Do o you remember what it felt like to fly in 1996? I’d forgotten, until a teenage rapper named Lil Yachty (who, in his own words, sounds like “a fucking cartoon character”) reminded me.
I discovered Yachty in March, when the Twittersphere was hyping Lil Boat, a new mixtape from the 18-year-old, red-beaded Atlanta MC. Word was, the project sounded like cotton candy, river tubing on the hottest day of summer, and a 24-hour marathon of Disney Channel original movies wrapped into one. Worth at least a cursory listen.
The first person you hear on Lil Boat is not Yachty. It’s Ellen DeGeneres. The opening track samples the “just keep swimming” dialogue from Finding Nemo, a millennial mantra that every person under 30 in America has muttered to themselves during at least one final-exam cram session or exhausting late-night shift. When Yachty does eventually step to the mic, his bars are adequate but not head-turning. Then, halfway through the song, he Digivolves into an otherworldly singer, bleating emotions rather than words. His wailing “hellooooooo” sounds simultaneously forlorn and euphoric. It’s whale-speak spun through Auto-Tune.
I bobbed absentmindedly through more of the tracks. The songs are fun and ephemeral, like perusing your friends’ Snapchat stories on a hungover Saturday morning. “Wanna Be Us” has immediate potential as a giddy summer jam. “Minnesota” demonstrates Yachty’s clear debt to fellow ATLien and featured artist Young Thug.
Then the eighth track, “Run/Running,” comes on, and a #throwbackthursday bomb detonates inside my head.
Sometimes we are prepared for nostalgia. We go into Toy Story 3 ready to weep for our own lost childhoods. We visit our college campuses knowing every square inch will be overrun with vivid coming-of-age memories. We roll our eyes when Hollywood decides to make a mature Mighty Morphin Power Rangers reboot because we, unlike movie studios, know you can’t tug at heartstrings with a tow truck.
But when nostalgia comes after you out of nowhere, while you’re just minding your own business, it’s different. It’s overwhelming. It can induce hysteria. I was in a legit panic when “Run/Running” kicked off with a buoyant pan flute, a sound that I immediately knew was an integral part of my youth but couldn’t immediately place. I was transported back to my childhood home in Montgomery, Alabama, and I started investigating. I flipped through my favorite television channels in my mind: Was it the theme song from a One Saturday Morning cartoon? I rummaged through my mess of a closet: Was this the bumper music from a 2-XL tape? Maybe it was the tune my Bop It played? No, this is way too dope for Bop It.
I couldn’t place it. I was going to go mad listening to a SoundCloud rapper warble over an arcane piece of ’90s flotsam, lost to the sands of time.
I returned to Twitter, the font of all human knowledge. And that’s how I figured it out, as I scanned through reactions from other people who were having the same perplexed, disbelieving, ecstatic response as I was: This is the goddamn menu music from Super Mario 64.
In one of his most famous ad pitches, Don Draper called nostalgia “the pain from an old wound.” That characterization — nostalgia as a fundamentally negative, heart-wrenching, malignant force — is the way the sentiment was viewed for centuries.
“Nostalgia” began its life as a disease. The term was coined by the Swiss physician Johannes Hofer in 1688 as a diagnosis for mental and physical problems suffered by the country’s soldiers. Young men trapped on battlefields far from home, who carried symptoms ranging from melancholy to loss of appetite to irregular heartbeats, were said to be suffering from nostalgia. It was a sign of mental weakness. Over the next 200 years, doctors and military leaders tried a variety of strategies to cure the disease, from leeches to death threats to rituals of public humiliation, according to The Atlantic.
In a 2013 paper, a group of social psychologists wrote that, “Though speculations about the causes of nostalgia varied, they had one common feature; they all ultimately viewed nostalgia as abnormal and problematic.”
In the 20th century, the perception of nostalgia began to shift, but no one had empirically proven its effects until a social psychology professor at England’s University of Southampton got in an argument with a colleague about, among other things, his desire to talk about the Tar Heels. Constantine Sedikides, one of the coauthors of the aforementioned study, had formerly taught at the University of North Carolina and felt nostalgic about his time watching basketball there (during the Dean Smith era). Another professor said this bout of nostalgia clearly indicated he was depressed. Sedikides set out to prove him wrong.
Researchers at Southampton began bringing in groups of people to attempt to measure the effect nostalgia had on their demeanor. One group would be asked to write in detail about a nostalgic event that had occurred in their lives, while a control group wrote about an ordinary event. The group steeped in nostalgia was found to have boosted self-regard, social interconnectedness, and interpersonal competence. Thinking about treasured memories from the past made the test subjects more optimistic about the future.
Studies have shown that nostalgia, which is largely driven by social experiences, increases our desire to connect with others. It makes single people want to date; it makes people in couples happier about their relationships. “It makes you feel loved and connected,” Clay Routledge, a psychology professor at North Dakota State University and another coauthor of the nostalgia study, tells me. “Nostalgia’s kind of a reminder of, ‘Whoa, I’ve had all these great experiences with people. I’ve done really good things. I should keep doing that kind of stuff.’”
While the academic community was proving nostalgia’s benefits, corporations didn’t need a peer-reviewed study to divine that the emotional experience was powerful — and profitable. Over the past decade we’ve watched nostalgia become weaponized, as media giants bludgeon us over the head with comic book movie reboots, video game remasters, television revivals, album sequels, and a seemingly endless string of reunion tours. You no longer need to be a ’90s kid to remember the 23 identity-affirming items on a BuzzFeed listicle, because each of those things has no doubt been reanimated in some fashion to make money.
“The reason why nostalgia is big business … is simply because it helps fulfill basic psychological needs that we have,” says Jacob Juhl, coauthor of the study and an assistant psychology professor and lecturer at the University of Southampton. “Humans have a need for social connectedness. We have a need for self-esteem. We have a basic need to see our life as meaningful and purposeful. Nostalgia is something that helps us fill this need. We’re more likely to gravitate towards products that are going to fulfill important needs for us.”
Technology has made it easier to satisfy our ravenous appetite for microwaved versions of the past. We’re never more than a few clicks from summoning a beloved childhood song on Spotify or a favorite movie on Netflix. And, thanks to social media, we can quickly find other people who also celebrate Mean Girls’ anniversary every year or believe Super Mario 64 is the greatest game of all time. Obsessions that might have made us feel ostracized as kids now feel validated when they’re trending on Twitter.
“The availability of things from our past is a reason why nostalgia is kind of a hot topic right now,” Juhl says. “We’re able to access nostalgic events that were not necessarily social, where before we were unable to access non-social nostalgic things.”
Researchers say increased uncertainty also drives us toward nostalgic content. That uncertainty can manifest itself on an individual level — information overload on the Twitter timeline or the Netflix queue may lead you to retreat to a sure, comforting thing. But it’s also apparent on a macro scale, where global forces have pushed economic, political, and environmental uncertainty top of mind. When the planet feels like it’s in shambles, we curl up in the coherent, artificial worlds of old movies, TV shows, and video games. “Part of it might be a natural kind of coping mechanism that people use in times when they feel less stable or less secure,” Routledge says. “Nostalgia seems to be a way to get some sense of certainty or control.”
Today everyone from Disney to Donald Trump wants to make you wistful for the past in some way or another. It’s exhausting, and it could eventually lessen our ability to feel nostalgic at all, experts say.
“I think it’s possible that people could become desensitized to [nostalgia],” Juhl says, noting research has shown that people become satiated with stimuli through overexposure, whether it’s a favorite meal or a beloved song. “People would be more likely to become numb to a specific thing in pop culture that is related to one specific nostalgic memory.”
I’ve been feeling that numbness to our current nostalgia overload. In fact, I’ve been annoyed by much of it. But then that Yachty song bowled me over. Why did a tune I’d buried in my mind being featured in a song by a rapper I had never heard of manage to get to me? How did this perfect combo hit all the right notes and cut through the current nostalgic noise?
For a kid who has not yet spent two decades on this Earth, Lil Yachty is a deeply nostalgic artist. In addition to sampling Nemo and Mario, he’s rapped over beats that lifted from Rugrats (harmless), ice cream trucks (grating), and Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood (never let Kylie near a mic again). He reps Seinfeld and Incubus on his Instagram.
And he loves video games. Yachty talks about Rock Band with his fans. He’s recently revisited the library of the very underrated Nintendo GameCube. He claims to have an incredible N64 collection. I’m inclined to believe he does.
According to Routledge, the kind of intense affection for the past Yachty shows is fairly common for someone of his age. A yet-to-be-published study by Routledge and other researchers finds that early adulthood is a time of increased nostalgic feelings, as teenagers cope with leaving home for the first time to go to college, or, in Yachty’s case, leaving home to hang out with superstars like Kanye West. “Those times of changes [are when] you might be more prone to nostalgia as a way to compensate or to feel more of a sense of stability and your sense of identity,” Routledge says.
It’s this intense devotion to the past that birthed “Run/Running.” Last summer, a month before he released his hit single “1 Night,” Yachty tweeted out a 30-minute YouTube clip of the menu music for Super Mario 64. The song, produced by legendary Nintendo composer Koji Kondo, is a relatively obscure musical piece in a wildly popular game. Everyone who’s played Mario 64 has heard the tune during the boot-up sequence, but it burrows into a different part of your mind than the actual level music that you’re forced to listen to for longer stretches. It’s ubiquitous and anonymous at the same time (Juhl says songs we once heard a lot but then slipped from our conscious memory can pack a more potent nostalgic punch than ones that remain consistently familiar).
Earl the Pearl, a producer and childhood friend of Yachty’s, saw the tweet, and it immediately took him back to his own memories of playing the game. He thought it could make the basis for a good beat. He added hi-hats, the Super Mario Bros. jump sound effect, and a booming bass that catapults the Nintendo melody into 2016 at about 40 seconds in. Yachty glides over the track in full Auto-Tuned glory, much more at home here than on his other nostalgia plays. “I spent everything I have, just to make it right back,” he croons. This must be how Mario felt when he donned the Wing Cap.
“He wanted to make a beat like this for the longest,” Earl says. “I did the beat in like 15 or 20 minutes. I gave it to him, and he loved it from the first time he heard it. It brings [listeners] back. Like, ‘Aw man, I remember this game when I was a kid.’”
If Yachty was searching for a totem to represent his idealized vision of childhood, he couldn’t have picked a better one than Mario 64. In 1996, when the game debuted, the character was already iconic, having starred in the best-selling video game of the ’80s (and the most unfortunate video game–adaptation of the ‘90s). For both Mario and Nintendo, the Nintendo 64 marked a first foray into 3-D gaming, a new paradigm for the industry that had previously been explored but not yet perfected.
Mario 64 got it astoundingly right. For its time, the game was a technical marvel, boasting cutting-edge graphics (for a console game) and unparalleled control sensitivity thanks to the N64’s analog stick. The way Mario ran, leapt, and karate-kicked across his colorful 3-D landscapes was intuitive in a way that earlier games couldn’t match. And the nonlinear structure of the game — the goal is to get 70 stars, completing tasks across various open levels as the player sees fit — paved the way for the sandbox games that predominate the gaming world today. Whether you were a kid seduced by the Toys R Us demo, a seasoned gamer impressed by the glowing reviews, or a developer wowed by Nintendo’s technical wizardry, the game was a revelation. Perhaps no other game has ever floored so many people at once, or inspired such a thrilling sense of limitless possibility (Minecraft is Mario 64’s heir apparent in that regard).
“Mario 64 had both technology and game design going for it,” says Jeremy Parish, a video game journalist and host of Retronauts, a podcast about retro games. “Nintendo wasn’t afraid to change the workings of Mario, doing things like breaking away from the series’ usual series of short stages in favor of about a dozen huge playgrounds each with multiple goals, to allow players to really learn the ins and outs of these more complex spaces. Nintendo had the intuitive sense to avoid trying to simply turn 2-D Mario into 3-D and instead let the game play out with a more sprawling, laid-back sensibility that felt more appropriate for the third dimension.”
The game was the best-selling release on the Nintendo 64, moving more than 11 million copies. It’s one of those titles everyone who loves video games has touched at one point or another. Dan Houser, cofounder of Grand Theft Auto–creator Rockstar Games, has said every 3-D game developer borrowed something from Mario 64.
And now one of the hottest rappers of 2016, who wasn’t even alive when the game debuted, has borrowed something as well.
Do o you know what it feels like to fly in 2016? Inspired by my visceral reaction to the song, I corralled a friend’s Nintendo 64 recently and played Super Mario 64 for the first time in at least a decade. Of course, I lingered on the menu screen and thought of Yachty. “That song has been activated by the rap artist,” Juhl explains. “Purely on a cognitive level, it suggests that you’ll be more likely to associate the nostalgic event with him and be more likely to form some kind of attachment.”
There’s no hiding the game’s age. Even as I’m writing this, I’m imagining the blocky graphics to be better than they actually are. The camera, limited to a few preset angles, regularly gets stuck in awkward positions. Some of the songs that are not the incredible menu music — and repeat across multiple levels — grate after a while. And that first flying level where Mario gains the Wing Cap, which I remember as a blissful experience from childhood, is actually incredibly frustrating and kind of cheap.
But…it’s Mario 64. There’s a thrill in returning to that initial courtyard, where I and millions of other gamers took our first baby steps in a 3-D world. The eel that lurks in the waters of Dire, Dire Docks is still terrifying. And Mario’s “wahoo!” upon vaulting into the third leg of his triple jump remains one of gaming’s greatest cathartic releases.
Of course I still love Mario 64 — my brain is wired to. One of the most powerful reasons we lap up nostalgia is because we crave self-continuity, the notion that the things that happened to us in the past are relevant to our lives’ ongoing narratives. “I suspect that when you heard the song, it activated pleasant memories,” Juhl tells me. “It was something that you liked, which was something that you also liked in the past. There’s some part of you from the past that is currently persisting and makes up who you are today.”
This is really what nostalgia comes down to — the desire to be made whole, to know that what happened in the past mattered and still matters. Mario 64 is not just about the acrobatic plumber and Nintendo’s clever game design. It’s about my months-long odyssey to scrounge together $200 for a Nintendo 64, my trip with my father to Toys R Us to buy the console and game, playing Mario 64 with the volume off while my parents slept on Saturday mornings, getting yelled at because I wanted to to get one more star rather than go to school, discovering the Wing Cap level with a childhood friend by accidentally staring into the sun, sharing “Run/Running” with my current friends just to witness their own bewildered excitement, and celebrating the game’s 20th anniversary with people around the world on the internet.
“A lot of these pop culture phenomena are actually more connecting than you think they are at first blush,” Routledge says. “It’s affirming to know that this is something that’s meaningful to other people.”
This game and its many social tendrils are a part of me. Now, the song is too.