On the dangers of nostalgia

Martin Farrar-Smith, Branding + Design Director at Manifest, on why nostalgia shouldn’t be looked at through rose-tinted spectacles.

Stranger Things still
Stranger Things

When I was growing up my Dad would drag myself and my brother around Halifax town centre whilst he did loads of jobs (stopping every five minutes to shoot the breeze with someone he knew – and he knew A LOT of people), writes Martin Farrar-Smith. At the end of this whole ordeal (and sitting outside the home brewing shop because I couldn’t stand the smell of yeast) we would end up in the library where we’d choose a movie to watch for the weekend.

I remember standing in the horror section, fascinated by the phantasmagorical covers: the whole Nightmare on Elm Street series, Fright Night and, my favourite, Silver Bullet (a poster of which remained outside the derelict ‘Rainbow Video’ store at the top of town for years – incidentally mere feet away from my second favourite piece of graffiti I’ve ever seen – the words ‘Jim’ll Fix It is a Pervert Man’ sprayed in black). These hand-painted covers became etched in my brain and have always stayed with me, even though I have never seen any of them. Honestly, they just terrified me (I snuck into the lounge one night when my babysitter was watching Thriller and I’ve never been the same since).

Flash forward 30 years and, whilst looking on this very website, I feel I’m back in Halifax Library. To promote the much anticipated second series of (the great) Stranger Things, Netflix have released a series of posters that each reference old eighties horror/sci-fi films that have inspired the show. Sure, each one is really nice looking, but isn’t it all a little … obvious? CR’s resident columnist Daniel Benneworth-Grey noted this recently on Twitter, and I totally agree, that when they dropped the poster for the first series they produced a poster that looked like all of those movies they reference WITHOUT ACTUALLY LOOKING LIKE any of those movies they referenced. It had a mystery about it, yet you kinda knew what you were getting into. This recent poster series comes off as a little lazy and throwaway (unless, of course, each new episode is going to reference the movie each poster references, but I doubt that).

There’s a fine line between a nod to the past and a ‘here’s literally that same movie poster but with different people in it’.

We seem to be going through this period where we’re all a bit too comfortable to hop on the nostalgia train. Christopher Doyle is the only one sweating about being original it seems.

It isn’t just movie posters that are embracing the ‘old is new’ mantra. There’s been a surge in the design world recently where everything is starting to look like the intro to Saved by the Bell. It’s all squiggles and geometric shapes plastered all over the place with that bright neon palette everyone’s using. It makes you wonder that the most influential piece of design was not something that Dieter Rams created, but an old global technacolour t-shirt someone found in their loft.

We spent years designing the future only for it to look like the past. What gives? As much as I love the Back to the Future films, maybe it would have been nice to have hoverboards and self-lacing sneakers that looked like they were designed in 2016 not the 80’s idea of what 2016 was going look like. Can’t wait to be looking at bright neon Atari signs come 2049….

This whole movement about digging up the past and playing on our memories for a quick buck got me thinking about a tune by ex-Dead Kennedys front man Jello Biafra and alt-country punk Mojo Nixon – Nostalgia for an age that never existed.

You don’t have to look too hard to see all of this in mainstream politics; Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ and the whole Brexit affair saw people pining for ‘the good ol’ days’ and blue passports and pounds and ounces and ‘the way things used to be’, that really weren’t actually like you remember because, newsflash, back then wasn’t that great.

What’s more, we then had that joyous moment where the Daily Mail were spouting their anti-Corbyn bile, explaining to their readers that he wanted to ‘drag us back to the 1970s’ (where we all used blue passports and pounds and ounces. All the best).

Not that I want to turn my thoughts and this post to politics, but it’s hard not to. Especially when deep down it’s just marketing isn’t it? It’s marketing and advertising and spin and goddamnit Bill Hicks was right and I feel a bit terrible being in this industry sometimes, but at least I can try and make the right decisions and choices.

This nostalgia dollar is all around us and I think we’re all sometimes guilty of falling into it’s comforting arms. It’s easier to sell us something if we already know what we’re getting into. It’s warm in there. We know the way around. It’s a Kylie Minogue song performed by a breathy male vocalist with an acoustic guitar. It’s 25 different renditions of Leonard Cohen’s Halleujah by X-factor finalists. It’s semiotics and chapters of a Jean Baudrillard book I tried reading but couldn’t understand.

Sometimes though, I just wish we’d know our limits.

“Blocks of happy families
With Moms and Dads all in love
Or are these wholesome memories
Really from reruns on TV”

Seems we weren’t happy with the endless reruns of the Crystal Maze on Challenge so the C4 execs decided to bring it back. Not enough nostalgia for you? Here’s Street Mate! I swear to god they’re just commissioning shows so that one from off of Gogglebox can relive her childhood. These shows that they’re creating weren’t that great in the first place (or maybe they were but you were 7 and you also liked eating marshmallow fluff and using too much hair gel in an attempt to look like Zach Morris). And you sit there, watching these ‘new’ shows expecting to feel that same feeling, but you don’t get it. Why? Because times change. You’ve changed. The whole media landscape has changed. And let’s not even start with all the movie remakes, reduxes and remixes. I suppose this is where it all stems from and for every ‘IT’ you have a ‘Dirty Dancing’ & ‘Baywatch’ (to be honest, maybe I was a bit drunk, but I actually liked the Baywatch movie). Let the past be the past. Let’s move on and create something new.

“Why can’t all the bands reform
Stick to playing their old songs
It ain’t punk
If it ain’t just like the old days”

A lot of people took that lyric a little too seriously. Go pick up a copy of Q and you’d be forgiven for thinking you’re back in a field outside of Leeds in 2003. The Guns n’ Roses Tour really should have been called ‘Never in this lifetime unless we all get a sweet, sweet paycheck’ tour. Then you have bands like At The Drive In and Refused – two bands who only sounded good because they all hated each other, both back with a ‘meh’. Listen closely and I swear you can hear the soy lattes being delivered to the studio. There’s no edge because there’s no longer a moment. And that’s why nostalgia only really works in your head. Your mind omits those little things that, once you really start to analyse them, strip away the romance from those moments and bring you hurtling to this mundane reality we call now.

Leave it to Jello (a man who has flat out refused a Dead Kennedys reunion) to sum it up succinctly;

“Everything old is new again
It all comes back, just wait your turn
But somehow the magic’s always missing”

And it’s this line that plays over and over in my head as I plug in my new Super Nintendo whilst waiting for the new Men in Black spin-off to be released. Nostalgia, I think we need a word.

Martin Farrar-Smith is Branding + Design Director at Manifest; he tweets @Eighty_Ten

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