The Spirit of Nostalgia with Whitt Laxson

The Spirit of Nostalgia with Whitt Laxson

In the pantheon of truly great nostalgia podcasts, Whitt Laxson’s Duff Enough has been a ray of sunshine streaming into my life. There’s no doubt that Whitt is the perfect person to host a podcast about Hilary Duff’s life and career. Whitt is a TV producer based in Tampa. He reported on Disney’s 2019 D23 Expo, where Hilary first announced the Lizzie McGuire reboot we still hope for. He met Haylie Duff recently – watch the interview segment Whitt produced here! Whitt’s amount of love for the Duff sisters is matched by his level of expertise. On his podcast, he has carefully analyzed everything from Lizzie McGuire episodes to Hilary Duff’s film and music catalogue, to her more recent TV roles in Younger and How I Met Your Father.

After discovering Duff Enough at the beginning of the pandemic, I eagerly awaited new episodes of this “ultimate Hilary Duff fan podcast.” As I’ve gotten to know Whitt over the past two years, I’ve noticed that we have a lot in common – a love of Disney and Disney Channel media, a strong memory of television moments that shaped us, a fondness for pop music. Whitt grew up in Tennessee, not far from where I visit my family. He and I even share the same birth year and are just over two weeks apart! While we’ve not yet met in person, we have virtually discussed the bittersweet nuances of nostalgia.

I talked with Whitt about the many ways we experience nostalgia, from vibrant Disney Channel memories to mental snapshots of upbeat Christian concerts. We also touched on the “forward” part of Past Foot Forward, discussing the complex meaning of inspiration in our lives today.

Whitt Laxson/Instagram

Whitt Laxson has been watching Disney Channel Original Movies since 1997 – when he was only three years old. He remembers Under Wraps, and a year later, he enjoyed another spooky movie: “When I watch Halloweentown now, I still get the same feeling, especially when the movie first starts and the music starts. I get the same feeling that I felt watching it in 1998 for the first time. That one was a little scary for me at that time. Kalabar, a little scary,” he told me. Like many of us, Whitt says he was “hooked on Zenon” as a child, too. “It was an early favorite. Definitely in my top, God-tier DCOMs.” That’s high praise, as Whitt knows a lot of good DCOMs.

Pre-DCOM era, there were Disney Channel Premiere Films, including the 1996 Katherine Heigl classic Wish Upon a Star. This movie would never be shown on Disney Channel today (nor would its neighbor, Susie Q), but it was such an electric part of being a ‘90s baby. Bringing up another great glimmer of nostalgia, Whitt said, “The big thing I remember was The Magical World of Disney and the opening where it goes through the castle.” That’s one of my earliest Disney Channel memories, too! The sequence took us riding on a magic carpet, with beautiful tapestries of Disney feature films that were shown on Disney Channel when we were young.

In those days, there was a decent amount of synergy between family programming on Disney Channel and on ABC. Whitt and I both love ABC’s Wonderful World of Disney classic, Model Behavior, a movie featuring Justin Timberlake and Maggie Lawson that frequently reran on the Disney Channel. I remember how much I enjoyed the film’s intro music, “Here We Go” by *NSYNC.

When we talked about one of my favorite subjects, the “Zoog Disney” era of Disney Channel, Whitt shared, “I would almost say that is the most nostalgic because there’s that innocence and that special, happy time when I was a carefree kid.” He added that he feels nostalgia for Disney Channel’s Wand IDs and DCOM intros, but when it comes to Zoog Disney, “That takes me to another place. It’s like, ‘Whoa!’ That is somewhere in the back of my mind, that memory.” An example is Hilary Duff appearing in character as Lizzie McGuire, answering “fan emails” on Disney Channel.

Whitt captured the emotional depth of his continued Hilary Duff fandom. “When I see Hilary when I watch How I Met Your Father, there is this spark, there’s this magic that you feel about seeing her because that deep connection is there,” Whitt said. He added, “That best friend who has always been in my head is grown up with me. She’s grown up now, I’m grown up now, and there she is. There she still is. And to see her thriving and doing so many great things, being a mom, having a great career and making a positive impact still to this day, you know, it warms the heart.”

Even though Whitt is known for hosting an incredible Hilary Duff podcast, Lizzie McGuire was hardly the first show he saw on Disney Channel. The Jersey, The Famous Jett Jackson, and So Weird are a few he remembers from before Lizzie’s time. Whitt didn’t gloss over the programming on Playhouse Disney, either. “I really attribute a lot of my creativity as a person, as a content creator, as a TV producer, which is my profession, to Out of the Box. That show was so special to me; I think I would watch it every Saturday morning.” Whitt watched PB&J Otter and Bear in the Big Blue House, as well. As if those weren’t enough, his family had the Toon Disney channel and Whitt could watch its programming frequently.

It’s amazing to me that our memories of watching television and movies are so deeply related to who we are. Like Whitt, I’ll sometimes watch shows or films from childhood and feel strongly connected to the times when I watched them decades ago. In a way, Disney Channel has directly impacted the work we both do – analyzing nostalgic films, TV shows, and music. As Whitt works in production, another Disney series truly inspired his career path: Movie Surfers. This long-running show featured cohorts of teen interviewers who went behind the scenes to reveal the making of Disney feature films. “I wanted to be a Movie Surfer. Even in elementary school, I was on the school newspaper staff and would interview people… I wanted to interview behind the scenes of movies, but we weren’t quite doing that in elementary school. I really think that Movie Surfers had that big of an impact that it influenced interests of mine for the career that I chose, the field of study that I chose in college. I consider myself to be more of an entertainment journalist than anything,” Whitt said. He was inspired by Disney 411/Disney 365 and Mike’s Super Short Show, too.

If you follow Whitt, you know that he loves many aspects of Disney entertainment. He explained, “I’ve appreciated Disney’s storytelling for as long as I can remember. I still get just as excited now about new Disney movies as I did when I was a kid… How do you explain that, other than there was just this seed planted as a child?” Whitt recalled a moving experience from his early adulthood: “When I was in college, I remember starting to get emotional about things. Specifically, I remember when, I think it was the 25th anniversary of Beauty and the Beast, and Angela Lansbury sang ‘Beauty and the Beast’ at an event in New York or something. It brought tears to my eyes, and that was one of the first times that had happened for me, that I was like, ‘Whoa, I really got emotional about this.’ And I’ll get emotional watching Disney movies and being at the Disney parks now. Usually I get a little emotional every time I walk down Main Street or first see the castle, there’s just this overwhelming feeling that I get.”

But Whitt is also a smart consumer. “Disney knows,” he said. “Disney knows that they have this generation who grew up on all those ’90s movies, and they’re catering to us in a big way, especially when they do D23 Expo and all these big announcements. … They’re catering to the adults who still hold Disney in a very special place, which is why I think that they’re remaking all of these movies.” Whitt noted that the company is also giving classics more modern, appropriate updates for new generations. He’s honestly the Movie Surfer we all need today.

I’ve been thinking about the idea that nostalgia can be a very spiritual concept. To delve into the deepest memories we have, or to appreciate their connection to our present selves, brings me a sense of peace. In a podcast interview with Psychology Today, Dr. Krystine Batcho said, “Nostalgia is an emotional experience that unifies. One example of this is it helps to unite our sense of who we are, our self, our identity over time.” Batcho highlights the social aspects of nostalgia, as well. She notes that, as many of us have discovered, nostalgia unites us with other human beings.

In addition to our poppin’ afternoons and weekends with the Disney Channel, Whitt and I had other similarities growing up that we recently discovered, including our religious backgrounds. We had an interesting discussion on the interwoven identities forged from mainstream media and simultaneous involvement in evangelical Christian subcultures during childhood. Not only did we get Disney Channel, PBS Kids, Nickelodeon, and other cable classics – we got videotapes starring Larry the Cucumber and Bob the Tomato.

“Definitely had Veggie Tales and some other, probably random, memories of Christian artists,” Whitt recalled. Along with Veggie Tales, young Whitt and I attended Vacation Bible School, also known by its famous acronym: VBS. Many Christian churches host VBS for one week every summer for preschool to upper elementary age children. “The memories about VBS are mostly on the sweet side, like, a highlight of the summer. Loved going, just had a great time. Great memories,” Whitt said. Vacation Bible School has an annual theme. For example, “Saddle Ridge Ranch” was a cowboy theme, “Arctic Edge” was an Alaskan adventure, “Ocean Odyssey” was under-the-sea, “The Great Kingdom Caper” was a British mystery, “Amazon Outfitters” was an “Expedition with the One True God,” the list goes on.

Youth groups are often invited to assist adult teachers with Bible lessons, arts and crafts, snacks, recreation, missions, and music. Whitt remembers, “The music was the main thing for me. And I would want to learn all the songs and all the dance moves.” Those moves would be displayed in front of the whole church with a daily Worship Rally, complete with skits and games. We both helped with music in our churches once we got older, and being the expert producer that he is, Whitt spent several years working media and tech.

The VBS songs that stick with me are the annual reminders of the “ABCs,” an evangelical understanding of salvation: “Admit to God that you’re a sinner. Believe that Jesus is God’s only son. Confess your faith in Jesus as your Savior and Lord.” Other songs would usually address trusting God, following Jesus, living your faith, etc.

I wondered about the long-term impact of church experiences like Vacation Bible School. Whitt answered with what feels like the heartbeat of nostalgia: “Those songs are just core memories in a way. Not that I hear them anywhere, but I can just think about them and know the lyrics and everything.” Reminding me how strongly some things stay with us, Whitt added, “Those were just very nice nostalgic childhood memories – try to block anything that wasn’t so great about that experience, or in the long-term, the trauma that was caused by some things.”

By middle school, Whitt had found his way to Christian pop groups without always realizing they were faith-based, like Jump5, who frequently collaborated with Disney. “Another small Christian group was PureNRG [pronounced Pure Energy] that I was really into in middle school, ” Whitt recalled. He first heard them sing a cover of “Footloose” and followed the group for years, all the way to their final concert. The trio “kind of came at the perfect time,” Whitt said, “because I wasn’t really ready to grow up in terms of my interests. A lot of kids had moved on from Disney Channel and they were kind of more into MTV by the time we got to middle school, and that wasn’t where I was at. I was still Disney Channel. My parents wouldn’t have allowed MTV.” He added, “I wasn’t maturing as fast, which I think is fine. So PureNRG coming out was just this perfect entertainment for me…at that age, based on the Christian beliefs that I had.”

Whitt was raised going to Gospel music camp and was steeped in Christian hymnody at a young age – he even had Gospel musicians in his family. As the contemporary Christian genre was on the rise, he noted, “I still had an appreciation for hymns. But I certainly had taken an interest and found a love for contemporary Christian music,” CCM. Starting in the late ‘60s, CCM originated as “Jesus Music” from the countercultural Jesus Movement. Today, there’s Christian pop, rap, rock, R&B, and many other genres. There were formerly entire bookstores promoting what we call the evangelical Christian subculture: a realm full of Christian books, decorations, CDs, movies, and merch. For any item in the “secular world,” you could probably find a copycat that was supposedly Christian.

Whitt explained, “To me, that was just as normal as going to a Barnes & Noble… ‘Let’s just go look around, let’s just shop, we’re out shopping today. We’re going to stop at Lifeway or Family Christian bookstore.'” On these typical outings, it was easy to get lost in shelves of inspirational music (or perhaps Bible studies, or Christian romance novels).

Whitt bought his share of CDs and merch at these stores. “They always try to have some sort of equivalent to something mainstream,” he commented. “And I feel like PureNRG was the equivalent to High School Musical… so I’d be going to Lifeway and buying whatever PureNRG merch they had there because that was where you went to get your PureNRG merch. Just like most kids could have gone to a Walmart and gotten their High School Musical merchandise at that time.”

Neither Whitt nor I were ever limited strictly to religious media, thankfully. “I was still as immersed in what was happening in the mainstream of pop for kids. I had the best of both worlds!” Whitt said with a smile. I can relate. My parents cared that I had a social life, kept up with current trends, and experienced what I loved about pop culture, especially my favorite music. Rarely did I test the waters of content beyond a Disney Channel level of “appropriateness,” although Whitt and I joked about getting older and discovering more risqué ABC Family TV series. What’s fascinating is, there was a decent amount of crossover between the Christian subculture and Disney Channel pop culture – Disney had soundtrack collaborations with Jump5; Aly & AJ’s debut album sold in Christian stores; Superchick’s “One Girl Revolution” blared throughout the DCOM Cadet Kelly. And in terms of mainstream pop, Whitt mentioned Amy Grant, “the crossover queen,” and Lauren Daigle, whose “Rescue” blew up not necessarily because it’s about God, but probably because it was featured on Grey’s Anatomy.

By high school, Whitt was also a huge fan of recording artist Francesca Battistelli, who got started in the girl group Bella when she was a teenager. She broke through in the Christian market as a soloist in the late 2000s with a K-LOVE radio hit we couldn’t resist: “I got a couple dents in my fender/Got a couple rips in my jeans/Trying to put the pieces together/But perfection is my enemy/On my own, I’m so clumsy/But on your shoulders I can see/I’m free to be me.” Whitt mentioned a TikTok where “Free to Be Me” is playing and the caption reads, “The childhood trauma was worth it for this song.”

“And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I agree with that,'” he joked. Whitt interviewed Francesca Battistelli several years back for his witfromwhitt radio show. He told me, “That’s a very deep thing because I kind of gravitated toward her in the same way that I gravitated towards Britney Spears or Hilary Duff, that was where she was for me.” Whitt noted that Christian artists were sometimes more accessible than mainstream acts. “It’s its own culture… So, Francesca, yeah, I was so into her music. I related to her music. I loved the sound; it was very Sara Bareilles, she’s kind of the equivalent.” Whitt won a fan contest where he got to be a “director” of Francesca Battistelli’s live music video for “This is the Stuff.” Catch his name in lights on YouTube.

“There’s a nostalgia there, and a love and an appreciation for what her music and what PureNRG, what all that content meant to me at that time. For a kid who was 13, hearing those songs, it was very inspiring to me… inspiring to just be happy and be a joyful person.” Being 13 is rough, but it’s nice to feel that someone is rooting for you through music.

Collage of both Christian and mainstream albums: Jump5 All the Time in the World, Britney Spears Baby One More Time, Hannah Montana, Pure NRG, Hilary Duff Metamorphosis, Lizzie McGuire Movie, Francesca Battistelli, High School Musical, Amy Grant

My thoughts about modern evangelical Christianity are far too broad and still-expanding to put them in a nutshell. I will say that at times, the movement seems like the opposite of how Jesus treated people. As I process my faith today and aim to practice it in more inclusive ways, I can’t help but wonder how inspirational music might be salvaged for a greater good. I said to Whitt, “I would love to see some of this music be meaningful to more people and include people, you know?”

Whitt thoughtfully answered, “I can’t think of other mainstream artists who are making songs, making music that is as inspirational, I guess… I don’t know, it’s tricky because you try to think of an equivalent of who makes inspirational music and it’s like, there’s Lizzo. Lizzo is inspiring us to, you know, love ourselves, but that’s not the same. That’s still not the same as what I would get from a Francesca Battistelli song.”

Proving his own point, when I took a short water break on our Zoom call, Whitt started singing a PureNRG song called “Pray.” The chorus goes, “On my knees, flying through the blue sky, miles away, I see clearly every single time I close my eyes and pray.” Hearing that chorus transports me; the song is meant to guide the listener to a “heart-to-heart long-distance call” of prayer. Even if you’re not praying much these days, it’s a sweet song brimming with emotion that, for me, feels comforting and deeply nostalgic. Inspirational, hopeful.

I’m so grateful to Whitt for being my guest in this space, where all kinds of nostalgia are worth studying. Whitt makes me feel less alone on this backwards and forwards journey of memory. It truly is a process. After all, we both spent our formative years with Lizzie McGuire, for whom it was written: “We get one step closer each and every day. We’ll figure it out on the way.” You now can listen to all Duff Enough episodes on multiple platforms, and I hope you will! Follow Whitt Laxson on Instagram and Twitter for all his updates! This is Past Foot Forward, which you can follow on Instagram, run by Allison McClain Merrill.

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