Nostalgia, loneliness, depression : the new-retro counter-culture

Leo Garnier

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How it all began

Music has always been the defining point of counter-culture. The clearest example of this would be rock music from the ‘60s and onwards. Rock music and Woodstock were something very different from the values of the time: instead of classical music and jazz in formal attire, hippies would gather around and revel in a parade of « drugs, sex, and rock’n’roll ».

Jimi Hendrix at the woodstock festival.
Jimi Hendrix at the woodstock festival.

There was a happy side to rock music though. Jefferson Airplane, Jimi Hendrix, the Beatles all revolved around being happy together and enjoying your life to the fullest without societal restrictions. Drugs were a central part of the experience, especially marijuana and LSD. Hippies of the time would use these drugs to enhance their experience in a mystical manner.

Punks were disillusioned with that point of view, though. Instead of happy, uplifting music, they brought with them dissonance, anger, and disdain. Bands like the Sex Pistols and Ramones were notoriously unpredictable (the former actually broke up overnight).

The « No future » motto from the Sex Pistols was revealing of their and their fans’ culture: an abundance of drugs and outright disrespect for anything that other genres and cultures would represent. Punks were not doing soft drugs either. Cocaine, heroin, meth…
Many musicians overdosed both in the rock and punk world.

The modernisation of counter-culture

Punks slowly disappeared after a while. Ironically, their whole identity was eventually accepted by the public as part of the « British way of life ».Their culture shifted into another movement that was a bit less angry at the world, but angrier in general: metal.

For about 20 years, metal and it’s most famous mainstream variant – grunge, led by bands like Nirvana and Alice in Chains – followed in punk’s roots. Anger at the world, sadness, and incomprehension were the roots of metal. Often loved by teenagers who felt unaccepted and lonely among their peers, metal was a flagship genre for outsiders. Looked down upon by mainstream media and mainstream cultures, metal was, for a while, a very restricted culture.

Alice in chains facelift 1991
Famous grunge band Alice In Chains during the facelift 1991 tour.

Common culture slowly took it in and accepted it. It was no longer relevant enough to keep it’s status as the leader of teenage counter-culture. Grunge completely disappeared at the start of the 21st century, not giving birth to any new subgenres.

Today’s modern society changed, and the shift from physical to digital is leading teenagers away from « real » interaction in favor of social networks and phones. The current counter-culture is born of a discontent from this way of life.

How it is now

You might want to listen to this song while reading the rest of the article.

This piece of music is by Macintosh Plus, also known as Vektroid. She is one of the most famous musicians in the Vaporwave genre along with Blank Banshee. Both of them represent the genre fairly well, with slow-paced pieces filled with retro samples and centered around sadness.

It’s difficult to understand where today’s counterculture originated from exactly. A new, undefinable retro-wave undefinable retro wave seems to be at it’s center. This movement includes vaporwave, synthwave, new retro itself. It also influences many other genres indirectly.
These genres are all subgenres from seapunk: a genre that was originally a joke. Eerie windows 95 visuals and monotonous synths define seapunk. Fans jokingly refer to these visuals as aesthetics.
Roman busts, windows symbols and clean shapes mixed with deep sea and space-like colors.

A typical vaporwave composition (by waaah)
A typical vaporwave composition (by waaah)

All of these genres are centered around nostalgia: they steam from ‘90s foggy memories from people who are now in their mid-’20s and miss this era. It is understandable, considering that the world probably never changed as fast as it did during the end of the 2000’s and the beginning of the 2010’s.

The new retro wave inspired many artists, especially musicians, but also more mainstream culture. The game Hotline Miami comes to mind. Sporting retro visuals and with a fully new-retro soundtrack, the entire game feels like a feverish dream and seems to capture the whole vibe of retro wave well.

Hotline Miami 2, a game about '90s gang violence with frantic design.
Hotline Miami 2, a game about ’90s gang violence with frantic design.

The influence of new-retro on other genres

The new retro wave also greatly influenced other artists, both visually and musically. Mac Demarco, Bones, $uicideboy$ are strong examples.
With lyrics centered around loneliness, depression, and self-hate, the latter two sound a lot like metal did back at the beginning of the century. With a major difference: instead of fighting back, their music expresses the fact of giving up on fighting that sadness. Human interaction is viewed as something that mostly brings pain – especially romantic relationships – and drugs are not only escapism to them, but rather a means of punishment. Mac Demarco uses vaporwave visuals in most of his videos.
Another very notable of this wave was the simpsonwave: a “joke” genre. It mixes the imagery of older episodes of the Simpsons with vaporwave music to give off a nostalgic vibe.

This is where the difference of this counter-culture lies: instead of being angry at the world and rejecting it, it is now about being angry at your own life and rejecting it. Depression, loneliness, nostalgia: these are the main themes of today’s counter-culture.

Why ?

If we were to sum up the gist of this culture, it would probably be something along these lines: the world today has nothing to do with the one we knew as kids, and we use this musical escapism to throw ourselves back in these times. Drugs aren’t important in this culture, as the « drug » itself lies in the moody sound of the music. It is all about launching yourself back to this dream world fueled by nostalgia and imagination. A feeling of entrapment in a fond memory. Rather than trying to escape it, you willingly stay in it to avoid facing the harsh outside world.

It is hard to say where this new culture originated from. The predominance of social media, how phones and appliances are now ruling our lives instead of helping them, the dislocation of families and the loneliness of people whose parents divorced during the beginning of the century may be explanations. It all seems to boil down to a combination of nostalgia, sadness, and lack of confidence.
I still highly recommend new retro wave as a musical genre because it’s interesting and fresh.
If you’re feeling down, remember you’re not alone!

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Leo Garnier