One of the oddest things about living right now is that there are always at least two versions of the past fighting for space in our minds.
The other day, I took a bike ride down through White Rock and South Surrey, and it brought back some nostalgic memories – going to a campground near Crescent Beach with my family as a child, running around barefoot in the sand all day, reading by flashlight under the faintly musty canvas of the old tent trailer.
That’s an actual, personal past, the kind that’s as unique as a fingerprint. You carry your own past with you, too, just as distinctive and personal.
Then there’s the past we are sold through commercialized nostalgia. This is an aggressively homogenized and packaged version of the past.
This is the version you get in movies and TV shows set from the 1950s through the 1990s, with each decade laid out in a series of song tracks, hairstyles, fashion choices, cars, and accessories.
The goal is to push some of the bigger cultural buttons that might provoke memories. You can almost hear someone behind you as each reference is dropped with a thud, saying “Remember the Monkees? Remember Duran Duran? Remember Chumbawumba?”
The nostalgia-industrial complex is a pretty new. It seems to have burst into sudden flower in the 1970s, as the shock of the 1960s gave way to a desperate yearning among some people for the “simpler” times of the 1950s. Happy Days popped up in 1974, and by 1980 the first classic rock format stations were on the air, and the frenzy of Baby Boomer childhood nostalgia that would last until well into the late 1990s was in full swing.
With that template in place, every generation has had its past repackaged. (Don’t worry, Generation Z kids, today’s teenaged YouTube stars will be touring malls and signing autographs by 2040 at the latest!)
Whatever this is, it doesn’t deserve to be called nostalgia.
Nostalgia didn’t used to mean a fond remembrance, and it certainly didn’t mean “a series of pop-culture references selected via focus groups.” It literally meant homesickness, and was diagnosed in European soldiers in the 17th and 18th centuries, often village lads who had never been more than a few miles from the cottage of their births, suddenly marched halfway across the continent. They fell into what we would now call depression, obsessed with thoughts of the homes they might never see again.
Commercial nostalgia pretends nothing is lost because the past is a commodity, always available for re-packaging and sale. There’s no pain in commerce, in the endless selling of plastic pasts.
Real nostalgia – true, personal nostalgia, the kind drawn from our own history – always has a tinge of sadness to it, even pain.
We can never go back to the same beach, the childhood bedroom, the house that’s long since been demolished, the Christmas morning with relatives who have passed on.
Memory can be a comfort, a reminder of past joys, and of our deep connections with a place and family, but nostalgia always reminds us you only have one past, and you can’t ever really go back.
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