Back to the future: why are we opting for nostalgic pop culture?

Illustration of crash test dummy family watching TV together

Illustration: Tobatron/Guardian

Never before has civilisation produced so much new pop culture. From the plethora of TV shows on competing streaming platforms to the seemingly infinite choice offered by online music and gaming services, the wealth of new material being released each month is staggering. Yet when it comes to cultural consumption, audiences are increasingly choosing to seek out classic, safe bets – forgoing the next big thing in favour of the last big thing.

According to UK media watchdog Ofcom, the single most-watched programme in the first quarter of 2019 was the 1990s sitcom Friends. In the US, the top Netflix spot has long been held by the US version of the Office, which first aired 15 years ago. Meanwhile at the box office, sequels and reboots abound. Last year’s top five grossing films in the UK included the remake of the Lion King, Toy Story 4, Frozen 2 and Star Wars: Episode IX – the Rise of Skywalker.

Even computer gaming is stepping increasingly back into the past. Two of the biggest launches in recent years have actually been mini versions of the comparatively ancient 80s and 90s games consoles, Sega’s Mega Drive and Nintendo’s SNES/NES. “Without a doubt, people are going back to the classics,” says Iain Simons, director of the National Videogame Museum in Sheffield. “They pioneered so many of the things we have today.”

One obvious reason why audiences are opting for classic, safe bets is the sense of comfort they can provide in a world that feels increasingly precarious. This feeling of comfort isn’t simply a function of nostalgic familiarity, however. Today’s new TV shows often reflect our current dystopian mood and the fashion for grisly narrative plot twists and traumatic backstories. Think Black Mirror compared with Frasier.

There are other reasons for playing it safe when it comes to pop culture. Partly, it can be about taking joy in simplicity amid the complexity of the world we live in. Our frantic pace of life makes spare time so rare that people are wary of not enjoying the little they have of it. “I can see the appeal in a safe bet, especially if you are going to spend a lot of money on tickets,” says Anna Smith, film critic, broadcaster and host of the all-female film review podcast Girls on Film.

"Classic, safe bets can provide a sense of comfortin a world that feels increasingly precarious"

Likewise, Simons notes that there’s a beauty in the relative simplicity of older video games: “There’s something comforting about only having three lives in a game; there are only so many hours in the day.”

Nostalgic cultural consumption can also remove the all-too common problem of too much choice. “The overabundance of content can make people feel overwhelmed,” says Cristel Russell, a professor of marketing at Graziadio Business School, who has conducted several studies into people’s re-reading of stories and reconsumption of media. “It’s like going to a restaurant and the menu being 20 pages long. You’re probably just going to order something you’ve had before.”

One of Russell’s studies found that revisiting cultural favourites is such a deliberate act – as opposed to a habit – that she coined the term “volitional reconsumption” to describe it. She also found that nostalgic culture can offer something that new works can’t: a form of self-discovery. “The thing you’re watching hasn’t changed, but you have,” explains Russell. “You’ve accumulated all this knowledge and experience, so you’re not looking at it through the same eyes. When you revisit it, you get to see how much you have changed as a person.”

Revisiting pieces of classic cultural entertainment can also give us bonding social experiences. For instance, events such as Secret Cinema, which screens old favourites in specially-created immersive worlds, thrive on the feeling of community and belonging you get when you bring fans of a movie together to celebrate it. “I think one of the keys here is the community aspect: we love to watch a cherished film with others, and laugh and cry together,” says Smith. “In a society that feels increasingly less community driven, in many ways this is an outlet for a positive shared experience.”

There are other possible psychological benefits to reconsuming cultural works. Erica Hepper, a lecturer in personality and social psychology at the University of Surrey, has researched the social emotion of nostalgia, including the reconsumption of works of art. One study involved letting participants choose an old, beloved song to listen to and then comparing their emotions with those of people who hadn’t done so. “Time and again, we found that people who listened to something that was nostalgic experienced all of these psychological boosts – they feel more connected to people, they feel better about themselves, they feel more optimistic,” says Hepper. “They also feel more motivated to achieve their goals. So nostalgia isn’t about being stuck in the past, it actually looks to the future.”

Indeed, one of Russell’s studies showed that reconsuming cultural works can even involve more intense cognitive processes than watching something for the first time. To test this, subjects were made to wear eye-tracking equipment while watching a black-and-white Russian film twice. The equipment monitored both the movement of their eyes and pupil dilation, which can indicate the intensity of the cognitive effort they were undergoing. “Sure enough, on the second viewing, your eye gaze goes to different parts of the screen – you are taking it in in a different way,” says Russell.

She found that people were watching in a way that suggested they appreciated the film much more as a work of art on the second viewing. For instance, they were looking at all the creative details rather than just following the plot. Moreover, she found that people’s pupils were more dilated while doing so. “When you rewatch something, the cognitive effort involved changes. You are hyper-responsive – all of your senses are on. It is a much more intense process than watching something for the first time.”

That intensity might seem counterintuitive, given how comforting nostalgic pop culture can feel. But as the trend itself illustrates, opting for comforting pop culture isn’t a passive act. Given the emotional and psychological upsides of the tried and tested, it’s no wonder we enjoy watching things again. And again. And again.

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