Hello Everyone, Welcome to the podcast “Close to the Bone.” I’m Carl Vreeland.
This is episode #25, entitled, Nostalgia and Sentimentality.
Life is in the now, nostalgia is not. Before I continue, let me read three definitions of nostalgia provided by Merriam-Webster:
- pleasure or sadness that is caused by remembering something from the past and wishing that you could experience it again.
- the state of being homesick.
- a wistful or excessively sentimental yearning for the return to or of some past period or irrecoverable condition.
Nostalgia is antithetical to mindfulness and being present. Yet, our natural leanings are to keep the past alive. We daydream about the good ‘ole days and desire to taste the bittersweet memories of our youth. We miss and long to be with our loved ones who are no longer with us. We reminisce about our adolescent years, back when life was exciting and full of discovery and adventure. Many of us hunger for that “age of innocence,” pining to relive our carefree childhood, yearning to experience the fun formative years of high school again, and craving to recreate our college years which were full of promise. We thirst for the time when everything was safe and rosy, long before all the worry and heartache.
But memories are selective. When we travel back in time, we often only remember the good experiences. We recount our past to our liking, prettying it up with bright vibrant colors, making it a pleasant place to go, as to escape the unease and ennui of our present lives. Nevertheless, in the course of driving down memory lane, we inevitably pass through neighborhoods where longing and sadness slow us down. A heaviness weighs on us. The road gets rough and bumpy. And longing, regret, hurt, and resentment turn up as travel companions.
Feelings of nostalgia may or may not be hard-wired. Irrespective of that, they are undoubtedly an integral part of the fabric of Western culture. Corporations have conditioned us, painting a pretty picture and reinforcing how special and important it is to cherish and collect memories. “The powers that be” persistently create ways to capitalized on our affinity for nostalgia. Our heartstrings are tugged by way of sentimental songs and movies. We are encouraged to picture frame memories on our walls and build photo albums of our family gatherings, vacations, births, graduations, weddings, and holiday events. Technologies such as smart phones with camera and video capabilities were developed to document our lives, whereas recording every special moment (and mundane moment for that matter) and posting it on-line is now commonplace. Picture-taking and video recording special events have taken priority over the actual event. Yes, documenting the moment has superseded experiencing the moment itself.
If there is one institution that has capitalized on nostalgia more than any other, it has been Disney. In an article entitled, Disney history: how has the corporation shaped our perception of the past?, historian Dr. John Wills writes. . .
So what, specifically, is ‘Disney history’? Disney history is primarily about nostalgia and resolution. Disney offers a sentimental and largely positive reading of the past, often high in visual detail, that promotes the idea of history as leading to happy endings and universal progress. It is utopian and optimistic. As to be expected in child-focused stories, some of the moral complexity of the past is sidelined in the search for a simpler and more comprehensible tale of ‘heroes and villains’ and the triumph of forces for good over evil.1
Yes, Disney primarily caters to children, whom they indoctrinate right at the start. History is sidelined to depict life as an unrealistic utopia with happy endings. In the book, Disney, Pixar, and the Hidden Messages of Children’s Film, the author, M. Keith Booker writes, “The Disney company was quite well aware that one of the principal features of bourgeois ideology is an intense sentimentality that tends to focus on animals, kindness to animals thus serving as a utopian compensation for the cruelty and alienation to which humans are subjected in a capitalistic environment.”2
Disney created a culture of sentimental stories and fluffy, fuzzy characters which misled, misguided, and misdirected us. They conditioned generations of children into believing in fairytales. Expectedly, many adults (although not admittedly so) still live in a dream-like world hoping and wishing for that Disney-like happy ending.
All the same, Disney doesn’t have a monopoly on sentimentality; it is hammered into our psyches from many different sources. Hollywood movies, family-oriented T.V., romantic novels, syrupy songs, patriotic songs, and Broadway musicals are competitive contributors. Our capitalistic society rakes in billions of dollars and thrives on plucking our heart-strings.
The Macmillan Dictionary defines sentimentality as: the expression of feelings of sadness, sympathy, love, etc. in a way that is inappropriate or obvious. Expressing emotions in an excessive, silly or embarrassing way.
The online Oxford English Dictionary defines sentimentality as: exaggerated and self-indulgent tenderness, sadness, and nostalgia.
There is no shortage of sentimentality, and songs play a huge role in seeing it stays that way. The American songbook is filled with blatantly nostalgic songs. The song Memory3 from the Broadway show Cats is a classic example. In this well-crafted song, the singer is yearning for the past, desiring a happier time. She’s not looking toward the future, in the hopes of a better life, no, she’s wishing to return to a former life.
And it’s no mere coincidence that the Beatles song Yesterday,4 according to Wikipedia “. . . remains popular today and, with more than 2,200 cover versions, is one of the most covered songs in the history of recorded music.” Broadcast Music Incorporated (BMI) asserts that it was performed over seven million times in the 20th century. Other than the fact that it was beautifully written and wonderfully sung, performed, and arranged, it is one of the most nostalgic songs ever produced. The singer longs for yesterday, when life was free of troubles, and love was easy and simple.
In view of this, when it comes to songs, is there more going on than meets the ear? Take the song Yesterday, it may not penetrate you as deeply as someone who was in the age range of 8-20 when the record was first released. Let me explain. . . In the book This Is Your Brain on Music: The Science of Human Obsession, author Daniel J. Levitin explains, “. . . our brains are developing and forming new connections at an explosive rate throughout adolescence, but this slows down substantially after our teenage years, the formative phase when our neural circuits become structured out of our experiences. This process applies to the music we hear; new music becomes assimilated within the framework of the music we were listening to during this critical period.”5
In short, the songs we listened to growing up are deeply rooted into our neural circuitry and are intrinsically connected to our recollection of those adolescent years. These particular songs can stir up strong emotions and meaningful memories of the past such as our first date, our first kiss, the first time we fell in love, and our first sexual experience. They remind us of a time when our lives seemed
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