparison to what else was happening that year: 2016 was not just Pokemon Go and Justin Bieber music but it is nice to think of it that way. Even more so, it’s strange going back and looking at a year like 2015 or even 2013 which feels like it was approximately 1000 years ago. It’s almost strange now to see the tone of the world be so positive or different in comparison to how I feel now in 2021; a strange mix of desperate optimism atop of intense ennui, malaise and fatigue. At the same time, some of the earlier rewinds are nearly impossible to watch as they feature memes or songs that have been played to death or have been banished from the current social and digital lexicon. No one does the Harlem Shake anymore and if one more damn person asks “What does the Fox say?” I will fling myself into traffic. But to go back and think about a time where the world cared slime

Nostalgia is a strange thing: it does in fact distort the past into a comfortable and often linear narrative. It’s much easier to think of the past as a series of one-off events rather than think of the building tension and hostility that had been brewing under the surface or the terrible acts that happened during those years while others got the luxury to just play games and listen to popular music and revel in meme culture. It’s easier to ignore the complexities of men and the horrible things they do while the camera is running or when the camera isn’t running. It’s much easier to ignore the systemic issues that have plagued creators of color both online and in the real world to make them cheapened tokens of diversity amongst a sea of white creators. It’s much easier not to think about the racist demagogue whose reign of terror during those years would change the lives of millions while simply indulging in the hedonistic ambrosia of slick remixes and references to a thing you may or may not have liked. But for a piece of corporate-driven capitalistic nostalgia, it has been a strange sort of balm in these trying times to cast my mind back to a time that at least on the surface felt simpler. 

A Casual Relationship with Death

_Because I could not stop for Death – He kindly stopped for me – The Carriage held but just Ourselves – And Immortality._If you look at modern meme culture (which I do because it’s a nice ephemeral distraction from our current hellscape) there’s a lot of talk about death. Responses like “At least we all die.” and easily and casually referencing death as a way to handle any inconvenience or slight no matter how small. “I guess I’ll just die.” has been a rather convenient form of shorthand for a while now referencing how difficult and herculean some tasks in life can be and it’s even one that me (someone who works in the death care industry) use when talking about how hard it is to set appointments or even stay on the line while I wait to refill a prescription.

But I wonder why we have such a casual relationship with the concept of mortality despite death denial never being stronger with all the detoxes and fad diets.

It’s easy to chalk this up to the hyperbolic nature of language now. Death is the ultimate end: it doesn’t get more hyperbolic than saying that going to Trader Joe’s will literally kill you.

I think it goes a little deeper than that. I think it has to do with our current epidemic of anxiety and nihilism in the face of our current climate.

Let’s step back in time: it’s just after World War II in Paris. A city that is still in places rebuilding and is full of wine, absinthe, smoke, bread and ennui. The new wave of existentialists had taken root in Paris and with minds like Sartre and Camus looking at the works of Kierkegaard and Freud. Both come to similar but somewhat differing views on death and meaning. Sartre was more hopeful, a little like Kierkegaard while Camus was incredibly nihilistic about the whole thing like a strange fusion of Freud and Nietzsche. But both saw death as a drive we moved towards and dealt with. Existentialism is being very aware of mortality to a nearly terminal (pun intended)  way. Death hangs round like a passive ghost here to remind you that meaning is useless and we all perish: it’s simply a matter of time.

There’s a line in an early episode of Lore where the brilliant host Aaron Mahnke discusses the Afterglow Vista (which is an amazing episode and one of my favorites) and one of the features of this strange mausoleum are pillars: most of the pillars are finished except for one and the construction note on that is “because Death never lets you finish your work.”.

Existentialism was a direct response to how hollow Romanticism seemed and the Romantic notion of how glorious death and the afterlife must be seemed to only accelerate the death drive. Romanticism fits in with a great deal of the Victorian era and that’s where we really start to get a romanticization (lower case for a reason) with death and memento mori and modern funeral culture. So while the Romantics saw death as a friend who hangs around waiting patiently for you to be finished with your meat prison, Existentialists saw death as a forever looming ghost that you had to fight off daily because existence is painful, useless and never-ending until it, well, ends.

And while we are technically in a Postmodern age (a word I hate), I don’t think that Existential relationship with using dark humor to cope with our current existence. The internet (which seems to be mostly people who have some form of anxiety [because that’s very human and fine]) has perpetuated that feeling. Dark humor, memes and more is how we deal with all that is going on and woah, boy, it’s a lot going on. And it is in dark humor that we return to our relationship with death. Death is a lot to deal with, mortality is not something that’s fun or exciting to meditate on: trust me, I am surrounded by death daily for work and it doesn’t get easier.

I’m proudly mostly Death Positive and one of the main tenets of The Order of the Good Death is confronting mortality but facing it: often, daily. And no member of The Order will ever tell you that such a thing is easy. I joke about it to make me aware and maybe, just maybe to take a small shot at something we are all hurtling towards.

That is one of my favorite things about the French Existentialists, using humor to defuse our fear. Camus was huge on using humor and wit to demystify and remove the wonder from the world and in facing and coping with the absurd, even large things seem less large. It reminds me one of two of my favorite pieces of humor ever: The Galaxy Song and Always Look on the Bright Side both from two old Monty Python movies. Both songs take a firm look at how silly and stupid life is and can be and encourages you to overcome that feeling with a laugh.

There is a lot to be overwhelmed with in our current world. Climate change is nearly paralyzing, world governments are a hot hot mess, the economy is bad and apparently everyone in Hollywood is a garbage human. All of it seems hopeless and futile and the sweet sweet embrace of the quiet, stillness of an eternal dirt sleep seem almost like a comfort.

And our media seems to enforce this narrative. With the influx of genocidal themes and generalized themes around death and dying as aspects of movie plot lines, it’s easy to see a much more casual if not entirely fictive relationship with The End. Comic books and video games make death seem like an inconvenient bump in the road and lord knows that anime has a bad reputation with character deaths meaning next to nothing. One of the biggest things I’ll always say about the earlier runs of comic books is that most of the time, death mattered. When House of M happened, those characters stayed dead. When Crisis on Infinite Earths happened, those deaths mattered and when The Great Blue Boy Scout stopped flying around Metropolis, he stayed gone for a while. Each one had weight and meaning until it just didn’t.

Music seemed to take the opposite direction with pop songs encouraging almost destructive levels of Carpe Diem via excessive drinking, partying, sleeping with strangers, driving fast cars and generally not giving a hoot and a half. Drake said “YOLO” Ke$ha says act like we’re going to “Die Young” and Avicii encouraged all of us to create more of “the nights that never die”. Death stops the party but if you get there faster, you might as well have gotten there faster but doing a kegger in a parking lot after seeing your favorite band one more time.

This isn’t to belittle the actual suicide crisis in the U.S. and around the world. There is a huge different in joking about death casually than those who actively do not see light at the end of the tunnel. And that’s always a tricky line that I am not professionally equipped to answer for you. To each person, a joke or a cry for help are likely very different lines and cues and I am not the one to say there’s a one-size-fits-all answer to it.

For those of us who are anxious, depressive, melancholic, malcontent, filled with ennui and malaise; joking about the end makes it easier to face the end and with our current state of inflammatory language, using The Grim Reaper as a stand-in for a myriad of other issues that oppress, confine and exhaust was a logical step in the right direction.

It’s a road we all reach someday: might as well have a good time while on it.