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Play it again: How retromania took over

We’re biologically built for nostalgia. Music triggers the release of dopamine, and the more familiar a tune, the more the dopamine release

Frank Sinatra
Frank Sinatra

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Crises and nostalgia usually go hand-in-hand. There’s nothing like spending your days hunkered down at home—awash in the TV’s never-ending cycle of warnings about plague, war and the apocalypse—to make you wish for the mostly-apocryphal “good old days.” So the multiple and enduring traumas of our present—COVID-19, conflagrations across the Middle East and North Africa, the return of naked Great Power competition—have us all reaching out for the comfort blanket of a familiar past. At times, it seems nostalgia has replaced—or at least joined—money in its position as the thing that makes the world go round.

On the borders of Ukraine, nostalgia for a lost empire is playing out as Cold War era brinkmanship. In Asia’s big powers, nostalgic narratives of grand civilisational pasts are driving contemporary politics of aggression and militarism. Hollywood is a zombie cannibalising comic books and other pre-existing intellectual properties from decades past. And the music industry has not been left untouched. 

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Jazz critic and music historian Ted Gioia points out in his latest newsletter that according to music analytics firm MRC Data, old songs now represent almost 70% of the US music market, up 4% from the year before. In fact, pretty much all the growth is coming from the catalogue, with the market for new music actually sinking in size. In India, T-Series sits pretty at the top of the pyramid based almost exclusively on its extensive back catalogue of film music. This trend has not gone unnoticed either, with both major labels and venture capital firms spending millions of dollars to purchase the catalogues of stars from the late 20th century. Instead of investing in A&R and R&D, the music industry is placing its bets on mining the past: nostalgia as commodity. 

Gioia is not the first one to raise such concerns. In 2011, music journalist Simon Reynolds published Retromania—a book length exploration of how pop culture’s newfound addiction to its past was blunting its capacity to imagine new and fantastic futures. 

Reynold’s warning resonated with me as a young writer who had already internalised punk’s sneering dismissal of nostalgia and sentimentality. Retromania is wary of offering prescriptions but I treated it like a manifesto anyway, diving deep into pop music’s radical fringe. I pestered editors across Indian newspapers—including at Lounge—to let me write reviews of weird, inaccessible avant-garde records by acts with meagre thousands, or in the case of Indian acts hundreds, of fans. 

I was still in my 20s at the time so I threw myself into the future with almost fanatical zeal. It took a few years to realise that nostalgia isn’t a moral failing (though I still value innovation over familiarity, sometimes even skill, when it comes to music). It turns out we’re biologically built for nostalgia. Music’s emotional power comes at least in part from its ability to trigger the release of dopamine—as our brains map a pattern of sound, it releases a specific amount of dopamine. The more familiar a particular tune or chord progression—a pattern—the more finely tuned the dopamine release, the more joyous the experience. 

But when we listen to new music, especially something that comes from left-field, our brains go haywire and dump too much dopamine. If you’re not primed for it, this can be quite an unpleasant experience. That feeling of intense dislocation is also what drives the dissonant soundscapes of niche scenes like harsh noise wall and industrial music. But for most listeners, this creates a positive-feedback loop that makes the familiar far more rewarding than the new. This is why pop music’s target audience has always been teens and young adults, whose brains are still open to new patterns and sounds. 

There are other reasons we stop being cultural explorers as we age: growing professional demands, complicated personal lives, disillusionment with the naked consumerist co-option of cherished scenes. Even mental health. One of the most terrifying manifestations of depression in my experience was the loss of that glorious dopamine overdose that accompanied listening to an amazing, radically new record. It took therapy, and a structured regimen of active listening, to bring life back to those atrophied emotional muscles. So maybe I’m a little more wary of familiarity than your average listener. 

But just because nostalgia is a natural response doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be worried about the music industry mainlining it into our veins. Before the internet, the past was a different country—you knew its broad contours but much of the detail was unavailable. So pop culture was incentivised to look forward. But now the past is your next door neighbour. Gioia offers a number of other trends to buttress his argument, but it all boils down to the fact that the global music industry no longer invests in discovering and nurturing innovative new musicians. 

Thanks to our mental positive-feedback loops and the dominance of familiarity-based algorithms, listeners are being dragged along into a future where music is little more than a commodity. In this future, music’s potential to transform our lives, emotions and worldviews is much less valuable than the predictability of its streaming numbers and royalty payouts. And pop culture loses its progressive momentum, turning inward and backward on the path to a cultural dead-end. 

But culture has its own momentum, and it does not always follow capital’s lead. There are any number of artists out there creating ridiculously amazing, out-there music that could change the world. It’s just that we’re losing the institutional capacity to find and highlight them. So here’s my proposition. Go looking for them. Make it a mission to listen to new music, to brave the unfamiliar, tramp your path across the avant-garde hinterland. 

There’s any number of incentives I can dangle in front of you. It’s good for your brain! Music psychologist Victoria Williamson says new music listening “activates areas of the brain from root to tip” and also “provides the potential to add to our valuable music memory bank.” It also has a number of social benefits, helping you make new friends and understand new technologies. More importantly, since culture is a large part of how we make sense of the world, listening to new music keeps us open and engaged to the world around us, rather than retreating into comfortable but dangerous nostalgia. It is an investment in pushing culture towards new possibilities, rather than rehashing the battles of the past.  

And if that sounds too grandiose or pretentious for you, here’s a simpler reason. We all know that annoying fifty-something uncle who loves to moan that “music/movies/the youth were better in my day.” Imagine a future in which he’s right. Surely listening to new music a few hours a week is worth avoiding such horrors. 

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