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Robo-James’ Time-Machine: The Unbearable Sadness of Levi’s

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It makes sense that TV, something we spend so many childhood afternoons and sick days with, is such a nostalgia trigger–see the reaction when any beloved sitcom character dies. But it’s funny how sentimentally attached people–especially, maybe, Gen-Xers of my vintage–are to commercials, usually the most-bemoaned part of the TV experience.

A while ago, through a chain of events I won’t begin to explain, I found myself on YouTube, looking up the above “Laughing Levi’s” jingle to show the Tuned In Jrs. This ad has a weird personal resonance for me—partly because I remember seeing it constantly during my first hospital stay, when I was very young, and partly because, well, look at it. As the goofy acoustic-guitar earworm plays (warning: this song may stay in your head for several days), it shows a stop-motion story: a boy walks out his door, has an adventure with a dog and a fire hydrant, picks a flower and gives it to an old lady, whom–hello, Harold and Maude!–he goes off with.

But what really got me, looking at it again, were the comments on the YouTube page. Most are quick, fond comments, but a few hit a note of loss, sadness, even bitterness, like this one:

how i want to go back…gettin old stinks…grew up on long island nassau co.i remember a few kids havin similiar outfits…most of mine came off the discount rack but i could care less…man was i out and about on every afternoon on schooldays and every saturday til dinner..then back out after that……what the hell happened to todays parents and kids

It’s not like this is the first generation to idealize its youth compared to the mess these damn kids have made of the world today, but it’s strange to me because, having lived in the ’70s, I don’t exactly remember it being considered a period of innocence at the time. It’s also strange because it’s inspired by a freaking stop-motion Levi’s ad.

Part of this, I guess, is just the eternal complaints of middle age. Part of it is the fact that, pre-DVRs and DVDs, everyone spent the same amount of quality time with the same TV ads. And part of it, I suspect, is characteristic of the members of my generation, who were looking back wistfully at Pop Rocks and King Vitamin cereal when we were still in our twenties.

But I also wonder if commercials are particularly built to generate nostalgia, because after all, their job is to present an idealized reality. (In this case, much more idealized than than early-’70s sitcoms like All in the Family of M*A*S*H.) That kid stop-motion-walking out his door to greet the “bright shining world”–we’re not seeing him get an anti-drugs lecture in his homeroom at school, we don’t see his uncle coming back from Vietnam, we don’t know if his parents are getting divorced. As much as I objectively know it’s a fantasy, I can’t help but feel some of that pull too, when I see an ad like this. Look at that kid! He was so carefree. He had the run of the world. That was me! Even if, really, it wasn’t.

Half of nostalgia is remembering the perfection of an earlier time that, even back then, you were aware didn’t exist. But it was nice to believe in it for 60 seconds then then, and it still is now, which maybe is why when some people look back at a Laughing Levi’s ad, they have to laugh to keep from crying.