From LPs to mid-century sideboards, millennial aesthetics are suffused with nostalgia. But it's not just about looking coolby Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett / June 20, 2018 / Leave a comment
Young people shop at Record Store Day in crouch end. Photo: Flickr/Paul Hudson Vinyl record players; macramé plant holders; mid-century sideboards; classic Nintendo consoles; Lomography cameras; bar trolleys; glass decanters; Adidas superstars worn with bell-sleeved floral dresses; needlework pictures; Penguin Classics. These are all objects that I own, or that are owned by people I know, where nostalgia has had a central role in their desirability and even their marketing. Hipster nostalgia is often mocked, sometimes rightly; I once saw a man riding a penny farthing through Shoreditch. An old university friend of mine owned a radiogram—a piece of furniture most of us had previously had no idea existed. But it isn’t just hipsters engaging in nostalgia. It’s an entire generation, apparently. Much has been written about millennial nostalgia, and the various reasons for my generation’s supposed preoccupation with it, for example, our disappointment with the present, the hyperconnectivity offered by the internet, or the death of the counterculture. As Baudrillard predicted, nostalgia is all around us, in the form of simulacra which have come to replace true reality. It’s in the spiral-filament bulbs that light your local coffee shop, in high street clothes, typography, food. Fashions have always come back around again, but now we are living through a kind of Dadaist cut-up of eras, in which brands and companies borrow from, adapt and disrupt any and all time periods; it’s all up for grabs, provided it’s old. Coca-cola has brought back glass bottles. Polaroid has relaunched its instant cameras under the brand “Polaroid originals.” Are we nostalgia addicts? Social media would certainly suggest so. #TBT (throwback Thursday) sees millions of users posting photos from “back in the day”. We raid our childhoods for tangible snaps which we then photograph and upload on our iPhones but I have seen people use #TBT for photos they took last month or even last week. “#TBT to last month in #santorini #chasethelight #blessed.” It is nostalgia for a time that has barely passed. Images are replacing lived experience, which Guy Debord told us would happen as long ago as 1963, when he wrote The Society of the Spectacle. Relationships between people have indeed become mediated by images, and as a result, many people catalogue compulsively rather than live in the moment. So what if at the time you are not truly experiencing what is happening? After all, you can always look back at the photographs at a later date. This generation grew up on the internet, but we can remember a time before it, only just. We are the only generation in human history that will have truly experienced this transition. We are digital natives, we use the internet instinctively, regard it not as running concurrently with real life or in conflict with it, but as real life itself. And yet there is a time of tangibility that we are able to recall, a time of paper photographs and vinyl records, of handwritten notes and VHS. We are nostalgic for it. In the absence of a digital record, those times feel much longer ago than they actually are (and in many ways also seem more mysterious and unknowable, having not benefited from the recording and cataloguing tendencies of a hyperconnected world). The time before online takes of the tinge of prehistory—which I suppose, in a way, it is. In an article on this subject, Will Self refers to nostalgia as “a curiously boastful kind of hoarding.” He writes that the young have so little in terms of personal history “that they polish it up and make it shine like a treasured heirloom.” He is not wrong. But in the same article, he exempts himself from nostalgia for the past, reframing it instead as a “continuous engagement” with it. Perhaps that is the root of the millennial nostalgia-fest: the reluctance of baby boomers to culturally give way, their insistence that we remain in their era. And yet their cultural output is very nostalgic. As a character in my novel, The Tyranny of Lost Things, complains, “they watch BBC4 documentaries and every other weekend is the anniversary of something, some momentous, history-changing occasion: John Lennon taking a dump, or whatever.” In The Tyranny of Lost Things, my young protagonist Harmony interrogates her past in an urban commune and her parents’ role in the trauma that happened there. They are flawed characters, as all characters should be, but this isn’t a “blame the boomers” narrative. My novel is about nostalgia, and how it functions for both generations. What happens when one generation creates such a powerful mythology about itself that its children then struggle to construct their own identities? Memory is slippery and unreliable, and for our early (pre-internet) years we often go on what we are told; these stories can act as false memories in ways they perhaps will not be able to in future. As Julian Barnes writes in the opening of one of my favourite literary explorations of memory, The Sense of an Ending, “what you end up remembering isn’t always the same as what you have witnessed.” I hope I have rendered Harmony’s hippie, baby boomer parents sympathetically. Their experiments with communal living were idealistic but that is not to be sneered at. They wanted a better world for their children, but the experiment failed and hypercapitalism won out. Their nostalgia for a time when an alternative seemed possible is tinged with guilt and compassion. Much of millennial nostalgia has been cast as disappointment with their parental legacy, or more specifically with a hypercapitalist present that their parents’ generate were unable to moderate. But I think it’s more than that: it’s a longing for a time of potential, when the future wasn’t set in stone; where there was the feeling, at least on the part of the countercultural and the bohemian, that another, more collaborative, compassionate, and certainly much more environmentally-friendly way of living was possible. Our nostalgia is about the desire to know and to understand how that really felt in an era where it is no longer truly an option. The Tyranny of Lost Things is out this week from Sandstone Press.