The Power of Nostalgia

Diner by Catches the Light. Creative Commons.

A few nights ago I was watching a PBS nostalgia and money-raising show about fifties music. The singers of many of the era’s pop tunes: Patti Page, the Four Aces, the Crewcuts, Gogi Grant… were brought back to perform together after fifty and more years.

Patti Page. Photo by trbuckley. March 27, 2010. The Las Vegas Strip.

They thrilled a very large audience of people, most of them about my age, who were singing along, almost dancing, glowing with their teen-age pasts. I sat there like the rest of them-teary-eyed, choked up, sad and happy all at the same time-when the camera went to one of the members of the audience, an attractive woman of almost my age, swinging and swaying and brushing away tears.

My God, I thought. This perfect stranger is doing exactly what I’m doing. We’re remembering together. Her, me, the hundreds of thousands of people who are watching or have watched before in the stage audience and on their television sets. While our individual reminiscences might vary widely, we are all awash in nostalgia. Music is the great unifier — or nostalgia is. The perfect stranger may be thinking about an ice cream date with a boyfriend; I may be thinking about a summer afternoon, a slice of watermelon and not having a date. But we are all feeling this same powerful emotion-we are made glad by the song and by a past that was rich with feeling-in memory perhaps richer than it really was — and made sad that it will never come again.

Audiences are frequently fed by nostalgia. At ball games when they hear the national anthem, at rock concerts, at Christmas events. The same music, different memories about it but memories that are strangely parallel because of nostalgia. We remember the past with joy but with sadness that it’s gone, irretrievable. And we do it en masse. Nothing else has the peculiar power to do that to a mass of people. Not smells; not even pictures. The scent of roses will induce many memories, but they will be individual enough so that we won’t enjoy them together the way we do a song. Pictures will be even more personal.

First Baptist Church Christmas Concert 2008. Pensacola. Photo by CavemasterKing. (Kevin King). Creative Commons.

Of course, our vision of the past when it is colored by nostalgia, is often of an idealized past.

Older people are especially vulnerable. There’s so much past to feel nostalgic about, and the loss of what has been is more acute as we get closer to losing everything.

Nostalgia has been out of fashion for a long time. My theory is that Western civilization overdosed on it in the 19th century.

An emotional reaction to a vision of the past that is idealized, and therefore not true, cannot be honest art — whether it’s literature, painting, photography, music itself. So say the critics.

And yet, it seems to me, that nostalgia is so powerful that art can’t be altogether without it. There’s something in that idealized past that art needs.

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