WASHINGTON, DC–Lava lamps, the once-popular, then passé, then popular again, then passé again novelty items that have cyclically taken various American subcultures by storm throughout their 35-year history, are back.
According to a report issued Monday by the U.S. Department of Retro, the status of the multi-colored, mildly psychedelic light fixtures changed again in 2000, reverting from a tired form of passé retro kitsch back into a novel form of retro camp. The switch marks the 17th time the government has changed the lava lamp's retro classification since its initial resurgence in 1976 as an amusing, campy throwback to the then-outmoded '60s hippie drug culture.
"Lava lamps, which throughout the late '90s were seen as an irrelevant remnant of a relatively minor mid-'90s form of '60s retro, are once again retro in an exciting new way for millions of Americans unfamiliar with their previous kitsch-object incarnations," U.S. Retro Secretary Brian Setzer said. "That fallow period of the late '90s laid the groundwork for a revival within a subset of retro consumer for whom the novelty factor of floating bulbs of wax suspended in water and lit from below had not yet worn off."
Setzer–who made his name in the '80s playing retro '50s rockabilly with The Stray Cats and subsequently enjoyed a comeback in the '90s, both for playing '40s big-band music with the Brian Setzer Orchestra during the retro swing revival and as the subject of retro appreciation himself during a concurrent '80s retro wave–praised the pop-cultural tenacity of the lava lamp.
"One of the few pop-culture fads to weather a significant number of lame-then-cool-again changes in the fickle American retro landscape, the lava lamp has proven itself the rare retro phenomenon that will not die," Setzer said. "Whether this is good or bad, or what it even says about our society, is largely unknowable."
As noted in the Retro Department report, the popularity of lava lamps at any one moment is difficult to gauge due to their varying status within different subcultures. As a result, the lamps often simultaneously occupy many different points along the retro-cycle curve, causing confusion among retro cognoscenti. For example, in 1998, computer dweebs considered the lamps "CyberKewl," while swing-dancing hipsters dismissed them as "lame-a-roony-toony."
Further complicating matters are the complex meta-retro aesthetics of pop-culture-obsessed Generation Xers for whom the lamps represent a form of "retro-retro." For such individuals–who enjoyed the lamps in the late '80s as a retro throwback but then grew out of this "pure" retro phase and rejected them, only to eventually develop nostalgic affection for their original retro feelings–it is hard to assess how they truly feel about the lamps.
"Remember back in '88, '89, when everybody had lava lamps in their dorm rooms because they were so hilariously evocative of the late '60s, early '70s?" said Todd Wakefield, 31, a recent lava lamp re-reconvert. "That was awesome."
"Lava lamps? Please. I remember back in '88, '89, when everybody had one in their dorm room because they were trying to be all late '60s, early '70s," said Jen Cushman, 31. "Talk about over. Having a lava lamp now is so late-'80s late '60s/early '70s."
Still others view the matter altogether differently.
"It all depends whether you're talking about straight, unironic, revivalist retro or one of the numerous strains of pre-X and Gen-X irony," said Seth Burks, 29, author of the award-winning Athens, GA-based 'zine Burning Asshole. "I've identified 22 distinct varieties of irony-informed retro and non-retro aesthetics, including camp, kitsch, trash, schmaltz, post-schmaltz, and post-post-schmaltz. It's time we addressed the woeful inadequacies of the government's current retro-classification system."
The report marks the latest in a string of controversies for the embattled Department of Retro, which is still feeling the effects of 1998's bitter infighting over the still-unresolved issue of "classic" rock. The department was further rocked in May 1999, when Setzer replaced then-Retro Secretary Donny Most, who stepped down after refusing to endorse That '70s Show.