Over Thanksgiving break, my roommates sent me home with a request. Actually, it was more like an order: “Don’t come back unless you bring your Nintendo 64.”
The Nintendo 64 was first released 15 years ago. We already had a nice, modern Xbox 360 hooked up to our television, but my roommates (and myself, to be honest) were still borderline obsessed with being able to Mario Party like we were six years old.
We want to play N64 for the same reason why countless college students shelled out $15 to see the Lion King 3D, and why Beavis and Butt-head has new episodes running on MTV—we used to enjoy these things, and we want to enjoy them again.
Nostalgia is an inevitable part of growing up. I’m sure there were twentysomethings in Elizabethan England who commiserated about how awesome the “classic” Shakespeare plays of their youth were. I also know that, as a college senior, I’m right in the middle of the demographic Tornado Alley for the swirling winds of youthful remembrance. But even so, I think nostalgia is more prevalent than ever, not just in my life, but in the culture-at-large. And as much fun as I have kicking my roommate’s ass in Mario Tennis, I can’t help but think all this looking back has a hidden cost.
It’s certainly easier than ever to be nostalgic. Thanks to the internet, I can access pretty much any ‘90s cultural artifact in a matter of seconds. A quick Google search will not only turn up dozens of links to watch Space Jam, but hundreds of like-minded individuals sharing YouTube clips and creepily detailed Toon Squad box scores.
If I can’t find something from my past online for free, there will certainly be someone willing to sell it to me. There’s no shortage of people willing to pay to relive their past either. Disney re-releases are hardly a new trend—Snow White alone has had eight theatrical runs since 1937—but Lion King 3D’s success was unprecedented. With box office sales of $94 million and counting, Disney has already committed to similar re-releases of Beauty and the Beast and The Little Mermaid. The phenomenon may be even more prominent on the small screen. Beavis and Butt-head is just one example, and at this point, they’re almost running out of television shows to revive—seriously, NBC just announced a Munsters reboot.
So what’s the problem with the nostalgia overload? For once, it’s not the creative bankruptcy of entertainment companies—that would still persist even if remakes and re-releases were banned by law. No, the nostalgia problem begins with us, the consumers. The entertainment industry is just giving us what we want: our pasts, repackaged as comfort food. In excess, this nostalgic consumption becomes more like a drug.
Familiarity is easy to fall back on. Revisiting the cultural touchstones of our past not only allows us to enjoy them again, but it brings back enjoyable memories as well, reinforcing the pleasure of an activity like watching Hey Arnold on Netflix. The problem is that nostalgia is basically empty calories. It makes us feel good, but the reward is short-lived. Without finding new things to like, we’re not forming those same memories that make nostalgia so comforting. It’s not as easy to seek out the new, and there’s a chance that the new will suck, but it’s ultimately more rewarding.
I’m not recommending abandoning the past—I’m listening to a Spotify playlist of ‘90s hits as I write this. Nostalgia is perfectly acceptable in moderation. Sometimes it’s even necessary, as forgetting what you used to like can be just as bad as constantly reliving it.
One of the reasons I think that the nostalgia industry, for lack of a better phrase, has kicked into overdrive in recent years is that the same tools that make recalling the past so easy also make it more necessary. The internet has accelerated culture—we have access to unlimited content, and it moves into and out of our lives quicker than ever before. Nostalgia is a coping mechanism. It comforts us by halting the pace of our lives.
The problem is that we can’t really escape from modern culture, and the crutch of nostalgia only prevents us from fully embracing it. I want to avoid nostalgia because actually engaging with the present offers opportunities that my past self couldn’t dream of. Now is the time to actually enjoy things that I can be nostalgic about for the rest of my life.
Until that happens, though, N64 is awesome.