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Harkening Back: Our Nostalgic Obsession

News & Features | October 28, 2013

Miley Cyrus is everywhere these days. On TV, in the newspaper, all over the internet— and chances are you’ve heard her name during a random eavesdropping session over the last two weeks. Her stunts have earned her a #trending status on Twitter, and although the word ‘trending’ connotes social media today, trends have always been at the heart of our cultural identity. Trends are where we search for a sense of self-image, ruffling through countless styles, aesthetics, and cultural tendencies until we find the mix that fits best.
Present trends dominate the cultural conversation simply because of their extensive exposure and their current relevance. Despite this, most are short-lived and fleeting, and thus we see no real commitment in participating. Continuing with the Miley example, Ms. Cyrus is everywhere in print and digital media. As a result, most people in the US know at least a little something about her, without exerting any real effort to keep up with her twerking abilities. It’s easy to stay aware of present trends, but that awareness doesn’t hold much permanence.

Past trends, however, manage to maintain an immortality that the present cannot. They are fixed, established elements of a deceased aesthetic that still holds stock in society. The power of nostalgia (culturally and commercially) feeds off the notion that, as we become more and more disenchanted with the present, our already glorified sense of the past is amplified tenfold. There will always be a demand and supply for resurrecting, romanticizing and repurposing the past. We are in a constant state of retro resurgence.

Renowned music critic Simon Reynolds, in his 2011 book Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction to Its Own Past, catalogues this resurgence within the pop culture machine. In his eyes: “As each decade unfolds, there’s a bit more of an archive, and that archive becomes more accessible, too.” Accessibility nowadays is synonymous with the Internet, and in Reynolds’ words: “Youtube…that’s a real threshold. A lot of the stuff that fans used to trade—like degraded copies of videos with clips of people on TV shows in the 60s and 70s—is all going up and becoming common property.”

So the Internet has given us this unparalleled access to the past. Mix that with the ever -increasing power of the brand, and the social demand fulfills itself. The advertising world has seized the potential associated with our generation’s perception of the past. The industry understands our fascination with the novelties of what we have heard about, researched, and studied, but have never known ourselves. Marketers also realize that, as Fred Davis put it in Yearning for Yesterday: A Sociology of Nostalgia: “The country is struggling with financial troubles – housing foreclosures, rising food prices, high unemployment,” and are thus reviving “the brands of yesterday with the hope that they will tap into peoples’ desire for simpler, happier, less stressful times. They believe their brands can provide safety, comfort, pleasure, or joy – a tonic in today’s uncertain world.”

Facebook, Skype and Twitter all have vintage-style ads designed and developed, with the hope that vintage might be the design direction for the next viral ad campaign. Pepsi and Mountain Dew throwback editions are now permanent additions to the family— packaging straight from the 1970s, real cane sugar and all. Companies like Ray-Ban are repurposing 60s and 70s eyewear styles that harken back to the days of afternoon scotch and cigarettes. And they wouldn’t be doing so if such initiatives didn’t sell.

But let’s get back to scotch and cigarettes for a second. Mad Men: we can all agree on its general brilliance, but the hype has reached staggering levels. I’ve heard of about 40 Mad Men-themed parties within the past year. No joke. And on two occasions I’ve heard guys in suit shops asking for a “Mad Men-type suit”. There’s no doubt that the period style and grace of AMC’s pampered star makes you want to don a quality three-piece, throw on a slim tie and have a Lucky. And guess what? If you search “Don Draper suits” on Google, GQ and Esquire are there to fulfill your desires, with complete Draper Lookbooks. Not to mention Brooks Brothers sneaking in there for a quick pitch. Thank AMC for creating the allure, and the others for getting it to you— stat. It’s nostalgic demand and supply, fabricated and ready for your immediate consumption.

In the music industry, throwback culture looks a little different. When Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories hit the market last May, 19,000 of the units sold during its first week were LPs. Although this accounts for a mere 6% of total sales, it raises the question: Why are record labels still catering to the throwback niche in the midst of the Digital Age? And, more importantly, why is the musically-inclined consumer still providing a niche market for these products?

The latter is obviously tied to the former, and a chunk of the explanation lies with DJs and vinyl as the technical, traditional mixing tool. The rest is rooted in defying the digital ways that dominate musical culture today. Analog purism retains a certain depth and character of sound that only vinyl can fulfill. There are few who subscribe to this notion with any degree of sincerity, and many who subscribe to it based solely on the nostalgic image that vinyl perpetuates— Laid back, lo-fi, old school, however you want to describe it. And it is through this image that the music industry capitalizes on the same nostalgia that retro advertising exploits. Retro music evokes simpler times in the overwhelming infinity of today’s digital music choices . Back then, you had roughly 22 minutes per LPside, and that’s all there was to worry about.

And just like with throwback advertising, the consumer avidly responds to the simplicity of vinyl. Although labels incur greater costs by producing LPs, the consumer demand for analog secures them a worthy payoff.. Michael Framer, who reports on all things analog via his site Analogplanet.com, affirms that “none of these companies are pressing records to feel good. They’re doing it because they think they can sell.” And with 25 million LPs pressed last year alone, it seems like a worthwhile endeavor.

But it’s not just the labels that take full advantage of our nostalgic vulnerability either. Bands like Fleet Foxes, with hair, beards and harmonies echoing the 60s and 70s, do their part as well. They look to the past for inspiration, and translate select aspects of that inspiration into their own image. That image is then projected to the fans, young and old, who revel in it.

The problem with this kind of nostalgic projection is that it reduces the past to only its most iconic, dominant representation. It is as if the original aesthetic or cultural tendency passes through a custom filter designed by whoever has decided to resurrect it. Take vinyl, for example. The skips, the crackling, the “hassle” of it all relative to a digital music file are inconsequential to today’s buyers because they are instead concerned with the image and glorified “feel” of analog. Josh Bizar, the director of sales and marketing for Chicago music gurus Music Direct, commented in an interview with The New York Times on how they “Never expected the vinyl resurgence to become as crazy as it is, but it’s come full circle.” He went on to imply that it has even become a means of generational differentiation for some. “We get kids calling us up and telling us why they listen to vinyl, and when we ask them why they don’t listen to CDs, they say, ‘CDs? My dad listens to CDs — why would I do that?’” While we would expect to distinguish ourselves with future trends instead of fads from the past, it seems that the opposite is true. Some are reaching behind the music preferences of the Baby Boomers in order to, well, stand out.

So where does yearning for yesteryear leave us today? Simon Reynolds posits that there should be a call for concern. He realizes how the past fulfills the retro allure that the present cannot, but worries that it is too motivated by fear of The Now. “It’s fun to relive our pop culture history,” said Reynolds in an interview with Collectors Weekly. “But,” he posits,“is the fun based on being scared of what’s going on now, and hiding in the past?” Reynolds’ question holds significant water, and as Fred Davis points out, marketers are clearly taking advantage of this insinuated fear. There is a certain security in the past that makes it easily applicable and marketable to the society of the present. Mix it with a heavy dose of glorified nostalgia, and you’ve got a scrumptious cocktail, prepped for the masses.

At this point, repurposing the past is a cultural staple, a constant that is invoked in everything from television, to brands, to music, each in its own regard. But the fear that Reynolds alludes to is still very real. Past trends are, and should remain, sources of inspiration for innovation in the present. But we cannot allow ourselves to get lost in them. All that we can really do is enjoy the retro cult – 60s style, throwback branding, the wonderful world of analog and more— without letting it impede our ability to cope with the present.