Music and Nostalgia

Photo: Quora

By Nishant Singh and Prerna Kalbag

I associate music with personal events. Sounds penetrate my dreams. Music surrounds memories and trauma. It stirs up the past and the future and activates Time in a haphazard conclusion until I have no sense of linearity left.

There is no Time in music, only the long, aching journey towards nowhere.

Music is a lot like perfume, with each different scent tracing back to a different period of my life.

But long before I knew music as Music, I knew music as Sound. As a child, sounds amalgamated into a mesh or an orchestra until I used each orchestra to record a different place, era, or person. The chaotic rush of a billion orchestras roaring into a bellow belonged to the railway stations of Bombay. They were equally – if not more – overwhelming as the sickly dirty scent of the City of Filth, the City of Dreams. The sounds of the Beatles belonged to the world of my mother and her days as a young woman on the threshold of independence in 70s Delhi. The sound of the gentle stirring of tea belongs to the domain of tired, slumped evenings.

I still hear those songs, often surreptitiously, over the mobile phone speakers of my transient neighbours during the morning and evening commutes. Even these fragmentary snatches of melodies transport me to a different time. I am confronted with a barrage of memories – of my mother singing to herself while doing her chores, of umpteen wedding celebrations and birthdays, of the cold winter evenings when, huddled in a big blanket, my family listened to classical concerts on Doordarshan.

But what about Music as art or entertainment? Music was one of my first glimpses into the world of caste, or class. Much before I stumbled across Bourdieu, or Foucault, I knew that Taste, even in musical traditions, signified Access. The Sabhas of Chennai, the trashy lyrics that emanated from loudspeakers during festive processions in Bombay, the dignified nostalgic cooing of my sister’s singing every time we experienced a power outage, were all extremely divergent musical worlds. I knew that Music was a sight of appropriation, of war and trauma and exclusion, as much as it was a sight of unions and communions.

The only thing common between these contrasting worlds was the manner in which they, in their own way, remained prisoners of History. They were defined and chained by the traumas of What Had Been, and had been conceived and shaped by its forces. History was also the reason for their differences, for the way in which they excluded.

As with most stories, or narratives, the ghost of what is left out or excluded haunts what gets included. Music does not exist in a vacuum, as much as the deliriously garish songs of Bollywood, submerged in tall windy grasses, would have us believe. Music is connected to what it consciously chooses to exclude, and try as it might, it cannot wash away the bloodstains of History.

But what relationship does music share with our memories, or our ability to reminisce? According to the psychologists Jane Davidson and Sandra Garrido, Music is the most powerful agent of nostalgia, as it is omnipresent throughout our lives. This inevitably creates an inextricable bond between certain events and certain pieces of music. Apart from this, music, far more than other forms of art, has an intensely affective impact on our senses. It also appears to create “emotional contagion”, which is heightened when we experience it in a community setting. The nature of music also encourages this phenomenon – it never degrades or decays over time and always seems to be waiting to be rediscovered, especially in an age of digital reproduction. A song never goes out of fashion – it simply becomes fashionably retro, ever ready to spring back into the popular consciousness by the means of a remix, or simply through rediscovery.

Nostalgia has certainly been present throughout history. The desire to go back to a “simpler time” is hardly unique to the present age, but it is perhaps the defining aesthetic of the last 30 years, a phenomenon that Simon Reynolds refers to as “Retromania”. It exists in virtually all fields of human activity, from politics (marked by restorative nostalgia/ revivalism, or the desire to recreate some lost “golden age”) to art (marked by reflective nostalgia, or the poignant reflection on the time left behind). Nowhere is this epidemic of nostalgia better manifested than in music, where we are subjected to an endless line of remixes, remakes, and appropriations of the 80s synth-pop style.

This, of course, is part of a larger phenomenon of the endless revival of the past that we see in movies, art, even gaming. Mass production of commodities has facilitated the distribution of consumer goods such as TVs, cassette players, etc. to a much larger demographic than before, and thus this demographic has very vivid memories of certain aspects of pop culture of their childhoods. By purchasing these repackaged/remade movies, TV shows and remastered albums, they create “nostalgic microcosms” or spaces where artefacts of the recent past are preserved to relive a lived experience with a sense of coherence. However, a new development, perhaps even unprecedented, is that the younger generations (the millennials/ the Gen Z) are creating what can be called “meta-nostalgic microcosms”, where they store retro artefacts from the 80s and the 90s, to relive experiences that they didn’t live through.

Why is this so? And why are we refusing to move beyond the past? The current attitude to art stands in sharp contrast to the Futurists and the Dadaists of the 1930s. F.T. Marinetti, the Italian poet wrote in his Futurist Manifesto about setting fire to the libraries and flooding museums. Throughout the 50s and 60s, the space race between the USA and USSR and the breath-taking wave of new technologies seemed to presage a wonderful future filled with unimaginable technological advances. All of this seems severely outdated now. Perhaps it has something to do with just how accessible the past has become. YouTube, a gigantic crowdfunded archive with audio records going back to the 1880s, is just the tip of the iceberg. There are so many other niche websites catering to audiences with very specific tastes. No other generation in history has been so totally submerged in its past like ours. In “Funes the Memorious”, Borges tells the story of a man who gets completely immobilized due to his gift/curse of remembering literally everything. We are perhaps experiencing something similar, only on a global scale.

This easy availability of the past is fused with the endless profit motive of late capitalism. Originality necessarily has a certain risk attached to it. Why innovate when you can simply repackage endlessly? And with every trend meticulously documented and readily accessible, the “industry” can simply revive whatever trend it sees fit and sell that to the public, either sincerely, or filtered through the lens of postmodern irony.

Mixed in with all of this is the sense of cultural pessimism that pervades the zeitgeist now. The current generations have witnessed one shocking event after another – from terror attacks, to economic recessions, to global pandemics. In psychotherapy, electric shocks to the brain have been known to cause regression into an infantile state. This succession of endless shocks to the collective psyche, combined with the dread of the future, have caused a mass regression. There is a lack of desire to move forward culturally. This is most visible in music, which seems to be stuck in the past, trying to capture either the hedonism and excess of the 80s or the happy optimism of the 90s.

Music plays an invaluable role in furthering the political aspirations of Nostalgia. Our auditory experiences play a dominant role – perhaps even more than our visual experiences – in shaping our perspectives and world view. Music is effective because it often influences us in a distractive, rather than reflective manner. A lot of what we hear does not register consciously in our senses, because it’s hard to keep track of the million orchestras that tune in our heads through our everyday lives. And yet, it works, perhaps because it’s hard to keep track of just how permeating and porous Music – or Sound – really is. From the repetitive elevator tunes that jiggle through our day, to the whizzing of the subway that enables us to recognize our neighbourhood, Sound/Music is a powerful inducer of moods and states of mind. In spite of the absolutely essential part they play in influencing our thoughts and, over time, our tastes and perception, our auditory senses are often overlooked in favour of their visual counterpart. Music, one could say, is an overlooked agent of Nostalgia, but perhaps effective because of it.

What does this mean for our manner of experiencing Time, where the present is perpetually filtered by our idea of an ideal Past? Nostalgia films our vision like a blurry camera lens, until we get stuck in an endless loop of going back. Only there is no going back, because we’re constantly dwelling in an overwhelming barrage of the Present. Information bombards our everyday senses, and our fragmentary sense of self is salvaged by the sweet sickly arms of reminiscence. The feeling that the best of the times are behind us prevents us from ever creating a better time, or at least attempting to. Capitalism creates for us an endless hoola hoop/spiral, a perpetual longing that can never be quenched. This bombardment from the past has turned us into “consumer-spectators”, lulled into a state of impassivity. Perhaps this inability to satisfy this longing is what keeps us hooked on to the Past, enveloped as it is by the romantic hues of perception.

In order for us to break out of this never-ending cycle, it’s important to, first and foremost, view Nostalgia for what it is – an extremely effective, albeit a tad overused – political tool. We need to view Nostalgia as something that makes our present bearable, and that enables us to carry on in this anaesthetic state of accepting the stagnation of the Present because there can be no better alternative than what has already been.

Why do we always need an example of something before we even begin to attempt it? This fear of the New, this state of paralysis in the face of the unknown prevents us from breaking out of the chains of a glorified past. This is the premise of the neoliberal capitalist realism that we are experiencing today – no alternative is possible. Fascism builds on this, and feeds the masses the false hope that time can be turned back, and a “golden age” can be recovered. Both are fundamentally rooted in pessimism. Thus, the most revolutionary tool of all is Optimism – the belief that a new world is possible. The futurist imaginations of the 1930s were rooted in the drive for complete transformation of the world, and we must aim for no less. Feeble pleas to the music/entertainment industries are hardly likely to change much. It is vital to recognise how the cultural superstructure is intertwined with the economy and society, and thus, the endless waves of nostalgia will only end when economic stagnation – a by-product of capitalism – is addressed and changed.


Nishant Singh has just completed his Master’s degree in Indian History from the University of Delhi. He is interested in Art History, Aesthetics and the Politics of Gestures.

Prerna Kalbag has just completed a Master’s degree in Literary Arts from Ambedkar University Delhi. She is interested in diverse fields such as art history, sociology, sociology of law, critical theory and media studies.


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