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Last Updated: Friday, 6 February, 2004, 11:51 GMT
Why nostalgia's not what it used to be
By Brendan O'Neill

Nostalgia is big business. Not a month seems to go by without the relaunch or revival of some fashion item, music trend, car, toy or fad from the 1950s, 60s, 70s or 80s. But is it time for us to grow up?

Those in the know predict that the 80s will be big in 2004. According to one US newspaper, "Blame it on nostalgia - the decade you loved (or hated) makes a comeback". Apparently, girls will be sporting the "aqua eye shadow and side ponytails" made popular by Madonna and her ilk circa 1985, while the charts will be dominated by 80s-inspired electro-pop.

Earlier in January, the 70s made a brief reappearance with the relaunch of the Chopper bike (again). For 2004, Raleigh has made 2,004 new Choppers - in order to, as one report described it, "capitalise on nostalgic interest in the bike" which many refer to as an "icon of the 70s".

The reassuring thing about the past is that we already know the outcome
Andrew Calcutt
The 60s seem to make a comeback in one form or another every year. Currently, the Mini (as in car) and mini (as in skirt) are riding high in the must-have stakes. One fashion writer says the 60s remain "the most referenced era for fashion designers".

Last year there was a 50s revival, via the 70s, when the film Grease was re-released for the noughties. The musical starring John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John was given a cinema release to celebrate its 25th anniversary, allowing those who remember it from 1978 to get nostalgic about a film that itself was nostalgic for the music and fashion of the 50s.

It seems the best way to get ahead today is to go retro. As well as retro-clothing and retro-music, there is the rise of retro-gaming - where video-game aficionados opt for the simple block graphics and bleeps of Atari games of the 70s and 80s over the dazzling games of today.

Gucci designer Tom Ford
Gucci designer Tom Ford sporting oh-so-80s stonewash jeans
Many hailed 2003 as the "year of the retro toy", as My Little Pony, Care Bears and He-Man and his Masters of the Universe (words guaranteed to tug the heartstrings of all men and women who were boys and girls in the 80s) became hot sellers on both sides of the Atlantic.

Everywhere you look, it seems that some era or other is being resuscitated and relived - it's the 80s now, it could be the 70s next month, and who knows, we might be looking back to the 90s before long. (Indeed, in summer 2001 BBC Two showed I Love 1999 - suggesting that the time limit for getting nostalgic about bygone eras can be less than two years.)

One of the most striking things about this "new nostalgia" is that it is most widespread among younger generations, among people in their 20s and 30s - and often they are getting nostalgic, not about some distant, black-and-white past from the archives of history, but about events that happened just 10, 15 or 20 years ago.

Traditionally, nostalgia has been associated with older generations, with those who find the modern pace of change overwhelming and who reminisce about a time when life was simpler and "we did things differently".

Indeed, one of the definitions of nostalgia is "a severe and sometimes fatal form of melancholia, due to homesickness" - capturing its association with a sense of loss and confusion.

Bagpuss, often revived, recently 30
The Australian academic Tony Ryan goes so far as to describe nostalgia, perhaps a little uncharitably, as some kind of madness. "I have always been very wary of nostalgia", he writes, "regarding it as an evil similar and related to the onset of senility.... The past becomes a lost golden age when nothing went wrong and the present a cold wasteland without hope for the future."

So are today's nostalgics, reliving the fashion and fads of the late 20th Century suffering from some kind of "sickness"? Have they become old before their time, returning to the past in favour of looking to the future?

For David Turner, founder of the Nostalgia Central website, reliving the past is harmless fun. Nostalgia Central is a "one-stop shop for everything from the 60s, 70s and 80s", providing potted, year-by-year histories of the pop culture, television shows, fashion and movies of the modern era.

I have always been very wary of nostalgia, regarding it as an evil similar and related to the onset of senility
Tony Ryan
Turner says the people who visit his site enjoy it as "pure nostalgic entertainment". All they want to do is "cherish the memories of the three greatest decades of the 20th Century".

But according to Andrew Calcutt, a lecturer at the University of East London and author of Arrested Development: Pop Culture and the Erosion of Adulthood, young adults' obsession with their 80s childhoods suggests they might feel uncertain about their own futures.

"Older people have a reason to be nostalgic. Most of their life is behind them. That young people are looking over their shoulder so much is a sign of underconfidence, I think. The reassuring thing about the past is that we already know the outcome."

Grease, revival of a revival
Calcutt notes that where older generations became nostalgic for the past because that is where their lives and experiences are, today's young adults appear to hold on to their childhoods as a "comfort blanket" against the future.

"Nostalgia ain't what it used to be", says Calcutt. "When 'youth culture' first went back to its roots in the 70s, it went in search of seemingly significant qualities such as authenticity. Today's pop culture is more likely to revel in its own insignificance, as shown in the nostalgia for silly toys and faddish fashion rather than for anything more serious."

The occasional trip down memory lane is one thing - but when it comes to living in the 60s, 70s, 80s and 90s, surely once was enough. Now that the children of the 70s and 80s have become the men and women of the noughties, it must be time to put away childish things.

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