Nostalgia offers a refuge in hard times but the digital age turns it into a commodity
By Melissa Kirsch
When the present moment is stressful or uncomfortable, when the future seems especially fuzzy or uncertain, nostalgia offers a balm. It’s why many of us turned to “Friends” reunions, “Sopranos” re-binges and childhood video games earlier in the pandemic.
As Gen Xers and many millennials approach or move through middle age, the entertainment industry has become determined to soothe their passage with a ceaseless and sentimental remembrance of things past: “Sex and the City,” “Gossip Girl” “Jackass,” “The Matrix” and “The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air” have all taken another turn around the piazza in the past year. “Frasier,” “Night Court” and “Beavis and Butt-Head” are rumored to be returning. Even “Law & Order” is back.
The Super Bowl halftime show, featuring Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Eminem, Mary J. Blige and 50 Cent, certainly set its sights on the midlife-adjacent. This fall, Avril Lavigne, Bright Eyes and My Chemical Romance will perform at the early-aughts emo-and-rock festival When We Were Young, a gathering that seems engineered to induce nostalgia. Its name serves to both rebrand sad music for loners as a group activity and to douse any thirty-somethings’ lingering delusions that their best days are ahead of them.
Nostalgia is easily packaged and sold because it promises to create a community out of a cohort. We experience this every day on social media: Strangers become momentary pals when you swap stories of the music you loved or the clothes you wore when you were both in sixth grade. The internet is an endlessly renewing nostalgia mine from which anyone can, at any time, extract a cultural gemstone — a music video from the early days of MTV, a jingle for a product long out of circulation — and post it for all to appreciate.
In a recent essay in Town and Country, Kyle Chayka warned of the perils of too much nostalgia. “With our digital cultural channels, art can be profitable only if it gets attention, and it can get attention only if it matches a pre-existing pattern,” he wrote. “That pattern is called nostalgia, and while it’s pleasurable, is it not ultimately boring?”
For the moment, nostalgia is serving a purpose: It provides a retreat, a respite, a way to feel less alone. The word, roughly translated from the Greek, means “a longing to return home.” It makes sense that some of us would seek and find comfort now in pop culture that feels homelike, that’s reliably soothing and predictable, in a world where so much is not.
Credit: New York Times Morning Letter