“I wish somebody would have told me that some day,
these will be the good old days.”
Macklemore just released “Good Old Days,” a single with comeback Kesha. They certainly weren’t the first to tap into nostalgia this summer. TLC released new music for the first time in fifteen years. Their summer hit, “Way Back,” is an epic throwback to R&B roots that makes me want to pull out my copy of Totally Hits, vol. 1 and Now That’s What I Call Music, vol. 4.
I used to do exactly that when I lived in New York. My friends and I frequently went to 90s night, a giant dance party of everything from Juicy to Semi-Charmed Life to Wannabe. It was a 400-person karaoke party, everyone going hoarse from singing and dancing. Other college campuses are hosting similar parties this year with good reason. Consequently, I’ve been asking why we ever said Bye, Bye, Bye to those times.
But more deeply, what is compelling young adults like me to long for music of the past? What makes us hungry for nostalgia? And what might be hiding behind it?
Nostalgia emerges in more than just pop music. When I was a kid, my family regularly went to Florida during the summer. Grandma had a condo in Sarasota that the whole family would pack into. Near by, there was a touristy series of beach-front shopping and restaurants.
My favorite place here was the ice cream parlor. I loved it for the obvious reason of ice cream, but also because the walls were decorated with 1950s paraphernalia, Elvis posters, and classic chromed-out Cadillacs. I got my first CD player here, designed to look like a retro family-room radio. I adored the classic feel, imagining what it would be like to go swing dancing and rock leather jackets. Based on how well the shop did, many others felt similarly. Here, we could imagine it was like if we could have those “good old days” back again.
We regularly return to both our own and the collective memories from our communities and institutions. Memory, particularly in the form of nostalgia, can easily be a place of safety, preservation, and solid identity. Therein lies my love of 90s dance parties and The Nanny: a familiarity that offers brief reprieve from my constant engagement in what’s going on in our world.
Nostalgia is nothing new. Throughout history, it’s given us religious revivals, industry, film, and arts that simultaneously harken back while adding something new. It can absolutely be a positive appreciation for what once was. Indeed, it can hold that institutional memory of common experience and value.
Yet this love of memory, particularly institutional, can also be incredibly dangerous. It gives rise to phrases like “Make America Great Again.” It easily focuses in on the good old days, purposefully and accidentally forgetting the pain and sorrow that accompanied them. When we dream of the 50s ice cream shop, we picture high wages, manufacturing jobs, and clean parks with friendly neighbors. Yet we forget about the Korean War, redlining ghettos, and rampant racism. We ignore our history of preventing others from enjoying that ice cream parlor and locking people of color and immigrants out of strong union jobs.
This nostalgia and cultural amnesia leads to present day blinders. Our focus on what used to be idyllic easily distracts us from how that history created our present. The greatness of America’s past is in part what created the pain of present day. Too much nostalgia allows us to forget this.
Given the hurt and pain in our world, it is not surprising for us to want something different. We can easily turn to a world that once was, our imaginations slipping into a trance – stunting us. But this incomplete picture holds us back. As Macklemore and Kesha state, “I ain’t worried about the wrinkles around my smile, (I’ve got some scars).” We cannot ignore our scars and only look at the joys.
As John Paul II says, “Truth is the basis, foundation, and mother of justice.” Said another way, we need truth – including in our memories – to have a just society. The problem with nostalgia is that it easily whitewashes history, particularly our cultural and institutional memories. As we throwback, it’s important to remember the whole story. When we remember those times of joy and flourishing, it is imperative we also acknowledge how that joy was achieved, at whose expense, and what challenges it created for us today.
The cover photo is featured courtesy of Max Pixel.