On TikTok, People Are Already Nostalgic for 2020

People are in their feels listening to songs that trigger bittersweet lockdown memories.

06 December 2021, 7:46am

But Y Tho explores a plethora of funny, strange, and peculiar trends to provide long sought-after answers to questions that have been swimming in all our heads.


The pandemic has seen a wave of nostalgia among people reminiscing about happier times. But the past two years have been such a whirlwind that some are already feeling nostalgic for the early days of quarantine—it’s actually been a subculture on TikTok for a while.

The trend seemed to have reared its head as early as October 2020, when many were still adjusting to the new normal and feared that COVID-19 restrictions wouldn’t ease up. But the nostalgia persisted, experiencing a revival in March (a year after initial lockdowns), and still pops up in corners of the internet today as people try to process complex emotions linked to pandemic life. Viral songs, in particular, have become wormholes for people to relive that time of their lives.

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At the beginning of 2020, Andy Koh had just left his job as an art director in New York and was planning to move to Seoul later that spring. But when the pandemic hit, he found himself hunkered down in his apartment, going through one of the darkest periods of his life.

“The reality that my plans to move to Korea were upended hit pretty quickly and it sent me into a bit of a depressive spiral,” he said. “I lived in a tiny studio apartment and I spent most of the lockdown at home binging anime with my cat and endlessly scrolling on TikTok.”

In November of 2021, he finally got the chance to move to South Korea for real. But having to spend 10 days quarantined in a government facility immediately took him back to that period when he was social distancing in his New York apartment about a year before. 

“The emotions it triggered were complex,” he said, sharing that he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder in 2019 and spent much of 2020 dealing with his mental health.

Koh took to TikTok to share his mixed feelings, by way of a viral hit from 2020. He posted a video of himself vibing with “Supalonely” by BENEE, featuring Gus Dapperton—the definitive anthem for the early days of the pandemic—and said that he was “still processing” March 2020.

“There wasn’t really any clear intention behind posting that first video,” Koh said. “Honestly, I was just kind of in my feelings and I scrolled through my old favorites and picked the first song that felt immediately recognizable as a ‘2020 TikTok sound.’”

But it immediately resonated with people. Koh’s video has since garnered close to 7 million views and 1.6 million likes on the app. In the comments section of Koh’s videos, people were sharing their personal experiences during the pandemic. 

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“I don’t think I’ve ever seen a comment section with such a wide range of human emotions,” he said. “People were sharing vulnerable moments, funny moments and in all of the chaos… it really felt like a safe space for people to share their stories, both traumatic and positive.”

There were also plenty of suggestions for songs that could similarly trigger people’s lockdown memories. Koh eventually turned his viral video into a series titled “2020core,” which now has 15 videos and counting.

From pop bops like Megan Thee Stallion’s “Savage,” to impromptu sounds that went viral, like the spontaneous but catchy “Bored in the House” rap by Curtis Roach, Koh’s TikTok series encapsulates a collective memory of unprecedented times.

Nearly two years into the pandemic, the novelty of being unwilling homebodies has worn off. Yet there remains painful uncertainty over whether the pandemic’s finally letting up. In response, some turn to romanticizing #bettertimes in the “first lockdown.”

It’s important to recognize that, in these wholesome trips down memory lane, our memories may often be distorted by a positive bias—studies have found that we’re more likely to retain and relive positive memories while forgetting negative ones. In other words, things tend to appear better than they were, especially when we’re feeling nostalgic.

But Koh doesn’t think his experience with pandemic nostalgia is as simple as waxing poetic about homemade sourdough bread, whipping up dalgona coffee, and playing Animal Crossing—it’s hard for him to pinpoint one feeling tied to all these songs. For him, reminiscing about 2020 feels more like a way to make sense of his period of depression.

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“It’s like, collectively, we all went through an insane period of human history together,” he said. “And people are still kind of processing their own trauma, while still being able to celebrate the good things that happened.”

“It’s like collectively, we all went through an insane period of human history together.”

The relationship between music and emotions is well studied. Music has mood-regulating functions—it can boost your mood or bring it down—and could even alter perceptions of pain. Studies also show that listening to certain music can bring to mind sights and sounds from one’s past.

Koh said that he doesn’t typically have very strong memories associated with sounds and music. When it comes to the songs from his 2020 Spotify playlist or TikTok music, however, he has a visceral reaction that transports him back to that moment, he said, citing “Dissolve” by Absofacto as one of the songs that give him such a knee-jerk reaction.

Pim Korsten, a researcher at the Netherlands-based think tank FreedomLab, who has written about how the coronavirus pandemic has affected moods, offered an explanation.

The collective moods of early 2020 were unique, Korsten told VICE. While much of the world was mired in grief and uncertainty, some had more positive experiences with quarantine as they stripped down social activities and spent more time with their hobbies or loved ones at home. 

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“As such, listening to popular ‘peak lockdown’ songs can bring back the unique mix of moods during this period,” Korsten said.

In September, The Atlantic reported that the pandemic might have engendered something called anticipatory nostalgia, described as “the feeling of missing the present before it has even passed.” Since people know that they’re in the middle of a big historical and cultural moment, they are actively documenting the milieu through the lens of how it would be remembered.

But is it healthy to be reminiscing about a time considered by many to be one of the darkest in human history?

“Nostalgia in itself is not bad nor good, but about what you do with it,” Korsten said. When activated in a non-constructive way, nostalgia could encourage people to yearn for a condition that never was, or warp people’s impression of the past to romanticize it blindly while ignoring its negative aspects.

On the more constructive side, nostalgia can remind people of a certain moment, while keeping them open to absorbing new experiences. This seems to be the case for Koh, the TikToker, who sees hope amid his memories of 2020.

“Hearing these songs again resurfaced a lot of those dark feelings that I had still yet to fully process,” he said. “On the other hand, these songs were a reminder that, despite the difficult year that we all experienced, I had made it out on the other side.”

Follow Koh Ewe on Instagram.

Tagged:

Music, Nostalgia, Coronavirus, quarantine, TikTok, butytho

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