In the Guide’s weekly Solved! column, we look into a crucial pop-culture question you’ve been burning to know the answer to – and settle it, once and for all
If you’re the sort of person who likes to read about pop culture (why else would you be here?!) you will be familiar with the anniversary article. It is a staple in cultural coverage, and it comes in various degrees of separation: for every unnecessary “Eight Months Later, Where Are the Cast of Cheer Now?”, there’s pop-punk patriarchs Green Day sharing eye-opening memories about recording Dookie 25 years ago. During lockdown, a time ripe for the warm comfort of nostalgia, the anniversary business is booming. However, ubiquity does beg the question: how many years should go by before we re-examine our pop-culture faves?
One thing is clear: familiarity breeds boredom. So much has been written about Friends, for example, that last year’s 25th-anniversary write-ups fell flat. We know why the series is so beloved and had no desire to see it regurgitated in every outlet. At the opposite end of the spectrum, Seinfeld was never as popular in Europe at the time it originally aired, making recent 30th-anniversary pieces, featuring lists of best episodes, actually useful for people interested in giving the show a go.
Whether one decade or four have passed, celebrations of entertainment that wasn’t massive first time round, such as Thrillist’s recent Scott Pilgrim vs the World deep dive, work because their subject hasn’t been endlessly pored over already. They also allow for reappraisal. When the critically panned (but adored by millennials) Coyote Ugly turned 20 last month, the Ringer’s anniversary special revealed that Carrie Fisher had penned an early draft of the script. Streaming services have given films like these a second life, with surprising anecdotes quickly disseminated via social media.
But just to play devil’s advocate for a moment: are anniversaries for films, albums or TV even necessary when we have seemingly daily reminders of them? It is easy to become complacent about pop-culture milestones when historic entertainment is in our orbit at all times. Every day on social media we can check in with Don Draper or the Sex and the City ladies via meme accounts full of subtitled screengrabs. There are Instagram accounts such as Velvet Coke that share anecdotes about both cult and mainstream 90s pop culture. For superfans, podcasts such as Talking Sopranos and Office Ladies hosted by cast and crew provide the kind of titbits you might have otherwise found in anniversary articles.
However, at a time of peak nostalgia, retrospectives clearly fulfil a need, and can be clickbait gold. But to truly engage us, a successful anniversary piece has to go further than cribbing facts from Wikipedia. The best often appear at a time of progression, both personal and societal. A time when we can look back critically with the benefit of hindsight, or when there’s an opportunity to learn something. Five-year retrospectives might be apt for musicians prone to continual reinvention, or television that has broken down cultural boundaries, but ultimately the new standard of 20 years is ideal for an ultimate anniversary special. Two decades feels like the appropriate distance to provide scope for new conversations and trivia to pore over. With today’s accelerated pop-culture world – not to mention our short attention spans – it’s the perfect amount of delayed gratification.