There’s an irony to nostalgia.
Coined by Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer in 1688, nostalgia was once a medical diagnosis. However, nostalgia has since evolved into a self-treatment.
Nostalgia is a common response to distress and serves a psychological adaptive function. According to Neel Burton, M.D., a psychiatrist and philosopher, nostalgia is “a vehicle for traveling beyond the suffocating confines of time and space.” Physically and mentally stuck, nostalgia is now our time machine to another more preferable ‘place’ or state of mind.
Nostalgia also grants us comfort through stability and familiarity. In times of great uncertainty, we long for ‘the known.’ These ‘answers’ are manifesting themselves in the media we consume.
According to a new study this month by Nielsen/MRC, over half of music listeners are vying for older tunes. Streams of Bob Dylan and Dixie Chicks spiked along with Bob Marley, whose catalog alone surged +23% within the last month. Even today’s top artists like Post Malone are springing for the old, who live-streamed a fundraiser concert solely covering Nirvana. New music just doesn’t bring the same relief as the oldies or “perceived oldies” do. Interest in lo-fi and vaporwave are also up—genres which conjure sentimentality for a time many listeners have never in fact experienced themselves.
The same preferences for the recognizable exist in the film world. Google searches for “Classic Movies” have never been higher in volume for this period in time over the past 15 years. Leaning into these desires and amplifying nostalgia, countless publications are curating their own watchlists—from Vogue, Seventeen and Thrillist, to Nerdist, Vulture, and The Atlantic. If watching or re-watching wasn’t enough, The Goonies came together for a virtual reunion, better scratching that itch.
As sports fans are flocking to NBA League Pass and NFL Game Pass to replay their favorite games, networks like Fox and ESPN are re-airing Super Bowl games on Instagram, repurposing clips into mini-events. ESPN’s “The Last Dance”, the Michael Jordan docuseries, recently brought in over 6M viewers, not just because of the lack of fresh sports content, but because how effective it evokes “better days.”
On social media, this enthusiasm persists. The subreddit r/Nostalgia has seen steady growth since March, and r/90s has grown +9.7% over the same time. Hashtags #TBT and #ThrowBackThursday have been used +43% more frequently over the last month, while Tweets containing “I Miss” are being posted +63% more frequently on a daily basis. There are also new nostalgic challenges. #MeAt20 and #DistractA90sKid both trended on Twitter as of late. On TikTok, #ImJustAKid trended, where baby photos got recreated, so far receiving 1.8B cumulative views.
Behavioral psychologist Jo Hemmings says resurfacing old pictures can be healthy. “Taking the time to look back on our treasured memories can be truly beneficial for our well-being as it can help to evoke feelings of positivity and happiness.”
Nostalgia knows no bounds though. Even Google is resurfacing old Doodles in a “Throwback Series.”
Our yearn for the old and comfortable is omnipresent at this time. But this is not that shocking of a revelation.
This conjuring becomes more convoluted when we realize we’re not getting new content anytime soon. With TV and film productions on pause, music studios closed, and stadiums sealed, we’re about to experience a dearth of the fresh. Dated content is already getting upcycled as “new content” like Warner Music Group’s PlayOn Fest, a re-stream of past performances. Such an example changes our relationship with nostalgia and what constitutes as “new.” Dependent upon these classics though, will they hold us over?
If nostalgia is defined by the “longing for how things once were,” it’s quite possible we’ll never shake this feeling. We’re not returning to normal, but rather required to forge a new one. The duration of our homesickness for the pre-COVID-19 world is just as incomprehensible as what our new future will look like. Nostalgia has always played a role in culture, but now its importance feels towering.
So perhaps we won’t mind if we won’t see anything new for some time—we’ll be too preoccupied with the soothing haunt of simpler times. Certainly there will be a time when we tire of the re-watches, re-makes and remixes, but for today we’ll binge on. We have no choice.
There’s another irony to nostalgia…
As we leverage it to cope today, it’s possible we’ll eventually look back at this time with fondness as well. Despite the bleakness, for many, new habits, rituals and relationships are being formed. New norms are not all bad. Essential living is having a moment, and it’s not unlikely that we’ll be nostalgic for this too.