Date of Award

Spring 2022

Document Type

Open Access Thesis


School of Music

First Advisor

Sarah Williams

Second Advisor

Bruno Alcalde


This thesis will examine trends in twenty-first-century American popular music characterized by a sonority sometimes labeled “retro” or “vintage,” the production of which, I contend, often corresponds to periods of cultural upheaval, and social, political, and economic change. Engaging specifically with music produced during the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020, the economic recession of 2008, and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, my work will strive to update the dialogue between music in this century with the styles of the past that it recalls. By examining music beginning in the year 2001 and analyzing airplay charts and recording techniques, I make the case for a popular music culture that regularly depends on nostalgia in times of crisis to bring about a sense of comfort, in both altruistic and commercially profitable ways. I build on the work of music theory and musicology scholars including Kevin Holm-Hudson, who investigated sonic historiography in music with references to songs of the past (2002), and cultural historians like Svetlana Boym whose writings on nostalgia can help contextualize this particular musical trend. Though nostalgia is subjective and changes over time, it can be expressed and defined in communal ways that have not yet been explored, such as through popular music. Traumatic events can inspire acts of comfort, connection, altruism, and nostalgia for a simpler time; however, this thesis will also question the music industry’s commercial motivations for “comfort” music and its role during times of uncertainty and upheaval.


© 2022, April K. Balay

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