Spending New Year’s 2013 in Berlin, a city, where I had an amazing time some years ago, I was confronted with my own past. I visited places, bars, streets and the like, where I used to hang around. I drank the beer from ‘back then’ and even smoked the allegedly no longer available Nil cigarettes.
This brought back memories so unbearably beautiful that it hurt. It felt kind of nice, though. I got struck by a certain feeling, with which we all might be familiar with – nostalgia.
Although perhaps everyone has a certain concept of what nostalgia is, I want to take a closer look on the ‘inner’ nature of this oft-used term. My favourite music writer, Simon Reynolds, discusses the topic of nostalgia in his recent book Retromania (2011). The term first came up in the 17th century and denominated a kind of soldiers’ homesickness, which could arouse psychosomatic symptoms such as anorexia or even led to suicide. “So nostalgia originally referred to a longing to return through space, rather than across time; it was the ache of displacement” (Reynolds 2011: xxv).
In the 19th century the term ‘nostalgia’ underwent a transformation. It lost its medical meaning and “began to be seen not just as an individual emotion but as a collective longing for a happier, simpler, more innocent age” (ibd. 2011: xxv). While by its former definition nostalgia could be healed by returning home, in its modern sense it is incurable.
The trigger for nostalgia in the modern sense, as a collective phenomenon, were the huge changes through the Industrial Revolution, the urbanisation and capitalism: “Economic transformations, technological innovations and socio-cultural shifts meant that for the first time there were increasingly stark differences between the world that you grew up in and the world in which you grew old[…] The present became a foreign country” (ibd. 2011: xxvi). All of a sudden life was controlled by office or factory schedules, instead of natural cycles. The memories about a life before that, a more innocent age, began to blossom.
In the 20th century nostalgia got increasingly connected to popular culture. Interestingly, nostalgia developed to a feeling “for the glory days of ‘living in the now’ that you didn’t… actually… live through” (ibd. 2011: xxix). Revivals and re-discovering of music, fashion, and even behaviour of antecessing phases of popular culture became the most normal thing in the world. I feel myself being a devotee to the 80’s aesthetics of post-punk and new wave. But, in the end, I am as much 80’s, as a hipster is 50’s (or which ever decade is ‘in’ at the moment). Still, I was already a living creature, while the 80’s were happening.
As you surely have noticed since the 50’s – the prime time of popular music and youth culture – time was measured in decades, rather than eras, epochs and the like. And here is, where the retro-industry ties in. The retro-industry grew to such a big thing, because it can play with nostalgic emotions. How the first decade of the 2000’s will be once seen, is yet to be definded. The decade of ‘Retromania’ is a tremendous crossover – or mutation – of the predecessing five decades. This can’t last forever. I refuse to believe that popular culture is already at its end. Some day there will be something new. Or maybe it is already ‘out there’ and we just need to discover it.
Sources: Reynolds, Simon (2011): Retromania. Pop-Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past. New York: Faber & Faber.