Rock Nostalgia Between Generations and Business

Rock n’ roll was the dominant form of popular music during the latter half of the 20th century, and it manifested itself in various forms and styles. From the early 50’s rock n’ roll of Chuck Berry to the grunge movement, which was popular in the 90’s, rock reigned supreme. However, with the turn of the millennium, it seems as if rock has been replaced by hip hop as the de facto most popular genre of music in America. Rock is still important to many people, to those who grew up listening to such music, or younger individuals who were born too late to indulge in this vast genre. Rock n’ roll then appears in nostalgic forms to all the previously mentioned people, with technology playing a major role in how it is presented and accessed. This technology is also very important when it comes to the marketing aspect, as businesses take advantage of the aforementioned technology to lure in older audiences and seduce the younger generation in an attempt to sell their product. As such, the wide availability of older music nowadays plays a big role in the commercialization of rock music. Businesses capitalize on the nature of rock n’ roll, by bringing the adult population back to days that were exemplified by the youthfulness and rebellious nature of rock in the past, or by catering to the feeling that some of the newer generation have of wishing to live and experience the past. However, not all persons adhere to this viewpoint, such some of the youth who seek to validate the present through comparison, seeing older music as inferior. Ultimately, the older generation has the opportunity to indulge in nostalgia and attempt to live out their past with music that was essential to their youth. The younger generation, in contrast, have the chance of transporting themselves to the past symbolically, as it represents values and ideals prevalent in the older generation’s past that might not be so important to music today, or distinctively attempt to validate their current music. In this sense, the younger generation may even see the past as an opportunity to compares eras and try to establish themselves as the pinnacle of music while keeping admiration of the past.

Music has always been very closely associated with technology and always accompanies the various changes brought forth by the progress of musical innovation. This is the case made by Cartwright et al., in their article “Nostalgia and technology innovation driving retro music consumption”. In their piece, the authors argue that technology is heavily involved in the production, consumption, and distribution of music. Such widespread involvement opens opportunities to listeners regarding options, be it the type of music they wish to listen to, or how to listen to it. An example of this would be how, recently, streaming services such as Spotify have drastically increased the widespread distribution and consumption of music. It has made the effort of finding new music as simple as opening an app on your smartphone and choosing a different song to listen to. This subsequently incentivizes the production of music and creates a higher demand for it, in order to attend to the newly formed digital masses. People are then allowed to “go back in time”, which is made possible by the vast musical libraries of streaming services, and easily find the music of their youth or their past. The younger persons have an opportunity to get to know music from before their time, while older people can enjoy the music of their childhood or their adolescence, thus allowing nostalgia to foster in many. Ultimately, a survey is conducted by the aforementioned article from the European Journal of Innovation Management. Using primarily urban French respondents, who mostly had a preference for rock n’ roll, the survey concluded that there seems to be a correlation between technology and nostalgia. Many confirm to preferring music of old, despite using MP3’s, computers and smartphones to listen to music, as opposed to old items such as CDs and vinyl. The article concludes that “Based on these results it appears that loyalty to retro artists is stimulated by the availability of digital services” (Cartwright et al. 473). It is then worthwhile to see how rock n’ roll nostalgia is influenced by or influences other forms of media.

Production Still from the 51 Minds Production, "Rock of Love"

This production still from Rock of Love shows the relationship between women and 80's metal artists that may be familiar to the viewer.

By analyzing other forms of media, we can see how companies attempt to sell their product through the use of nostalgia to appease old fans or attempt to lure in the younger audiences. Take for example television channels such as VH1 and, to a lesser extent nowadays, MTV, whose content is almost solely music. In the case of VH1, their programming can vary anywhere from shows that tease the past, such as 100 Least Metal Moments, to serious documentaries about rock n’ roll in its prime, like Rock Docs. However, one show that Hollis Griffin, writing for the Journal of Popular Film and Television, focuses on is Rock of Love. This particular program is a reality show which starred Poison front man Bret Michaels. The spectacle involved twenty-five women who attempted to win Michaels’ hand, thus being reminiscent of current popular dating shows such as The Bachelor. Rock of Love, through its representation of women in the program as sexual objects in challenges and all vying for this one man, goes back to the image of the hyper-sexual metal artist of the 80’s. This, along with constant references in the show to 80’s band culture - exemplified through backstage passes given to the contestants by Michaels to continue in the show and challenges involving music videos - will remind the older viewer of the 80’s culture that is probably very familiar to them, exploiting their nostalgia of the time. However, for the younger viewer, it may not be so obvious to them. This is where the reality dating show aspect comes in, which many younger people find appealing and can relate to more easily. Of course, their nostalgia of music that came before their birth can then be exploited by playing 80’s rock music videos in other VH1 programs, after or before Rock of Love, showing the younger generation a supposedly true representation of 80’s rock and metal culture, and not a present day “revival” of it like in Rock of Love. In this manner, VH1 takes advantage of nostalgia to bring in viewers, by exposing their older audience to shows which directly relate to their past, while inciting curiosity for the past and also maintaining relatability for the younger portion.

Older generations seem to have an attraction to the past in order to relive their younger years. Although simply wanting to relive the past is a correct assessment of why many of the generations feel nostalgia for rock n’ roll, it is far more complex than that. This can be seen in the article published by Kent Drummond for Consumption Markets and Culture, titled “Rock and roll”. Drummond starts his article with an anecdote about his experience with the band Led Zeppelin, an iconic rock n’ roll band, and how it has impacted his life. He comes up with the idea that there are four different “sites of iconicity” in rock n’ roll, which he describes as “‘places’ in which rock n’ roll exerts its influence on consumers” (Drummond 360). He identifies these as the Private: the urge to maintain a personal relationship with an artist; Public: the pressure to consume a certain artist’s music in order to maintain relationships with others; Communal: a need to connect with others at an experience such as a live concert; and Kinetic: connecting with the music through musical and sensory experience, such as dancing. The author’s Led Zeppelin anecdote demonstrates his experience with each of these “sites”, and implies that together, they ultimately lead to a fifth “site”, the Nostalgic. The Nostalgic is, according to Drummond, the way in which an impactful song, album, artist or concert will make you feel in order to have such an experience that leads you into re-consumption and the inevitable feeling of nostalgia. The “sites of iconicity” put forth by Drummond are evident in Andy Greene’s article for Rolling Stone, “The New Nostalgia: Nineties Rock Is Big Business in '09”, and Eric Boehlert’s piece for Billboard, “Rock nostalgia wars heating up”. Greene explains how 90’s rock bands are having booming business because Generation X, who grew up listening to such music, have now come of age. It can thus be implied that Generation X is feeling nostalgic for the bands of their youth, with special consideration to the third “site”, Communal. Tours by these bands are generating huge profits, supporting Kent Drummond’s claim that rock music gives its fans a need to experience a possibly transcendental live concert. Boehlert instead writes about how 70’s rock radio stations are dominating traditional classic rock stations, saying in his article “in markets where 70’s rock oldies and classic rock stations square off, there’s only room for one winner” (108). Considering that this article was written in 1995, this presents a similar situation to 90’s bands for Generation X, since baby boomers initially came into contact with the later stages of their adulthood around this time and became nostalgic for the music of their youth, leading to 70’s rock dominating the radio station market in the 90’s. The radio phenomenon ties into Drummond’s “sites” of Personal, where the bands being played are specific ones that the potential listener has cultivated a relationship with in his or her past, and Public, where the radio forms a broad community, within the respective city that the station attends to, of fans of the genre. It again becomes evident here how radio stations and tour promoters, just like VH1, make use of nostalgia to generate profit.

<em>American Graffiti </em>theatrical release poster

The poster for American Graffiti exemplifies the idealistic environments of the past that movies create, with the help of rock music, in order to exploit nostalgia.

Finally, for the younger generation, their curiosity is peaked by wishing to experience something that they never had. David R. Shumway provides an example of this in his article for Cinema Journal, “Rock 'n' Roll Sound Tracks and the Production of Nostalgia”. Shumway explains the concept of commodified nostalgia, which he describes as “the revival by the culture industry of certain fashions and styles of a particular past era” (39). The 20th century is where the commodification of nostalgia greatly expands, as popular culture begins to be recorded on a much closer and personal scale than ever before, leading to what the author calls “the affect of nostalgia among those who do not have actual memory of the period being revived” (Shumway 40). The analysis he provides of the films American Graffiti, and to a lesser extent Dirty Dancing, are both products of this new commodified nostalgia. With their soundtracks laden with rock n’ roll music meant to evoke nostalgia, they create an idealized image of the past, potentially causing younger people to feel nostalgia for that which they have never experienced. The youth’s interest in the past can also be linked to the concept of retro, explored by Simon Reynolds in Retromania. Retro is described by Reynolds’ as being “always about the relatively immediate past, about stuff that happened in living memory” (xxx). However, despite its appeal, retro holds a somewhat negative connotation to its name. In this sense, it is then possible that, somewhat contradictorily, the generations of today enjoy the music of the past ironically, holding in comparison the music of the past to that of the present. This could happen by judging the difference between the instruments of rock bands, icons of the past decades, to the predominant instruments of today, perhaps microphones and computer apps. Another distinction could be made between the production qualities of today and that of decades past. However, this could also be a bias coming from youths of the present not willing to accept that past music could possibly be better than present music. Ultimately, this is where modern streaming services can make money, as they offer their vast libraries of music to the curious. The movie industry also can take advantage of rock nostalgia through their fabrication of idealized environments based on the past, heavily rooted in rock n’ roll, as previously shown, as well as the possible cynical curiosity of the current generation to explore old music.

Rock n’ roll will always be one of the most important genres of music in the world, since it completely changed various cultures around the world as soon as it came into being. This was in very large part to the nature of rock, which challenged set norms and encouraged its fans to revel in rebellion and youth. Despite this, rock n’ roll has greatly lost its appeal nowadays. Because of this subsequent phenomenon, there has been a tremendous manifestation of rock n’ roll nostalgia. This nostalgia seems to be directly related to technology nowadays, and it can be expected that as technology progresses, nostalgia will grow. Along with this, companies will be able to take advantage of such to make a profit. To the older generation, businesses can do so by exploiting their want to return and relive the past. In relation to the younger generation, this is possible by offering them something new that they were born too late for, or possibly even a retro music genre to appreciate with cynical interest. Considering all that has been mentioned beforehand in this paper, it could also be interesting to conduct a similar analysis of how nostalgia, business and technology are all connected in relation to other genres of music. This would then show any similarities and differences between rock nostalgia and the genre of music studied, and thus providing a new insight into nostalgia for music in general.


Reynolds, Simon. Retromania: Pop Culture's Addiction to Its Own Past. London: Faber & Faber, 2011.

Shumway, David R. “Rock 'n' Roll Sound Tracks and the Production of Nostalgia.” Cinema Journal, 38, No. 2 (Winter 1999), pp. 36-51.

Drummond, Kent. “Rock and roll.” Consumption Markets & Culture, Vol. 20, Iss. 4 (2017), 357-363.

Boehlert, Eric. “Rock nostalgia wars heating up.” Billboard, Vol. 107, Iss. 26 (Jul 1, 1995), pp. 108.

Greene, Andy. “The New Nostalgia: Nineties Rock Is Big Business in '09.” Rolling Stone; New York, Iss. 1075 (Apr 2, 2009), pp. 24. “The New Nostalgia: Nineties Rock Is Big Business in '09”

Cartwright, Philip A.; Besson, Ekaterina; Maubisson, Laurent. “Nostalgia and technology innovation driving retro music consumption.” European Journal of Innovation Management, Vol. 16, Iss. 4 (2013), pp. 459-494.

Griffin, Hollis. “Hair Metal Redux: Gendering Nostalgia and Revising History on VH1.” Journal of Popular Film and Television, Volume 42, Iss. 2 (2014), pp. 71-80.

Rock Nostalgia Between Generations and Business