The Return of the 90s and the Twenty-Year Itch

The 20-year cycle: Griffin Technology has a slap bracelet for your iPod.

When the New Yorker‘s Adam Gopnik cited a handful of pop-culture novelties in “The Forty Year Itch” to make the case that American culture operates on a forty-year cultural cycle, I wasn’t the only one left scratching my head.

Despite the isolated success of Mad Men, 1960s culture wasn’t an especially popular motif in the 2000s. Nostalgia for that decade reached its peak in the 1980s in both film and television. Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, The Big Chill, The Outsiders, The Wonder Years, Laverne & Shirley, even Inspector Gadget – The whole decade was filled with the stuff.

Just as 1950s nostalgia was rampant during the 1970, 1970s nostalgia had its great resurgence in the 1990s with the success of Quentin Tarantino movies and Lenny Kravitz albums, the debut of That 70s Show, the popularity of classic rock radio, and even the brief but noteworthy return of bell-bottom jeans.

By the time we reached the 90s, American artists had become so conscious of this 20-year cycle that they played on it in a way the next generation would probably call “meta”.

The 1970s-inspired Pulp Fiction featured a 1950s-style nostalgia diner, and in Richard Linklater’s cult-classic Dazed and Confused, a pair of forward-looking 1970s teenagers discuss this phenomenon with the artless clarity only youth can muster:

“It’s like, the every-other-decade theory, you know? The 50s were boring, the 60s rocked, and the 70s – Oh my god, they obviously suck. Maybe the ’80s will be… radical. I figure we’ll be in our 20s and, hey, it can’t get any worse.”

Maybe. For that, the children of the 1990s will have to wait and see how the pop-culture reboots from their formative years pan out.

Even readers of the New Yorker are likely to remember that director Michael Bay earned DreamWorks and Hasbro a combined $1.3 billion in 2007 alone with his divisive reboot of a then twenty-year-old cartoon series called Transformers. Now in 2012, he’s slated to do the same with Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles – a franchise that hit theaters in 1990.

All of this may seem painfully obvious to coastal American readers under the age of 35. This is what makes it easy to forget that what we accept as a simple fact of cultural dynamics can be barely a blip on the radar for our older or less pop-culture obsessed counterparts. We “millenials” are acutely aware that the youth culture of the early 2000s showed a special affinity for old-school hip-hop, John Hughes movies, 8-bit videogame systems, big reverbs and electroclash fashions borrowed from twenty years before, but many of our parents may never have noticed.

So this is for you oldsters: As the adolescents who grew up on 1990s pop culture reach adulthood (and as the creatives who helped make that culture become the next generation of gatekeepers) we can expect even more of the sights, sounds and ideas of that era to return to the mainstream.

Wait, what? Some of you knew that already? Damn. You’re hipper than I thought. And you’re probably already banking on it already. Literally.

In 2011, Nickelodeon started bringing back some of its big 90s TV shows via late night television. What started as a 2-hour time slot turned out to be insufficient, and they quickly expanded their 90s nostalgia to a 4-hour block that began on the tail-end of prime-time. Now you can watch Hey Dude or Keenan and Kel at your leisure.

(I’m still waiting for them to bring back some of the good shows – like Pete & Pete. Oh well, at least they have Doug.)

If you’re so inclined, it’s easy to see this as crass and commercial. But when I hear young artists as disparate as DIIV, Skrillex and Yuck channeling the past, I don’t think of fat-cat execs cashing in on the growing wave of 90s nostalgia. I think of kids who grew up steeped in that culture who have finally reached an age where they can make musical statements of their own. I also think of cultural curators who have reached a point in their profession where they can put some real weight behind the aesthetics they’ve long believed in.

It’s too early to tell what aspects of the 90s will dominate our cultural consciousness. At the beginning of the decade, the Portlandia crew opened their series with a song called “The Dream of the 90s is Alive in Portland”.

Despite their efforts, the 1990s of flannel shirts, nose-rings, self-cynical yuppies, Pixies fans and aimless liberal arts majors just doesn’t seem exotic or long-lost enough to suffice as compelling nostalgia. Kurt Anderson, host of NPR’s Studio 360 and former editor of the New York Times Magazine even wrote a whole article about that for Vanity Fair not long ago.

So what have you been seeing and hearing on the streets instead? Bands inspired by the post-rock of Tortoise, Stereolab and God Speed You Black Emperor? Steve Urkel glasses and florescent colors à la Saved By the Bell working their way into your barista’s wardrobe? Slap bracelets and Sonic Youth-inspired guitar rock? Dubstep domination? Maybe Hammer-pants, Power Rangers and Pogs?

Good god – please don’t let it be the Pogs.

Justin Colletti is an audio engineer and journalist. He is a staff writer for SonicScoop and managing editor of Trust Me, I’m a Scientist.

This entry was posted in Featured Stories, Industry Trends, May 2012, Rants and Raves. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
  • Sign up for our Email Newsletter


  • E-news and Updates

    Subscribe to Trust Me, I'm a Scientist Find me on Facebook Find me on Twitter Email Trust Me, I'm a Scientist