The roots of nostalgia
“Our father’s age was worse that our grandfathers, we, their sons, are more worthless than they, so in our turn we shall give the world children yet more corrupt” – Horace, Odes (20BC)
Thinking things were better in times gone by is nothing new. Our perspective on things can change radically as time passes. Films, TV, art, even advertising, take on new meaning viewed through the lens of nostalgia.
The word “nostalgia” was first used by a Swiss medical student called Johannes Hofer in 1688, to describe the pain felt by soldiers away from home. Fittingly, the term “nostalgia” derives from the ancient Greek words for “homecoming” and “pain” (and not, as ad guru Don Draper would have you believe, the pain from an old wound) – we’ve always found value in the past.
Classical myths praised the “golden age” of man. The Renaissance then rediscovered and promptly revered that classical past. The Victorian obsession with the medieval plays out in neo-gothic architecture and the Pre-Raphaelite brotherhood. Every era has its nostalgists.
But is regressing in time like this a good thing?
The siren call of retro
Ironically, nostalgia has always been fuelled by the latest technology. The Renaissance was enabled by the spread of the printing press, and the ease and accuracy with which old ideas could be reproduced and distributed.
Similarly, today’s nostalgia has been driven by our own recording technologies.
Vinyl records allowed kids of the 1950s to constantly revisit the sounds of their youth. When they reached adulthood, they produced stories that drew on and recreated those experiences: we get American Graffiti, Grease and Happy Days.
In the 1980s came the mass marketing of home video, and again it allowed those who grew up in that era to continually revisit their influences, and then repackage those influences in their own stories.
The internet represents an even bigger shift. YouTube, Spotify and Netflix give us access to vast archives of past-tense culture – and not just the quality stuff. Looking for a particular advertising jingle from the 90s? You can find it online. The distance of time collapses when you’ve it all at your fingertips.
On and on the past is recycled, in ever more comprehensive fidelity.
At its simplest, the nostalgia industry allows us to directly revisit old things, with Facebook’s “10 years ago” features or Spotify’s #Throwback playlists bringing us face to face with the past.
Or, we can reboot old stories. Looking at the entertainment landscape in 2019, you’d be forgiven for thinking the last 25 years hadn’t happened – Star Wars, Jurassic Park, Ghostbusters, and the Lion King dominate cinema, and Dallas and Twin Peaks have all been reborn for the streaming age.
When we’re not directly remaking the past, we’re dressing in its hand-me-downs. Films like Drive and Ready Player One, and TV shows like Stranger Things and Black Mirror feast on the films of the past. Hundreds of video games are dedicated to recreating the 8-bit experience. You could hear ‘Uptown Funk’ in 1980s Minneapolis and not bat an eyelid. Instagram filters are designed to recall the faded sepia of retro polaroids, and even the bucket hat is mounting a comeback.
It’s even in how we sell to each other: Ridley Scott’s iconic Hovis advert (itself an exercise in nostalgia) was restored and rereleased on TV, to news coverage. Or, again past eras can themselves be directly invoked – see this 2013 Internet Explorer video ad.
Nostalgia is not necessarily innocent. An obsession with the past can leave the present feeling empty, and stripped of originality.
And there’s a darker side still. For every 80s revival night, there’s the divisive belief that things were better in the ‘good old days’, in their political dimensions, around areas like race, gender and sexuality.
Nostalgia here isn’t just a failure to come up with new stories as forms of entertainment; it’s failure to come up with new stories that explain the world we live in today. Without new stories, old ways of doing things prevail, for better and for worse.
Embrace the future
It doesn’t have to be like this. Technology allows us to dwell on the past, but it can open the door to the future. Digital media represents a world-historical shift in how we talk to each other. Imagine the possibilities of an age of radically intertextual and interactive media.
Well, you don’t have to – this age is already here. It’s called the video game industry. It’s called YouTube. It’s called Instagram, and Twitch. These formats and platforms offer whole new ways of telling stories, which thrive on interactivity, and referentiality. They reach outside themselves and engage with listeners and viewers in real time. You could even share this article if you wanted, on any of dozens of platforms, each with their own identities.
So, instead of looking back, the ways we tell stories in the future can and should be brilliantly and blindingly new.
What you’re reading right now could never have been written 20 years ago. Check out those GIFs ? Pretty neat. There’s even a little message for you in our URL. Stories in the connected age are as big as you can imagine them.
And what about this conversation we’re having with you right now as you read this? You can even email us back if you disagree with anything here. Bet Horace never had to deal with that.