In a famous scene from the final episode of Mad Men’s first series, Don Draper makes a pitch to prospective clients Kodak. Using the product in question – a photo projector – he slowly clicks through pictures of his happy, loving family. Emphasising the bond people can share with their technology, he explains; “Nostalgia – it’s delicate, but potent. Teddy told me that in Greek nostalgia literally means ‘the pain from an old wound.’ It’s a twinge in your heart far more powerful than memory alone. This device… lets us travel the way a child travels. Around, and around, and back home again. To a place where we know we are loved.” Teddy’s etymology wasn’t perfect, but the sentiment persists.
Nostalgia comes from the Greek nostos – return home – and algos – pain. The term “nostalgia” started as shorthand for homesickness. In the 1700s, nostalgia was characterised as a hysteric response from soldiers missing home and classified as an illness. In 1867, the US Sanitary Commission recorded 2,588 cases of nostalgia during the first two years of the Civil War – and 13 deaths from the condition. In German, they called it Heimweh. Our current definition of nostalgia, one more closely linked to a place in time than a physical location, emerged around the 1920s. All the same, nostalgia was characterised by some as a symptom of depression right up until 1975.
Modern psychology takes a more positive view, stating that the sentiments of joy and satisfaction induced by nostalgic thoughts and feelings build a sense of social connectedness and inspire personal growth. Studies indicate that nostalgia can benefit those particularly suffering from loneliness, fostering a sense of social support. Many of the studies on nostalgia describe it as a valuable psychological resource to protect from mental harm. Most argue that we need this fond vision of our past as a comfort blanket to keep us confidently moving forward in the assumption that life will either continue to be good or come good once more.
Beyond “natural” or instinctive feelings of nostalgia for personal memories and reflections, we can ask after the role of nostalgia in popular culture. Nostalgia and the past have always had an influence in art, music, fashion and film, as the finest examples of a given era are celebrated and drawn on for inspiration. It’s only normal that The Beatles or the Rolling Stones should enjoy a rebirth in the lives of young people who discover them, but the significance their music holds for our generation is vastly different to what it means to our parents. Each generation naturally attributes particular weight to the culture they grew up with. It links us to a time when our personality was coming into definition. It takes us back to a time when we were distinguishing ourselves from our friends and family and becoming an individual, but were still safe in the comfort of the childhood home.
A less subtle mode of cultural nostalgia has developed since the early ‘00s, an induced condition in which consumers are directly presented with cultural symbols and objects from their youth. The message is blunt: “Hey, remember this? Wasn’t this great? Didn’t you, and all of your friends, love this? If you didn’t, why not? Everyone else did.” Honestly, most of the time? Chances are they probably weren’t that great. Those crisps you used to buy were probably fairly bland, that Nickelodeon show nothing to write home about. Why then, are we so susceptible to this confrontation with outdated references?
In 2016, this contrived nostalgia permeates. It’s everywhere from the retro designs brought back for the latest 7Up can to the lurid 90s jackets selling for 4 times their original price in vintage shops across the country. It’s in your restaurants, as bowls of your favourite childhood cereal sell for £4 a pop, and in your cinemas as your favourite old films (The Jungle Book, Star Wars, Jurassic World) smash the box office in their latest incarnations. For those working in the latest start-ups or biggest tech companies it’s even in your office – take a break from that sales pitch and go play Space Invaders or grab a free pack of Skittles from the kitchen. More than anywhere else, it’s all over the internet:
Who is this clickbait aimed at? The first rounds of these targeted those who came of age in the 80s, then the 90s, then most recently the ‘00s. These articles are share-friendly, best suited to Facebook and Twitter – which as we well know, are not the mediums used by most young adults today, abandoning them in favour of Snapchat and Whatsapp. In general this style of content targets those 18-30, those who have left their childhood and adolescence behind and are either starting off in the world of work and college or well-embedded in employment.
They offer a rosy look at our past, defined in many cases by toys, technology or throwaway cultural moments. Baby-G watches and tape players are inarguably crap pieces of technology compared to your Apple watch or Chromecast, but we remain susceptible to the fascination we held for them as kids. Contrary to some discourse, Nadine Coyle’s identity fraud did not define a generation, but many of us are still stopped in our tracks by the sound of those dulcet Derry tones fretting over a passport.
It’s nice to reflect on memories of youth, but what purpose does it actually serve? A sense of recognition, a momentary comfort slotted into the working day. For the overworked 20-somethings of Generation Y these connections to childhood link us back to a more carefree, stable time of our lives. The Guardian’s brilliant recent series on millennials and Generation Y painted a picture of a generation adrift, too financially precarious to buy houses, start a family, or settle on a career. Even more so than reminding us of childhood freedoms, the constant waves of nostalgia take us back to a time when our days took structure from the school timetable and decisions were made for us by our parents.
In a world with too many choices, where we are constantly required to be flexible, these moments can anchor us. They reassure us. If a listicle can manage to evoke a time when our biggest fear was getting a B in CSPE, we can stave off the thoughts of losing out on our dream job, breaking up with our partners, or someone we love becoming sick. We can stave it off till the next distraction comes along. In the meantime, we can share the memory with a friend, these pieces of content sparking a meaningful social connection. In doing so, we don’t have to share our real fears, past or present. We don’t have to tell them that, actually, we were pretty lonely growing up. We don’t have to admit that we can’t make rent this month and we’re scared to ask our parents for help. We can easily find common ground without exposing ourselves to be too sincere or worse, vulnerable.
When Don Draper sold nostalgia to his Kodak clients, the memories of a happy family he was selling were disingenuous. He was a philanderer and an absent father. The snapshots represented rare unblemished moments in a far from pristine life. Presented alone, they feigned to tell the whole story. We, the viewer, knew that it was a fabrication – in the way that snapshots can so easily hide the full picture. In the context of the life he lived, they were utterly meaningless – but they sold.
When our own memories are neatly repackaged and sold to us through our newsfeed, what picture do they build of our lives? Surely, if our emotions are played by the same cultural symbols and material values as everyone else we know, those memories are rendered less special to each of us, individually? A reminder of the toys you played with or films you watched might push you back to a place where you knew you were loved, but it might not fully capture the warmth and nuance of that love. That’s unique to you. If our memories are constantly prompted by others, it’s harder for us to build a meaningful reflection of how we lived. Nostalgia is potent, sure, but it’s still delicate. We shouldn’t mess with it.
Illustration: Sarah Moloney