Nostalgia: Was It Really That Good?

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| December 7, 2020

At the end of the Summer of 1986, my dad and I went to the theater to see the new Transformers movie. For a kid that loved cartoons and transforming robots, it did not disappoint. It was a feast of bright lights and action, heavy metal music, and some character deaths that, for a 6-year-old, were pretty rough to accept. Flash forward 34 years, and that movie is still one of my favorite movies of all time, if not at the #1 spot. Why is that? Was it really that good? Was it because of the circumstances and just remembering fun times as a kid with my dad?

Retro Star Wars toy collectionMany generations of people commonly say that the things they grew up with are better than the generations that come after them. Right now, in 2020, there is still a huge ’80s nostalgia wave for people around my age, and it bleeds over into the things their children are into. Parents typically like to share their interests with their kids, and the kids usually like to emulate what they see and hear from their parents. so part of that is a normal occurrence. But for someone who loves the ’80s as much as I do, I often wonder if there is more to it.

Sometimes we actually acknowledge that a song or movie is bad, but that we love it anyway as a guilty pleasure.

As a musician, I also find myself listening to older music. A large chunk of my record collection is things that came out well before I was born. A big influence on those musical interests was my dad, who was also a musician. My dad got his first set of drums when he was 12, and he hasn’t stopped since, and playing venues since he was a teenager. We can’t go anywhere with a live band where he doesn’t convince the band to let him sit in for at least a song or two. So music has been a massive part of my upbringing since my earliest memories. Many of my favorite bands are bands that he actually grew up on. So I wonder: how can my “old school” tastes be nostalgia if I wasn’t even born yet?

The BeatlesA big part of the arguments we have about this could be that much of our tastes are our environment and the memories we have in that environment. Sometimes we actually acknowledge that a song or movie is bad, but that we love it anyway as a guilty pleasure. This may be because of the group we were with or good times that it reminds us of. After all, that is part of the dictionary definition of the word nostalgia. [Merriam-Webster]

All this being said, is there any way to really know if we like something because of the memories or if that thing is actually that good in quality?

I’ve done a little research on that over the years, mostly for fun, but also with curiosity and a true desire to find an actual answer. Going back to music nostalgia, I’ve indulged in a number of articles and videos that tackle this subject. One video I found went in-depth scientifically to analyse the makeup of songs from the ’50s and ’60s all the way up until today.

Their conclusion? Things have gotten worse over time.

The amount of real instrumentation, sound dynamics, non-vocal-corrected singing, and even the chord progressions and feeling behind the music, they’ve all progressively gone on a downward slope. That’s not to say that people shouldn’t enjoy whatever entertainment they like, but there is an argument to be made about the overall quality of things that were made decades ago.

Steamboat Willie (1928)
While the animated foreground in Steamboat Willie (1928) was simple and whimsical, there was an artistic shading and complexity to the background that isn’t common in cartoons today.

Switching gears to things of a visual nature, my other favorite pastime is drawing and art. I’ve loved drawing, comic books, and animation. Something I’ve noticed in recent years is the decline of the quality of artwork in comics and cartoons. It seems like it is a “style” now to have simple blob-shaped characters and no real detail in most drawn media. Many younger people that I’ve shown clips of old shows or movies all say how amazing it typically looks. Of course, with budgets and technology, some older things don’t always look great. But when they did and there was a budget behind the artwork it was something special.

In recent years, there have been many instances of people saying that a director or a showrunner has changed something beloved and fans are quick to let them know on the internet. How many times have we heard in the last couple decades, “So-and-So ruined my childhood”? Sometimes these claims are people not liking or being able to accept change to something they love. Sometimes something good just gets ruined.

At the end of the day, if something resonates with you on a personal level, and you get good memories and feelings from it, then that’s all that really matters.

I think the most important thing for a remake or a continuation of something—whether it be a book, movie, or anything else—is whether the person behind it captures the spirit of why people love that property in the first place. Two big examples of this that come to my mind recently are the 2008 Iron Man movie and the Star Wars TV series The Mandalorian. They are both a little different in their approach to the source content, but they have a similar and mostly positive outcome.

Iron Man (2008)The setting and timeline for Iron Man changed, but the basic story and attributes stayed the same. As a lifelong Iron Man fan, I greatly appreciated this, and I had no problem overlooking the few changes they made to modernize the character. The Mandalorian is kind of on the opposite end of the spectrum, but the same rules apply. It’s an entirely new story and character, but it FEELS like it’s part of Star Wars. I think this is why both of these productions have been accepted in such an overwhelmingly positive fashion.

I think that is the key to nostalgia and especially to the ever burning argument: “Is ‘old-school’ better?” There probably isn’t really an answer to that question. But I think there is a definite feeling that up to a certain decade, a lot of magic was lost in entertainment and in the way people make things. I, for one, am very strongly in the old-school category, but I’m not against trying new things. At the end of the day, if something resonates with you on a personal level, and you get good memories and feelings from it, then that’s all that really matters.

What old-school music, film, or TV make you anxious when you see remakes and reboots? Let’s discuss in the comments.

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