Renewal or rehash? Has the world run out of original ideas? With Hollywood remaking old movies, tech giants lauding flip phones as the next big thing, and fashion influencers returning to looks of decades past, Abi Millar asks why the world is finding such comfort in the familiar.
If you were anything like me, you probably grew up imagining a future of flying cars and spacesuits. Our TV shows would be cutting-edge sci-fi, our music would be computer-generated, and our clothing would be holographic.
Sadly for my childhood self, 2020 is not entirely as she anticipated. For sure, our technological prowess would have struck her as nothing short of magical. But our pop culture would have looked disappointingly familiar. Rather than casting relentlessly onwards into futurity, we would barely seem to have moved on from her own era.
To give just a few examples, Friends – a sitcom that ran between 1994 and 2004 – was the UK’s most streamed show of 2018. The Lion King remake was a 2019 box office hit, along with a staggering array of sequels. Retro-styled flip phones are making a comeback, while 90s games consoles (like Sega’s Mega Drive and Nintendo’s SNES/NES) are being relaunched.
Fashion influencers, who have long rocked a 1990s-inspired aesthetic, are now paying homage to the 2000s (think blue eyeshadow on the 2020 Grammy’s red carpet). Eighties-tinged synth pop is rarely out of the charts, and Charli XCX’s 1999 (referencing everything from Titanic to Britney Spears) was one of the big hits of 2018.
Personal nostalgia is de rigueur too: at the time of writing, there are 527 million posts on Instagram tagged #tbt (‘throwback Thursday’), along with 21 million tagged #fbf (‘flashback Friday’). It’s no wonder that marketing teams have dubbed millennials ‘the nostalgia generation’.
Jenna Gottlieb and Jayna Maleri, who run a nostalgia-focused website called Haystack Stories, think there might be a few reasons for younger adults’ obsession with the past.
“We think it might just be as simple as the 90s being a formative time for this generation, the same way a lot of our parents feel nostalgic for the 60s and 70s,” they say. “But personally, we also just think the 90s were really cool. The clothes, the music, the movies, the trends – it was a time that feels easier and more innocent, especially when you think about the early aughts and what a scary time that was for a lot of people.”
There’s also the fact that the millennial generation are the last ones to remember a time before the internet. In other words, there’s a whole piece of our early lives that wasn’t documented in the same way as the rest of it.
“We call it ‘The 90s Black Hole’ because that’s really what it feels like,” say Jenna and Jayna. “Certain childhood touchstones – foods, TV shows, brands, stores – are really hard to find online. So we think that’s part of it, that we might feel a stronger sense of nostalgia because a lot of what we loved isn’t instantly accessible, but it’s collectively shared in our minds. It’s essentially absence making the heart grow fonder.”
Dr Krystine Batcho, a professor of psychology at Le Moyne College in New York, has been researching nostalgia since 1995 and is known for developing the Nostalgia Inventory Test (a measure of how often and deeply people feel nostalgic). She says that, while her research is not definitive, it does suggest that young adults are more nostalgic today than they might have been 20 years ago.
‘In recent years, scientific and technological progress has transformed the way we live in dramatic ways,” she says. “Although such progress is highly valued for how it has enhanced the quality of our lives, it also constitutes tremendous change. Change, both good and bad, is stressful – in part because it forces us to adapt, and in part because it poses uncertainty.”
She adds that, while the capacity for nostalgia has always been part of us, the tendency to express it does wax and wane in line with circumstances. We feel it more at transitional life stages (such as graduation or retirement), as well as during times of social upheaval.
“Uncertainty makes people feel that they might be losing control, or that so many things out of our control are changing so rapidly we might not be able to keep up,” she says. “Loneliness, stress, fear, uncertainty, changes in life stage, and significant changes in lifestyle, can all increase feelings and expressions of nostalgia.”
Dr Wijnand van Tilburg, a nostalgia researcher at the University of Essex, points out that nostalgic memories are inherently bittersweet. On one hand, they involve a sense of loss for things that are no longer there. On the other hand they allow people to reconnect with what is missing.
“What my colleagues and I have found is that psychological threats, such as loneliness or boredom or a lack of perceived meaning in life, tend to elicit nostalgic reverie,” he says. “This in turn helps people to feel more socially connected and more positive about themselves, and see life as more meaningful. So it’s not just an escape into the past – it tends to help people deal with the present.”
It’s interesting to note that, until fairly recently, nostalgia was mostly viewed in a negative light. The term itself, from the Greek words ‘nostos’ (returning home) and ‘algos’ (pain), originally referred to an extreme form of homesickness. It was coined in 1688, and for the next 300 years was seen as maladaptive.
“It was considered a sign of weakness, a symptom of an underlying disorder such as depression, and an unhealthy preoccupation with the past that inhibits growth and progress, among other unflattering portrayals,” says Batcho. “Moving towards a favorable picture of nostalgia has removed the stigma, freed people to share their nostalgic experiences and liberated artists to explore nostalgia creatively.”
Since Batcho began her career, the research community has come to see nostalgia as a mostly healthy experience that is associated with a number of psychological benefits.
For instance, one 2012 study found that nostalgia can foster empathy and social connectedness. Another 2015 study suggested it can be a stabilising force, strengthening our sense of personal continuity despite all the changes we may have been through.
“A sense of connectedness with one’s past and future is very important,” points out Emily Hong, a nostalgia researcher at the University of Southhampton. “Think about yourself at four, or yourself at 60. If you find either of them to be strangers, you will deem your past to be meaningless, and your future uncertain. Nostalgia makes self-continuity possible by narrating your life events into a coherent story.”
Perhaps it stands to reason, then, that social media feeds would be bursting with pictures of Jennifer Aniston’s ‘Rachel’ haircut. And it makes sense that brands and marketers would seek to cash in on our wistfulness. Studies have found that, if a product is branded in a nostalgic way (say ‘Grandma’s Apple Pie’ versus ‘Delicious Apple Pie’), people are more willing to buy the product and more inclined to pay more for it.
Jenna and Jayna at Haystack Stories describe nostalgia as a way to take a mental break without having to turn your brain all the way off.
“It’s more like you’re just redirecting it to focus on something that you love, that is fixed, that won’t do anything or become anything that you don’t want it to become. That’s why we have such mixed feelings about reboots,” they say.
A more complicated question is whether we are losing something artistically by continuously feeding on the past. While all art takes inspiration from what has come before, any artwork worth its salt will add something new as well. Arthur Chu, in a 2015 Salon article, lay into our ‘toxic remake culture’, pointing out that ‘every act of remaking in a tension between nostalgia and innovation… and right now it seems like nostalgia has the upper hand’.
Kurt Andersen, in a 2012 Vanity Fair article, made the case that our technological progress is linked to cultural stasis, arguing: ‘People have a limited capacity to embrace flux and strangeness and dissatisfaction, and right now we’re maxed out… we are clinging as never before to the familiar in matters of style and culture.’ Eight years on, his words sound not just true but prescient.
All this said, we don’t have to look far to find counterexamples – films, TV shows and art that allude to familiar tropes without regurgitating them wholesale. For every lazy film remake, there’s a movie like Black Panther that takes its genre in a new direction. And for every re-run of Friends, there’s a show like BoJack Horseman, that subverts our very obsession with 90s sitcoms.
More broadly, art has always needed to confront the legacy of the past and interrogate how that fits into the present. This is never more the case than at times of dislocation and change, when the very act of remembering may be seen as a key to renewal.
If we go back a century to the Modernist movement, we find Marcel Proust lost in nostalgic reverie in A la recherche du temps perdu. We also find TS Eliot ‘mixing memory and desire’ in The Waste Land, as he layers together scraps of allusion and shores up ‘fragments… against my ruins’. Pertinently, both these works were published in 1922, just as the world was recovering from the double blow of World War I and the Spanish Flu.
With the world now in the grips of the coronavirus pandemic, it remains to be seen how this devastating experience will affect our appetite for the familiar. As Dr van Tilburg puts it, it seems likely that we’ll find solace in nostalgia. But at this stage, social scientists don’t really have the data.
“We need some time to figure out if people indeed use nostalgia to deal with some of the loneliness or disconnectedness that comes with the outbreak,” he says. “Obviously there are lots of challenges and many of these are related to social isolation. It might well be that nostalgia is one of the tools people use to feel more connected to each other.”
Dr Batcho feels that nostalgia can be a valuable psychological resource during this time of uncertainty, social distancing and anxiety. However, she warns that it may creep into harmful territory if a person becomes too isolated.
“Social distancing due to the pandemic is an example of conditions of high risk for the development of maladaptive nostalgia in people who lack a social support network,” she says. “Reaching out to others to share nostalgic memories, hopes, and fears is important to maintain the benefits of nostalgia during difficult circumstances.”
Anecdotally, many of us are seeking out those benefits. According to the New York Times, shoppers are returning to the processed foods of their childhood to bring comfort during the pandemic. Instagram feeds are full of odes to ‘what I already miss’. And the BBC has committed to broadcasting a ‘summer of sport nostalgia’, which will include the opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games and matches from Euro 96.
It’s a safe bet, then, that the nostalgia trend will continue for a while. But with time to reset and regroup, this is also a time in which ideas can form and take shape. It could be that something entirely new is about to rise from the ashes.
This article appears in the Jun-Aug edition of Overseas magazine