I went to Willow last term. I didn’t want to, but I have friends with bad tastes and off kilter social consciences. For the first hour following our arrival it was a surprising lot of fun. Still comparatively early in the night, the dance floor was empty. We spread our arms, whirled around and furiously stomped our feet as Duran Duran graced the sound system. A gloriously shameful grin stretched across our collective faces as Madonna blared out: we got down on our knees and we prayed.
An amount of alcohol and some loose-tongued conversation later and the atmosphere had completely changed. In place of the self-indulgent glee that came with dusting off our ‘90s eardrums swayed in a sea of people; faces raised to the ceiling as they came together in a powerfully contemporary rendition of ‘Wrecking Ball’. I started, the sheer force of the event taking place in front of me and the poignancy of my realisation causing me to trip backwards. Trapped in a slow-motion cinematic tumble, my mind worked in overdrive as, for the first time, I fully understood what was happening. The birth of nostalgia. I hit the floor. Everything went black.
In an essay entitled ‘Nostalgia: an exploratory Study of Themes and Emotions in the Nostalgic Experience’, pleasingly written in my birth year, psychologists Susan Holak and William Havlena offer a simple understanding of nostalgia. For the most part rooted in our fertile formative years, the pair argue that the feelings we generally perceive as a mixture of homesickness and retrospective self-inspection, are tied to personal events. The first time you rode a bike, went to school or hosted a successful football party: distinct events particular to you, not everyone else.
Taking this definition, it seems odd that the pop-filled shiftiest that is Willow’s playlist is so regularly described as nostalgic. I personally never listened to Robbie Williams in any kind of significant way in my youth, and do not know many people who did. Beyond brief aural glimpses of ‘Road to Mandalay’ and ‘Let Me Entertain You’, his presence is conspicuous for its absence in my formative years. And yet come last December I found myself almost sincerely singing ‘Angels’ in a huddled circle: the look exchanged between our tear soaked eyes seeming to say “we were born in the 1990s, and this is our song.”
Nostalgia is, after all, completely personal. What music I associate with my childhood might have nothing to do with what everyone else in Willow listened to when they were five or six years old. Maybe someone did listen to ‘Angel’ when it first came out, but I clearly didn’t. But when we’re all crowded on that dark dancefloor, everyone suddenly has the same fake childhood memory.
So this is false nostalgia. There doesn’t really seem to be anything wrong with it, much likes there’s nothing really wrong with going to an American Diner in Swansea or pretending 1950s Britain had a real sense of community and wasn’t actually shit. Why shouldn’t we all meet up on a Thursday night, sing half the words of TLC’s ‘No Scrubs’, and get a bit sad about not being properly young anymore?
Because it’s weird. And completely emotionally regressive. Everytime the idea that you used to like The Backstreet Boys pops into your head on a massive bender, an actual, personal memory and a piece of your integrity falls out. Stop it. If you don’t, come 2024 we’ll be singing Miley Cyrus with the generation below us, fooling ourselves into thinking that we did actually used to really like this and weren’t just drunk or a giddy child.
And then we’ll pretend to love whatever that generation’s One Direction will be. We’ll huddle around in a dark room, reminiscing over songs from the 2010s that we currently hate as we sway along to new music that we also hate. We’ll watch everyone around us make the same mistakes we made. Nostalgia will eventually just be code for terrible music that we all know the lyrics to but would otherwise never touch. It’ll have nothing to do with our real pasts. We’ll double-think our way into believing it had an impact where it never really did.