December 2, 2021

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‘Friends,’ Fleetwood Mac, and the Viral Comfort of Nostalgia

I have a habit that I don’t want to break. Every night, long after my husband is not-so-gently snoring next to me, I turn on the TV and laugh at the antics of Monica, Chandler, Joey, Ross, Phoebe, and Rachel on Friends—must-see TV from two decades ago. Even though I’ve probably seen each episode a hundred times, it seems to be the only move that gets me to sleep and stops the nervous whirring in my mind.

What’s really going on?

“You and many people I talk to are doing the same thing by watching Friends,” says Emily Anhalt, a clinical psychologist and cofounder of Coa, the world’s first gym for mental health. “During chaos, we seek familiarity—it’s why many of us watch our favorite TV shows over and over instead of starting a new show. You know what is going to happen, and you don’t need to worry about whether the show will be good or if it will upset you. I also think that bringing back music from the past is one way people cope with the instability of our world.”

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In a recent study, researchers found that nostalgia can help to combat feelings of loneliness, and another study showed it helped increase psychological health.

That might explain the latest multigenerational interest in Fleetwood Mac’s song “Dreams.” When Nathan Apodaca (known on TikTok as @420doggface208) filmed himself skateboarding down the street to “Dreams,” while drinking from a huge bottle of Ocean Spray Cran-Raspberry juice, the song quickly rose to #1 on iTunes, a spot the band hadn’t held since the song’s original release in 1977. The track has since been heard over 230 million times across streaming services, social media, and US radio. But something else arose out of this phenomenon. According to Warner Music Group, “Dreams” has been hugely popular with young people, showing a 314 percent increase in average daily Spotify streams from 23- to 27-year-olds, and a 245 perecent increase from 18- to 22-year-olds since Apodaca’s video dropped.

Grant McCracken, a cultural anthropologist and author who has consulted for Netflix, Google, and Sony among others, says the allure of social media and TikTok affects all generations today. “People used to make their vital connections to pop culture in their teens and stay current through their thirties, when they started moving away from it, which was accepted as a part of growing up and getting older.” But according to McCracken, the game has changed. “These days people need to stay in touch with the vitality of popular culture to remain relevant in their professional life. At the same time, we are much more attached to the moment than we used to be.”

Do the mystical musings of Stevie Nicks, as brilliantly arranged by Fleetwood Mac guitarist Lindsey Buckingham remind us of a gentler time and the hope of Gen Z for a brighter world?

Anhalt believes that’s true. “I think young people need to imagine something better for themselves than what is being prescribed for them, because they will live in the world a long time.”

“Young people are nostalgic for something they have never encountered,” according to Art Swift, professor of communications and political science at American University and host of the pop culture podcast The Nexus with Art Swift. “It’s a yearning to revisit a time from their history classes or parents’ recollections that was a time of national pride, free of terrorism and economic collapses.”

“If you had asked me five years ago who my freshman year roommates would be, I would never have told you my parents,” says Ava McDonald, 19, founder and CEO of Zfluence, which connects influential members of Generation Z between the ages of 16 and 25 with the brands they love. “We’ve been talking a lot about what their college experience was like and what it was like for them growing up, and they are reassuring me I’ll eventually be on campus and make my own memories. I guess I’m maybe trying to live vicariously through them, because I’m having a virtual freshman year at Georgetown University. ‘Dreams’ is a great song, one that has been shared through the power of TikTok, a major player in the digital space. For my generation it will always remind us of our connection to parents and grandparents during this pivotal time in our lives.”