One of the many curious paradoxes about humans is that we enjoy feeling sad sometimes, which is what nostalgia lets us do in a contained, safe way. Who doesn’t get some kind of catharsis from lying on their couch with a glass of wine and having a good old cry over photos from years ago, or listening to music that dominated the airwaves on a literal radio back when you were small and didn’t need to worry about rent and neoliberalism?
Alternatively, if you’re slightly less morose than me, looking back on simpler times can be really comforting, like buttered toast or watching the Vicar of Dibley at Christmas with a cup of tea. In a year that by all accounts was a massive cock-up, Googling pictures of Justin Timberlake’s bleached perm from the early noughties could just be the opium of the masses we’re looking for.
Not to mention nostalgia is in. We’re talking the return of crop tops, chokers, platforms, the Gilmore Girls, LPs, an etiolated version of the Spice Girls and seemingly more remakes than original films. Just Google ‘millennial nostalgia’ and you’ll see hundreds of articles about how twenty-somethings are more nostalgic than the generations that preceded them – so what’s going on? Obviously capitalism is playing its role in the creation of this nostalgia wave. Like longer skirts, a sanitised, selective version of our past sells very well in times of uncertainty. That’s not to say that reboots and throwbacks always feel cynical though: I found the whole Pokemon Go thing really heartwarming because it seemed to tap into something pure and childlike in the twenty-somethings around me.
Then there’s the not exactly negligible role of digital too. Millennials developed alongside technology. We remember the time before the internet, but came of age just as it began to permeate every aspect of our lives. The rate of progress seemed to double and then double again with each step forwards. No sooner had we adopted MSN messenger than we got Myspace, then migrated to Facebook, then Twitter, then Instagram, then Snapchat, then suddenly we’re able to bombard the world with images, thoughts, Vines (RIP) and find whatever and whoever we want, whenever we want. Five years felt like 20 in terms of the changes we were seeing and making. Even Facebook is passé now, whereas it took ages for letters to go out of fashion and now they’re kind of back in again. When you consider we were the last generation to have a technology-free childhood, you can understand why our youth feels even longer ago than it actually was. Throw in the fact that millennials are the first generation projected to be less well off than our parents, and you can forgive us for wanting to live in the past a bit.
Interestingly, digital has also radically shifted the creation of memories. Pre-internet, bouts of nostalgia usually caught you off guard: a chance meeting with an old friend, a whiff of a certain perfume on a railway platform, a song you last heard years ago happening to come on the radio. Now that we can access any memory, any information, any person, any song, any video at any time, the gap between the formation of a memory and reflecting on it may never be able to really grow. From stalking exes on social media to the existence of podcasts like Instant Nostalgia ‘the podcast that reviews itself’, it almost feels like we’re standing between two mirrors with the future and the past an infinite reflection of each other. How will we, in the future, feel nostalgic for this current time if we spend it all feeling nostalgic for a previous time? It all becomes a bit agonisingly derivative.
Like many things that can make money or win elections, nostalgia plays off a real or perceived sense of loss. It’s melancholic in a bittersweet way, a wistful yearning for a time or place we can’t get to again, or more often than not never really inhabited in the first place. The nostalgia frenzy will pass when the future and present seem more navigable.