If you’re reading this, I’m going to take an educated guess and say there’s one thing in pop culture, more than any other, that you’ve been inundated with in the last couple years. (And no, it’s not a gratuitous influx of superheroes. Good guess.)
Don’t believe me? Think back over the past week. How far do you have to go before you remember encountering any of these?
- A reference to a decades-old Stephen King novel
- Spielberg-inspired cinematography or photography
- A neon pink and teal color palette
- Pop music inspired by 1980s electronic music
- Pop music sampling 1980s music
- Actual 1980s music
See what I mean? You’d be hard pressed to wander very far before you stumbled onto something borrowing, paying homage to, or parodying the decades my generation grew up: the 1980s and 90s.
We who came of age in the 80s and 90s know this, too. Some of the biggest smash hits in media in the past couple years are built solely on nostalgia from our childhoods—Stranger Things, It, Star Wars, an excellent Black Mirror episode, and notably the newly released, unabashed Mid90s. Many of these films and shows are trying so hard to look, feel, and sound like they were made decades ago.
So what’s the big deal, and why now?
The answer lies in the emotional effects of nostalgia, our own imaginations and fantasies, and the generation of the actual people making and consuming this content.
Let’s start with the latter.
I know what you’re thinking. Ugh, please don’t use that buzzy, overworked generational label—MILLENNIALS. There. I said it.
Millennials—Gen Y—consume more content than any other generation. And we prefer video. (Generally speaking, of course.) So in terms of identifying a market for a target audience, Hollywood already has us nailed down. More than any other generation, we’re ready and willing to binge movies and shows because of our predisposition to technology and our craving for convenience.
We’re also a disillusioned, questioning, ideology-mongering generation and we wish everything was simpler. What’s simpler that we know? Our childhoods, for one, where technology’s self-evolution was only just beginning, where we ran around in backyards and biked through neighborhoods, and Hollywood was on the digital cusp of making us believe in magic.
We also seem to be perpetually waiting for adulthood to kick in. Maybe it’s because we started growing up during the Great Recession, or our college major didn’t get us the job we wanted, or we’re drowning in so much student-loan debt that we feel we’ll never be financially independent. Maybe we just feel like Peter Pan, living forever in a limbo of fantasy and reality, childhood and adulthood, never growing up. We remember things fondly from when we were younger. After all, we’d much prefer to look backward at the past than worry about the unknown ahead of us.
It is easier to view things in a positive light when we have distance. Past memories that incite strong emotions often stick with us. Negative emotions from memories appear to fade faster than positive ones, as our recollections of the past are, more often than not, largely positive, according to this study. Recalling fond memories from a long time ago is more pleasant than trying to think of one good thing that happened last Monday, because we’ve had time to develop nostalgia, to recollect on something positive over and over again. (Does anything good happen on a Monday?)
There’s another reason these types of movies and shows ingratiate themselves to us so easily: imagination. We crave imaginative what ifs—where magic or alternate dimensions or aliens or demons come alive and collide with our daily lives. It’s what makes sci-fi and fantasy so exciting; they take us out of a normal day and transport us into new and adventurous worlds.
If it’s more pleasant to look back on the past and fondly remember our past experiences, it’s even more pleasant to escape our current lives altogether. Movies were founded on popcorn-worthy tales of escapism, and modern tales of mystery, intrigue, horror, and sci-fi are nothing short of escapist adventures. It’s what defines any good genre movie.
So why are these genre films and their late-20th century aesthetic so popular?
Take a gander at who they’re being made for—and that audience’s susceptibility to the nice little cocktail of emotions they induce once imbibed.
Everyone feels nostalgic, but it’s millennials who have made nostalgia a marketable trend. We grew up in a world that changed so rapidly—technology and its global effects in particular—that analog memories of boomboxes, tube TVs, and 8-bit video games seem generations away, when in fact they’re still a part of our own. When technology changes so fast before our eyes, the lives we had before this lightning-evolution of tech seem even farther away than what they actually are.
So the more we think about them, the more joyful our pain grows when remembering our childhoods. And, consequently, we feel the same way when the styles, aesthetics, media, and content we normally consume showcase and utilize that same idyllic and pop cultural memorabilia we grew up with. Except this time, they’re packaged nicely into our Netflix queues.
These types of stories make us feel good and long for the time of our lives we’ll never actually be able to reclaim. They inspire fantastical imaginative worlds where characters go on adventures, and we want to take part in the magic. If we can escape our crappy day jobs and bad days and abscond into Derry, Maine or Hawkins, Indiana to ward off demonic clowns and other-dimensional monsters, why not? I’ll even take skateboarding in washed-out parking lots in pre-Y2K LA.
Yes, these movies and shows inspire fantastical new realities and intense longing for days gone by, but often—when done well—they’re just really good stories. It has some of the best child acting I’ve seen in a long time (and even though I love Tim Curry, the 1990 made-for-TV adaptation leaves much to be desired from the kids.) Stranger Things has the uncanny ability to shape a really fun, intriguing plot into a story that celebrates effective character development. Mid90s plunges the protagonist down slopes—both emotional and concrete—to places where the smallest of victories seem so real and detailed, we can’t help but feel our hearts swell when they happen.
It’s the perfect storm of a generation vacillating on self-expression and self-reflection, and the explosive creativity and imagination behind good storytelling (plus convenient, widespread mediums to share content) that create this formidable bloom of nostalgic pop culture. It probably couldn’t happen to any other generation—or at least, it couldn’t happen in the same way. Millennials’ disposition towards easy, shareable, watchable content, and genuinely good stories that light up our amygdalae with fantastical worlds, creatures, and adventures just happen to pair well with the style, aesthetic, and backdrop of where our favorite memories live.
They’re stories made for us, about us—or what we could be.
And if that means we get more seasons of Stranger Things, for now, I’m okay with that.
Major credit and inspiration for this article goes to Lindsay Ellis, particularly this video.
Have some fun wasting time here.