Opinion: is our obsession with and nostalgia for recent pop culture because we've run out of ideas?

In the first six months of 2019 alone, we’ve seen the return of the Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys and Westlife. Rumours of a Friends' reunion are rife again - (inexplicably - did no one watch spin-off Joey?). Disney is capitalising on a thirst for comfort with multiple live-action remakes in the works and Netflix hit Stranger Things is an unadulterated 1980s' indulgence. We've seen viewers binge on The OC, Dawson's Creek, Ally McBeal, ER and Melrose Place on the RTÉ Player. So why do we keep coming back to nostalgia? 

Hearing the opening bars of a theme tune from your childhood is an instant transporter to your formative years. You don’t have to go back to those feelings, but you can briefly live in them as an instant reminder of how far you’ve come.

"Nostalgia is in a weird way about the past, but it's also very much about the present,' says Mary McGill, a PhD researcher at NUI Galway. "Nostalgia is really powerful because we have such an emotional connection with it. There's an awful lot of the Nineties around at the moment, which is kind of baffling because the Nineties really was not that long ago. But it shows the way that the culture has gone now.

From RTÉ Archives, RTÉ News' report on Bryan McFadden leaving Westlife

"If you look at the audience who would have been the original Spice Girls fans, the original Westlife fans, the original Backstreet Boys fans, they’re probably now in their thirties or forties, they may have access to disposable income in a way that teenagers will not have," McGill adds. "They might be very invested in recreating or re-enjoying their youth or sharing that with their children. So there's this economic logic at play." 

Given the enthusiasm, it might have felt like a sure bet for former Rose of Tralee Maria Walsh when she jumped on the nostalgia band wagon with her Nineties-inspired campaign video, featuring Tamagotchis and Mary Robinson. While she was elected to the European parliament, the backlash to Walsh's video on social media seemed to suggest something else. There’s a right way to "do" nostalgia and people don’t like the political co-opting of their childhood memories. 

"I think a lot of people feel at the moment that these are very difficult times and they maybe look back at the Eigties and Nineties when they were younger as a period of hopefulness and stability," McGill believes. "Historians will probably tell you differently, both in terms of what’s going on in the present and what’s going on in the past. But in terms of emotion, I think that’s how a lot of people feel. They associate a lot of positivity and security with the period that they grew up in and a return to the Nineties and a return to the Eighties can be a way of tapping back into that and re-living it, if only for a short while."

Nostalgia is also good business because the market has already been established and it’s a cheap way of producing content, McGill says. "People already have an emotional connection to it, you don’t have to introduce it, you don’t have to explain what it is. They get the references, they may even be comforted by it."

From RTÉ TEN, a report on the London premiere of A Star Is Born

The fact that A Star is Born was remade for a fourth time only recently is "wild", McGill says. "There’s another aspect to it as well which is about the state of western culture in general. Have we run out ideas? We’re constantly looking back, remaking things, remixing things, where is the new? Is this some crisis of vision in the West? We can’t imagine a future so we’re constantly retreating into the past? Where is the new when so much of what is presented to us, actually owes so much to the past?

"There’s endless superhero films, remakes of Spider Man and Batman, and some of them are very good, but a lot of it seems to be an inability to either find something else or something new. We are tied to this idea of a past."

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ