Popular Music and Nostalgia: Some Outline Thoughts

I am off to Prague on Tuesday to deliver a paper at the 6th European Communication Conference. The subject matter is popular music and nostalgia. Here is a transcript of the paper. It is closely linked into my work in Merthyr Tydfil, so watch this space for more.

The relationship of music to memory is now beginning to be established, with a number of academics now outlining how music, in particular from ones youth, can have strong nostalgic impact – evoking both general and specific memories of life events. Most importantly, the research of Schulkind found a correlation between emotion and memory: suggesting the more emotion a song produced, the greater the likelihood it has to trigger associated memories, resonating with what Oliver Sacks described as “forced reminiscence”. However, the relationship between music and emotion has been long contested from the time of Eduard Hanslick (1825-1904), with its polysemic nature meaning that a song with great emotional significance for one individual, could have little attachment for another, even if both are from the same generation, peer group, etc. This makes it problematic when attempting to cross-reference specific songs to generic emotionally driven nostalgic responses, as the results have the potential for a degree of subjectivity.

Research from the likes of Janata (2007) and Barrett (2010) has attempted to understand both the means through which music can arouse nostalgia and the conditions through which nostalgic responses occur. Music can be seen to evoke a number of positive, negative and neutral responses, depending on how prone we are to nostalgia psychologically, our mood at the time, when, where and why we are listening to music, in addition to general personality traits.

When one considers the nostalgic impact of popular music, the tradition of a genre such as rock can be regarded as inherently nostalgic, as contemporary artists often display both music industry constructed and more genuine links to music of the past. For example, when we listen to a song such as ‘Dog House Boogie’ by Seasick Steve, it is difficult to disassociate it from the music of early blues artists such as Robert Johnson, due to the tonal inflections of the vocals and the use of the slide guitar, not to mention the general dress code and persona of the artist.  I mention this example to highlight that despite Sea Sick Steve adopting a widely publicised fake persona to frame his musical output, he can still be linked to sounds of the past, so still has the potential of evoking nostalgic responses in his audience. The evocation of nostalgia when viewed in this light, has been regarded as a music industry marketing tool, a point that will be returned to later.

Regarding the impact of record production and following in the thinking of the likes of Phil Tagg (2012), it could be suggested that it is possible for the individual sounds of recordings to act as conduits of nostalgic meaning. For example, when we listen to the 80s influenced keyboard sounds of a contemporary band like Fanfarlo, it is easy to understand how these sounds can conjure up feelings of nostalgia for some. Indeed in the August 2009 issue of The Wire, journalist David Keegan coined the phrase ‘hypnagogic pop’, to describe the collection of contemporary artists that have cogent ‘low fidelity’ approaches and sounds, influenced by the 1970s and 1980s. Whether ‘genuine’ or industry constructed, this post modern phenomena has also been positioned under the banner of Hauntology, a term coined by Jacques Derrida, and recently applied to artists such as Ariel Pink and James Ferraro, both of whom compose ‘new’ music featuring ‘vintage’ production techniques and styles.

However, the artistic process of mixing the old with the new is very different from what Emily Keightly and Michael Pickering entitle retrotyping, I quote

“a distinctive manner of remembering which depends on a purposive selectiveness of recall that celebrates certain aspects of a past period and discards others that would […] undermine its commercial intent”.

Although analysing a well-known British TV Hovis advert, the same process could also be regarded as apparent in the commercial exploitation of popular music.

If we take a song such as ‘Unchained Melody’ as an indicative example, which has been periodically repackaged to generations of new consumers since its original release in 1955. The version recorded by Robson and Jerome in 1995, can be regarded as a carefully constructed text by record company marketing teams to romanticise parts of the past that were regarded as having commercial potential, but also to incorporate what Homan describes as a music industry “risk mitigation strategy”, where the nostalgic element included in the promotion and production of music is seen to negate the potential of poor record sales!

When one examines the social and cultural conditions surrounding the commercial success of Robson and Jerome, it appears that a propensity for nostalgia was already in the air at the time: think of the 60s influenced Brit Pop movement.

As outlined by Sprengler, although the precise impact of music may vary from person to person, nostalgic ‘proneness’ can move beyond an individual’s circumstances and physiological make up to include a more generic response from society at large, with events such as social and cultural upheavals having the potential to trigger nostalgia for “certain constituencies of society”. A pertinent music related example of this in the UK is the death of Princess Diana, which produced a widespread emotional outpouring from the general public, which was encapsulated in Elton John’s remaking of ‘Candle in the Wind 97’. It is however, important to remember that our experience of events such as this are mediated, with our ‘ceremonial participation’ being enacted in the home through the lens of an intermediary, “Thus the personal memory of viewing such an event is structured by the ideologies of the broadcaster […] not by the reality of the event in the unmediated world”

Stern (1992) suggests that musical nostalgia has the potential to be activated on two levels, what he describes as ‘personal’ and ‘historical’. The former is when one has direct experience of the origin of the sounds we are listening to, while the latter is related to a time in history that is before one was born. So as an indicative personal example that builds upon what I have already discussed, a track such as The Thomson Twins’ ‘Love On Your Side’, released in 1983, will often evoke nostalgic memories associated with my university years. However, I find that it is also possible to have these memories evoked by listening to contemporary artists such as Fanfarlo, who are so obviously influenced by an ‘80s aesthetic.


Regarding Stern’s 2nd level, it is important to point out that despite the personal resonance of this music with me, the likelihood is that these sounds will have a different impact on someone born in the 1990s, who can only relate to them from a purely historic perspective, which can not be informed by direct experience.

One of the most widespread nostalgic musical phenomena’s today is that of the tribute act, events where both audiences and performers alike partake in what Homan describes as “a remembrance of a remembrance”. What this phenomenon facilitates is the capacity for someone to ‘relive’ their youth via personal nostalgia, but also get a glimpse of what it may have been like to experience live music that ceased to exist long before their berth. In doing so, performances such as this arguably have the potential to neutralise the impossibility of revisiting the past, helping one to reconcile the irrepressibility of time, with the present, enabling us to live, although temporarily, in a place nostalgic people have a preference for – the past. Homan argues that the rise of tribute acts are indicative of “changes in the cultural economy” (88), citing the rise of CD technology in the mid 1990s to have a “significant impact on the ‘consistency’ of the heritage assemblage” (88).

This phenomena has increased even more in the last decade, with the rise initially of the MP3 and more latterly platforms such as You Tube, Spotify and Apple Music, meaning the back catalogue of many artists are instantly available, arguably influencing a generation of musicians and audiences who have grown up with the technology toward a ‘retro sensibility’.

Describing tendencies such as these as ‘retromania’, Simon Reynolds, regards modern societies’ increasing inclination to produce and consume music from its immediate past as a potential danger to its future, asking the important question

Is nostalgia stopping our culture’s ability to surge forward, or are we nostalgic precisely because our culture has stopped moving forward and so we inevitably look back to more momentous and dynamic times?

Returning to more personal connections with music, Batcho suggests that

biographical memories may help a person maintain a coherent identity amid the constant flux of life events and during transitions into new life stages or times of adapting to new social networks, challenges, roles, or demands.

From a musical perspective, this indicates that songs that resonate personally, have greater potential to evoke nostalgic feelings – what Janato describes as “autobiographical salience”. Although, as suggested by Daniel Leviten, these musically evoked nostalgic feelings could be related to brain function, with the song acting as a neurological time stamp to our past, it can also be considered more musicological, where in addition to the sounds themselves manipulating our neuron responses, the listener actually inhabits the song, becoming what Allan Moore describes as the ‘possessed protagonist’ (the person singing the song) and/or ‘antagonist’ (the person being sung to, as opposed to the more distance ‘passive observer’, where the song has no connection. If I once again use a personal example, it is easy for me to listen to a song such as Sting’s ‘Dead Man’s Boots’ and become the father and/or the son featured in the song’s lyrics –the antagonist or protagonist respectively.

The song features a son who is determined to transcend the working class profession of his father. In the song, the son is either singing to or singing about his father, both of which resonate with me partially because, having a similar social background and North Eastern heritage to Sting – I can identify with either the son character as myself, or the father as my parents. Although Moore specifically discusses positioning the listener in the song, I would argue that a similar nostalgic phenomena occurs when one envisages the protagonist or antagonist being someone you love, like a close family member. We arguably all have relationships similar to this in some of the popular music we listen to, but I was surprised to discover that this particular northeast England version of nostalgia actually has a name – Akenside Syndrome, a noun that juxtaposes the need to escape your hometown alongside its nostalgic homecoming impulses. Similar nostalgic descriptors have been incorporated in Germany (heimweh), France (maladie du pays), Spain (mal de corazon) and where I currently live, Wales, with the word Hiraeth, having no direct English translation, describing the complex feelings of homesickness (for a real or imagined home), including grief and sadness with an intense pride of home.

Although difficult to describe in words, these complex combinations of feelings and emotions I would argue can be depicted and evoked in music. As outlined by Phillip Tagg (2012), music has the potential to convey complex information to its listeners that the logocentric nature of word based descriptions simply can’t portray. Indeed Tagg argues it is not the music that one listens to that has vague meaning, but the language we use to describe it. With this in mind, music becomes the perfect medium to accompany the ambivalent ‘bittersweet’ feelings one sometimes witnesses when experiencing nostalgia, what Batcho describes as “a mix of sadness and wistful joy” (Batcho 362).

So, how can I use all of this in my Merthyr Project? I currently have a Historypin site set up with close to 200 pictures and an associated Facebook site, which is precipitating some conversation within the community. I have also interviewed some community members and began to produce some electronic based compositions that are intended to both represent and jog memories. I am also working with a technology company to enable visitors to the town to access this data via I beacons technology. Finally, over the next couple of months, I will be working on an edited collection, where my chapter will present the result of my findings.



About Paul Carr

Academic working at the University of Glamorgan
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