By Patrick Metzger
You may have noticed that there’s been a fair amount of 80’s nostalgia hanging in the air for the past several years. Many of the biggest pop songs seem to have just that right mix of retro drum machine beats and epic synthesizers—from Bruno Mars to Haim to Rihanna to Robyn to M83. 80’s movie remakes are everywhere these days—from 21 Jump Street to RoboCop to The Karate Kid to Ghostbusters. 80’s fashion is having a renaissance as well. And, you know… Stranger Things.
There’s a reason that the culture of the 1980’s is experiencing a resurgence right now. Just as there’s a reason that we’re in the early days of getting more build-up of 90’s nostalgia. It’s not all that complicated, but it is a pattern that has profound consequences for how art is created, how we conceptualize culture, and perhaps even what sort of political rhetoric comes into vogue.
The pattern is this: pop culture is forever obsessed with a nostalgia pendulum that regularly resurfaces things from 30 years ago.
How Memory Shapes the World
There are a number of reasons why the nostalgia pendulum shows up, but the driving factor seems to be that it takes about 30 years for a critical mass of people who were consumers of culture when they were young to become the creators of culture in their adulthood. The art and culture of their childhood (e.g. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle comics in 1984) helped them achieve comfort and clarity in their world, and so they make art that references that culture and may even exist wholly within that universe (e.g. the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2014 film reboot, 30 years later). Since most of the other fashionable creators around them also lived through the same period, they too indulge in the “new” nostalgic trend that’s being repurposed, creating a kind of feedback loop where all parties involved want to contribute more and more work that revives that same zeitgeist.
It can be explained equally well from the consumer side. After about 30 years, you’ve got a real market of people with disposable income who are nostalgic for their childhoods. So artists working in popular mediums are rewarded for making art that appeals to this audience.
Like many pop culture patterns, some aspects of this phenomenon are intentional, and some aspects are an organic product of the personal histories of the creators involved. Film studios and advertisers, for instance, often consciously use the nostalgia pendulum to build an audience’s emotional attachment with the release of something new. On the flip side, the writers and toy makers and musicians who are creating the artifacts of culture really do have fondness and nostalgia for the themes of their childhood that they’re referencing. So J.J. Abrams really was a kid during the summer of 1979 in which Super 8 is set. It just so happens that 1979 was 32 years prior to the film’s release in 2011, which means it also resonates with a broad market of newly financially solvent adults.
The nostalgia pendulum also matches up nicely with Walter Dean Burnham’s theory of critical realignment in U.S. elections. Building on previous theories of realigning elections, he posits that, due to demographic changes like the ones described above, every 30-38 years, a critical election occurs that drastically changes the dominant political framework. In these realignments, the ideology tends to oscillate between a focus on private interest and a focus on public interest. There seems to be general agreement that 2016 was not a realigning election, but a rhetoric of nostalgia certainly played a crucial role in the outcome of the 2016 election. Slogans like “Make America Great Again” coupled with racist dog-whistle politics that makes references to things like “law and order” hearkens back to the Reagan era of 30 years ago and its antecedents.
Considering the grip that corporate power has held on the country for the last 30 years, and knowing that the majority of Americans think the distribution of wealth in this country is unfair, a rebound realignment toward a focus on public interest is not inconceivable. This is only made more possible in light of the fact that the 45th president—who is clearly sitting in the oval office purely to make money—prompted the largest day of protest in U.S. history and currently has the highest disapproval rating of any newly elected president in U.S. history.
Show Me the Data
The nostalgia pendulum is a phenomenon I’ve been taking note of anecdotally for several years now, but I decided it was worth gathering some more evidence to support my hypothesis. While all sorts of artistic mediums get remade, remixed, and adapted in this same 30-year cycle (hip hop beats reused in pop songs, comics turning into movies, books becoming plays, etc), film remakes are some of the most noticeable artifacts of this process.
I therefore decided to analyze over 500 film remakes from the past century to see if the nostalgia pendulum would rear its head out of the data [*]. Short answer: it did.