Did you watch The Grammys the other night? (If you did, you were part of a dwindling group of diehards who still enjoy network award shows.)
One of the less obvious aspects of the show was that most of its high points – especially the live performances – were steeped in nostalgia. In fact, the show was soaked in memories, the only device the producers apparently think moved the needle. Interestingly, had they actually promoted the show as a musical time trip into the past, it likely would have garnered better ratings.
Immediately after the show, a team of Washington Post writers ranked these live performances from best to worst. While the Internet loves countdowns as much as we do in radio, the big takeaway from their story had to do with how so many of these standout live renditions were nostalgic blasts from the past.
It may have been telling that Miley Cyrus chided the audience for not knowing her new Grammy-winning song, “Flowers.” As she hissed to the assembled celebrities, “Why you acting like you don't know this song?” Apparently, many did not.
A look at WaPo's countdown reveals a steady stream of memories, punctuated by live appearances by Tracy Chapman with Luke Combs (more on that at the end of today's post), Billy Joel, Joni Mitchell, Annie Lennox, a tribute to Tina Turner featuring “Proud Mary” (by Fantasia Barrino), an “In Memoriam” tribute to Bill Withers (by Jon Batiste), another nostalgic nod to Tony Bennett by Stevie Wonder, and of course U2, from Sphere in Las Vegas.
Something worked. The Grammys attracted nearly 17 million viewers – an increase of 34% from the previous year. For the moment, this year's show stopped the bleeding, perhaps informing the producers what actually draws a big audience and generates social media buzz.
Our collective societal love for nostalgia apparently knows no limits. A recent opinion piece in Inc. by contributing editor Bill Murphy, Jr. makes the point that our collective memory is “a powerful emotional force: a sweet reminder of youth, and a connection to a shared, broader world.”
And he looks at McDonald's as the perfect example of how to brilliantly lean into the reservoir of our pop culture memories. Whether it's bringing back the old “Hamburglar,” a McDonald's character from 1971, or the vintage “Grimace” (who McDonald's worked into a TikTok trend), America's classic fast food joint doesn't miss a nostalgic trick.
And in that way, they continue their appeal to kids, while superserving adults with “hyper relevant” memories. And the emphasis on the past is cleverly supported by McDonald's social account, like this tweet that ran back during the pandemic:
one day you ordered a Happy Meal for the last time and you didn't even know it
— McDonald's (@McDonalds) November 24, 2020
Murphy reminds us of this simple, but effective marketing path, demonstrated brilliantly by McDonald's:
“Nostalgia leads to emotion. When done right, that emotion can in turn leads to sales. And the key to leveraging it all is emotional intelligence.”
By utilizing the power of memories, McDonald's continues to sell billions of burgers, while enjoying multigenerational success.
But how does it actually work on millions of brains, tapping into those memories we have in common? In the early days of the Classic Rock format, I began to confront those types of questions in an effort to better understand the full impact of the music, the artist, and the times.
I can't tell you I figured it all out – especially the scientific parts (not my area of expertise). But I most certainly watched the effect in the ratings, at concerts, and in focus groups where listeners readily told their personal stories – and still do.
So, now we're learning more about why nostalgia's pull is so powerful Clay Routledge is VP research and director of the Human Flourishing Lab at the Archbridge Institute in D.C. He wrote the book on nostalgia – literally. “Past Forward: How Nostalgia Can Help You Live a More Meaningful Life” is the title.
In a detailed Business Insider piece, Routledge penned “In defense of nostalgia,” with the fascinating subtitle “Why rewatching ‘Harry Potter' and ‘Star Wars' is actually good for you.”
(Maybe we can add “listening to Queen” to the subtitle.)
Routledge points to movies, video games, and Spotify streams (what – no radio?) to make his point that “nostalgia has taken over our culture.” And the healthy aspect of going back in time is that our memories lead to progress, help resolve our bad feelings, while giving us hope.
He says the effect on people – yes, that means radio listeners – is that “humans are mental time travelers” who live here now, but go back in our minds now and again, while we make plans for our future.
Of course, we are living in anxiety-heavy times, so activities like perusing old photo albums, watching a classic movie or TV show, or listening to a favorite album all provide a sense of peace when we get angsty. Interestingly, most people enjoy doing these things repeatedly, whether it's watching “It's A Wonderful Life” or listening to “Dark Side of the Moon.” These things never get old.
Coincidentally, my daughter and a friend attended one of those cool performances over the weekend where a live orchestra plays the soundtrack to a classic movie. She watched and listened to the great Detroit Symphony Orchestra play the music from “Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone” released way back in 2001.
Allie is 35 now so she read those amazing J.K. Rowling books (and saw the subsequent movies) when she was an adolescent. And as she explained to me, the feelings of nostalgia and wonderful memories washed over her while she rewatched the film and listened to DSO make its magic. Those books sparked her reading habit, with her to this day. And it all tracks back to the boy wizard and his round spectacles.
That's what the research says, too. A new study of Americans (N = 2,049 18+ adults, October 2023) by Routledge's team at the Archbridge Institute surfaced these findings:
- 84% say their nostalgic memories are a reminder of what's important to them
- 72% aver they feel a sense of inspiration from past remembrances when they are feeling indecisive
- Nearly 60% contend their yesteryear memories provide guidance when they're feeling at sea
The infographic below is detailed, but perhaps serves as fodder for staffers, advertisers, and others who just don't understand why a station that specializes in “gold” has a very different impact on its audience. When you're looking at a ranker, everyone looks the same:
Nostalgia drives success of some of the biggest and best brands. Take sports teams, for example. Retro and throwback jerseys and other merch fly off the shelves and make those e-commerce bells ring. While we enjoy and appreciate present-day uniforms, our memories of past victories, winning seasons, and storied athletes are vivid and often thought of as lucky charms.
A number of years ago, 97Rock in Buffalo created “throwback jerseys” featuring the station's original logo on the front, and the current version on the back. For Buffalo rockers, the shirts symbolized their time in grade with this brand. Like so many listeners, they can play back the day the station went on the air, the first song it played, and other details that mark moments in time and in their lives.
Similar to how McDonald's understands the memory banks of different generations of fans, there's a powerful force at work here that transcends the mechanics of music testing, music scheduling, call-in contests. When radio stations leverage their native nostalgia, the results are almost always evident. And because our memory banks are organic with lives of their own, it is always possible to rekindle those old flames. Done right, it awakens memories – and generates ratings.
For radio programmers and content creators, it is essential to realize nostalgia isn't a format or a genre – it is very much a state of mind. You can watch a brand like McDonalds move and groove its way through their tool kit, juxtaposing new products, special discounts and games, as well as those powerful memory banks of ours to forge a smart pathway to sustainable success. Of course, their research and usage metrics provide marketing navigation to ensure they're headed down the right path.
If you're running a gold-based station – or it's something you're considering – it's essential to understand all the buttons you can push. It is possible to apply emotional intelligence to your programming if you know the audience, the market, and perhaps have a personality (or two) who can make it all come alive.
It's how radio can find a way forward by wisely and strategically leveraging the past while standing firm in the present.
The moment at the Grammys that will create the #1 song in Country – and perhaps on the radio – is the duet by Tracy Chapman and Luke Combs of “Fast Car.” Kudos to whoever dreamt this up. It will be one the all-time searing memories of this award show. And it may be one the best examples ever of marrying the past to the present.
Full performance of Fast Car by Tracy Chapman with Luke Combs at the Grammys.
Her smile at the beginning is the best. pic.twitter.com/Eo8aw15Snf
— Yashar Ali 🐘 (@yashar) February 5, 2024
Thanks to Dave Beasing who gets this stuff. – FJ