Nostalgia is not (always) a dirty word

From pop-punk revival to TISM to ‘Spicks and Specks’, it looks like everything old is new again – again! That’s not a completely bad thing

It seems as though every year we are told we’ve reached peak nostalgia. After a sustained period of ’80s obsession – thanks, Dua Lipa and The Weeknd – right now, the ’90s and early aughts are in. You can hear it in the revival of pop-punk, see it every time Olivia Rodrigo brings Avril Lavigne or Natalie Imbruglia on stage with her. Even the classic .mp3 player Winamp has been revived for a new generation.

Closer to home, we are also digging the past. Beloved ABC TV show Spicks and Specks is back in its original format. Launched in 2005, with a short-lived 2011 reboot and facelift, the series has never really left the public consciousness. So after some successful spin-offs and specials, it is back on our screens, seemingly for good.

We also bought more than 1million vinyl records in 2020 – a 300 per cent increase on 2015. Apparently young Australians are tuning into Smooth FM in droves. Pre-pandemic throwback tours for “vintage” acts were always big business Down Under, and in a sign that nature is healing an event literally called Made In The 90s Festival took place in April. Then we had The Strokes and Gorillaz headlining Splendour in the Grass. And – the big one – after years of silence and even adamant refusal, TISM have also reunited.

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Everything old is new again – but nostalgia isn’t.

In so many ways every generation has a kind of reverential obsession with the old. One of the first Big Days Out I went to was to specifically see Iggy & The Stooges play their first-ever Aussie show. They were on a bill alongside The White Stripes, Wolfmother and Franz Ferdinand, all bands part of or adjacent to the post-punk and rock’n’roll revival – sounds deeply steeped in the past – and bands through which I’d discovered much music, including The Stooges.

Music discovery is where nostalgia has a cool and legitimate function. Maybe a 15 year-old discovers the genius of Grace Jones when she appears on a Beyoncé album, or looks up Björk for the first time because Willow name-drops her in an interview. These are all objectively great things. If Olivia Rodrigo can get one kid to love ‘Torn’ as much as I did in the ’90s, then all power to her.

That said, it is reasonable to be wary of nostalgia obsession. At its worst it can be anti-youth and anti-creativity, stop sounds or new creative ideas from emerging, and downright snobbish. I can’t even count the amount of times as a teenager I was lectured about old bands “I really should know” or told the music I listened to was just derivative – barbs that only served to invalidate my experience and taste, especially as a young woman negotiating what was a very male-dominated music scene at the time.

During my time working as a music editor I would watch the cycle of mostly negative nostalgia commentary swing around on a loop each year: the triple j’s Hottest 100 had gone to shit. We should bring back Recovery. The BDO was better in the ’90s. There was always a take on how what came before was somehow better or more authentic.

Never mind the reality, like the fact that the Hottest 100 has always had its oddly comical moments – from Tom Jones making the top 10 in ’94, the never-played-on-the-j’s Alanis Morisette scoring three songs in 1995 and well, ‘Pretty Fly (For A White Guy)’.

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I was a very young teenager who spent my Saturday mornings glued to the TV watching Dylan Lewis survive interviews with Rivers Cuomo and TISM, and Magic Dirt tear up the studio on Recovery. It was brilliant, mildly terrifying, live music TV. And as much as – to this day – I could watch reruns on loop, that particular format of music TV no longer makes sense to revive. In the day of YouTube, TikTok, Spotify, every musician having a Netflix special, music legends like Questlove and Mark Ronson hosting their own podcasts… a longform free-to-air music TV show on a Saturday morning doesn’t really fit the music discovery mould. And that’s totally fine: there is space to both admire the past and embrace the new.

Spicks and Specks is a great example. The music quiz format feels kind of timeless, and reviving it with live spots for new artists – Thndo performed in the first episode while David Novak from Polish Club was one of the contestants – is a nice way to keep supporting new local musicians and also introduce them to a different kind of audience.

“If Olivia Rodrigo can get one kid to love ‘Torn’ as much as I did in the ’90s, then all power to her”

Splendour in the Grass billed three headline artists that could be counted as nostalgia acts: Gorillaz, Yeah Yeah Yeahs (who sadly dropped out due to illness) and The Strokes. While “old” in the sense they originated two decades ago, all three are technically still releasing music and there was a substantial balance of younger bands on the bill – most of whom, ultimately, seemed to generate the most buzz. Crowds for G Flip, Amyl and The Sniffers and Genesis Owusu were some of the wildest at the festival.

I recently went to see The Strokes play in Melbourne, and genuinely expected the stadium to be packed out mostly by millennials whose early 2000s were shaped by the sound of ‘Is This It’. But I was surprised to see there was a wide range of fans there, many in their teens and early 20s. I don’t think this was because of some strange nostalgia fad, or that those fans were somehow caught up in the past and not engaging with any other music. It felt like they were just there to see a seminal band in the same way I went to see The Stooges, or any of the other countless reformed bands – maybe even a bit past their prime – when I was a teenager.

In some ways there is something sweet about that cross-over moment, when an artist still means something to many generations, where it is music to be shared.

Like most things in life, it’s all about balance. If you’re buying some classic vinyl, maybe pick up something from a local label or artist as well. Going to see The Strokes? Why not get tickets to Amyl and The Sniffers or Chapter Music’s 30th anniversary show, or see who is playing at a local venue for another night out?

Maybe the ’90s are back, again. But that doesn’t mean we have to live there, or that 2022 isn’t just as exciting.

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