Ode to Nostalgia: The Power of Listening to Your Old Playlists
Each one of us living through this moment, regardless of age, race, or political affiliation, have had our lives divided into two parts: the before and the after. For anyone who has become more cognizant of their loneliness, may you find comfort in the fact that by simply being alive, you are now a part of the collective that has made it nine months into the weirdest year of our lives. Using ‘weird’ to describe a year that has been defined by so much tragedy feels borderline inappropriate, but maybe simplicity is where we can all find comfort during these times. Self-improvement and positive psychology seem to dominate conversations regarding coping with the ailments of 2020, but what if we’re not supposed to be ‘living in the moment’? What if dwelling on the past, a cardinal sin in the eyes of the ‘enlightened’, is actually good for us?
Nostalgia is enticing. The word itself stems from the Greek nóstos, meaning ‘homecoming’ and álgos, meaning ‘pain’. The feeling, like the word, is a paradox. On one hand, nostalgia lets us revisit the happier times of our lives, allowing us to briefly relish in the positive sentiments attached to those moments. On the other, by participating in this self-indulgence, we’re reminded that time is irreversible. We can’t live in stored memories.
In this sense, giving way to nostalgia is a bit masochistic. Reminding yourself of good times while in dark places can sometimes feel like rubbing dirt in an old wound. In fact, deliberately navigating through your consciousness at any point is a potentially dangerous game. This is where music can be of use.
In times of uncertainty, music from our past can provide us with solace. The feelings that arise when listening to an old song are more distinct than the ones that show up when we actively try to recall a fond memory. This is because music activates our implicit memories rather than our explicit ones, meaning it triggers reactive thoughts and emotions. These are the feelings that you aren’t even aware you have because they’re operating outside of your consciousness.
Music is a unique and manipulative medium. By itself, it’s just a random series of tones combined to sound harmonious but our brains can actually construct meaning behind these medleys. Our eardrums detect the pressure distortions created by sound waves and our inner ear translates them into neural impulses. These electrical signals are then shipped to and processed in the brain structures associated with reward, motivation, and emotion. This explains why movie soundtracks & scores have the ability to tell a story as much as the film itself.
In an interview with The Atlantic, Susan Jacobs, the woman behind the soundtrack of HBO’s Sharp Objects, stated that “[music] is such great perspective ... I can put this song on and feel that way and put that song on and feel this way. It’s like if the person stands still and everything in the background changes.”
This description reveals the inherent bond between music and nostalgia. Music is in the backdrop of so many scenes of our lives, framing certain moments in ways that create meaning for us. For me, listening to ‘Bruises’ by Chairlift is going to the Christkindl market at Daley Plaza when I was 11. ‘Wildfire’ by SBTRKT is getting my driver’s license. ‘Re: Stacks’ by Bon Iver is my Grandpa’s funeral. By attaching music to our experiences, we create a personally curated mixtape that essentially represents our life.
We are allowed to be selective with the memories we choose to reminisce on. If you decide to partake in this exercise, I recommend using caution. Stay away from the songs that played the first night you met your last heartbreak. Be wary of any tracks that were played on repeat during periods of personal despair. Use your repertoire to your advantage. According to Cretien van Campen, author of The Proust Effect: The Senses as Doorways to Lost Memories, more often than not, our memories involving music are social in nature. We usually share them with our peers.
Every morning, the news cycle curb-stomps us and we’re expected to carry on in solitude as our social responsibility for the foreseeable future is to hole ourselves up in our apartments, isolated from friends and family. It’s a breeding ground for withdrawal and loneliness. Pairing nostalgia, a highly social emotion, with music, which has been proven to act as a “social glue”, helps us to intrinsically recreate the feeling of being connected to others. Do you have a playlist that is specifically meant for pregaming? Turn it on. Do you miss your mom? Play her favorite song.
At a time when we are seemingly all at a collective low, do yourself a favor and use this as an opportunity to reflect on your highs. Playing a song that brings back memories of a shared experience with a loved one serves as a reminder that the fact that moment has passed means that this one will too. It forges a deeper sense of appreciation for the transient nature of life and we can use this gratitude towards weathering our lows. In five years, the music you listen to now is going to remind you of the cruel joke that is 2020. Embrace your soundtrack and let it pave a path towards cautious optimism.