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Why We Can’t Get over the Allure of Nostalgia in Pop Culture

Why We Can’t Get over the Allure of Nostalgia in Pop Culture

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Pop culture is marketing nostalgia to us and there’s not much fuss about it. Brands, after all, exist to make a profit. And when we think about it, we see that no idea is truly original…

By Sybil Fekurumoh

In the slapstick comedic fashion of Nigerian skit-makers, video creator, Gilmore, put out new content where he parodies the trends of the 2013s – 2016s. To use the Nigerian lingua, these trends were “in vogue.” The appeal of glove-sleeve shirts paired with sleeveless winter jackets (in spite of the tropical weather), Alpargata slip-on shoes, half-face caps, and messenger bags. These were the times when the selfie stick was a high-value product that had to appear in every photograph. Selfies and portraits can only be captured in awkward poses: tongue sticking out, pouts, “peace” and “rock” hand gestures, and Android collage makers with very obvious gridlines. These were the trend from a not-so-long time ago that seems so far away now, the starter pack that younger Millenials and older Gen Zs can relate to. Through the video, Gilmore takes viewers back in time and whets their appetite for nostalgia.

Every now and then, people make commentary on a time in the past that those born at a later time would not understand. One may find comments that set about in this manner, “This generation will never understand this…,” “The new generation can’t relate,” “We have to bring back the time when…” and on it goes.

Even as technology today rivals that of the past, some posit that previous times had better offerings: better movies, music, television shows, and fashion choices. For example, there are arguments that Nigerian songwriters of the 1980s far surpass those of today, that classic books and movies are better off, or that vintage fashion invites an aura of sophistication. Sometimes, it seems like the present would never measure up to the past. Although we cannot excuse that sometimes there may be classist and elitist sentiments in these opinions. Sometimes, too, these concerns are valid. For example, there is a pressing concern that new Nollywood movies lack the artistic flair of the classics. But more the case, the commentaries about the past are because of nostalgia.

It has been said that nostalgia is a yearning for an idealised past. Psychiatrist, Alan R. Hirsch, wrote of nostalgia as, “…not a true recreation of the past, but rather a combination of many different memories, all integrated together, and in the process, all negative emotions filtered out.” There is no age limit for nostalgia. For those who have lived at a set time in the past, nostalgia offers comfort and familiarity, the emotional triggers that can make people connect to their past. For those who haven’t, nostalgia becomes a form of escapism and distraction, or simply a means to add a bit of razzle-dazzle or mystery to the present time. It is a sentimental longing for a time and place associated with fervour. Because it is normal to want to go down memory lane and perhaps relive the past, present-day pop culture has become fascinated by nostalgia. It remains a popular theme in pop culture that continues to captivate audiences today.

There is a fondness for the past, as if to bring back the “glory days.” Thankfully, with digital technology, the past is always within reach. We can stream old movies and songs on platforms like YouTube and Netflix. There are also dedicated radio stations that offer only retro and classic music. Another example is today’s Y2K fashion which relives the fashion of the 2000s. Halter necks, double denim, bell bottoms, and the like, are all making a comeback. So for young Millenials that lived through the 2000s era, Y2K is a comfort, while for the Gen Zs, it is to embrace maximalism. Past events also allow us to better understand the present. Through their art form, lifestyle, and entertainment, we can perhaps understand the psyche and political atmosphere of the times, and perhaps learn from it in the present. For example, Fela Kuti’s music retains its relevance in engaging political discourses that are still important today.

(Read also: Why You Dress the Way You Do: Is There a Link between Fashion and Identities?)

But pop culture takes nostalgia a step further by allowing us to relive it, but with a different kind of experience. Elements from the past are imitated, or remade in the present. Lifestyle and entertainment, from movies to music, to fashion, gadgets, and accessories, are sold to consumers with a blast from the past. Take 7Up Nigeria’s relaunch of its classic Fido Dido mascot, but with a new campaign model.

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Sometimes, skeptics may denounce pop culture nostalgia as a lack of creativity. That originality is dying, and that copying from the past shows a present that is lacking in authenticity.  This is where inventiveness comes to play. The ability to take part in something old and create another that can exist as a standalone.

Nollywood for example, perhaps taking a cue from its western counterpart, Hollywood, has taken to remaking and creating sequels of Nollywood classic movies from the 1990s to the early 2000s. Starting with Funke Akindele’s Omo Ghetto: The Saga, which is a sequel to Abiodun Olarenwaju’s 2010 movie, Omo Ghetto, to Play Network’s sequel of the 1992 movie, Living in Bondage. Both of these movies were received with positive critical acclaim and had viewers re-watching the originals again. With Play Network’s acquired rights to some of Nollywood’s classics, we’ve seen a roll-out of these remakes of movies like Rattle Skin, Nneka the Pretty Serpent, and Glamour Girls. But it’s not just Nollywood. Last year, content studio, Propagate International, acquired the rights to produce a Zulu version of the American telenovela, Jane the Virgin, targeted at South African audiences.

(Read also: Play Network Studios’ Preference for Remakes: What is the Thought of Stakeholders?)

The most prominent example of pop culture nostalgia, however, is music with music. We find samples from past times across Afrobeats. Afrobeats artistes bring elements from the past into the present. I remember listening with my father to Ayra Starr’s Sare when he points out that the outro is a sample of “Orere Elejigbo,” a song from 1979 by the Lijadu Sisters. Again, the excitation for Starr’s recent release, “Sability,” is the noticeable influence from “Coupé Bibamba” from 1998 by Congolese singer, Awilo Longomba. There’s also Olamide’s 2013 song, “Anifowose,” which samples Fuji legend K1 the Ultimate’s “Omo Anifowose,” and Burna Boy sampling Angélique  Kidjo’s “We We” from 1991 on his 2020 hit song, “Anybody,” all entirely new songs that experiment with the older elements. Nigerian duo band, The Cavemen., has been praised for bringing back old Nigerian Highlife music through their songs, but with a modern kick that is unique to the band. Similarly, American singers, Bruno Mars and Anderson.Paak, who make up the Silk Sonic, takes retro to a newer level with their renaissance of Soul music from the 70s. Older audiences can enjoy a sound where there is a hint of something familiar, and with newer audiences, it is a new experience.

Would pop culture nostalgia ever end? It arguably would not. Simply, nostalgia sells. There are copyright laws that protect original works, and sometimes there are hassles to sampling, imitating, and remaking artistic works. Creatives would not go through the stress if there weren’t benefits. Many brands tug at our nostalgic sleeves knowing that comfort sells. Of course, many would be more than happy to consume a product that reminds them of good times. Take Nokia remodeling the iconic Nokia 3310 of the early 2000s in 2017. The new phone retained its retro feel but was more suited for the present market. It was received with positive reviews. Pop culture is marketing nostalgia to us and there’s not much fuss about it. Brands, after all, exist to make a profit. And when we think about it, we see that no idea is truly original. Most things are recycled forms of existing works. And if it makes us relive memories of former times, then, by all means, indulge.

Cover photo credit: Pinterest


Sybil Fekurumoh is a senior writer for Afrocritik. Connect with her on Twitter and Instagram at @toqueensaber.

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