Although this was supposed to be an article about creating things (art, fiction etc..) that are inspired by the past, I ended up spending all the article talking about my own experiences with the difference between nostalgia and memory. Likewise, I wrote the first draft of this article before I wrote these short stories. Still, this might help you to think about the differences between the two things more clearly.
A couple of days before I wrote this article, I went through a bit of a musical nostalgia phase. Whilst I can’t remember exactly what prompted it, I ended up looking through my collection of old CD singles again (anyone remember those?) for songs that made me feel nostalgic about the 1990s.
Whilst I bought relatively few CD singles during the 1990s (since I was a kid then, and I tended to listen to the radio and to audio cassettes more), I later went through a phase of buying every interesting old CD single I could find in charity shops when I was about seventeen. So, this wasn’t exactly my first musical nostalgia phase.
The interesting thing was that the songs that made me think about the 1990s the most were pretty much the last ones I expected. Whether it was Geri Halliwell’s surprisingly good cover of “It’s Raining Men”, “Beautiful Stranger” by Madonna or “Brimful Of Asha” By Cornershop, most of the songs that instantly made me vividly remember the 1990s weren’t exactly the kind of “retro” music I usually listen to these days.
In fact, the only songs that genuinely remind me of the 1990s that are close to my current tastes in music are probably a couple of punk songs from The Offspring’s “Americana” album. This, of course, makes perfect sense given that, although I discovered the punk genre in the late 1990s, I didn’t discover the heavy metal genre until about 2001 or the gothic rock genre until 2008. When I was a kid during the 1990s, the only music I listened to was what was easily available in the charts and/or on the radio.
Yet, if you were to ask me to think of “nostalgic 90s music”, I’d probably think of all sorts of cool bands that – to me now – seem very “1990s” but which I hadn’t actually heard during the 1990s. This, of course, is the difference between nostalgia and memory.
But, it’s not just music, it’s lots of other things too. Whenever I try to imagine a 1990s setting for a short story, comic or painting – my first thought is often about old American TV shows from the 1990s. Yet, I’ve never actually been to America. When I want to make something “look 90s”, I think of movies and music videos from the era that I never actually saw back then. When making “1990s style” art, I also tend to think of fashion designs that were a lot more common across the pond than over here.
I think that part of this is due to the fact that my nostalgia about the 1990s is a relatively recent thing. Even up until about 2008 or 2009, I was much more fascinated with the 1980s than the 1990s. So, I’ve had to do a lot of research into a decade that hadn’t quite fully entered mainstream nostalgia. Of course, American TV shows, movies, journalism, fashions etc.. tend to be a lot more well-documented online. So, they tended to turn up a lot more during my research.
Yes, in some ways, this is a little bit annoying. Because, from what I can remember and from everything I’ve seen later, the culture of 1990s Britain was really cool. It had more of a punkish rebelliousness to it than ’90s America did.
Whether it was ‘edgy’ TV shows like “Bits” or “Queer As Folk“, whether it was the cynically humourous attitude of (print) game journalism back then, whether it was the watered-down punk attitude of the Spice Girls (compared to modern pop bands, they were practically punk! One of their music videos from 1997 is also cyberpunk too!) or whether it was gleefully rebellious celebrities like Tracey Emin (I may not be a fan of conceptual art, but she was one of the coolest artists of the 90s) the 90s was a much more edgy, hedonistic, rebellious, creatively free and generally cool decade in Britain than in America. It’s just a shame I wasn’t old enough to truly enjoy or appreciate it back then!
But, is this disconnect between nostalgia and memory an entirely bad thing? No. I really like the stylised “nostalgic” version of 1990s America that I’ve built within my own imagination. It’s excitingly different to the more mundane everyday memories of 1990s Britain that I have. It’s really fun to make things (like this comic) that are based on this imagined version of another decade in another country.
But, at the same time, it doesn’t really have the same level of personal intensity as things that are actually based on memories. Making things that are based on memories, rather than nostalgia tends to have a level of vividness that doesn’t come from trying to conjure up an imagined version of the past. It feels like you are revisiting the formative parts of your imagination.
So, yes – like fantasies and reality, nostalgia and memories can be two vastly different things. But, they can both be good sources of creative inspiration.
Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂