It feels redundant, and maybe a bit solipsistic, to study the mechanics of nostalgia too closely. It means watching ourselves watch ourselves and asking why we're doing it.
Adam Gopnik's recent piece in The New Yorker offers a tempting hypothesis that nostalgia is predictable and cyclical at a cultural level the same way it is at a personal level. He posits that we, as a grand and national and perhaps even global We, culturally long for each era approximately 40 years after it happens. Thus, we — or We — were ready for Mad Men's examination of the 1960s when it came along in the 2000s.
Gopnik has other examples: "the many forties entertainments set in the aughts," the Beatles songs that recalled the '20s, and the World War II-set pieces of the 1980s, including Raiders Of The Lost Ark and Swing Shift. He suggests that this happens because decisions are made and culture is dictated by fortysomethings, who naturally long for "the Edenic period preceding the fallen state recorded in our actual memories," making for a predictable rule that there is a 40-year nostalgia cycle. It's a lovely and evocative piece of writing, common-sensical to the ear, but ultimately anecdotal and unconvincing, as was quickly explained by Forrest Wickman in Slate. As Wickman notes, others have pegged the cultural "nostalgia cycle" at 30 years, or 20, or "12-15." And as soon as you start to take apart Gopnik's argument and note the popularity of American Graffiti and the fact that the Rolling Stones did not first become a nostalgia act in the 2000s, it falls to bits.
Curiously, Mad Men as conceived of by Matthew Weiner is not a particularly good example of nostalgia as Gopnik understands it to begin with. There is nothing Edenic about Weiner's 1960s; in fact, it's often been suggested that the Mad Men '60s are there to be scoffed at as we wonder at how much smarter and better and more informed we are now that we don't litter and we don't booze at work and women can make their own money. It is hardly a look back at a magical time when everything was better, before our fallen present. In fact, just about the only thing on Mad Men that's consistently treated as having achieved perfection in the 1960s is the brassiere.
Broad cultural nostalgia, in fact, doesn't have, or need, either a single destination or a perfect one. What it has is a single aim: escape. It is not so much based on the feeling you get when longing for Eden as it is based on the feeling you get when longing to travel. It is not your sins but your four walls that feel oppressive. When you leave your regular life, Tahiti or Alaska or St. Maarten may be in fashion or may be cheap, but you don't leave to be there so much as you leave to not be here. In fact, you may go somewhere more difficult, to hike or work or climb something. You need to leave, so you leave.
Nostalgia on a grand scale is the same. On a personal level, of course, we love the songs that played on the radio in our first car or at our first dance; we love our first favorite movie, and the people who were on magazine covers when we still bought magazines for the covers. Whatever you loved when you were 13, that's probably still special to you.
But when the culture swoons in the direction of Mad Men or The Wonder Years or Titanic or swing dancing, we don't even need to believe it was any purer; it's just that we can wiggle our toes in the sand of a different beach than ours. Mad Men's image of the '60s is compelling not only because of its beauty, but because of its completeness: the lamps go with the dresses, which go with the way the people talk. It's immersive; it's an illusion that's so complete that when Megan Draper (Jessica Pare) sings "Zou Bisou Bisou," it is somehow both different from everything the show has ever done and instantly part of its DNA. It transports us effectively. It doesn't really matter where we're going; it matters that we get to go.
That's why it can just as easily be, as Wickman points out, the dirty, violent world of Boardwalk Empire decades earlier, or the grandeur of Downton Abbey. In fact, it can just as easily be the future, or an entire world that has never existed at all. For an individual, nostalgia is a function of memory. But for a culture, nostalgia is a kind of travel. It is about somewhere else, somewhere different but vaguely recognizable, another place to look at the sunset. If we were really looking for a time when things felt easier, after all, we wouldn't love times of war and social upheaval; we'd be making shows about the dot-com boom. But we don't, because it isn't different enough yet. It has to be elsewhere; it cannot be here, because we cannot be here, not always, not every day.
What's eternal about nostalgia is the same thing that's eternal about travel: It will always happen, not because what's out there is so special that it will pull us out through the windows, but because what's in here is, at least some of the time, so difficult that it will push us out through the door.