What is it about nostalgia that stirs such powerful emotions in us all? Why do we insist on revisiting, remaking, and reconstructing the past? This innate yearning that is part of being human, I would argue, is a part of gaining back some comfort and familiarity in an increasingly unfamiliar and complex world. Whether it is an escape through our popular culture, a preference to revisit the past than to explore what may come in an unknown future, or to enjoy simply what we have been accustomed to, the power of nostalgia should not be underestimated.
As the new year begins, looking at the popular culture, which reflects trends in our overall society, this yearning for nostalgia has only gotten more prominent in the recent years, especially with the continuing of the COVID-19 pandemic. There are multiple examples in pop culture where nostalgia is the rule rather than the exception. One example would include video games where remakes, sequels, and remastered games from the Halo series to Assassin’s Creed to Call of Duty are still the most popular even after being decades long in terms of their original creation.
Another example would be television shows where one of the most popular series released recently is ‘Cobra Kai’ whose origins come from the Karate Kid movies of the 1980s, but for which has had a rebirth with the same actors almost four decades later but also with new characters who compliment the original story. Other popular shows involve those from the ‘Star Wars’ and ‘Marvel’ series whose revitalizations include the bounty hunter Boba Fett (also from the 1980s as a character) and popularly known comic book heroes including ‘Loki’, ‘Captain America’, and ‘Hawkeye.’ While these comic book heroes may be new to some viewers, they also date back in their creation back to the 1990s or even earlier allowing their fans to indulge in their own nostalgia in seeing these comic book heroes come to the small screen.
I haven’t even mentioned the plethora of movies from ‘Licorice Pizza’ (1970s), ‘The Power of the Dog’ (1920s Western), ‘The Matrix: Resurrections’ (1990s-2000s), released just in the past few months who pay homage to the past from settings we are familiar with or at least recognize. While there are films and TV series that do focus on mankind’s possible future(s), such as ‘Station Eleven’ on HBOMax or ‘The Expanse’ on Amazon Prime, most popular media today focuses on either adapted stories or at least remakes of stories with slight changes or new ideas related to the same characters to keep its popularity going.
In 2022, nostalgia sells the best, which is why new Halo video games, new Spider-Man movies, and new Game of Thrones books still rule the day in terms of our popular media consumption. Now, that does not mean that our appetite for new and original ideas in our popular culture are going extinct, but you can tell that we live in an age of rampant nostalgia, which is the norm rather than taking a chance or a risk on a new story or new ideas.
I believe that this resurgent nostalgia does have its positives to give people some familiarity with what they already know from their own past and for which they have experience in liking already. In addition, it can take more time to warm up to a new story, a new idea, or a new experience when it’s easier to go with something or someone you already know. Stories can change or adapt or get better sometimes over times and just because we are familiar with a character, or a series does not mean that it automatically gets boring after a certain point.
However, it is much easier to rely on nostalgia rather than to forge a new path. In anything in life and not just popular culture, it’s not as challenging to look back on what we’ve done, where we’ve been, or what we’ve experienced than to go forward, challenge oneself, and try new things. The impulse to be comfortable with what’s familiar rather than the unknown is a powerful force and an impulse that can be hard to overcome without pushing yourself. Nostalgia does not create lasting comfort though usually and it can be rather stale to rely on reliving things, experiences, or places rather than to look forward to unknown occurrences in the future.
Sequels, remakes, reshoots, adapted materials are harder to make better than the originals and they also do not break any new ground. Whether it is film, music, art, books, or in general, it may be easier to rely on nostalgia for creation but if it does not work out, it can be harder to bounce back from that failure. If you do something original or unique instead, it will stand out much more currently, and while you may polarize people who have gotten so used to nostalgia everywhere, you can be more wildly successful in your endeavor potentially and create a new cultural touchstone.
One great example from this past year that generated not only a cultural touchstone, but a worldwide phenomenon from Seoul to London to New York was the Netflix original series, ‘Squid Game.’ While the popular show contained elements from other TV series from the past, it had its own flair to it with unique set design, memorable characters, and a compelling and timely plot. It was the #1 TV series on the global streaming platform for over a month or so and generated important conversations in the public sphere regarding capitalism, income inequality, and debt servicing. The creators of the series took a big gamble, and they could have failed but they put their heart and soul into this unique show, and it paid off in more ways than one.
‘Squid Game’ and other original programming are a lesson for us all to not let our imaginations be stymied by what’s familiar and already known. Even in an uncertain world being continually upended by a pandemic and the effects of climate change, people want to be challenged to discover what’s new and what’s important. There is room in this world for both what’s new and what’s nostalgic. I think our problems begin in society when we only crave what’s comfortable or only what’s nostalgic to us. If we only choose to focus on what we already know, we won’t be able to face what’s new or on the horizon for us. It is not good to dwell only on what’s past and to rehash forever and ever what we already like rather than not trying to discover what we may like or embrace in the future that can help us learn more about the world around us.