.Millennials’ New Breed of Nostalgia

Three levels into the game “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Turtles in Time,” the evil samurai Shredder makes his first appearance. “My patience is wearing thin,” the caped supervillain announces from within a sewer. “I’m banishing you to a time warp from which you’ll never return.”

The next instant, the dreaded Shredder emits a pattern of concentric circles from his forehead, forming a net around the Turtles. An aperture opens in the sky. Sucked in, our heroic reptiles are cast back through time, diverting them from their goal of defeating the evil brain Krang and returning the Statue of Liberty to its rightful place in New York Harbor.

But Shredder has been caught in a time warp of his own.

Though it was released almost 20 years ago, “Turtles in Time” has found a new home in the recent national arcade bar craze. In 2016, when Nintendo reissued the Nintendo Entertainment System as the NES Classic, it sold out instantly. Two years later, when they produced more copies, the humble device from 1983 outsold the XBox One, PS4 and Nintendo’s own Switch console. Arcade bars draw patrons who gleefully replay the titles they first mastered as preteens—only now they do so with a locally brewed IPA or craft cocktail in hand.

Born between the early ’80s and mid-’90s, the youngest members of the millennial generation are just getting out of college, while the oldest are buying homes, getting married and starting families. They are fully grown adults, with growing salaries and increasing amounts of expendable income. And all around the country, businesses, bars, and party promoters are cashing in on millennial nostalgia.

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At the Santa Cruz Beach Boardwalk, the sound of the Free Friday Night Bands on the Beach concert series, which begins Friday, June 14, has always been nostalgic. It was ruled for many years by ’80s hitmakers like Eddie Money, Wang Chung and Berlin. But more recently,  ’90s bands like Smash Mouth (June 21) and Everclear (June 28) have begun to take hold.

“I’ve noticed that the crowds have been bigger at our shows lately,” Smash Mouth bassist Paul Delisle tells GT. “I don’t know what the interest is, but I certainly wouldn’t have expected this 12 years ago.”

The phenomenon stretches beyond bars and live music. Recently, a French company called Mulaan opened a new plant for producing cassette tapes to capitalize on the slew of mainstream pop artists, such as Ariana Grande and Taylor Swift, who have been putting out albums on the retro format. Sony has issued a new Walkman (and, for that matter, Motorola a new flip phone). Even the music video style of the cassingle era is alive and well. Vampire Weekend’s recent “Harmony Hall” clip includes candlelit sets, a la Pearl Jam and Nirvana, and fish-eye camera shots straight out of “Mo Money Mo Problems.”

The past is back. So, in the words of 4 Non Blondes’ 1993 hit, “What’s going on?”


For Marcus Leonardo, founder of It’s Relative PR, becoming an event promoter was a natural transition—and so was tapping into millennial nostalgia. It’s been a part of his life since his days in bands, where he and his friends bonded over their love of emo and screamo, two genres that rose up out of the underground in the ’90s and found massive mainstream success in the 2000s.

“The nice thing is, this is music I grew up playing,” says 32-year-old Leonardo.

Leonardo sang in the emo band Roses For Ophelia, and filled in on vocals in screamo band Scary Kids Scaring Kids. By his count, he’s played three Warped Tours and two OzzFests. An L.A. native, Leonardo has been living in Sacramento for the past few years.

“Me and my friends would get together and listen to this music, either at our houses or at a party,” he says. “Eventually I thought, ‘Well, there’s enough of us; we can probably get a bar to play this music.’”

Their first venue was a small craft cocktail bar. Without a dance floor or a DJ booth, it was a plug-and-play night for Leonardo.

“I just curated a playlist and played it,” he says. “I didn’t really announce it. It was just for me and my friends. But word got out in Sacramento. Within two weeks of people knowing I was doing this, it went from like 12-14 people to 150.”

After outgrowing their first location, Leonardo relocated his emo nights to a dance club. They quickly outgrew that venue as well.

“I put the event up, and it was 1,000 people going to or interested at a bar that could fit 400 people,” he remembers. “Immediately. It was obvious that there was a need for this.”


By the time the Emo Night Tour started, promoters and fans all over the country had already caught on, or were beginning to pick up on the phenomenon.

Like many club nights, it started in New York and Los Angeles. Emo Night Brooklyn came first—followed by Emo Nite L.A., Long Island Emo Night, Emo Night Boston, and many more.

In 2017, the New Yorker described the phenomenon in an article titled “The Rise of Emo Nostalgia.” Writer Jia Tolentino astutely describes the music’s appeal: “There was a streak of playfulness in emo, but it was the genre’s spectacular sentimental indulgence that really got people on board. It also insured [sic] that emo’s biggest fans fell within a certain age range.”

“A lot of the people who come to our events are looking for the stuff they listened to in middle school, high school, college,” Leonardo says. “It is definitely a nostalgia trip for them.”

In fairly cynical terms, the New Yorker described this phenomenon by saying that, “Music made to help teenagers flail their way to adulthood provides an opportunity for adults to succumb to the histrionics of teendom again.”

Make no mistake, there are plenty of histrionics in the mainstream emo of the 2000s. Just look at any Dashboard Confessional lyric. But for Leonardo, it’s much more than that. All of this started out of a desire to share space with people who loved the same thing. It’s that desire for connection, and common ground, that he sees behind Emo Night Tour’s success.

“I’ve always felt like we’re disconnected as a generation,” he says. “Everything is social media, everything’s on your phone, your computer. A lot of people don’t do things together anymore. There’s a need to have a collective that comes together for something that they all love.”


Nostalgia comes around sooner or later for every generation. The Baby Boomers, it could be argued, perfected it—and are still at it. In 2017, the Monterey County Fairgrounds hosted the 50th anniversary of the Monterey Pop Festival, where contemporary acts mingled with musicians from the ’67 fest, when the Who trashed their amps and Jimi Hendrix torched his guitar.

In 2013, a study conducted by UCSC and Cornell found that young people form strong emotional attachments not only to the music they listen to while adolescents, but to the music their parents listened to when they were young as well. However, the fact that Leonardo kicked off his very first Emo Night at a craft cocktail bar highlights the uniquely patchwork nature of the nostalgia hitting this generation.

The resurgence of craft cocktails—which hit Santa Cruz in the last decade or so, and hasn’t let up—started in Manhattan in the 1980s, and can be traced to the reopening of the 1930s-era bar the Rainbow Room. After renovations, the bar took an esoteric approach and made the 1862 book How to Mix Drinks its bible. With the return of the classic cocktail, Manhattanites re-experienced something most living locals had never experienced in the first place.

That in 2019 we are paying almost $20 a pop for something conceived in the 1860s and revived in the 1980s is a little strange. Add to that the fact that today’s hip bars feature things like reclaimed wood from old barns and decaying craftsman homes; 1950s-esque, Alexander Girard-inspired wall patterns; LED-powered faux-Edison light bulbs; and bartenders who pair mid-’60s Don Draper hairdos with 19th-century Rutherford B. Hayes beards, and this generation’s style begins to look like a playthrough of “Turtles in Time,” each discrete era a different circle emanating from Shredder’s mind.

In 1981, this nostalgic mash-up was quantified by French philosopher Jean Baudrillard with his concept of the “hyperreal”—that is, the copy with no original.

“It is no longer a political economy of production that directs us, but an economic politics of reproduction, of recycling,” he wrote, as though from the future, in 1981. Already, in the 1980s Baudrillard saw hyperreality leading towards something he called “Absolute Advertising.”

“Today what we are experiencing is the absorption of all virtual modes of expression into that of advertising,” Baudrillard wrote. “All original cultural forms, all determined languages are absorbed in advertising because it has no depth, it is instantaneous and instantaneously forgotten.”

Fast forward to today. Viridian Wood, a restaurant supply company, is among the many businesses weaving vague homages to the past into mundane product descriptions. “Reminiscent of a bygone era, our all-American oak hardwood tables are reclaimed from time-worn barn siding,” the company’s website reads.


In recent years, a variety of news outlets have questioned the all-consuming nature of today’s nostalgia. In 2012, Slate used the subject as a springboard to ask, “Does the nostalgia cycle run on a 40-year cycle, a 20-year cycle, a 12- to 15-year cycle?” In the end, they concluded that, “Some cultural phenomenon can’t be explained away by simple rules.”

One constant across all these recent articles on nostalgia is a lack of introspection on the concept of nostalgia itself. Somehow nostalgia never warrants explanation. Rarely does anyone ask what it is, asking instead how it will appear, and when. But the “why” is perhaps most interesting.

The idea that nostalgia naturally occurs in every generation also seems supported by psychoanalysis. In 1920, while studying recurring dreams in patients with trauma, Sigmund Freud proposed that life is always driven to return to an earlier state.

“The manifestations of a compulsion to repeat,” he wrote in his essay Beyond the Pleasure Principle, “which we have described as occurring in the early activities of infantile mental life, exhibit to a high degree an instinctual character.”

In this “compulsion to repeat,” Freud saw something massive: an “urge inherent in organic life to restore an earlier state of things, which the living entity has been obliged to abandon under the pressure of external disturbing forces.” This instinct, he went on to suggest, is our earliest one, preceding impulses for pleasure, sex and companionship. Put simply, it is “the instinct to return to the inanimate state.” Freud dubbed this instinct “The Death Drive,” proposing it as one of the two competing forces at work in every person.

Despite this idea that people are always driven to return to an earlier time, nostalgia as a concept is a very recent phenomenon, and one with a very particular history.

First proposed in 1688 by Johannes Hofer, the term “nostalgia” is a mix of the Greek words nostos, meaning “homecoming,” and algos, which means “pain” or “longing.” Put simply, a “longing to return home.” At the time he coined this now-familiar term, Hofer was a 19-year-old French medical student living near the Swiss border.

A “longing to return home” sounds a lot like the nostalgia of “Nites,” like 90’s Nite and Emo Night, but Hofer’s nostalgia wasn’t just a desire to listen to music from your teens. For him, nostalgia was a full blown disease. One that, untreated, could even be deadly.

Smash Mouth millennial nostalgia
’90s ALL STARS Smash Mouth is one of the bands enjoying a comeback as part of pre-Y2K throwback events.

The subject of a new book by Columbia University professor Thomas Dodman, What Nostalgia Was, exposes the odd, often-contradictory history of nostalgia, beginning with its initial proposal as a deadly malady.

“In an advanced case, blood would begin to thicken and clot, hindering circulation and affecting the heart,” Dodson writes, citing Hofer’s original medical text, Dissertatio medica de nostalgia, oder Heimwehe. “If nostalgia was allowed to fester untreated, the ‘consumption of the spirits’ and inexorable weakening of the body would hasten death by exhaustion.”

Today, “death by nostalgia” seems laughable, but without it we likely wouldn’t know the word at all. It was only after making the rounds as a curiosity that nostalgia entered the public consciousness. Among 18th-century elites, Hofer’s medical text became a hit, a regular point of discussion in literary salons where people gathered to discuss recent ideas. There, nostalgia emerged into “a broader audience of Enlightenment figures intrigued by astonishing stories of ‘death by nostalgia,’” Dodson writes. Along the way, it evolved into the more benign, romantic notion we have today.

Central to Hofer’s original medical work is the fact that nostalgia was first seen as a Swiss disease, one primarily affecting mercenaries, paid soldiers from Switzerland fighting in the many armies of a war-torn Europe. Though causes of nostalgia were attributed to a variety of sources (a sudden change in climate, an imbalance in the body’s “humors,” the “symptom of a disordered imagination”), there was one constant in the lives of all its earliest sufferers: war.

“Nostalgia,” Dodson writes, “came into being upon the rapidly expanding and ever-more-gruesome battlefields of 18th-century Europe.”


Around 2010, College of Saint Rose professor Karen McGrath began to notice a change in her classroom.

“It was the way in which we had to engage the students. We couldn’t rely so much on strict lectures anymore,” she says. “It had to be much more interactive.”

Sensing a generational shift, McGrath began looking into what people had begun to call “millennials.” Right away she saw fingers pointed, grievances aired. Millennials were killing industries, killing social niceties—even killing the family.

“The assumptions people were making about the millennial generation, we kind of disagreed with them, because they didn’t describe the kind of student we had in our classrooms,” McGrath says.

Setting out to correct the narrative, McGrath and her fellow professor Regina Luttrell decided to make millennials the subject of their own research. In 2016, they published The Millennial Mindset: Unraveling Fact From Fiction. In millennials, McGrath and Luttrell found a generation capable of great personal engagement, one much more willing to share their own experiences than previous ones had been, all while having hundreds of new distractions competing for their attention.

“With Gen X, for example, we didn’t have the internet growing up,” McGrath says. “We didn’t have social media at their age. I think that makes a difference. They’re growing up so much faster because they’re exposed to so much more earlier on in life.”

While researchers usually try to pin generations to year of birth (Baby Boomers 1946-1964, Gen X-ers 1965-1980), McGrath and Luttrell focused more on specific events.

“What we discovered in our research is that there were always these certain historical events that happened during someone’s childhood that really impact how they see the world, and what they want from the world,” McGrath says. “We think that 9/11 had a big impact on millennials, because that event was really when people realized they needed to be in touch with each other more regularly, because the world is a dangerous place.”

Highlighting 9/11 brings up a crucial point: The millennial generation is the first in modern American history to only know their country at war. Since 9/11, America has spent more than $6 trillion on war, engaging in conflicts in Iraq, Syria, Yemen, Libya, and Afghanistan—the latter of which is now seeing its second generation of soldiers. War, for the American millennial, is in the background at all times, fought by family members and friends, discussed on TV, embedded in online news clips, and increasingly figuring in fiction (Captain America: Civil War, Avengers: Infinity War, and its sequel Avengers: Endgame, to name just a few). It is no coincidence that Thursday, one of the biggest emo bands of the 2000s (and one of the heaviest hitters at Emo Night) titled their 2003 album War All the Time. In an interview given after the record’s release, singer Geoff Rickly said, “On the news every day there would be all these things about the war going on, and that terrified me.”

For millennials, war spills into every part of our lives, whether in the form of cyber wars, municipal police departments outfitted with military grade weaponry and heavy equipment, war advocates like John Bolton enjoying positions in a second White House administration, or weapons of war used in mass shootings.

This last item is especially difficult to overlook. At a recent ’90s Nite over the hill in San Jose, a woman near me screamed—not a whoop, not a shout, a full-blown scream. As it turns out, she was just excited because she had heard the opening notes of the Backstreet Boys’ “I Want It That Way,” but in a post-Columbine, post-Las Vegas, post-Pulse, post-Parkland world, I am increasingly aware of my surroundings in public. For a moment, that scream put me on edge.

In 2018, Business Insider found that Americans are now more likely to die in a mass shooting than from most traditional “fears.” Shark attacks, dog attacks, lightning strikes, tornadoes, cataclysmic storms, poisonous venom, accidents on public transportation, and attacks by foreign-born terrorists are all less likely causes of death (four times so, for that last item).

Surrounded by so much violence, era-themed events like Emo Night are an outlet for millennials—a way to cope. And advertisers are acutely aware.

One article in Forbes says it all.

“Aligning marketing strategies with emotion has already proven to be successful, but tapping into fond memories can be an invaluable tactic, especially for engaging millennials. Share a compelling blast from the past with a millennial and you’re likely to reach them on an emotional level—the holy grail of brand marketing.”


A little before midnight at 90’s Nite, the Luniz’s “I Got 5 On It” erupts from the speakers. Today, under a gutted Affordable Care Act, it is hard not to hear the song in the context of a GoFundMe drive to cover a stranger’s medical bills.

“I would think that nostalgia would be very important to millennials,” McGrath says. “They’re really forced to grow up more quickly than before, so why not look back on some of the things that made us happy? Music in general can really help people connect to an important time in their lives. That nostalgic feeling gives us a moment to break away from the adult world a little bit and remember our youth.”

For Leonardo and the Emo Night Tour, breaking away from the adult world is exactly what they offer. But it’s not about avoiding responsibility; it’s about coming together.

“Almost every one of our events that we do, we have like a ‘Kum Ba Yah’ moment where we stop the music and we pull everybody in real close. We make sure that everybody is together—whether we have 300 or 1,000 people in the audience—and we all sing My Chemical Romance’s ‘Welcome to the Black Parade’ together. I mean full on, with sing-along and balloon drop and everything you can think of. That is kind of the pinnacle of our event.”

My Chemical Romance singer Gerard Way stated in 2005 that seeing 9/11 caused him to start the band. “Something just clicked in my head that morning,” he told Spin magazine. In the music video for “Welcome to the Black Parade,” a woman wearing a gas mask is known only as “Mother War.”

In its earliest hours, nostalgia was born out of a continent at war. For a generation where war is always in the background (and War All the Time is often on the stereo), it should be no surprise that millennials are seeking comfort in the past.

Back at 90’s Nite, a man on stage mimes playing the bass to Green Day’s “Longview.” A slow-burner, the song builds for almost three minutes before it reaches its climax: “When masturbation’s lost its fun, you’re fucking breaking.” Many in the crowd sing along, hopping up and down during the chorus that follows.

To the New Yorker, this might seem like the height of regressive, responsibility-denying teensploitation. But here’s the rub: Millennials as a generation are increasingly precarious, disconnected, marginally employed and overworked in a world constantly at war. And thanks to the burgeoning gig economy and the rise of telecommuting, work is now 24/7 without even the comfort of living, breathing coworkers. To one day be as free as Billie Joe Armstrong was in the ’90s is a millennial’s dream.

We may be going down. But—like Turtles cast back through time on an impossible quest to return to our own era—sugar, we’re going down swinging.


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