• What’s Old is New Again (and Again): On the Cyclical Nature of Nostalgia

    Tobias Becker Explores Popular Culture’s Continued Revival of the Past

    Since the term nostalgia first became common currency, no area of life has been associated with it more than popular culture. From Alvin Toffler onward, intellectuals frequently drew on revivals of past styles in music and fashion or used films and television series set in the past as examples to substantiate their claims that nostalgia had become omnipresent.

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    At the same time, film, music, and fashion critics drew on nostalgia to explain the existence and appeal of pop cultural revivals. The two lines converged in the discussion of the “nostalgia wave” in the 1970s, which, to a large extent, was inspired by a revival of 1950s rock and roll at the time. The 1970s also generated a new term for revivalism with retro.

    Originating in France in the debate about la mode rétro, discussed later in this chapter, the word soon entered many other languages. Quickly the two terms, nostalgia and retro, became conflated to the point where they were used almost interchangeably. What Fredric Jameson called the “nostalgia film” drew on examples also discussed as retro, a term he used as well, and the same holds true for Jean Baudrillard.

    Simon Reynolds starts out by distinguishing between retro and nostalgia only to end up equating them: for him nostalgia is complicit in—if not responsible for—pop culture’s full-on plunge into “retromania.” By contrast, art historian Elizabeth Guffey, in her overview of the history of retro, calls for differentiating between the two terms because “retro is not nostalgia.”

    Looking back is a source of inspiration rather than a sign of stagnation.

    While both concepts can appear in a positive or neutral way—there is no dearth of radio stations, TV shows, and shops sporting either the word nos­talgia or retro in their titles—in intellectual discourse they, and nostalgia most of all, usually carry a negative, pejorative connotation. Similar to the critics of nostalgia discussed in Chapter 1 and the critics of conservatism discussed in Chapter 2, critics of pop culture use the term nostalgia mainly as an indictment.

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    More specifically they use it, as we will see, first in an emotional sense, implying that people returned to the pop cultural past because of a personal, sentimental attachment; second in an aesthetic sense, synonymous with kitsch; and finally in a temporal sense, to denote an orientation toward the past and an inability or unwillingness to go with the times, forsaking innovation and originality for imitation and repetition.

    The last aspect, which the pop cultural critique shares with the other critiques, is the most important one, and as in the other instances, it was based on an implicit modernist understanding of time. Pop culture critics tend to conceive of time as homogeneous and linear, as a straightforward timeline. By contrast, the word retro implies a cyclical temporality: every style (or aspects thereof) returns after a certain number of years.

    One of the first to observe this process, or, at any rate, to put it into writing, was the British curator and historian James Laver in his 1937 book Taste and Fashion. “Laver’s Law,” as his scheme was later dubbed, stipulated that a garment was subject to a distinctive cycle: ten years before its time it was perceived as indecent, then as shameless, until it finally became smart, only to quickly fall out of fashion: perceived as hideous after a mere 10 years, it took a good 150 years for it to become beautiful—or back in fashion—again:

    Indecent: 10 years before its time

    Shameless: 5 years before its time

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    Outré (daring): 1 year before its time

    Smart: —-

    Dowdy: 1 year after its time

    Hideous: 10 years after its time

    Ridiculous: 20 years after its time

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    Amusing: 30 years after its time

    Quaint: 50 years after its time

    Charming: 70 years after its time

    Romantic: 100 years after its time

    Beautiful: 150 years after its time

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    The cyclical nature of retro does not fit in with—contradicts even—the modern understanding of time: if there is no progress, there must be decline for the pop culture critics. Reynolds even dates the exact point from which pop culture declined, when he notes an “absence of revivalism and nostalgia during the sixties” followed by a period in which “nostalgia became steadily more and more bound up with popular culture.”

    Gradually increasing—or rather worsening—this development reached its peak with the new millennium: “Instead of being the threshold to the future, the first ten years of the twenty-first century turned out to be the ‘Re’ Decade.”

    Reynolds’s chronology, however, is dubious on two counts at least. For one, it can be accused of nostalgia itself, as the 1960s emerge as a dynamic, nostalgia-free golden age from which pop culture began its decline in the 1970s and reached its nadir in the 2000s, at the time of writing.

    Worse still, it is false: as Raphael Samuel notes, revivalism has been a “leitmotiv of European culture ever since the quattrocento’s discovery (or rediscovery) of classical antiquity.” Laver’s law bears this out for the area of fashion. “Pastiche and nostalgia have been pervasive in popular culture throughout the twentieth century,” historian Elizabeth Wilson, too, argues.

    This chapter takes up these objections. Starting with the 1970s debates about the nostalgia wave and la mode rétro, it then jumps back to the 1950s and the 1960s to show that many of the issues at stake in these debates were—contrary to Reynolds’s claim—already present in the preceding decades. Indeed, this chapter shows that if any decade could be said to have invented retro, it was not the allegedly nostalgic 1970s but the supposedly future-looking 1960s. The chapter then continues with the 1980s, tracing the development of the debate up to the present.

    Jumping between decades and tracing elective affinities between them, the chapter hopes to break up and complicate the established chronology. Positioning itself against the cliché of retro as imitative and derivative, a mere replica of past styles, it argues that looking back is a source of inspiration rather than a sign of stagnation. In following these various strands of revivalism and the critique of them, it examines the role of the concept of nostalgia in how they are perceived, explained, and criticized and thereby how nostalgia’s meanings changed and shifted.


    The 1950s Revival of the 1970s

    For many observers, one of the most surprising things about the beginning of the 1970s was the degree to which they seemed enthralled by the past. The past, and the 1950s specifically, was felt to be “charging back at us,” bringing the present up to the “edge of nostalgia shock,” warned the Saturday Review in 1971. In a 1972 cover story titled “The Nifty Fifties,” Life reported, “It’s been barely a dozen years since the ’50s ended, and yet here we are again, awash in the trappings of that sunnier time, paying new attention to the old artifacts and demigods.” “In the grand sweep of American history,” Newsweek declared a few months later, “the 1950s were one of the blandest decades ever.

    But now a revival of those very same quiet years is swirling across the nation like a runaway Hula-Hoop.” Obviously, Newsweek had its doubts about the revival, evoking such “grim memories as Korea, Suez, Hungary, Sputnik and economic recession” to counter it, but to little avail. “Must we be nostalgic about the fifties?” writer Thomas Meehan also wondered—obviously, many Americans were because, in his words, “an enormous number” of them were “looking back on the decade as a shimmeringly serene and happy time.”

    The return of the 1950s was not limited to the United States. In Britain, too, the “‘fifties and all the cult heroes associated with that period, again became high fashion,” as the Evening Standard put it in 1972, confirming a year later: “The ‘fifties revival has definitely come to stay.” Drawing on some of the same examples as American and British writers, the German cultural historian Wolfgang Schivelbusch in 1973 observed a “nostalgic wave” resurrecting the 1940s and 1950s—although the 1950s revival would not really take off in West Germany until the end of the decade. In 1978, the weekly Der Spiegel led with “The Myth of the 50s: The Yearning for the Miracle Years,” reminiscent of Life’s earlier issue on the “nifty fifties.”

    Initially, the 1950s revival was mainly a revival of 1950s rock and roll. Suddenly, rock veterans like Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Little Richard, some of whom had fallen on hard times or slipped into obscurity by then, found themselves in demand again. In histories of rock, this development usually begins with the Rock Revival at the Felt Forum in New York in 1969, allegedly the first ever revival concert. However, developments in Europe predated those in the United States.

    At the low point of his career, returning from touring US Army bases all over Germany, Haley played a triumphant concert in Paris in 1966, where audiences welcomed him with banners and cheers, and this enthusiasm repeated itself shortly thereafter in Amsterdam. Two years later, he experienced an equally raucous welcome when he toured the United Kingdom, with his signature song “Rock around the Clock” even returning to the charts. “A good many of our bookings come from many parts of the world where people want to be nostalgic about rock & roll,” Haley explained. “We have always been defenders of rock and now we find ourselves showing how it is played, describing it to people and generally keeping it alive.”

    Entering middle age, Haley had transformed from a menace of middle-class society into a gatekeeper of rock and roll lore, passing it on to the next generation. Happy about his unexpected comeback, Haley seems to have been at ease with his new role as elder statesman of rock. Other performers were more critical: they did not want to be antiquarians, playing their old songs over and over again, but taken seriously as contemporaries with new material to offer. Audiences, however, saw the performers of the 1950s as just that, expecting them to play the songs they were best known for.

    To some extent the rock and roll revival was the brainchild of Richard Nader. Born in 1940, he had grown up listening to rock and roll, turning his hobby into a job by becoming a disc jockey. During the “British Invasion” in the 1960s, he resolved to bring back the acts he had grown up with during the 1950s. The task was more difficult than he had assumed.

    It took him over four years to get the show off the ground because tracking down and convincing the performers of that era to participate was not as easy as he thought. In 1969 he rented the Felt Forum in New York, quickly selling out its 4,500 seats. One year later, the revival had gathered enough momentum for Nader to move his show to the 20,000-seat auditorium of Madison Square Garden.

    He continued to organize revival concerts throughout the 1970s, in both the United States and Europe. At the outset, these concerts were aimed at people like Nader himself, people who felt, as he said, the “world isn’t the one they were brought up in, and they’re not quite comfortable with the new thing. But the Revival gives them that womb again, it gives them that security, that escape.” Though he did not use the term nostalgia, what he said fed into how critics perceived the revival.

    Retro was not the antithesis to the sub- and countercultural experiments of the 1960s, it grew directly out of them.

    Quickly, however, the shows attracted a new constituency: the adolescent rock fans of the present. They flocked not only to Nader’s revival concerts but also to their British equivalent, the London Rock and Roll Show of 1972, which was released as a concert film the following year. Organized by brothers Ray and Ronald Foulk, who had previously staged festivals on the Isle of Wight as a kind of British Woodstock, it took place at Wembley Stadium. The London Rock and Roll Show featured much the same acts as its American predecessors: Haley, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee Lewis, among others.

    Despite its all-star lineup and the crowds of people descending on Wembley, the show received some criticism. “It’s a fossil scene,” said Mick Jagger after the concert. The Guardian called it an “extraordinary historical peep show” and “a treat for teddy boys, fifties nostalgics, and musical archaeologists”; the Financial Times expressed “relief that this was (hopefully) a once a decade overdose of nostalgia.” Such hopes soon proved to be wrong: revival concerts quickly became a regular part of the pop music circuit.

    Although the show attracted older people, who had been reared on rock and roll and saw the concert as a chance to revisit their youth, the audience mainly consisted of younger fans, as both the film and pictures of the audience bear out. They mainly show people in their twenties, clad in the long-draped coats with velvet collars and other garments worn by the Teddy Boys in the 1950s. Indeed, it was not the former Teddy Boys, as the Guardian thought, but younger people who adopted their style and updated it who were the main constituency of the rock and roll revival.

    But where did the Teddy Boys and Girls of the 1970s get their authentic-looking gear? Flea markets and secondhand shops were essential. As was the boutique Let It Rock in the King’s Road, run by a flame-haired art school graduate called Malcolm McLaren, who was still relatively unknown at that point, and his equally unconventional girlfriend Vivienne Westwood. Repelled by the hippies frequenting the surrounding boutiques and attracted to the tough-looking and tough-acting Teddy Boys, McLaren and Westwood copied their look.

    When they took over the shop in the King’s Road, they turned it into a time machine. McLaren designed the interior to look like an “imitation of a kitsch fifties front room,” decorating it “with authentic Festival of Britain-era wallpaper” and the paraphernalia of the decade, such as “a period fridge painted bubblegum pink and black, teak sideboards and formica display cabinets. Rock ’n’ roll blasted from a jukebox.”

    McLaren and Westwood sold whatever apprentice Teds needed to feel authentic: “Brylcreem, novelty socks decorated with musical notes, plastic earrings and black leather ties with see-through plastic pockets,” as well as “handbills for fifties films and secondhand records from that time.” Mainly, however, they sold period clothes. As these were often not in the best of shape, Westwood started to repair them. Soon she made entire outfits herself. A schoolteacher with no formal training in tailoring, it was here that Westwood’s career as a fashion designer began. In the film about the London Rock and Roll Show, McLaren is seen hawking her T-shirts; Westwood remembers, “We sold quite a lot of stuff that day and made over a thousand pounds.”

    Westwood and McLaren may have been pioneers, but they were not alone. “Fashion has been flirting with the ‘fifties for months now,” reported the Evening Standard. “Many fashion houses, boutiques and department stores are stocking up not only on the actual clothes that were popular then,” News­week told its readers in 1972, “but also on a new line of ’70s clothing featuring ’50s accents.” Starting out in one area of popular culture, the revival quickly branched out into others. As it did, Westwood and McLaren got bored with the Teds. Says Westwood, “They weren’t such rebels after all.”

    Roughly the same age as Nader, they took an interest in the 1950s because identifying as Teds was a way to rebel against the hippie counterculture that dominated the scene in the 1960s. In 1974, they renamed their shop SEX and made it a hotbed for the burgeoning British punk scene—the Sex Pistols, named after it, were conceived largely as advertising. Backward-looking as the 1950s revival may have been, it fed directly into one of the major cultural innovations of the 1970s: “There is a paradox right at the heart of punk,” Simon Reynolds observes: “this most revolutionary movement in rock history was actually born from reactionary impulses.”

    After all, punk was, as Nancy Spungen, girlfriend of Sex Pistols bassist Sid Vicious, declared, “just real good basic rock & roll… real basic fifties and early sixties rock.” She may have been overstating things, but the rock and roll revival of the early 1970s doubtless inspired and instigated the emergence of punk as one of the major new styles of the era.

    It also introduced a completely “new breed of entertainer”: “contemporary groups that dress, perform and sometimes live like their ’50s predecessors.” The most famous of them was Sha Na Na, a group of undergraduates and PhD students from Columbia University. Initially performing rock songs from the 1950s on campus during the student protests of the 1960s, they soon attracted larger audiences.

    Thanks to Jimi Hendrix, a fan, they appeared right before him as the second-to-last act at Woodstock in 1969. The documentary film shows how audience members watched in disbelief as the golden-suited dancers went through the motions of “At the Hop.” Greeted with skepticism at first, Sha Na Na left the stage to loud clapping and cheers. Later that year they performed at Nader’s Rock Revival concert, where they “excited the crowd the most” of all performers.

    Sha Na Na specialized in rock and roll and doo-wop songs from the 1950s but rearranged them and performed them at a faster speed (their version of “Rock around the Clock” was thirty seconds shorter than Haley’s). With Sha Na Na, the outfits and show were as important as the music—if not more. Their success “always hinged more on their style than their sound.” While their “greaser look”—slicked-back hair, ducktails, and black leather jackets—was reminiscent of the rebels Marlon Brando and James Dean had played in 1950s films, the same could not be said of their golden jackets and pants—and even the greaser look they exaggerated for comic effect.

    Furthermore, the style did not at all fit the music they were performing because doo-wop groups of the 1950s usually wore evening suits. Still, the group often served as proof of 1950s nostalgia: the Life issue on the 1950s revival devoted an entire page to them, and Jan Hodenfield from Rolling Stone called them a “brilliantly crystallized dream from the past.”

    The band itself, however, rejected the association with nostalgia. “They’re role-playing,” their manager told Hodenfield. “They don’t like being regarded as quaint curios of the past or being limited by nostalgic bullshit. Generally, the Fifties themselves are irrelevant to them.” Alan Cooper, one of the lead singers, stressed their creative approach to the repertoire they performed: “We’re cleaning it up, making it tighter, the sound is clearer….We’re giving the old songs a contemporary impetus….We are not regressing,” he insisted. “I really don’t think it’s escaping into the past,” concurred bandmate Richard Joffe. For him the revival was not motivated by nostalgia, as “most of the kids who are involved in it have no memory of the ‘fifties as they were children or unborn at the time.”

    As these quotes demonstrate, Sha Na Na rejected the term nostalgia: neither they nor their audiences longed for the 1950s or wanted to escape the present. As a band they combined different cultural influences and styles of music and performance without direct historical referents. Their act was a collage of elements, taking selected associations with 1950s pop culture and often exaggerating and updating them for contemporary tastes.

    As a result, they produced something that would have been unthinkable in the 1950s and that was entirely of the 1970s. Sha Na Na also disproved those critics who saw the “nostalgia wave” of the 1970s as a backlash to the revolutionary 1960s: not only did Woodstock and the Rock Revival happen in the same year, in Sha Na Na they shared at least one act—retro was not the antithesis to the sub- and countercultural experiments of the 1960s, it grew directly out of them.


    Excerpted from Yesterday: A New History of Nostalgia by Tobias Becker. Copyright © 2023. Available from Harvard University Press.

    Tobias Becker
    Tobias Becker
    Tobias Becker is an independent scholar based in Berlin who has published widely on late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century cultural, intellectual and urban history. He is currently a guest professor at Freie Universität Berlin.

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