‘Listening to David Bowie reminded me of mum’: why we all turned to nostalgia to get through 2020

It’s natural to lean on things that comfort us during periods of grief, anxiety and uncertainty. And for many, with 2020 becoming synonymous with those very emotions, nostalgia has been the ultimate tonic to remedy the difficulties of this year. It seems intuitive then, that listening trends would be impacted by these universal feelings, as people opt for a dose of nostalgia, and turn to the music of prior decades for some semblance of solace among the chaos. While a glance at recent Spotify stats confirms this, we’ll all soon be able to take a deep dive into our own sounds of 2020 as Spotify Wrapped unveils the songs that have been getting us all through.

“Research has shown that nostalgia boosts key psychological resources that help us deal with challenging situations,” says Gary Christopher, senior lecturer and Ageing Well lead at the University of the West of England, in Bristol. “Because nostalgic memories generally involve others in our lives, their recall helps the individual feel more connected to other people. Nostalgic memories also make people more optimistic and give them a greater sense that their life is meaningful.”

According to research by Dr Timothy Yu-Cheong Yeung, who analysed data from almost 17tn plays of songs on Spotify in six European countries, including the UK, lockdown had a profound effect on the trend of nostalgic listening. This is further reinforced by looking at data from Spotify’s decade-specific playlists such as All Out 50s, which received millions more streams from more users this year than it did in 2019. The All Out 60s and All Out 70s playlists follow similar patterns in terms of the rising numbers of streams.

“There are many triggers for nostalgic memories: a particular smell, a taste, a photograph.” says Christopher. “However, music is undoubtedly one of the most potent: where music is part of a nostalgic memory, the positive emotions associated with it are to the fore. All other components of that memory are accessed in a spreading web of activity.”

This has certainly been true for voluntary sector worker Cat Telford, whose listening trends have a direct link to her family. “I listened to 70s glam rock as a kid a lot, thanks to my mum. I’ve listened to it more during lockdown and I think it’s because it reminds me of her, while I can’t see her because she lives in another country. In particular, it’s been a heady mix of Sweet, Slade, T-Rex, David Bowie and Suzi Quatro.”

With lockdown restrictions and social distancing restricting physical contact with loved ones, artist and theatre worker Harriet Mould agrees that reminiscing with music can offer some comfort. “My music taste is pretty broad, but for the past few months I’ve been leaning heavily on songs from the 60s and 70s,” she says. “I’ve made private playlists on Spotify with self-explanatory titles: ‘60s Walking Songs’, ‘70s Cooking Disco’, ‘Sad Soul’, all in a semi-subconscious effort to revisit a simpler, more ignorant time. My mum is a mixed-heritage child of the 60s who played the music of her youth during mine – probably for similar reasons, now that I think about it – so putting on songs by The Temptations, Leonard Cohen, Hues Corporation or T-Rex, or anything from Trojan Records, transports me back to car sing-a-longs and dancing around the living room with my parents and sister when problems were as small as I was.”

While the stats and data from Spotify strengthen the argument that people have been turning to nostalgia to help deal with the stresses of life, Christopher has been working on research with his team at UWE to explore how nostalgia-based therapy can be useful in improving quality of life. “In a small study, where people with dementia and their spouses were asked to engage in nostalgic reverie in their own homes, we found that it did, indeed, boost psychological resources,” he says.

“When we feel threatened, be it due to illness or global events, falling back on familiar things and, in particular, memories that make us feel nostalgic, can only be a good thing. There is also the fact that nostalgic memories involve other people – people we care about, and so, at a time like this, when social contact is restricted, by bringing to mind such memories, we can mentally re-live happier times with people we love.”

Relive the music and sound that got you through 2020 with Spotify Wrapped