Indie Introspective: Our Cultural Affair With Nostalgia

Like albums and cassettes, CDs offered us tangible objects of our music affection.

Classic Indie. It’s a thing now. No really.

Don’t you sometimes wish you could live in the past? Just curl up in it like it’s a warm blanket, covering all the cold unknowns and unexposed realities of tomorrow? Bury yourself in its warmth? Ahh, the glowing days of limited worries.

As a culture obsessed with nostalgia-driven media, you are not alone.

Nick at Nite is available to approximately 98,799,000 pay television homes (86.51% of households with at least one television set) in the United States and is ranked number one in television. According to MarketWatch, the leader in nostalgic broadcasting is the top cable network among Adults aged 18-49. Average ratings are about 1.5 million viewers perday. It is also the #1 cable network among women aged 18–49, averaging a 415,000 total viewers at any given moment. It serves as an old-timey treasure that contrasts with the national and global troubles of the day.

Those are some pretty phenomenal numbers and certainly indicates that when it comes to media we are not much for forward thinking. Hey, I’m watching A Day at the Races featuring the Marx Bros. (1937) as I write this.

Simpler times. Simpler issues. Simpler life. Or so it seems, anyway.

However, it’s not just a yearning for nostalgia in a generic sense that drives people to want to relive the past. A phenomenon called the “reminiscence bump” (Rubin et al., 1998) leads adults of all ages to remember with great clarity and fondness the years of their own youth. Autobiographical memory, your recall of the events of your life, is sharpest for the events spanning roughly the ages of 15 to 30.

As you think back on your past, you’re most likely to be able to generate strong mental images of what you were doing, perhaps even to the exact date and time. That “bump” engages your ability to remember memories you’ve suppressed. (paraphrased, Susan Krauss Whitbourne, PHD and Author, Fulfillment at Any Age)

Let them eat cake she says, just like Marie Antoinette

Retro-themed entertainment feeds into our tendency to reflect on the positive events that shaped our sense of who we are now. It also reinforces a synesthesia of identity.

This isn’t a recent phenomenon however. When Nick At Nite launched in December 1987, the network led with a message that placed branding and positioning at the forefront of its PR directive: “Knowing we are watching something that doesn’t fit in today’s world, and being completely self-conscious about our enjoyment of it, is the essence of [the station’s] appeal.”

What’s important to note is that in 1987 MTV was transitioning from being an all-music video channel that relied on the discovery of new talent to a Top 40 station with mainstream videos placed into heavy rotation. At the same time, the cable behemoth had begun their first wave of original programing, an abrupt change designed to capture a greater market share. Advertisers didn’t want to support a music video format, where just like a radio station, a consumer could tune out if something didn’t appeal to his or her tastes.

By 1989, not coincidentally, most large and medium markets featured a plethora of oldies programming. Classic Rock became a legitimate genre in the 1990s because original MTV programming hooked us on the sounds and images of happier times.

In recent years, psychologists and neuroscientists have confirmed that memory-dependent songs hold disproportionate power over our emotions. Researchers have uncovered evidence that suggests our brains bind us to the music we heard as teenagers, a connection that may not weaken as we age. Music nostalgia isn’t just a cultural phenomenon: It’s a neuronic command. And of course, leave it to the music business to find a way to exploit that.

All we hear is…

Brain imaging studies show that our favorite songs stimulate the body’s pleasure circuit, which releases an influx of dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin, and other neurochemicals that make us feel good. The more we emotionally attach to a song, the more we get treated to actinic bliss, flooding our brains with some of the same neurotransmitters that designer drugs chase, once ingested.

Some guilt lies with us as well. People of my generation, just like the generations before ours, reach a point in our lives when we completely stop listening to new music. But it’s not as simple as the most populous generation driving mainstream tastes, no offense Quentin Tarantino. Our kids turn to our favorite songs as a kind of comfort soup for the soul. We were no different, and that explains the popularity of shows like Happy Days and movies like American Graffiti while we were growing up.

And, COVID-19 aside, we live longer today than any generation past. In hoping for a better tomorrow, it is important to note that interest in our nostalgia is slightly waning — tastes are skewing toward the 1990s and 2000s, and that makes original classic a little harder to sell (#okboomer). As our children enter into their age-30 and age-40 years, a new type of classic is resurfacing. And that’s the wake up call for middle-age, isn’t it? It’s never an easy moment when the anthems of our youth turn 30 years old.

I am alive again…thank you Big Pharma!

Published by Michael Canter

I love music, particularly indie music. It's a bittersweet affair that has been equally fun and soul-crushing, but I couldn't live without it. Personally, I'm a Deadhead, but my passion for all music styles is unparalleled. If I like you I will let you call me Mickey. If you look hard enough, you'll find me at SXSW every year.

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