Nostalgia is one of those things you can not quite put into words. It does not excite or agitate, thrill or guilt. Wafting in a dimension quite otherworldly, it reminds this writer of instant noodles – comforting, laden with nebulous contents, and best enjoyed with close company. Above all, like umami flavours, it is more intriguing experienced than described. If there is any proof of its appeal, it is that millennials cannot quite get enough of it. The sustained and large-scale reproduction of sentimentality in popular culture has proven nostalgia to be more than a transient trend. It continues to come over us like a punishing wave, and we have been keeping our doors open, hoping for a flood.
How did we find a place for this wistfulness in our methodical tech-driven world? While nostalgia is sentimental, seeking to valorise the essence of bygone eras, we are compelled to reinvent and materialise that in our present. Nothing depicts this better than the barrage of grainy high-contrast selfies we have seen on Instagram lately – blemished by wildly orchestrated light leaks and adorned with ever-so-familiar neon orange timestamps. Applications like Huji Cam and Gudak have lured high-definition loyalists into a nostalgia-fuelled time machine, transporting them back to an era where negatives and photo labs reign supreme. “The gift that keeps on giving” is one of the most hackneyed phrases in advertising. Most associated with Kodak, it is also one of the rare slogans still rings true 50 odd years later.
But riddle me this, if most of today’s teens were born after the 2000s, what are the chances that any of them have actually taken delight in frittering away cheap, disposable cameras? Instead, this nostalgia seems to emanate from soft brushes with past realities, from lazy Sunday afternoons spent flipping through yellowed family photo albums or from casual “back in my days” conversations with dad. We are not only talking about film photography. For as long as dad sneakers continue to run amok and colour block windbreakers à la Fresh Prince envelope guileless frames, nostalgia is something that is here to stay. The question to ask now is, “Why?”
This writer refuses to brush it off as “vain hipster crusade” just yet. It is worth recognising that the 1990s have been offering a lot of good things to many of us. Memories of the decade are always cast with a warm glow, and it is easy to see why one would want to relive them. One would never leave the house without making sure that his Tamagotchi was fed, or could be staying in if his Bulbasaur was struggling to evolve on Game Boy. Never would one see an entire family glued to their phones, only parents stealing occasional glances at their pagers. Neither would one grumble about someone “blue-ticking” him when the greatest ecstasy was seeing his crush online on MSN messenger. Life seemed to pick up at a steady pace previously, and a sense of innocence and wonder permeated every fibre of being.
That brings us to who we are right now – major suckers for nostalgia, more so than before. So much so that nostalgia is beginning to be experienced not years after a period has passed, but brought forward to the exact tender moments when an era appears to be at its precipice. As paradoxical as it might sound, nostalgia is becoming expedited.
Locally, this is apparent in the ways we have been dealing with architectural death. While many might seem impervious towards the widespread demolition of dated buildings, others have managed to find the eye of the storm in this collective “hastened” nostalgia. Whether we are talking about a cryptic caption on loss accompanying a rooftop #OOTD at People’s Park Complex, or the slew of introspective documentaries on Golden Mile Complex, nostalgia is used to spearhead the booming conservation conversation for such landmarks. Experiencing nostalgia when the subject of interest is technically still in existence is like telling someone you miss them despite being face to face – sweet but strange, is it not?
The charm of nostalgia comes to a screeching halt when one realises that it is not so much about a happy past than it is about an unhappy present. A deep fear of loss and discontent with a predicament undergirds the fondness for nostalgia, making its ubiquity rather disconcerting. Perhaps we have discovered the currency for this “gift” that keeps giving. What appears to be a longing for oldness is, in fact, a search for something new; something different from what we have now.
Perhaps, it is not that hard to put into words after all.
Words by Valerie Wong