On 90's Nostalgia

By Polina Pittel

Image via @milk

Image via @milk


Growing up is never an easy thing to do.

It is a strenuous part of the human experience where we are constantly challenged to do the thing that scares us most. Whether it’s realizing how to be productive or breaking up with toxic friends, the expectation of these tests of maturity is that we’ll learn from the experiences (and mistakes), grow a bit more with each trial, and, consequently, become that much closer to being a whole person. Oh, the joy!

However, repeatedly facing a task you find daunting or unsurmountable, especially when you have never done it before, is exhausting. A growing feeling of inadequacy prevents you from realizing the successes that brought you to that opportunity, giving yourself license to interpret your frustrations as a reboot back to square one. (Cue the feeling of limbo often associated with the transition from adolescence to adulthood.)

And here comes the longing for the blissful days of childhood, the days of little responsibility and even less expectations. A place we can escape to that feels as though the burdens of the present day can’t reach us, even just for awhile.

Of course this feeling often comes and goes in waves, though there is also this greater sociological tendency for people to romanticize the years which preceded it. It usually manifests in 20 year cycles, like when 50s culture seemed to make its way into the 1970s and 1980s with the likes of “Happy Days” and Blake Griffith’s retro music, just as that generation reaches an age where they are able to actually do something about their longing for the past.

And for us Millennials, our time has finally come, and those times we long for now more than ever are none other than the 1990s. Ah, yes, the days of the debating the better Home Alone, anticipating Mondays’ Fresh Prince marathon, perfecting the Spice Girls “Wanna Be” choreography and, yes, the time somebody thought purple ketchup was a good idea.

Recently traces of the 90s seem to be at every corner, be it an ad for the new Kellogg’s store, a billboard for I, Tonya, a misshapen pair of Doc Martens, and even Celine Dion’s comeback in fashion. And they don’t seem to be going anywhere anytime soon. Its presence has been especially felt in the dozens of revivals of 90s inspired TV series that saturated popular  streaming services like Hulu and Netflix. Each has been met with more success than the last -- the grown-up spinoff of the original 90s sitcom Fuller House  premiered back in February 2016, gained the interest of 4.6 million Netflix subscribers, inspired the comeback of programs such as Will & Grace, whose critical acclaim recently earned its 29th Golden Globe nomination this year, as well as Roseanne’s highly anticipated return scheduled on March 27, 2018.

Though there is something particularly unique happening with our generation’s relation to the past. Nods at 90s culture in fashion, film, theatre and TV are abundant, beyond the status of a fleeting trend, and are now embedding themselves within our own generation’s legacy. With 90s inspired content outnumbering the creation of new, original materials, it is starting to seem as though the quintessential thing that will define our generation’s current moment will be our obsession with the past.

But if it is so normal for generations to harp on the past, what is causing us to do it to this extent?  Is there a more profound circumstantial phenomenon that is happening right underneath our noses? Or were the 90s just an undeniable remarkable decade that deserves a rerun?  

Although there have been a couple of theories which rationalize phenomena (i.e.: Phenomenology), the verdict is still out on its relationship with nostalgia, which seems to be the driving force behind its influence in today’s cultural landscape. Though what is undeniable is the way in which the expression “90s nostalgia” has quickly become a part of our vernacular, referring to the “general appreciation and affectionate remembrance of various cultural events, touchstones, and movements that comprised American youth culture in the 1990s.”   

Again, growing up is never an easy thing to do, though it's not as simple it used to be either.

Millenials not only feel blindsided by the more typical woes of “adulting,” like filing taxes and paying rent, but also have had the added bonus of navigating the nuances of social media, the rising cost of higher education, a reality TV star as our president, and all of the uncertainty that's come with it.

Consequently, it seems as though we are facing a future we were not groomed for, while simultaneously attempting to tackle the unsurmountable stack of responsibilities that have come with the territory of adulthood. The 90s didn’t warn us about the how the age of Instagram would distance people from the world around them or lead us to grapple with reckoning a skewed version of reality. They didn’t warn us about #FOMO, how that would now be the force that would become an unprecedented force to drive experience. Nobody warned us of the anxieties all of this new technology would induce, and how they would only becomes worse when you unplug for too long. Growing up, I thought, sure, maybe I would one day have Cher’s computer wardrobe at best, though I speak on behalf of all kids of the 1990s in saying we especially weren’t prepared for the extent to which screens would fundamentally challenge the way we process life.

The economic promise of the 90s surely couldn’t have predicted the major recession that plagued the United States in 2007, let alone the threat it would pose to budgets reserved for higher education. In fact, the 1990s were considered an period of thorough prosperity,  known for holding the record for sustaining the longest expansion of the GDP in United States history, as well as a period of strong economic growth, steady job creation, low inflation, rising productivity, economic boom, and a surging stock market.

What is it like to have worked towards understanding and crafting the resonance of your voice, having been brought up to speak up for the good you believe in, only to be silenced? No such thing was ever imagined in the 1990s, but it feels a lot like right now.

We look to the 1990s to not only escape within the memories of childhood they remind us of, but for the image of the future it promised.  

The years following the 1990s certainly could have been better, though they also posed a hard act to follow. The 1990s were called “The Last Great Decade” for a reason -- they symbolize the last time the economy was stable, people were free of an impending fear of terrorism as well as negotiating peace with other nations, which fostered the development of a a ubiquitous sense of comfort and confidence.

For the first time in a long time, we didn’t need to look backward in time to understand how to be successful. We could create without hesitation.The sense of stability 90s kids experienced growing up allowed people to work with a sense of authorship, where risk and innovation were both encouraged, creating the space for the emergence of its strong aesthetic. It is this special breed of comfort, that led to the major contributions we still benefit from, from E-Commenrce to digital recorder video (dvr) to the Toyota Prius, and everything in between.

After experiencing all the good which can ensue from it, maybe it's precisely this unique comfort we are looking for in all of this 90s nostalgia madness. In which case, maybe it’s not about the 1990s as a decade as it is the conditions which allowed it live on fondly in the lives of so many. And for those of us actually born in the 1990s, maybe it's about carrying on the legacy of the decade we took for granted.  

Originally published 03/09/18

Kaylee WarrenComment