Remember the 1340's? We were doing a dance called the Catapult.
You always wore brown, the color craze of the decade,
and I was draped in one of those capes that were popular,
the ones with unicorns and pomegranates in needlework.
Everyone would pause for beer and onions in the afternoon,
and at night we would play a game called “Find the Cow.”
Everything was hand-lettered then, not like today. …
— Billy Collins, “Nostalgia”
Will we ever look back with wistful fondness at 2020, the year of so much loss and loneliness, grief and anguish? I’m willing to bet that we will, strange as it seems. The 21st century so far has been in many ways a backward-yearning era, a period of recycled fashions, movie and television remakes, and political appeals to “again” and “back.” So it stands to reason that no matter how bleak and angry this year has been, many of us will, in five or fifteen years, invent a narrative about 2020 that frames it as “the good old days.” It’s what we do.
Nostalgia is our theme song, but it’s a relatively new one. Our Throwback Thursdays and Facebook Memories stand in stark contrast to the forward thrust of most of the 20th century, with its Streamline Moderne architecture, its space exploration, its emphasis on newness, from the New Deal to the New Frontier, from the New Look in post–World War II fashion to New Coke on supermarket shelves.
Now? Your favorite dress is likely to be a ruffly strawberry-print number in an old-fashioned style known as “cottagecore.” You may favor “nostalgiacore” music and games that evoke your 1990s and early-aughts childhood. Your new waffle-maker may resemble an old one (only nicer!) and be manufactured by a company actually called Nostalgia.
Your new refrigerator might be a 1950s-style model made by Big Chill, a company founded in 2001 and named for a 1983 movie about a group of baby boomers reminiscing about their college days in the 1960s. In 2020, three of the most popular titles on Netflix were “Stranger Things,” set in the 1980s; “The Queen’s Gambit,” set in the 1960s; and “Bridgerton,” set in the early 19th century. The newest Wonder Woman movie is set not in the present but in 1984. The big year-end release on Amazon Prime is “Sylvie’s Love,” a romantic drama set in 1950s Harlem.
We’ve been looking backward a lot since the 1970s, writes Kurt Andersen in Evil Geniuses, his 2020 book about “the unmaking of America.” (His index has 39 entries under the “nostalgia” heading.) We were reacting, he writes, to the 1960s, “a decade in which everything seemed relentlessly new new new.” The 1970s and 1980s gave us “nostalgia-fests like American Graffiti, Happy Days, and Grease” — and Star Wars, from 1977, which begins “A long time ago…” — as well as Bonnie and Clyde–inspired fashions and “postmodernist” buildings that looked, Andersen writes, “like they had been built fifty or one hundred years earlier.”
It was around that time that we began self-consciously clumping our experiences into decades, as though the advent of a year ending in zero tied a rose-tinted ribbon around the previous ten years. It’s what former US Poet Laureate Billy Collins is mocking in his 1991 poem “Nostalgia,” when he pseudo-laments, “Even this morning would be an improvement over the present.”
Our nostalgia fetish has made its mark in branding. Old names, from Madewell to Shinola, have been exhumed and revivified — in Shinola’s case, transformed: from a shoe-polish company founded in 1903 to a manufacturer of watches, bicycles, and leather goods founded in 2011. (The old name had lost its trademark protection by the time the new entrepreneurs started their business.) They’re not isolated examples. As David Berry writes in his 2020 book On Nostalgia, “A 2010 auction in New York brought in close to $150,000 for names like defunct publisher Collier’s, early plastic-wrap staple Handi-Wrap, and classic stereo company Victrola. The latter is now used for an entire line of ‘nostalgic Bluetooth record players’ made to look like mid-century radios.”
Old-timey is the new newfangled. A spate of new companies mark their not-so-distant founding with a quaint “Est.” in their logos. “In recent years,” notes sociologist and design critic James I. Bowie, “‘Est.’ has made quite a comeback, appearing in trademarks at a rate 17 times higher in 2020 than in 1980. Businesses ranging from car washes to barbeque restaurants to soccer teams are all eager to let you know the year they were founded.”
“Est.,” Bowie writes, “tries to present itself as a sort of marker of authenticity, a remnant of a bygone era when things seemed less ephemeral than today’s digital pixels and more real and rooted in tangible objects. This patina of antiquity is precisely the point.”
“Est.” isn’t the only way we pay reverence to the past. We keep adding new ways to talk about the old days. There’s nostalgia, of course— a word coined in the 1600s from Greek parts meaning “home” and “pain” — and its derivatives fauxstalgia and newstalgia as well as solastalgia, coined in 2005 to name “the pain caused by environmental change.” There’s retro, which began life as a prefix and became an independent word in the early 1970s, when the fashion designer Yves Saint Laurent introduced what a disapproving critic called “the tacky retro look that provoked criticism in the past.” There’s old-school, given new life by 1980s hip-hop and rap artists who wanted to refer to “relatively traditional” examples of the genre. Remakes are now reboots, a bit of computer jargon that extends to cultural phenomena such as the latest comic-book movie. And 2020 gave us — or re-gave us — Before Time, our term for the pre-pandemic era. It’s an old phrase, going back to Middle English, when beforetime meant “formerly”; it was first revived in a 1966 episode of “Star Trek” and lay dormant in the minds of fans until this year’s revival.
Why is the past so present in our 21st-century lives? It’s not because we’ve become diligent students of history. (If only.) And it’s not exclusively a 21st-century trend, although we’ve put it in capital letters, underscored it, and sentimentalized it shamelessly. Shortly after the 2016 presidential election, Jason Feifer, host of the Pessimist’s Archive podcast, looked into the “Make America Great Again” slogan. When was that marvelous “again,” he wondered? The 1980s? The 1950s? The Revolutionary period? It turns out that people living in every historical era — going back as far as recorded events go — thought things were better in the past than in the present.
What’s different now is that our mythical past is not the Renaissance or the Bronze Age. In fact, it tends to be the years of our own youth, when we had fewer responsibilities, more energy, and a brighter outlook on the future. Big surprise: Most of us prefer being young to being old. Even youthful heartbreak can seem more charming than present-day miseries. And even some survivors of history’s worst terrors have been known to prefer the past to the present, because at least they were young then. (Consider the well-documented Russian nostalgia for the Soviet era.) After all, we survived the old awfulness. Today’s awfulness? The prospects aren’t so certain.
So, yes — at some point some of us will remember 2020 with something like affection. “Remember when we had Zoom cocktail hours and drank quarantinis? Remember when we leaned out of our windows and cheered the essential workers? Remember when we could wear pajamas all day?”
It’s not that these things were — are — so satisfying in themselves. It’s that, if we’re lucky, we will have survived them. Nostalgia is a luxury and a buffer against the uncertain future. No wonder we can’t get past it.