September 27, 2023

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Explore the Past, Present, and Future With Music

“Every composer or songwriter wants to do something that sticks around,” says Patrice Rushen, the performer, producer, and co-writer behind “Forget Me Nots,” the 1982 Grammy-nominated hit R&B single. “You do it because it represents a snapshot in time. Hopefully, if you’ve done it well and done it right, people relate to it in such a way that, years later, when they hear it again, at best, it continues to be relevant on some level. At least, it takes you back to that particular moment and that particular time.”

Since its release more than 40 years ago, the song has lived many lives. It appeared in the 1988 film Big and was sampled in Will Smith’s 1997 film anthem “Men in Black.” In 2021, “Forget Me Nots” was part of a TikTok dance challenge, endearing it to an entirely new generation of listeners. Rushen says it’s humbling to know that people continue to enjoy the song no matter how they discover it. “There is something about it,” she says, “that isn’t necessarily defined by the time it was written or the sound of it.”

Music can remain in the zeitgeist long after its released.

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The ties between music and nostalgia are complicated because songs do not exist for a finite period of time, especially as music has become more accessible thanks to streaming services. They can remain in the ether for decades. Some become radio staples by day, wedding jams by night. Others are recontextualized for film and television. Still more are covered and sampled by subsequent generations of artists.

Each of these variables impacts how people recognize and relate to music. Someone who came of age in the early ’70s might associate Stealers Wheel’s hit “Stuck in the Middle With You” to a personal memory, whereas someone who was a teen in the ’90s might hear it and flash back to the film Reservoir Dogs. No matter when audiences latch onto a song or album, we can all learn something from the music of the past.

Today, Rushen teaches Gen Z students at University of Southern California’s Thornton School of Music, where she’s the chair of the popular music program. There, students learn about artists like Jackie Wilson, Ray Charles, and Aretha Franklin and iconic labels like Motown and Stax. Rushen says pop music is a “continuum,” connecting the work of modern artists like Bruno Mars, Adele, and Beyoncé with their predecessors.

“If we were talking about classical music, we wouldn’t even think about justifying studying Mozart or Beethoven as part of the canon,” says Rushen, “so in talking about popular music and what the hybrids of that have become, you have to look back in order to add to and really understand the canon.”

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Patrice Rushen – Forget Me Nots (Official Video)

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At the Los Angeles clubs where I personally DJ, I witnessed an unexpected excitement for “Forget Me Nots” soon after nightlife reopened in 2021. Many people who were likely not alive in 1982 requested the song and packed the dance floor when they heard it, an endearing manifestation of how important it is in the history of dance music, one that’s influenced multiple genres since its release.

As a young DJ, my vinyl collection swelled as I dug into the music of my own relatively recent past. I sought out songs recalled from memories of dance classes, the local roller rink, and various L.A. radio stations of the ’80s and ’90s. I listened carefully and read the liner notes and whatever information I gleaned from books or online in order to appreciate what they had in common with new music and how they fit together. I relied on nostalgia while connecting the past with the present.

The more knowledge I gained, the more empowered I felt. I grew comfortable and confident in the DJ booth, and that, in turn, brought joy into my life. In fact, it still does. I haven’t stopped learning. You don’t need to have any kind of professional aspirations to benefit from expanding your knowledge of music. It can enrich anyone’s life.

How can you tap into the power of nostalgic music?

Think about the music that resonated with you at a particular point in your life, and dig around online for deeper connections, whether it’s listening to related artists suggested by streaming services or searching online for inspirations from the musical artists who touched your life.

For instance, maybe you spent the second half of the ’00s listening to Amy Winehouse’s album Back to Black on repeat? Venture further to the ’60s for the vintage soul that informed her sound and forward to the ’20s with releases imbued with the same vibe from labels like Daptone, Penrose, and Timmion. Or explore the Specials, with whom Winehouse performed live, and the rest of the British two-tone scene of the ’70s and ’80s. That could lead to Jamaican ska and rocksteady classics. Ultimately, music can take you down many different paths.

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Why does nostalgic music broaden our horizons?

Going beyond a song itself can help you better enjoy the artists who impact you. Joanna Demers, a professor of musicology and associate dean of faculty affairs at the Thornton School of Music, points to one benefit of nostalgia on social media. “It’s allowing bystander fans the opportunity,” she notes, “to learn about people who are really important in the recent past.”

An example, Demers notes, is J Dilla, the hip-hop artist and producer who died in 2006 at the age of 32. “A lot of recent work has come out about his music and his life,” she says of the late artist, who is the subject of the recently released book Dilla Time. She says researching his work can help those who grew up in the ’90s and ’00s better understand his significance.

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J Dilla – Last Donut of the Night (Donuts) Official Video

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How can nostalgic music bring joy into your life?

Beyond expanding your music knowledge, tapping into the past you loved can help expand your social circle. Music never has to stop functioning as a means of finding your people. A teenage love for punk doesn’t have to fade with age; there’s probably still an active punk scene in your city. The same can be said for old-school ravers, turntable aficionados, and house heads. Seek them out online or at music stores and community radio stations. Make new friends, and learn about what’s going on now.

people looking for vintage records in store

Nostalgic music can socially bond people.

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With so much music in the world, it’s become far too easy to passively engage with it, allowing your playlist to run in the background as you scroll through your social media feeds. However, pushing pause and unearthing a new appreciation for past musical loves can direct us toward unfamiliar sonic territories and open up a new world.

Liz Ohanesian is a Los Angeles-based DJ and writer who has contributed to LA Weekly, Good, The Village Voice, Playboy, and Los Angeles magazine.

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