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Oops! We’re doing it again: Why are the ’90s back?

Published: April 27, 2012
Section: Arts, Etc.


Are you living the ’90s dream? The IFC sketch-comedy series “Portlandia” poses that very question in its first scene, a musical celebration of all the things that decade promised.

“You know how people were talking about getting piercings and tribal tattoos? And people were singing about saving the planet and forming bands?” the show’s star, Fred Armisen, remarks with equal measures of delight and derision. “Well, there’s a place where that idea still exists as a reality, and I’ve been there—Portland!”

In Portland, we’re told “flannel shirt[s] still look fly” and “all the hot girls wear glasses.” It’s not just Portland, though: ’90s culture is increasingly making a resurgence well beyond the Pacific Northwest. If you went to the movies earlier this month, you’d have been forgiven for thinking yourself in a time warp. Of the two new wide releases, “American Reunion” corralled the otherwise obscure stars of that decade’s raunchiest teen comedy, while “Titanic 3D” brought three-dimensions to the two-dimensional denizens of the big blockbuster.

At first glance this carries the air of coincidence, but something more is happening here. The ’90s have slowly but surely started creeping back into our pop culture, demanding to be taken seriously again. Or rather, we’ve been demanding—clamoring even—for the return of its culture. First came fashion. Hipsterism, after all, is really just another wave of grunge—sleeker but based on the same basic principle of weirdness. The jeans are tighter, the glasses more retro than lo-fi, but plaid is just as ubiquitous. Fashion always borrows from the past when stitching together the future. Things have gone beyond clothes, though—it’s television, movies, music, even politics. After all, how else do you explain Newt Gingrich?

Nineties nostalgia has arrived.

Nostalgia is nothing new. In fact, its presence is constant: No matter how good things may seem in the present, some will find solace only in the idealized past. When doctors first described nostalgia in the 17th century, it was a physical ailment initially diagnosed in Swiss mercenaries far away from their mountainous Heimat. In some cases, death resulted.

Now that nostalgia is no longer considered deadly, it’s safe to indulge—and oh, do we indulge. The nostalgia market wields enormous influence. Seemingly half the infomercials on TV gear themselves toward selling commemorative plates bearing Elvis’ likeness. Of the nominees for Best Picture at this year’s Oscars, at least three—“Hugo,” “The Artist” and “Midnight in Paris”—directly appealed to our appetite for periods most of us never personally experienced, with only the Woody Allen film questioning the ethics of nostalgia.

What makes ’90s nostalgia so strange is its timing: It’s premature. Nostalgia for a particular era usually arrives 20 years after that period has ended. Once the eldest members of a generation hit middle age, that fuzzy feeling kicks in—hence at the end of the ’80s interest in ’60s sitcoms revived, with couch sores like “The New Leave It to Beaver” and “The Munsters Today” as the result.

That hasn’t been the case with the ’90s. It’s been little more than 10 years since the decade ended, and the strangeness of this becomes even more striking when you realize that the current crop of nostalgia concerns itself more with the latter half of the decade than the first. Think Destiny’s Child, not Salt-N-Pepa. Rather than being led by the elder statesmen of the so-called millennial generation, the people serving as catalysts are in their early and mid-20s—the kinds of people who normally should be all about the present, not thinking about what was cool in elementary school.

In a time of iPads and “Angry Birds,” it’s difficult to imagine anyone wanting to return to the dark ages of AOL and dial-up, but in fact technology has helped expedite nostalgia. At the forefront is YouTube, increasingly a makeshift archive of material previously confined to dusty VHS tapes.­ In the past you were out of luck unless you recorded a TV program yourself or a station aired reruns. Now entire online channels dedicate themselves to resurrecting the relics of the recent past. Have a hankering for “Woops,” the short-lived 1992 sitcom about the six sole survivors of a nuclear holocaust? Well, YouTube’s got you covered. For less obscure fare, legal streaming services like Netflix transform the analog past into a hi-def present.

This has had the effect of creating online nostalgia communities composed of users who gather to relive programs they enjoyed as children. In particular, 10-minute installments of old Nickelodeon shows are among the most popular offerings on YouTube, garnering hundreds of thousands of hits. Sprawling, largely inane conversations result, their substance capable of being boiled down to a comment like “whyd [sic] we ever lose the 90s,” as though the passage of time can be avoided, more akin to the loss of a favorite keychain than a natural process.

Nickelodeon holds a special place in the hearts of many children who grew up in the ’90s, a time period when it was among the first basic cable networks to target kids. Knowledge of the Nickelodeon canon is widespread, with many still able to recite the programs aired by the network circa 1996: “Doug,” “Are You Afraid of the Dark?” and “Clarissa Explains It All,” among others. To recognize “Hey Arnold!” is to be a member of a special club, one that just happens to count virtually an entire generation in its membership. There’s something comforting about the homogeneity of our childhoods, this basic-cable conformity that unites us.

Hushed, reverent conversations about favorite characters and plots aren’t uncommon. I still vividly remember a particular episode of “The Adventures of Pete & Pete,” a show about two redheaded brothers who share a name and a penchant for tartan button-ups. One day, Little Pete takes a shortcut while cycling to school which takes him past an unfamiliar house, where he discovers a garage band playing a song that’s simultaneously potent, crinkly and weird. He falls for it instantly, but no matter how many times he returns to the garage he never hears the song again. “I just want my song back,” he frets, but these perfect moments are ephemeral and often the most difficult to capture for posterity. For a six-year-old viewer, this is profoundly sad.

Nickelodeon takes a markedly different approach to nostalgia than the creators of “Pete & Pete”: We can go back, the conglomerate tells us. Last year, executives at Viacom finally noted the vast online presence of Nickelodeon nostalgists, with more than 15 million people joining Facebook groups supporting these shows. When a group of college-aged interns pitched a retro programming block to TeenNick, one of Nickelodeon’s spin-off channels, executives endorsed their proposal. In July 2011, a two-hour block of old Nickelodeon shows began airing weekdays between midnight and 2 a.m., that twilight time between homework and sleep for college students. Ratings in the time slot increased by 850 percent. That same year, executives at MTV, another Viacom cable network, returned to the air “Beavis and Butthead”—one of the most quintessentially ’90s shows in existence. Van Toffler, the network’s president, reasoned that the world was missing “the point of view only Beavis and Butthead could bring.”

Nineties nostalgia is now leaping from small screen to big. Hollywood, always hungry for more cash, now increasingly re-releases ’90s blockbusters. Though the arrival of VHS and then DVD limited film revivals to art-houses, the advent of 3D has changed all that. “The Lion King,” “Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace” and the aforementioned “Titanic” have received 3D releases in the last year. For studios, this is merely another chance to make money off of films that achieved profitability long ago. This is especially lucrative in expanding markets overseas; “Titanic” made more in its first 3D weekend in China than it did in its entire original run there. For American moviegoers, it’s another chance to relive a past in which disaster epics still possessed some semblance of plot.

When it comes to actually reuniting with iconic ’90s characters in the present, audiences have been more reluctant. From this month’s “American Reunion” to last year’s “Scream 4” and 2008’s “The X-Files: I Want to Believe,” none have proven to be box office smashes. The “American Pie” teens received a tentative welcome, but the reunion of FBI agents Fox Mulder and Dana Scully was greeted with the kind of collective shrug that would have been unthinkable in 1998. Later this summer, Will Smith and Tommy Lee Jones will reunite in the long-awaited third installment of the “Men in Black” series. Should it bomb, further ’90s reunions seem unlikely.
The reinterpretation of old formulas is proving more lucrative in music. While the ’90s didn’t invent the boyband, the decade certainly perfected the kind of glossy, manufactured group acts that dominated top-40 radio for years, like the Backstreet Boys, ’N Sync and a host of imitators. They virtually all disbanded overnight with the dawning of the new millennium, their bubblegum sweetness too much for a more ironic era. Now nostalgia’s brought them back: Last summer, the Backstreet Boys toured with New Kids on the Block. 98 Degrees—one of those aforementioned imitators—threaten to do the same later this year.

But the boyband phenomenon refuses to be confined to the archives any longer. With sugary songs like “Baby” and “Boyfriend,” Justin Bieber made the world safe for bubblegum again. Others have followed in packs. Bands like One Direction and The Wanted are now climbing the charts with their own personal blends of chaste romance and immaculate hair.

The question remains: What unleashed this wave of premature nostalgia? (Or, as one Nickelodeon exec odiously dubbed it, “newstolgia.”)

Nostalgists crave simpler times, and in this respect ’90s nostalgia is no different. Creaky as they can be, the aforementioned cultural artifacts serve as reminders of a time before 9/11 and the Great Recession. In a world where college grads face increasing economic uncertainty, there’s something safe and concrete about old TV shows and movies. You get comments like these online: “The thing is I would love to get stuck in the 90’s [sic] permanently and forget the 2000 era ever existed …” In a sense, it provides a structure for perpetuating childhood—it’s no accident that old Nickelodeon programs have been the focus of attention.

In an increasingly splintered culture, there’s also something comforting about the hegemonic influence of “Titanic” and boybands. Today we’re confronted by an almost overwhelming array of choices; two people can conceivably consume 40 television shows a week without any overlap. At least back in the ’90s you could distance yourself from the culture, with smartphones still a distant dream. In retrospect, it’s a decade that seems gloriously disconnected.

Of course, all nostalgia carries the risk of delusion. Nineties nostalgia, still in its infancy, has avoided this so far, but surely ugly trends will return. We’re lucky to be almost rid of Newt Gingrich again, but it may be more difficult to ditch the Backstreet Boys the second time around.