March 25, 2011

Where is the '90s nostalgia?

One of the earliest mainstream successes that took a look back at the 1980s was The Wedding Singer, a movie released in 1998 that was set merely 13 years earlier in 1985. Then 2001 saw Not Another Teen Movie (satirizing movies from throughout the '80s), Wet Hot American Summer (set in '81), and Donnie Darko (set in '88). More recently there was Adventureland in 2009 (set in '87) and Hot Tub Time Machine in 2010 (set in '86). Even in the first run of Family Guy during the early 2000s, about half of the pop culture references were to the later '70s and '80s.

None of these are very good movies or TV shows, but that is not the point. The key is that there's been a steady record of '80s nostalgia that began not even 15 years after the target year, encompassing music, clothing, slang, current events, cars, leisure activities, and everyday behavior -- the entire zeitgeist.

Even the Coen brothers, who made better movies than the ones above, chose to set their most successful movies during rising-crime times, although it is not out of nostalgia and therefore the emphasis on music, etc., is usually lacking. Fargo was released in 1996 and set in '87. No Country for Old Men came out in 2007 but was set in 1980. And The Big Lebowski from 1997 was set on the other side of the 1992 peak in the violence level, during the 1991 Gulf War (and of course many of the characters are pulled straight from the late '60s through the mid-'70s).

So, it's now been 12 to 18 years since the portion of the 1990s that came after the decline in the crime rate radically changed the culture, about the same delay after the '80s ended and the nostalgia for them kicked in. And yet there is zero interest in setting a movie during 1993 (or even '92) to '99 to cash in on nostalgia. It's not that there was not a zeitgeist for people to remember -- just that it was boring and annoying, hence of no nostalgic value for those who lived through it, and of little recruiting power for those who are too young to remember it very well first-hand.

I know there are pockets of '90s nostalgia, for example a '90s music channel on Verizon's FiOS cable selection. Still, even that looked to be majority early '90s. Virtually all of VH1 Classic's programming focuses on the '60s, '70s, and '80s, with a token recognition of the early '90s. And people still watch blockbuster movies from the '90s, whether or not they liked the music from the same time. Also, most people still wear very bland-colored clothing, chop most of their head-hair off and keep what's left plastered close to the scalp, again regardless of what they think about the music and movies of the '90s.

But just try to imagine a movie or TV show or whatever that tried to revive interest in the full zeitgeist during that time -- wearing oatmeal-and-mud plaid skirts (with brown Frankenstein shoes), going out to see Titanic or staying in to catch Seinfeld, driving a fat shapeless sedan, piling into a chatroom on AOL instead of getting a life, saying "word" and "all that and a bag of chips"... not even to mention the soundtrack of mopey-dopey alternative (if set in '93 through '95) or fun-starved pop (if set in '96 through '99), plus trying-too-hard gangsta rap throughout. That project would be dead in the water.

Looking forward, I doubt the 2000s will elicit much nostalgia either, aside from the housing bubble years of 2003 through 2006, and then not so much the music, movies, or anything tangible at all, but just the general euphoria that everyone felt.

And looking backward, there has been a steady stream of '60s and '70s nostalgia for awhile now. Baby Boomer audiences did not drive that trend, since people who weren't even alive then have still been fascinated. Just look at how many people born after 1975 were tuning in to The Wonder Years.

There is occasional '50s nostalgia, although typically it's the late '50s when the crime rate began rising (like Stand By Me, set in 1959). The world of 1955 in Back to the Future is exciting enough because it was right on the cusp of blowing itself open, and that's palpable in the joyriding, booze drinking, hanging out unsupervised, and boy chasing. Happy Days was mostly the later part of the '50s and the early part of the '60s. M*A*S*H is technically set during the Korean War, but for all anyone knew and could tell, it was about Vietnam.

The portion of the falling-crime era of 1934 through 1958 that wasn't right on the edge of exploding, like the mid-to-late '30s and the 1940s, have never gotten much nostalgia either. As I pointed out in another post, that was an earlier period of helicopter parenting and young people just taking their parents' orders. That's emphasized in the three main movies set in that period that come to mind -- A Christmas Story, Brighton Beach Memoirs, and Radio Days. Pretty unexciting stuff compared to the '60s, '70s, and '80s, not to mention the earlier wave of soaring crime from roughly 1900 to 1933, in particular the later half of that wave known as the Jazz Age -- Bonnie and Clyde, The Godfather Part II, Inherit the Wind, The Untouchables, and so on.

People may feel nostalgia about the childhood and adolescent parts of their lives no matter when they happened, but that has more to do with the changes in human development, not necessarily the broader culture. When it comes to nostalgia for the whole zeitgeist, it looks like only those from rising-crime periods bring out a yearning to return even decades later on.


  1. 90's comeback?

  2. portlandia is arguably 90s nostalgia--the opening bit for the series is a song that goes something like, 'the dream of the nineties is alive in portland'

  3. 90s songs that will probably trigger nostalgia:

    - Verve "Bittersweet Symphony"
    - 4Non Blondes "What's Up"
    - Faith No More "Epic"
    - Ricky Martin "La Vida Loca"
    - Candlebox "Far Behind"
    - Alanic Morisette "You ought to Know"
    - Oasis "Champagne Supernova"
    - Concrete Blonde "Joey"
    - Live "Lightning Crashes"
    - Soul Asylum "Runaway Train"
    - Collective Soul "The world I know"
    - Hole "Doll Parts"
    - Mazzy Star "Fade into you"
    - Radiohead "Creep"

    ... a few of those songs are of timeles quality, others capture the zeitgeist.

    Grunge? a few songs transcend the genre, but most lack long-term appeal, I think. In my opinion many are too monotone and dull-sounding.

    As a joke, "Macarena" and Alanis Morisette "Ironc" will get airplay, akin to 80s over the top "Don't you want me." Also, check out Green Jello's "Three Little Piggies" which was heavilly played on Baltimore's 98 Rock in 1992.

    I could include awesome rock songs like Guns and Roses "November Rain" or many one-hit wonders like Hardline with "Hot Cherie" or Steelheart's "I'll Never Let you Go."

    However, in spirit they really are tail-end of 80s heavy metal hariband music, and they have nothing to do with the 90s. Same for bands like Bon Jovi, Cinderella and Kix.

    Same with Sinnead Oconnor, REM and U2: they are more 80s alt/college rock than 90s music.

  4. The Teen Nick thing doesn't seem like a broader interest in the '90s, just some of the TV shows that were on, like the '90s music channel on FiOS.

    I haven't seen Portlandia, but the description does sound like '90s nostalgia. Although it's on IFC, didn't draw a huge mainstream audience (like The Wedding Singer, etc.), and there are only 227 votes at the IMDb entry.

    Are they setting the show in Portland because of the brief influence that the Pacific Northwest had in '90s culture, or is there a local '90s revival there right now?

  5. I admit to having sung along to "Mr. Jones" and "Runaway Train" in the local megamarket recently, although I did have to force it a little, not like when INXS comes in.

    If they ever play "Hey Jealousy," I'd get more into it since it's more of a straight-ahead rock song (and the video is a throwback to when guys still wore long hair, went cruising around in a classic car, and toilet-papered houses).

    As for alternative, yeah "What's Up" might do it. I'd put my money on Smashing Pumpkins -- they were a lot more melodic and less emo than the other alternative groups.

    Once you get to '96, not much there. I'd rather slit my wrists than hear "Fly" by Sugar Ray one more time. Still, "...Baby One More Time" is all right, if somewhat plodding. At least it wasn't exaggerated or self-conscious like most music has been over the past 15 years.

    I remember the metalheads in middle school getting pissed when Green Jello had to change their name to Green Jelly, another indication of the greater loyalty of metal culture.

    Heh, I had to check Wikipedia to see if 98 Rock was still around, ever since the chestburster of Latin music ripped through the corpse of HFS.

  6. The Wackness is the only 90s nostalgia movie that comes to mind. Not very good I didn't think, but interestingly germane here though as one of the main characters is an old shrink bitching about the boringness of post-Giuliani falling crime rate 1990s New York and trying to connect with the youth culture. I kind of got a 90s nostalgia vibe out of "The Informant", but I don't think many people would've. Not sure if hip-hop biopics based in the early Nineties count as nostalgia movies, I guess Notorious counts, if they do.

    I see early-90s rave nostalgia in the UK and Europe, and all its neon craziness, but that's arguably a carryover from an phenomenon originating in the 80s. Surprisingly for me a child of the early 90s, a lot of the nostalgic stuff that I associate with the early 90s are continuations of late 80s trends, if not literally from the end of that decade.

    I think it's more true that 90s nostalgia falls as we get into the late 90s, where it seems pretty absent outside of videogames and/or people young at that time.

  7. That's a sign of the times -- video games have had and will have the strongest nostalgia value of '90s culture.

  8. The movie that represents the 90's scene to me is "Hackers. The computer hackers themselves, who were represented as Gen-X party types as well as the House/Techno music in the background. This movie came out in 1995.

    When I think of the 1993-1999 period, I think of this movie.

  9. Found on autoadmit:

  10. I just saw the Portlandia bit, and it is very 90s nostalgia.

    Bringing Out the Dead, like Big Lebowski, is supposed to be a "period picture" though the early 90s was less than a decade before the film. It focuses much more on the high violence/disorder angle than Lebowski, as should be expected from a Paul Schrader/Martin Scorsese film.

  11. For a preview of what might become the main '90s nostalgia, check out this link:

    Because it dates back to 1999, you can get a "feel" for how people viewed the '90s from the time it ended until now. Hundreds of great topics to view (you can do the same for the '70s, '80s, and a lesser degree others). But technology is another thing that was quite different in the '90s (CDs, monochrome cell phones, pagers, CRT monitors, VHS still was big until around 1999). But it usually takes about 15-20 years when you're out of a decade until it REALLY becomes nostalgic. For instance, the '80s feel left altogether in 1991, and now 20 years beyond TRULY feels like a bygone era. But we still see some CDs (though a small section), many "new looking fonts" were actually made in the '90s such as the one here, we're still using Internet Explorer like we first did in the '90s, and rap music is still quite mainstream (though a bit more electro nowadays). Give it another 5-10 years and I'll get more interested in really "going back".


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