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13 November 2020

Pop Culture, Decline, and Nostalgia

I listen to podcasts on my commute to work. During the summer, when I don't need to commute regularly, the podcasts accumulate so I've been listening to the backlog. I just listened to a Fresh Air interview this morning from mid-March with Hank Azaria when he discussed his show Brockmire, in which he plays the titular character, a troubled baseball announcer. I had heard about the show before but don't get IFC, where the show airs, so I hadn't thought about it much, which is a little surprising because it checks several boxes for me, being a baseball, comedy, and Azaria fan. I think it's available on Hulu now, though, so I'll probably check it out.

Hank explained the origins of the series in the interview:

I created the character when I was a teenager. I saw it as a sketch, as an excuse for a lot of sophomoric laughs, and I had the guy be a blackout drunk because it would justify speaking like that on the air, but [head writer] Joel [Church-Cooper] saw the man's alcoholism coming to the fore and how he kind of represented baseball, and baseball kind of represented what was kind of aging and out of touch in our society, as Brockmire now is as he's been sort of exiled and trying to find his way back. [lightly edited; emphasis added]

As much as I love baseball and it pains me to acknowledge, my love of the game is mostly a nostalgic love. Its popularity has wained over the years, and even though we may still refer to it as "America's pastime," it's more accurately America's pastime of the past. This reminded me of Ken Burn's Baseball, the sprawling, 19-hour documentary on the institution. Burns has also taken up other Americanisms in his works. Jazz, for example, documents the birth and development of what is often referred to as America's only truly original artform. Jazz the musical style, though, is inarguably in its terminal, traditionalist genre form (see Lena's Banding Together). Like jazz, baseball lingers as a traditional remnant, an artifact of a bygone era that we can't seem to fully jettison, something that still feels definitional even as it's losing popular resonance.

Honestly, Burn's ability to highlight both locations for cultural decline as well as our often-uncritical nostalgia over those institutions is unsettling, especially given some of his other films, like The National Parks. What are our roots? How have they changed and been replaced? How do we relate to that now? Much of our politics today seem to be an abstraction of these very questions, a messy working-out of our past, present, and future.

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