The Nostalgia Pendulum: A Rolling 30-Year Cycle of Pop Culture Trends

By Patrick Metzger

You may have noticed that there’s been a fair amount of 80’s nostalgia hanging in the air for the past several years. Many of the biggest pop songs seem to have just that right mix of retro drum machine beats and epic synthesizers—from Bruno Mars to Haim to Rihanna to Robyn to M8380’s movie remakes are everywhere these days—from 21 Jump Street to RoboCop to The Karate Kid to Ghostbusters. 80’s fashion is having a renaissance as well. And, you know… Stranger Things.

There’s a reason that the culture of the 1980’s is experiencing a resurgence right now. Just as there’s a reason that we’re in the early days of getting more build-up of 90’s nostalgia. It’s not all that complicated, but it is a pattern that has profound consequences for how art is created, how we conceptualize culture, and perhaps even what sort of political rhetoric comes into vogue.

The pattern is this: pop culture is forever obsessed with a nostalgia pendulum that regularly resurfaces things from 30 years ago.

How Memory Shapes the World

There are a number of reasons why the nostalgia pendulum shows up, but the driving factor seems to be that it takes about 30 years for a critical mass of people who were consumers of culture when they were young to become the creators of culture in their adulthood. The art and culture of their childhood (e.g. Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle comics in 1984) helped them achieve comfort and clarity in their world, and so they make art that references that culture and may even exist wholly within that universe (e.g. the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles 2014 film reboot, 30 years later). Since most of the other fashionable creators around them also lived through the same period, they too indulge in the “new” nostalgic trend that’s being repurposed, creating a kind of feedback loop where all parties involved want to contribute more and more work that revives that same zeitgeist.

It can be explained equally well from the consumer side. After about 30 years, you’ve got a real market of people with disposable income who are nostalgic for their childhoods. So artists working in popular mediums are rewarded for making art that appeals to this audience.

Like many pop culture patterns, some aspects of this phenomenon are intentional, and some aspects are an organic product of the personal histories of the creators involved. Film studios and advertisers, for instance, often consciously use the nostalgia pendulum to build an audience’s emotional attachment with the release of something new. On the flip side, the writers and toy makers and musicians who are creating the artifacts of culture really do have fondness and nostalgia for the themes of their childhood that they’re referencing. So J.J. Abrams really was a kid during the summer of 1979 in which Super 8 is set. It just so happens that 1979 was 32 years prior to the film’s release in 2011, which means it also resonates with a broad market of newly financially solvent adults.

The nostalgia pendulum also matches up nicely with Walter Dean Burnham’s theory of critical realignment in U.S. elections. Building on previous theories of realigning elections, he posits that, due to demographic changes like the ones described above, every 30-38 years, a critical election occurs that drastically changes the dominant political framework. In these realignments, the ideology tends to oscillate between a focus on private interest and a focus on public interest. There seems to be general agreement that 2016 was not a realigning election, but a rhetoric of nostalgia certainly played a crucial role in the outcome of the 2016 election. Slogans like “Make America Great Again” coupled with racist dog-whistle politics that makes references to things like “law and order” hearkens back to the Reagan era of 30 years ago and its antecedents.

Considering the grip that corporate power has held on the country for the last 30 years, and knowing that the majority of Americans think the distribution of wealth in this country is unfair, a rebound realignment toward a focus on public interest is not inconceivable. This is only made more possible in light of the fact that the 45th president—who is clearly sitting in the oval office purely to make money—prompted the largest day of protest in U.S. history and currently has the highest disapproval rating of any newly elected president in U.S. history.

Show Me the Data

The nostalgia pendulum is a phenomenon I’ve been taking note of anecdotally for several years now, but I decided it was worth gathering some more evidence to support my hypothesis. While all sorts of artistic mediums get remade, remixed, and adapted in this same 30-year cycle (hip hop beats reused in pop songs, comics turning into movies, books becoming plays, etc), film remakes are some of the most noticeable artifacts of this process.

I therefore decided to analyze over 500 film remakes from the past century to see if the nostalgia pendulum would rear its head out of the data [*]. Short answer: it did.

Nostalgia Pendulum - Film Remakes.002.jpeg

The far left side of this graph shows that many films get remade only a few years after the original. This is a kind of bandwagon effect, which in its most benevolent form can be attributed to multiple discovery (people coincidentally arriving independently at the same idea by tapping into the same cultural themes), and in its most capitalist interpretation is clearly market-driven (using the success of the original to make a few extra bucks by iterating on the same story, characters, or ideas). That cluster on the left-hand side is also why twin films are so often released only months apart (think of Dante’s Peak vs. VolcanoAntz vs. A Bug’s Life, The Illusionist vs. The Prestige, or (heaven help us) Unfriended vs. Friend Request).

However, it’s the next big cluster of remakes that concerns us here. If we include all the data, the average time-to-remake is 22.92 years, with the median at 24 years. But, of course, those early bandwagon remakes skew things toward the lower end, masking that the next biggest cluster of remakes happens right at the next swing of the nostalgia pendulum—around 30 years after their original.

Prominent Examples of the Nostalgia Pendulum

Below, in order to drive this home with some examples you’ll recognize, I’ve included some famous remakes from the past 20 years that fit into the paradigm of the nostalgia pendulum.

  • The Parent Trap (1961—1998, 37 years)
  • ‪Star Wars (1977) -> Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace (1999) — 22 years
  • Gone in 60 Seconds (1974-2000, 26 years)
  • Planet of the Apes (1968-2001, 33 years)
  • Carrie (1976-2002) — 26 years
  • Strawberry Shortcake Doll (1979) -> Strawberry Shortcake TV series (2003) — 23 years
  • Dawn of the Dead (1978-2004, 26 years)
  • ‪King Kong (1933-1976, 43 years; 1976-2005, 29 years)
  • ‪The Omen (1976-2006, 30 years)
  • Halloween (1978-2007, 29 years)
  • Raiders of the Last Ark (1981) -> Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (2008) — 27 years
  • Fame (1980-2009, 29 years)
  • Tron (1982) -> Tron: Legacy (2010) — 28 years
  • Footloose (1984-2011, 27 years)
  • RoboCop (1987-2014, 27 years)
  • ‪Jurassic Park (1993) -> ‪Jurassic World (2015) — 22 years
  • ‪Ghostbusters (1984-2016, 32 years)
  • ‪Beauty and the Beast (1991-2017, 26 years)

Stranger Things

As mentioned in the opening of this article, probably one of the most beautifully shameless culprits to intentionally exploit the nostalgia pendulum is the Netflix original series Stranger Things. In this case, it wasn’t just a few people gathered in a room that decided which retro TV shows and movies to hearken back to. With Netflix’s recommender system at work gathering data on the preferences of all of its 93 million users, it’s very likely that a large number of the show’s influences were algorithmically determined. The result is a powerfully crafted piece of art with a somewhat terrifying degree of success.

There’s a great side-by-side comparison video that shows just how exactly Stranger Things paid homage to its predecessors. For our purposes, here is a list of many of those influences and how long it was between their release and the release of Stranger Things (2016).

  • Dungeons & Dragons tabletop game (1974) — 42 years (reached popularity in late 70’s and early 80’s, which makes this closer to 30 years)
  • ‪Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1977) — 39 years
  • Alien (1979) — 37 years
  • E.T. (1982) — 34 years
  • The Thing (1982) — 34 years
  • Poltergeist (1982) — 34 years
  • Firestarter (1984) — 32 years
  • A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) — 32 years
  • Explorers (1985) — 31 years
  • ‪The Goonies (1985) — 31 years
  • Stand By Me (1986) — 30 years

Everything Old Is New Again

This cyclical view of time and culture fits in with the broader sociological concept of social cycle theory. It fits with the numerous cosmological, physical, and biological cycles that are observed in the universe around us. It fits with the Hindu and Buddhist concept of Kalachakra—the wheel of time. It fits with the concept of Eternal Return that spans countless cultures.

It’s important to note, however, that many of these theories do not discount the forward progress of time. We are in for quite a shock if we think that the next 30 years, as climate change continues to affect more and more of our daily life, will be like anything we have seen before.

Still, there is a certain comfort in watching these cultural patterns come back around. The wheel of time rolls forward, yet remains steady on its axle.

[*] Notes (nerdy thoughts to follow, continue at your own peril): 

My data source for comparing original and remake films was Wikipedia—List of film remakes (A–M) and List of film remakes (N–Z). Wikipedia can be a great resource for aggregated data, especially for non-controversial data like film release dates. And because there’s such a large community around Wikipedia, there are a number of export tools that can help you quickly grab the data from an article, no coding required.

In this instance, I used Wiki Table to CSV to get a CSV-formatted version of the table that displayed original and remake movies with their dates. After opening the CSV in Excel, I was able to use some FIND functions in Excel to extract the dates from between parentheses. A little bit of clean-up, and voila! A nice, neat set of columns with a date for the original and a date for the remake of 533 titles. After that it’s just a subtraction function to get the difference between the year of the remake and the year of the original.

In the analysis, I always used the earliest original date listed, and if multiple remakes were listed, I tended toward using the date of the most famous remake (e.g. 12 Angry Men (1997) instead of 12 (2007)). In situations where I was less familiar with the film (certain foreign films, for instance) or there were 2 films of equal popularity, I chose the date of the earlier remake. For the sake of my sanity I did not try to go through every film and figure out the month they were released and whether that impacted the number of years between original and remake. I therefore just subtracted one year from the other. Lastly, I made the histogram graph at Westa.net.

For anyone interested, the Excel spreadsheet with film data is here: film-remakes.xls

16 thoughts on “The Nostalgia Pendulum: A Rolling 30-Year Cycle of Pop Culture Trends

  1. I love this post Patrick! Perhaps it is why older people are not quite as freaked out when faced with a crisis. It may be seen as a reoccurrence of things they have survived before?

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    1. I just wanted you to know that I found this piece fascinating and brilliant. I always wondered why it seemed nostalgia repeated every ~30 years or so.

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  2. Great piece. Good to see some actual data behind these trends.

    The question now is what properties from today will be remade in 30 years time if nearly everything being made now is a remake of things from 20-30 years ago?

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  3. A pretty big point with some of these movies and shows is that they capture the children of the viewers of the original shows at the 30 year mark. Look at Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle or the live Beauty and the Beast that’s coming out soon. These guys are capitalizing on the nostalgia of the parents.

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  4. Yes things repeat. Look at fashion, remixing and regurgitating old ideas.

    As you’ve observed politics repeats… look further back in time. The 1950’s was full of rampant paranoia about an overstated threat, allowing conservative and communist governments to draw in more power than they should have and radicalise their population. To spy on and kill their own population in the name of national security on the back of a protracted and bloody war ….. sound familiar?

    The 1920/30’s rampant paranoia about an overstated threat, allowing fascist, communists and unfettered capitalism to draw in more power than they should have and radicalise their population. To spy on and kill their own population in the name of national security on the back of a protracted and bloody war ….. sound familiar?

    ..and so on.

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  5. Nice post! I’m currently taking a summer elective in my grad program that looks at nostalgia from a digital/technology perspective. Based on some research I’ve done for the final project, I predict that the swing of the nostalgia pendulum may be shortened as more and more people have access to social media and go looking for their favorite content from their past without relying on mainstream media distributors to repackage it for them in the form of remakes/reboots, sequels/prequels, special editions, re-mastered editions, etc. And with sites like YouTube, Instagram, SoundCloud, and MixCloud (to name a few) that allow users to create and share original content, mainstream pop culture runs the risk of being muddied. What exactly will we all be nostalgic for as a culture/society in 10/20/30 years when we’re all contributing to the content pool?

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