2020 has been marked by collective isolation, leaving us to find creative ways to cope with the times. Popular ways to deal have included baking loaves of sourdough, sending friends meals, and propagating more house plants to keep us company. Other times, it means immersing ourselves in the guilty pleasures of reality television and social media—and that’s okay, too.
There is a sense of comfort in being lonely, together. Still, it can be difficult.
Over the past few years, a subgenre of mostly YouTube-based music has surfaced, where cherished songs are edited to sound like they’re being played somewhere else. Through a light bath of audio manipulation, Alphaville’s Forever Young is made to sound like it’s being played from another room. Add several more layers to the soundscape, and Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World“ becomes a distant song played outside a digitally-rendered night club, complete with distant sirens, train whistles, and faint conversations. One of the most popular are empty shopping mall music videos, where songs from decades past and present are rendered to create a haunting, yet oddly comforting feeling of being immersed in a liminal-but-familiar space.
In quarantine, I repeatedly returned to these videos. At the peak of my millennium-baby nostalgia, I found myself tearing up to a rendition of “Hey There Delilah” being played “in an empty Toys ‘R’ Us at 2:37 pm with moderate traffic outside.” A childhood of innocence marked by Blockbuster movie rentals and getting lost in shopping malls suddenly came back to me, as I cursed myself for crying about something so marginal. Digging deeper, the nostalgia persisted; I found the song I listened to after my first breakup made to sound like it was being played from another room. I uncovered cherished late-night drive hits made to sound like they were being played in an empty bar at closing time. To listen was to become aggressively sentimental, deeply immersed in memory, even with the change of context.
And yet, I’m not alone in my sentimentality. “(t)his YouTube edit of ‘Africa’ by Toto was almost too affecting to hear in my 3 AM mood; it sounded like a shot of warmth coming out from a void,” Jian Tolentino wrote in an article for The New Yorker. Tolentino is not alone; a glance through the YouTube comments on any given video of this subgenre brings about hundreds of personal sentiments of memory, nostalgia, and yearning. “This feels like some distant, beautiful, calm but yet melancholic memory of something I never experienced,” someone commented on the same video. “It feels like I’ve been there, years ago, but I haven’t,” added another.
Why are these videos so hauntingly nostalgic, despite oftentimes not being derived from personal experiences? If they cultivate views into the millions, there must be a further explanation for our tendency towards these types of videos. What seems to be the overriding theme of such comments is collective confessions of loneliness.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic has driven most of us into increased solitude, loneliness has already been a growing “epidemic” of modern life, undermined by the malaise of late capitalism. A survey by The Economist in 2018 suggested that nearly a quarter of American and British adults say they “always or often feel lonely”, with an increasing number of people living alone. And despite constantly being connected, many have argued we are more disconnected than ever.
One of the books I picked up a month into quarantine was Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone. In her ode to living in solitude in New York City, she writes, “Loneliness is collective; it is a city…As to how to inhabit it, there are no rules and nor is there any need to feel any shame.” It fashions itself as one of the hallmarks of life, despite our reluctance to talk about it. Some revel in it, documenting its themes and motifs in their work like Hopper. Others, like Warhol, hid the fact through a façade of sociability. Even in a city of 8.3 million, where population density makes being physically alone nearly impossible, loneliness persists.
Still, we look for a remedy. When we’re limited to the amount of in-person interactions we can have with one another, what other options do we have to combat loneliness? When FaceTime conversations get redundant, when we yearn for a connection beyond our collaborative Spotify playlists and group chats, what can the lonesome do?
As it turns out, nostalgia can be an antidote to loneliness, even if only fleeting. It can create feelings of warmth and social support, improve creativity, and make us more resilient. It allows us to transcend time and space as a form of constructive escapism. It’s no wonder why nostalgia has been cited as one of the cherished and sought out experiences within the range of human emotion.
In our collective isolation, these imagined musical spaces bring us together. “In these videos, music creates a sense of space that the Internet does not provide us,” explained Scott Wark from the University of Warwick. According to Wark, they effectively “create a feeling not only of being in another space, but in another time.” Whether we find solace in the music of empty shopping malls or abandoned churches, the effect is generally the same. They transcend barriers of physical space, eras in time, music and culture, placing the listener in a state of nostalgia—even if borrowed.
In times like these, it is more important than ever to befriend our loneliness. With the comforts of nostalgia reminding us of who we were and still are, we’ll always have a companion.
By Cierra Bettens
Image credit: Getty Images