• Lyle Burns

Artists and Business are Using Nostalgia Because It Works



They say absence makes the heart grow fonder.

This could be a simple explanation for the recreation and infusion of past trends and nostalgic aesthetics, sounds, concepts, and creations we see in art, fashion, entertainment, and business.

We see nostalgia being heavy-handedly produced with recreations of childhood entertainment and products. We see nostalgia-infused concepts bringing forth original ideas. We see nostalgia for older eras causing stylistic influence as well. All of it happens in varying degrees of success. With this, there are questions that arise: Is all of this nostalgia good? Does it hamper creativity? And most of all, why is it so prevalent? So, let’s try to break it down.


Is All of This Nostalgia Good?

Psychologists have identified that there are two types of nostalgia: reflective nostalgia and restorative nostalgia.

Robert Yaniz Jr. of Rewire breaks them down for us. “[Reflective nostalgia] accepts the fact that the past is, in fact, past, and rather than trying to recreate a special past experience, savors the emotions evoked by its recollection.”

Restorative nostalgia, on the other hand, “romanticizes the “good ol’ days” in stark contrast to the current harsh reality and longing for a simpler time that may not have really existed in its idealized form in the first place. This type comes up a lot in the political sphere. And according to professor Hal McDonald,

“Restorative nostalgia, involving a desire to ‘rebuild the lost home,’ views the past with an eye toward recreating it — a desire to relive those special moments. It is what spurs us to pull out our phone at 1 a. m. and call up an old boyfriend or girlfriend because we just heard ‘our song’ on the radio.”

So there are two sides of the coin.

Reflective nostalgia is generally seen as a positive psychological resource with many benefits, such as increases in optimism, openness, social connectedness, and self-esteem, and it gives a sense of continuity across time. According to Bettina Zengel, research fellow of psychology at the University of Southampton,“Nostalgia is anchored in the past, but with a positive trajectory into the future.”

From a consumer and creative perspective, restorative nostalgia would fall under remakes and recreations of existing properties. For film and lots of consumer products, Patrick Metzger of the publication The Patterning mentions that remakes tend to follow a 30-year cycle. Questlove, drummer and founder of the hip-hop group, The Roots, has similar thoughts: “For me, I look at music within a 25-year cycle, a way of giving people in their thirties a last go-round of traveling through their childhood memories before they are required to be wise older statesmen and stateswomen.”

The timing makes perfect sense; you have a consumer base that grew from children to adults with disposable income who want to recapture a bit of their childhood. That’s not a bad thing, but it can easily fall in place with restorative nostalgia if people are trying to avoid taking that step Questlove mentions of moving forward. Restorative nostalgia is a yearning to recreate a past that no longer exists. It’s more of a regression.

We see companies employ it often. The same series and movie is rebooted with a lack of vision or new ideas. A childhood classic is quickly re-released or remade, but doesn’t contain the same spirit as the original. There’s the constant re-releases of retro Jordan’s we saw a few years ago until the market became oversaturated and hype died. Artists are releasing greatest hits albums or a previously aging artist takes up a Vegas residency, which has recently drastically changed.

For consumers, it often leads to feeling like there is a lack of original ideas or that companies and creatives are stalling out on innovation. For creatives, it may feel like originality isn’t rewarded when there’s so much restorative nostalgia present. On the other side of the coin, creations stemming from reflective nostalgia, don’t seem to draw the same ire and often feel fresh and pleasant. They seem to get more to the heart of what we’re searching for when we engage in nostalgia, a search for a pleasant and familiar feeling. At the same time, as is the case with reflective nostalgia when reminiscing creative works built on reflective nostalgia still pushes forward.

We see reflective nostalgia in lots of recent pop culture hits like “Stranger Things.” It takes inspiration from 80s sci-fi in aesthetic and feel for the setting, but tells a new story while giving an older audience a familiar feeling from childhood and introduces those feelings to a new audience.

In fashion, we’re seeing it in a lot of the clothing and shoes being released, especially by upper-echelon fashion houses. We see it a ton in music, especially hip hop. Songs sampling oldies excite older audiences as they hear a tune from their youth infused into a new rendition, yet layers are added so it sounds fresh, and at the same time, introduces that older song to a new audience. Think back to the reaction Kanye still gets when he uses soul samples. We also see it when popular samples are flipped in new ways or when an artists flips a sample they used in an earlier song.

We’ve seen it when artists recreate well-known sounds. Think Joey Bada$$ coming out with 1999. It’s definitely sonically old-school boom bap, but it’s old-school boom bap brought to you by a young artist and producers that weren’t directly shaped by that era. They didn’t have their formative years in it, but they were obviously influenced by it. So the music still had an element of freshness, while capturing what people loved.

We saw it again with Leon Bridges’ first album, “Coming Home.” It had a distinctive oldies sound, but with all original songs. Then again we see it with Childish Gambino’s “Awaken My Love.” To see different direction of impactful infusion of nostalgia while still sounding very modern, look at artists like Bruno Mars, Goldlink, Brent Faiyaz, and Anderson .Paak to name just a few. There are distinct uniqueness and style that don’t truly fit any era but their own, but you can recognize the influence from other eras while still pushing the medium forward.


Does Nostalgia Limit Creativity?

Why can’t these creatives and companies just make something completely new? How do things move forward if we’re continually looking backward? Isn’t leveraging nostalgia just a crutch? Not necessarily. As Vicky Spratt in her essay on nostalgia noted: “Historically being nostalgic or using nostalgia as a form of expression in art or literature has not been seen as a good thing, rather it’s been viewed as the antithesis of progression and innovation.”

But a study done by psychologists at Southampton University tells a different story. It found that nostalgia can help people be more creative. Annie Sneed of Fast Company breaks it down for us. She said:

“Nostalgia may help people access more information in their brain, and this may provide more material for creativity — specifically, it gives them information that’s very different than what they’re thinking about now. Creative ideas often happen when people combine two dissimilar concepts, and that’s the same line of thought nostalgia inspires: It makes us contemplate past experiences in the context of today… While a little bit of reminiscing might inspire people, constantly living in the past probably won’t help.”

As mentioned, creativity is about taking inspiration and ideas and bringing them together to infuse your style and voice. This development is often built on copying many different influences and styles until they blend into your own. So, it makes sense that nostalgia would help enable creativity as people look back on their past experiences. But as mentioned, constantly living or trying to recreate the past won’t help. So again, it depends on how nostalgia is used, whether in the reflective sense or the restorative sense on whether it will boost or hamper creativity.


Why is Nostalgia Everywhere Right now?

Nostalgia is prevalent for a number of reasons, with the biggest being that it works. As mentioned earlier, with the 30-year cycle of nostalgia in pop culture and children becoming adult consumers with disposable income. Patrick Metzger mentions:

“Artists working in popular mediums are rewarded for making art that appeals to this audience for the simple fact it makes money.”

From a business and marketing perspective, nostalgia makes the job easy as it quickly creates an emotional connection. It also works as a shortcut. Normally, companies will use their budget to hit their audience with a number of advertisements and previews to build familiarity for something new because familiarity increases likeability. This is known as the mere-exposure effect.

But nostalgia marketers don’t need to build familiarity, it already exists, just like the emotional connection to a product they try to create already exists. The whole process is streamlined. It also saves companies money on research and development; a company doesn’t need to find out what a consumer wants next if they can capitalize on producing what the consumer wanted in the past and get them to spend money on that. That’s one reason nostalgia can be so prevalent.

A couple other reasons are escapism and social media. Those two go together in how they drive nostalgia. Bettina Zengel mentions that, “Nostalgia is a resource that people can use to cope with life’s challenges.” Times now are nothing if not challenging. Nostalgia allows us to connect with the peaks of the past and even idealized versions of it. Zengel said,

“The majority of adults turn to nostalgia at least once each week,” but this could conceivably be more frequent now if people feel overwhelmed, depressed or isolated by what they’re seeing in their social media feeds or on the news.”

It becomes common to turn to discussing the better years or that old movie you loved. Or you seek out something to remind you of a better past, which then drives conversation. This is exactly why nostalgia can improve the feeling of connectedness, because it’s often rooted in shared connections and memories.

Facebook capitalizes on this. Christine Lariviere, a social media manager, discusses this forced and maybe even pseudo-nostalgia Facebook employs, with “Friend Anniversaries” and “On This Day” posts that it prompts users to share. By doing so, Facebook offers a curated past, connected to the brand you’ve built online. She argues that

“The so-called ‘memories’ you make on Facebook aren’t really yours. They don’t live in your mind, really, the way your memories do. They also aren’t material objects, like keepsakes, that you possess and can retrieve at will to trigger nostalgia. Your actions, comments, photos, and videos are bytes on a hard drive in a Facebook data center, and they help inform companies buying into their ad network how to show you their ads. For this reason, they are a commodity.”

They are a commodity that Facebook leverages and uses to keep you on the platform. It’s a forced nostalgia that doesn’t allow nostalgia to be used for its original psychological purpose. As Dr. Tim Wildschut and Vicky Pratt discussed in her article,

“Social media is ideally suited to trigger and share nostalgia. This might be one reason to propose that nostalgia may, over time, become more deeply embedded in our culture and everyday language… there might be some reason to speculate that, due to the advent of social media, nostalgia is on the rise. Nostalgia, in a digital age, no longer relies on an individual or specific memory, desire or event: it is fed and encouraged online, topped up relentlessly by easy access to an infinitely recyclable and shareable past.”

Then there’s the younger generation like Gen Z, a generation that has never felt like the world they live in is safe. They’re all post-9/11 kids, where terrorism, mass shootings, school shootings, police brutality, environmental destruction, and more not only seem as part of life, but amplified and consumed on social media.

Pair that with the already negative effects of social media on the brain that drive depression and anxiety as you not only share your life, but constantly compare it to others, and nostalgia seems like a great way to cope. Even if it’s by leveraging another generation’s nostalgia, they can easily learn about and access through the internet.

However, it’s a dangerous coping mechanism of nostalgia not built on their own memories, but nostalgia built on an imaginary and idealized past. It can distort the creative cycle mentioned earlier. The problem is they may not have another coping outlet that reminds them of a better time, if the times they remember have felt hard and unsafe, which adds to the proliferation of nostalgia.


What Does It All Mean?

Nostalgia is a powerful tool for artists and businesses alike. Creators are responsible for how they use nostalgia going forward and should consider making more work that builds on reflective nostalgia, which acknowledges the past, captures those intimate feelings yet keeps pushing forward, should they choose to take advantage of it.

Lessening the use of restorative nostalgia until there’s a truly new take on an old classic will help keep the actual memories of it positive. While being connected with the past is important, the ease and frequency we recreate elements of it and then idealize those elements can create a feeling of stagnation or even regression. Leaning on restorative nostalgia less frequently may lessen the criticism related to using nostalgia in art over time and give it more impact because like with anything else, too much of anything isn’t such a good thing.

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