Editorial: The potent pill of nostalgia and its effect on pop music

by Unathi Nkhoma


Nostalgia has left its mark on pop culture and has had benefits and side-effects on popular music this past decade.


Image: Pinterest

[ABOVE: Many pop stars including Ariana Grande channelled the 90s and early 2000s nostalgia which went on to dominate pop music this past decade.]


It was Thursday 28 February 2019 when the Jonas Brothers announced their reunion and their newest single, Sucker. Immediately, my inner 14-year-old Disney-channel obsessed self headed to Apple Music to listen to some of their classics, to remind myself why I loved and still have a soft spot for the band.


It was while listening to their songs I realised the wave of nostalgia that had come over me. Their reunion announcement was just the latest in a haze of nostalgia that popular culture, in particular pop music, had been under the influence of.


Nostalgia often conjures affectionate feelings and sentimentality for the past, which usually revolves around a certain time period or place. Nostalgia, and the warm, fuzzy feelings that it evokes has played an important role in the trends of pop music this past decade.

The reunion of the Jonas Brothers was a part of a growing list that saw bands, girl and boy groups of yesteryear, make one last effort to tap into their fanbases.


Arguably, the biggest reunion was that of the Spice Girls, who initially reunited for one night only at the closing ceremony of the 2012 Summer Olympic Games in London. The success of their one-night stint eventually prompted a UK and Ireland arena tour sans Posh Spice in 2019.


The “one night only” incentive proved to be a very important tool in testing whether a reunion was feasible. Nostalgia as a trend usually works on a 20-year cycle, thus, musically the mid-2010s caught a strong case of 90s nostalgia.


Despite not having officially reunited, the mini NSYNC reunion that took place during Justin Timberlake’s 2013 MTV VMA Michael Jackson performance tribute perfectly showcased how this incentive wet the public’s appetite for more.


The sight of Beyonce, Kelly and Michelle, a.k.a Destiny’s Child, performing together on stage at Beyone’s first Superbowl halftime show in 2013, the Dove Awards in 2016 and most recently at “Beychella” (Beyonce’s iconic performance at Coachella 2018) often trended on social media and created demands for an official reunion from fans.


However, "the reunion" at times capitalised on the nostalgic haze pop music was caught in and quickly became a cash-grab for group members and record labels. Often, members do not need to be in their prime both physically and vocally with their presence merely being enough to appease fans.


Also, the re-releases of albums and no new material from the groups allowed for profit to be made with little production costs.

This 90s nostalgia trend was reflected in music. In particular, major 90s genres , R&B and new jack swing making a slight comeback. This is exemplified in the blockbuster, Grammy award-winning Bruno Mars album, 24K Magic.


The singer’s third studio album borrowed heavily from late 80s and early 90s R&B, hip hop and new jack swing and spawned hits such as 24k Magic, That’s what I like and Finesse. The influence of this 90s nostalgia was not only sonically, but also visually through his music videos.


In particular, Finesse (remix), which featured Cardi B, paid homage to the ground-breaking 90s sketch comedy show, In Living Color.


Due to the mainstream success of the album and the re-introduction of the sounds of late 80s/early 90s R&B and new jack swing, Bruno Mars faced criticism, especially from the African-American community, accusing of him of cultural appropriation as he had now become the face of black-originated and -dominated genres and how his racial ambiguity aided in the public’s re-acceptance of this style of music.

(The Finesse (Remix) music video pays homage to In Living Color, one of Bruno Mars' favourite childhood shows)

Other music videos also leaned heavily into the 90s nostalgia of the mid 2010s to great success, such as the case with Iggy Azalea's biggest hit, Fancy. In the video, Azalea portrays Cher Horowitz, the protagonist of the 1995 hit teen film Clueless.


Azalea recreated famous scenes and looks from the film including Cher’s black, white and yellow checkered two-piece. As a featured artist on the hit single, singer Charli XCX followed suit and portrayed the beloved supporting character and friend to Cher, Tai , portrayed wonderfully by the late Brittany Murphy.


Big Sean’s Play No Games samples Guy’s 1988 hit Piece of My Love, providing a smooth throwback sound to the song. The throwback sound of the song was perfectly highlighted in the accompanying music video which paid homage to yet another mid-90s Tv show, Martin.


In the music video, Big Sean portrays main character, Martin Payne and again, like Fancy, featured artist Chris Brown portraying Cole, Martin’s best friend.

(The Fancy music video, just like the film Clueless, was filmed at Grant High School in Los Angeles)

(The music video for Play No Games includes a cameo appearance by comedian Martin Lawrence who plays the titular role)


Locally, this trend was reflected within one of the most dominant genres in the country, hip hop. South African hip hop followed suit with an increase of producers and rappers heavily sampling local and international 80s and 90s songs.


Case in point is AKA, with many of his songs containing heavy sampling. It is blatantly obvious with his 2017 appropriately-named hit single, Caiphus Song, which sampled South African Composer, Caiphus Semenya’s 1984 song, Mtswale.


His latest collaboration with fellow rapper Ricky Rick and house producer DJ Tira, F.R.E.E, included several samples such as Lisa Stanfied’s All Around the World and MC Lyte’s Rock The Party. F.R.E.E. also borrows sounds from popular late 90s and early 2000s popular South African genre, kwaito.

(AKA's F.R.E.E)

This re-emergence of kwaito is most evident in South African hip hop with songs such as K.O's 2014 mega hit Cara Cara, Kid X's Aunty and Kwesta's Spiritt, tapping into the sounds of the genre.


Cassper Nyovest was so heavily inspired by the sound of his childhood that he released Sweet and Short, his kwaito-centric fourth album in 2018, stating “The kwaito sound has been very influential in my music. And for a very long time fans have asked for a full Kwaito project. I finally gave in and decided to keep it sweet and short.”


Nyovests’s venture into this sound drew criticism with critics accusing Nyovest of inauthenticity as he deviated from hip hop and his usual sound as well as diluting the original sounds of kwaito.

(Despite a deviation from his usual sound, Nyovest’s first single from Sweet and Short, Gets Getsa 2.0, proved to commercial hit)

The later part of the decade saw an emerging trend of early 2000s nostalgia with characteristics of infectious bubblegum pop and teen pop with the likes Noah Cyrus and Billie Eilish taking the mantle from former teen idols.


Another characteristic of early 2000s pop music was melodic pop and hip hop with the genres borrowing from each like never before. This early 2000s trend is perfectly encapsulated in Anne Marie’s 2018 hit song, 2002, in which she references songs released between 1998 and 2004 including Britney Spears’ Baby One More Time and Oops!... I Did It Again, Jay Z’s 99 Problems and Nelly’s Ride wit Me.


The music video followed suit paying homage to music videos of the aforementioned hits.

(Anne Marie's 2002 is about a childhood romance took place in the titular year and an ode to the music that provided the soundtrack to the romance. )

Anne Marie was not the only one to create early 2000s inspired visuals this past decade with Normani’s Motivation and Ariana Grande’s hit single, Thank U, Next, partaking in the trend.


Normani was intentional with her Motivation music video in which the opening scene mirrored Beyonces’ iconic strut entrance in her Crazy In Love music video. Other scenes in Motivation pay tribute to early 2000s R&B hits including Jennifer Lopez’ I'm Real (Remix) and Omarion’s Touch.


Ariana Grande for her Thank U, Next music video took inspiration from early 2000s films such as Legally Blonde, Bring It On, 13 going on 30 and in particular from the 2004 teen comedy, Mean Girls.

(The motivation music video received positive reviews from fans, celebrities and critics alike, praising the intense choreography, an essential for the 2000s pop music video)

(Thank U, Next featured several cameos including actress Jennifer Coolidge who portrayed Paulette Bonafonte, Elle Woods’ nail technician and friend in Legally Blonde)

Nostalgia has proved to be a potent pill that pop music has been under the influence of. The benefits of nostalgia has allowed artists to revisit different and tap into sounds that may not be popular today or in steady decline as trends change.


By doing so, this introduces elements of lesser-known genres to a newer and often younger audience allowing them to discover and potentially learn and listen to more from a genre. However, the side effects include an over-reliance on the past. With this over-reliance often comes the heavy-borrowing, sampling and recycling of songs and sounds.


This can highlight inauthenticity and clout-chasing, and begs the question question of the talent, originality, creativity and work ethic of an artist. It also lends itself to the slower rate of the production of new and innovative music, sounds, trends and genres.


Let's hope this new decade provides us with more new and original music sounds and finds the right dosage in channeling nostalgia in pop music.

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Rhodes University (UCKAR), Makhanda (Grahastown), Eastern Cape

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