August 4, 2019

Nostalgia songs reminisce about matching phase of 15-year cultural excitement cycle

Last year there were two competing songs expressing nostalgia for a clearly defined zeitgeist of the recent past -- "1999" by Charli XCX and "2002" by Anne-Marie. Both were the products of the current vulnerable, refractory phase of the 15-year cultural excitement cycle (2015-'19), when energy levels are drained after the last manic, invincible phase (2010-'14), before they will recover during the next warm-up phase (2020-'24). But one was referring back to a previous manic phase ('95-'99), and the other to a previous vulnerable phase (2000-'04). One did not match, the other did.

So far, the phase-matching song -- "2002" -- has been far more successful, and you still hear it being regularly played over a year later. Its creators and its audience are more able to resonate with it, since the zeitgeist of the song's setting matches their own, at least regarding the phase of the excitement cycle. Expecting people in a refractory period to resonate with a manic, high-energy zeitgeist -- "1999" -- may be asking too much of their physiology.

To investigate, I checked out Wikipedia's category list of nostalgia songs, which includes both of the above. I also looked through the Hot 100 year-end charts for titles with a year in them, in case the category list was missing some.

I'm interested in ones that are nostalgic for a narrowly defined cultural period -- one year, or less than five years at any rate. That eliminates songs that refer back to longer periods like several decades. And it eliminates those that are nostalgic for a certain stage of the lifespan, or for a previous romance, without any reference to what historical or cultural period it took place during.

I kept only those that resonated with audiences at all -- they had to make it onto some chart. Not necessarily the Hot 100, perhaps the rock or R&B charts, and just making it to the weekly charts (rather than year-end) was fine. Otherwise there aren't many to study.

Still, this leaves only 12 songs, which are listed below by their release date (album or single, whichever was first, not that it affected the phase it appeared in), which phase they were released in, the time they're set in, that setting's phase, and whether or not these phases matched. They are sorted by the phase of release date. Click for full-size.

As it turns out, there is no bias for nostalgic songs to be made during any of the three phases of the cycle -- each phase has produced 4 songs. There's no significant bias for the phase of the setting either -- 4 manic, 5 vulnerable, and 3 warm-up, barely distinguishable from the even distribution of 4, 4, 4.

However, there is a significant matching between the phase that the song was produced in and that it was set in. See footnote [1].

By the way, "December, 1963" originally came out during the late '70s warm-up phase, but it was remixed with a more modern dance sound, and charted once again during the early '90s warm-up phase. I left out that second recording, but including it would only strengthen the conclusion, adding another phase-matching song (since the early '60s were a warm-up phase).

So, rather than artists and audiences resonating with any old phase earlier in the excitement cycle, they are inclined to resonate with the same phase that they are currently experiencing.

To my ear the most resonant matches are "Summer of '69" for the manic phase, "December, 1963" for the warm-up phase, and "American Pie" for the vulnerable phase.

As for the mismatches, if only "1979" had been released a year earlier in 1994, that would have made it perfectly 15 years in sync with its setting. It doesn't really sound like a proper manic phase song of the late '90s anyway, but more of a "just getting the motor going" song typical of a warm-up phase.

All other things being equal, if you're going for nostalgia for a 1-to-5-year period, make it match in phase with the current phase of the excitement cycle.

[1] If the artists were choosing years to tell stories about without an inclination toward any of the three phases, then each phase would have an equal chance of being chosen, 1/3. So the chance of a match between the phases that the song is released in, and that the song is set in, would be 1/3. There are 12 independent songs. So the number of successful matches should be binomially distributed, with n = 12 and p = 1/3.

You'd naively expect 4 matches (12 * 1/3), and yet there are 8 matches.

The probability that there is a result so high above the expectation, or even higher, is less than 0.02.

We can therefore reject the initial assumption that the artists are just choosing years to tell stories about without an inclination toward any particular phase -- they are clearly inclined toward reminiscing about the same phase of the cycle as the one in which they're released.


  1. Interestingly, the song "2002" references four other songs, none of which were released in 2002, but three of which were released in the early 2000s.

    99 problems(Jay Zee) - 2003
    Ride Wit' Me(Nellie) - 2001
    Bye Bye Bye (N'Sync) - 2000

    The song also references "Baby, Hit me one more Time"(Britney Spears), which was released in 1999 - which means there was a little bit of overlap between 1999 and 2000 in terms of the defractory period setting in.

  2. Also "Oops! ... I Did It Again" and "The Next Episode" ("hold up") from the early 2000s.

  3. We can rule out a lifespan effect, as if the creators had a tendency to feel nostalgia at a certain age, and that targeted a stage of the lifespan that was roughly 15 years earlier.

    E.g., if nostalgia hit hard in their late 20s, and targeted their transition to adolescence of 15 years earlier. That would have nothing to do with particular historical / cultural periods, just the relations among stages of the lifespan.

    There are 3 artists in the list who were born in the second half of the 1940s. And yet they produced nostalgia songs over three separate phases of the cycle -- McLean in the vulnerable early '70s, Seger in the warm-up late '70s, and Davis in the manic early '80s.

    There are 2 who were born in the early '70s, and yet they produced nostalgia songs across two separate phases -- Missy Elliott in the vulnerable early 2000s, and Kid Rock in the warm-up late 2000s.

    That would not be possible if they were hit by nostalgia at the same age, referring back to the same earlier stage of life.

    But it is possible if they're shifting their nostalgia target in tandem with the shifting phases of the excitement cycle. When it's vulnerable, we'll feel nostalgic for an earlier vulnerable phase. When that's done, and we're in the warm-up phase, we'll move on to nostalgia for an earlier warm-up phase. Then when that's done, and we're in the manic phase, we'll move on to nostalgia for an earlier manic phase.

    Also, some songs do not look back roughly 15 years, from parenting age to the cusp of adolescence. "1983" is set roughly 30 years before its release, and Ahmad's "Back in the Day" is set merely 5-10 years before its release. If you count the remix of "December, 1963" from '93-'94, it referred back 30 years.

    That is entirely possible if they're just looking for some identical phase of the cycle, not necessarily one that originally hit them during a certain stage of the lifespan.

  4. 1985 came out in 2004

  5. Good catch, I'd forgotten that one! And it slipped through being on the year-end charts, but was on the weeklies. Another phase-matching song.

    The point of the song is wrong, though -- it's not getting married, having kids, etc., that makes a person stay stuck in a past era. They're forced to adapt to an ever-changing present by these demands from others in their close social circle.

    It's those who don't get married (or don't stay married), and especially those who don't have to raise kids, who can continue existing in a past time where they feel more comfortable.

    Perhaps that's why these nostalgia songs for particular cultural periods only begin in the 1970s, along with the neoliberal transition, which both destroyed the family and saw erosion of regional roots (an alternative outlet for nostalgia -- geographic rather than temporal).

    It's only going to become more common as Millennials and Gen Z-ers have no regional roots to harken back to, nor children to force them to stay in the series of present cultural moments.


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