Songs with staying power transcend the superficial to convey meaning and feeling of lasting value. Most songs are readily classified as happy or sad, but some capture the distinctive bittersweet blend of happy and sad. With most songs lasting only a few minutes, how can lyrics evoke not just conflicting emotions, but the unique experience of feeling sorrow and joy simultaneously? The key to such lyrics may lie in their ability to awaken a sense of nostalgia. Theorists differ in their formal definitions, but most agree that nostalgia is a bittersweet longing for the past that accompanies certain types of memories. While not every remembrance is nostalgic, every episode of nostalgia involves remembering. A successful nostalgic song is one that engages a listener in that special kind of reminiscence.
Are nostalgic songs characterized by particular sorts of content? Well-known lyrics give us clues to the distinctive essence and lasting appeal of nostalgic songs. Composed as long ago as the sixth century B.C., but still loved and appreciated today, the Psalms tell of times of struggle and sorrow: "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion" (Psalm 137:1). But they also remind us of the consolation of remembering better days: "I remember the days of old" (Psalm 143:5). Do contemporary songs describe better days behind us or the joy of having overcome the difficulties of the past? Do they express present joy or present sorrow, past joy or past sorrow? Wherein lie the happy and the sad in nostalgic reverie?
Many contemporary nostalgic songs express the bygone joys of youth. Kenny Chesney's country song, "Young," recounts fun times of "cuttin' class," "hangin' out," and listening to loud music. The lyricist marks those experiences as moments in the past by musing, "I don't know where the time goes, but it sure goes fast," while wistfully longing, "I wish it wasn't over." The recognition that life was carefree when we were young is clear in such songs. In his ode to the year he turned seventeen, "1976," Alan Jackson sings, "life seemed easy, nothing much that we needed." But not all nostalgic songs recount times of carefree fun. There are those that recall failed relationships. In "The Dance," for example, Garth Brooks sings, "How could I have known that you'd ever say goodbye;" in "I Will Remember You," Sarah McLachlan asks, "Remember the good times that we had? I let them slip away from us when things got bad;" and in "I Will Always Love You," Dolly Parton expresses the pain of leaving: "Bittersweet memories, that's all I have and all I'm taking with me." In fact, loss is a powerful theme that appears in many nostalgic songs. In "How Can I Help You Say Goodbye," Patty Loveless reflects on losing those we love through moving away, divorce, and death. Grief is the impetus for nostalgic reverie in songs such as Brooks and Dunn's "I Believe," and Luther Vandross' "Dance with My Father."
Some songs are prompted by regret for mistakes we made in the past or for missed opportunities. In "Dating a Memory," Jimmie Davis relives a youthful romance and acknowledges the loss of letting his sweetheart go: "My God, what a gal, and what a fool I was to let her go. But I didn't know till I met so many more." In "Yesterday, When I was Young," Roy Clark confesses his youthful failings: "so much pain my dazzled eyes refused to see . . . I never stopped to think what life was all about . . . every conversation I can now recall concerned itself with me and nothing else at all." The quintessential song of regret might be Bill Anderson's "A Lot of Things Different." The lyrics move from trivial things: "I'd have spent a lot more time out in the pouring rain," to more important matters: "I wish I'd have spent more time with my dad when he was alive . . . I wish I had told my brother just how much I loved him before he went off to war." Anderson concludes with the most important: "if I'd known that was gonna be our last dance I'd have told the band to play on and on and on and on."
The details of what has been lost differ, and in some respects are less important than the sense of loss itself. A common thread that distinguishes lyrics as nostalgic is the realization of the irreversible passage of time. In "Those Were the Days," the lyricist acknowledges the inevitable loss of the past: "Those were the days, my friend; we thought they'd never end. Then, the busy years went rushing by us. We lost our starry notions on the way. . . . Nothing seemed the way it used to be. In the glass, I saw a strange reflection. Was that lonely woman really me?" In "I Didn't See the Time Go By," Charles Aznavour admits, "For every day I threw away, it seems I wasted half a lifetime. Within the blinking of an eye, I didn't hear the midnight chime; I didn't see the time go by."
Of course, not every song of loss or regret is nostalgic. Lyrics that focus solely on the sorrow of grief, the ache of farewell, or the pain of regret simply evoke sadness. For a sad story to elicit nostalgia, additional elements must be present. Revisiting joy, the good times, the ones we loved and the ones who loved us, can transform the sadness of loss into the unique sensation of nostalgia. In "Remember When," Alan Jackson reminds his wife of deaths and births and great change throughout the years and recalls, "We came together, fell apart and broke each other's hearts." Recognizing that we have learned from our past and are better for having had the highs and lows of a rich life contributes to the nostalgic experience. Jackson concludes his life review with an important insight: "Remember when we said when we turned gray, when the children grow up and move away, we won't be sad, we'll be glad for all the life we've had." Steven Curtis Chapman was inspired to write "Cinderella" one evening after rushing to finish his young daughters' bedtime rituals. He recalled how much he had missed from his older daughter's early childhood and vowed not to make the same mistake again. In "Cinderella," he reveals his new understanding, "I don't want to miss even one song. 'Cuz all too soon, the clock will strike midnight, and she'll be gone."
Nostalgic reminiscence is more than just remembering. It is remembering that finds meaning in what we have experienced, who we were, who we have become, and who we can be.