B-side Magazine is a music publication focused on young musicians of New England that brings the voice of the youth to public.

B-side Magazine is the branch of WBRU which is an fm and online radio based in Providence.

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November 4 , 2020

Etienne Adams

Utkan Dora Öncül

Music is a powerful medium. It has the ability to generate raw emotion from thin air, through specific combinations of rhythm, tempo, melody, lyrics, and instrumentality. It makes sense then, that nostalgia, as valid, honorable, and ancient human emotion, plays a huge role in our experience of music. In an excerpt from “Heaven is a Place on Earth”, Keshia Mcclantoc explains that “the collective nature of nostalgia is one that says, “you are connected: you have placed a phone call directly into the past, and you heard the answering voice”. I find this speaks to nostalgia being this imaginary tie—tethering us to what once was—becoming activated every time we listen to a song from our past.

Under what circumstances do we experience nostalgia? I find that it usually happens when we least expect it, there always being this element of surprise. The last time I experienced this was a few weeks ago, when my roommate and I had a small (and covid safe) gathering in celebration of her 22nd birthday. We made food, ate, and then slowly transitioned into the spotlight event of the night, the projector. It only took a few rounds of Just Dance before we found ourselves falling into the rabbit hole of throwback songs. The video we watched, appropriately called “Try Not to Sing Along–Disney Edition (IMPOSSIBLE)”, featured songs from like He Could Be the One by Hannah Montana, La La Land by Demi Lovato, songs from High School Musical, and The Suite Life of Zack and Cody & That’s so Raven theme songs.

This video was a virtual whirlwind. It felt as though we were being transported through different places in time; from one memory to another. This was our phone call into the past. We all knew these songs by heart, and there was a very strong bonding quality in having us all sing along in unison—furthering this idea of nostalgia as both an individual and collective experience.

The Nostalgia Machine is another platform that brings us back to childhood favorites, by letting us pick a year, and then presenting us with the top pop songs from that given year.

It is clear that musical nostalgia establishes itself as a naturally & organically occurring emotion. But what about the kind of nostalgia created by the music industry when it uses tropes of the past in order to create a sort of fabricated nostalgia? Is it still perceived as authentic? Take Charli XCX’s song, 1999, for example. The lyrics go:

I just wanna go back, back to 1999
Take a ride to my old neighborhood
I just wanna go back, sing, "hit me, baby, one more time"
Wanna go back, wanna go

The video is filled with every stereotype of this year in particular, such as references to The Titanic, Sims, Eminem, and Macintosh. One may very well find themselves nostalgic of these things. However, the difference between this, and the nostalgia we feel when we hear songs of the past, is that 1999 is clearly a product of 2020. Which is not to say that music has a certain “waiting period” before it can begin to evoke fondness—in fact, I find myself longing over things that happened just a few weeks ago. But the song doesn’t come off as nostalgic at all. Rather, it comes off as an attempt to overgeneralize and aestheticize the past for the sake of a catchy song. In other words, the song might one day make us feel nostalgic, not about the year  1999, but for the song itself, because it will specifically evoke memories from when we used to listen to it.

In final thoughts, each day that we listen to music, we are building upon the foundation of what we will one day be reminiscent of, whether it’s weeks, or years from today. And because of this, some of the things we look back on will look the same because of generational trends, and some will look different because of personal significance and musical preference. But that is the potential music holds in shaping all of our lives: its nostalgia existing both on the individual scale, as well as in the communal shared longing of what once was.

*Editor’s Note: Nostalgia and our longing for the past as a topic is tackled by many musicians. An example from this year is Tame Impala’s “Lost in Yesterday” music video where a normally mediocre wedding gets better by each time we embelish the memories from it. The music video captures the idea that the past is not necasarily better, we just remember it that way filtered from troubles and worries of its time.