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21st-Century Nostalgia: Culture Stuck in the Past

by Nicholas Diaz

Top Gun: Maverick, Sour, and NBA 2K23. What do the top-grossing film of 2022, a 2022 Album of the Year nominee, and the most popular sports video game of 2022 all have in common? Nostalgia.

Nostalgia is ubiquitous in contemporary culture. It is a pervasive force that has consumed cultural forms from film to music to sports. It has overwhelmed cultural and social spheres from fashion to architecture, injecting the memory of the past into the culture of the present. Today, nostalgia and repetition dominate virtually all culture, so much so that there is a rising inability to innovate and create cultural forms representative of contemporary experience. Culture seems to be stuck in the past

As cultural theorist and philosopher Mark Fisher has argued, “The ‘jumbling up of time,’ the montaging of earlier eras, has ceased to be worthy of comment; it is now so prevalent that it is no longer even noticed.” Fisher contends that 21st-century culture has become overly anachronistic, that it can accurately be described as inert. There is less cultural progression and movement today than there was in decades prior to the turn of the century.

Fisher provides the following thought experiment about music to prove his point: “Imagine any record released in the past couple of years being beamed back in time to, say, 1995 and played on the radio. It’s hard to think that it will produce any jolt in the listeners. On the contrary, what would be likely to shock our 1995 audience would be the very recognisability of the sounds… Contrast this with the rapid turnover styles between the 1960s and the 90s.” Play a track from the 80s, for example, for audiences in the 60s. “[I]t would have sounded like something so new that it would have challenged them to rethink what music was, or could be.”

In the 21st century, culture lacks the perpetual change and turnover enjoyed by the 20th century. Take, for example, Olivia Rodrigo’s album Sour, which was released in 2021. Beam that album back to our 1995 audience, and it would be difficult to imagine them being shocked or surprised. The pop-punk melodies present in most of the songs would be very recognizable. Thus, the album is largely stuck in the past. One song in particular, “Brutal,” even caused controversy over its remarkable similarity to Elvis Costello’s 1978 hit “Pump it Up.”

This repetition of past cultural forms is also exhibited with the other examples of Top Gun: Maverick and NBA 2K23. Maverick became the top-grossing film of 2022 shortly after its release in May because of its appeal to audiences who enjoyed the first Top Gun released in 1986. The film stars Tom Cruise reprising his role as Pete “Maverick” Mitchell and brings back Val Kilmer as Tom “Iceman” Kazansky. In the film, Maverick confronts an uncertain future and the ghosts of his past as he struggles to train Bradley Bradshaw (Miles Teller), the son of Maverick’s late friend in the first film, according to Rotten Tomatoes. Just like Maverick, culture today is haunted by the ghosts of the past, as the film exemplifies.

This is also demonstrated with NBA 2K23, the latest development in the NBA 2K franchise. The recent introduction of MyNBA Eras into the game allows players to relive The Magic vs. Bird Era, The Jordan Era, and The Kobe Era. Players can now experience the greatest eras of basketball history and play with the likes of the 1980s Lakers and the 1990s Bulls. This is clearly exemplary of the cultural nostalgia so prevalent today.

The 20th-century era of cultural modernism is nearing its end considering the rise of nostalgia and the repetition of the past in contemporary culture. The frequency of innovative and revolutionary forces in culture such as Miles Davis, The Beatles, and Kraftwerk in music culture, for example, is decreasing. Increasingly we are seeing a condition of cultural retrospection and repetition. But what is the cause of this predicament?

Fisher divides the possible causes into the two categories of aesthetic consumption and production. The first cause can be attributed to contemporary consumer culture. Fisher argues that contemporary society’s loss of social cohesion and meaning has brought about a “hungering for the well-established and the familiar,” which can be found in a retreat to the past. Alternatively, cultural theorist Franco Berardi attributes nostalgia to the effects of work culture. According to Berardi, workers today are overstimulated and exhausted by constant, precarious labor. Workers are short of time and energy, so they demand quick cultural fixes in the familiar satisfaction of the past. Most people do not have the ability to enjoy experimental cultural forms, so they resort to what they already know.

Other explanations of nostalgia culture focus on production. Similar to work culture, the internet demands time, energy, and attention. Fisher explains that “the besieging of attention described by Berardi applies to producers as much as consumers. Producing the new depends upon certain kinds of withdrawal.” To create and innovate, one must withdraw from sociality and pre-existing cultural forms. However, the internet presents people with infinite opportunities for contact and engagement. As Fisher argues, the internet contains a “deluge of YouTube links” that make “withdrawal more difficult than ever before.” How can one imagine new forms of culture while locked into online algorithms?

Fisher also describes how the decline of social services has led to the decline of the resources necessary for artistic production. Less public funding for services such as education and housing has led to the circumscription of the spaces where artists could withdraw and “be sheltered from the pressures to produce something that was immediately successful.” In addition, he notes how culture has become more marketized in the last few decades. There is a growing profit incentive for artists to “turn out cultural productions that resemble what is already successful.” This has led to the repetition of already popular past cultural forms for immediate success.

All of these factors have contributed to the 21st-century phenomenon of nostalgia culture. Popular culture today exemplified with Top Gun: Maverick, Sour, and NBA 2K23 is merely a repetition of old cultural forms. The innovative cultural tendency of 20th-century modernism has been replaced by a repetition of the past, an inability to create real novelty. The 21st century, therefore is just 20th-century culture on flat screen televisions and smartphones. It is culture stuck in the past.

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