On 90s Nostalgia
by Polina Pittel
I technically identify as a millennial, but just barely so. I was born in late 1997, right at the cusp of Gen. Z’s official onset. However, I’m only a sophomore, so I don’t yet identify with many of the #adulting woes experienced by my more well-informed (but mostly just older) millennial peers.
Despite this, I have developed a habit of acting incredibly defensive if someone insinuates that I wasn’t raised on 90s culture. I always felt the need to prove myself to others in order to confirm that my investment in 90s culture wasn’t just a desperate attempt to seem cool. In situations where I reveal my relatively young age, particularly following conversations on 90s nostalgia, people would often be surprised by my ability to “talk the talk.” For whatever reason, it seems that none of my memories of the 90s have faded—not the “Moon Shoes” As Seen On TV ads, the Saturday morning Rugrats marathons, the Spice Girls “Wannabe” choreography and, yes, even the time Kraft Heinz Company thought purple ketchup was a good idea.
Admittedly, it took some time to unpack why I took the observation so personally. It really isn’t such a far-fetched idea to presume, especially by a complete stranger—I turned three years old with the onset of the new decade and was barely able to keep it together for “Mommy & Me” ballet at the time. For that matter, the odds of anything getting through to me during that phase of my life seemed slim.
Though what I soon came to realize is that my relation to America in the 90s had more to do with perspective than anything else. To deny its role in my upbringing would be to commit a tremendous disservice to the morals that guided me through my adolescence and still profoundly shape my current day-to-day. My general knowledge of 90s culture has never been just an act of trivia preparation, or even a way of proving a point, but rather has served as a constant point of reference for the principles of authenticity and family values that were instilled in my formative years. So why would I let a stranger convince me otherwise?
Though as of recently, it seems the dream of the 90s isn’t only alive in Portland: it’s hard to turn a corner without seeing an ad for the new Kellogg’s store, a billboard for I, Tonya, or a misshapen pair of Doc Martens, all underscored by the Bruno Mars and Cardi B remix of “Finesse,” of course.
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 persisting influence in today’s cultural landscape. The expression “90s nostalgia” has quickly become a part of millennial vernacular, referring to the general appreciation and affectionate remembrance of various cultural events, touchstones, and movements that comprised the American youth culture in the 1990s.
I’ve certainly appreciated these contemporary nods at 90s culture, though there’s something to be said about the particular influence it has in today’s day and age. There’s a tendency to retrospectively romanticize past decades, especially during moments of social unrest, which results in, for example, certain fashion trends coming back into style. Though, objectively speaking, little reframing was needed to make 1990s America seem as good as it actually was. The economy was stable and improving, reductions were seen in the crime rate and HIV/AIDS deaths, and we even experienced mostly peace on the foreign affairs front. 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. This generally stable quality of life, one could argue, is what incentivized 90s nostalgia.
Beyond its greater sociopolitical implications, 1990s America represented our childhood—a time that was not plagued with nearly as many responsibilities as required of us today. Beyond that, as we hesitantly transition into adulthood, we are faced with a complicated, demanding relationship to technology, which has also grown and evolved over time. For example, a 9-5 job in the 90s seemed to be just that—work stayed at the office without the immediacy of email or texting. While there has always been an unspoken social etiquette on such matters, technology eliminates the barrier preventing your boss from contacting you at any given moment. This sense of urgency, in turn, creates a demand which, although also unspoken, must be met.
By looking to 90s culture, we attempt to escape to a time when we could escape, when the lines between work and home were distinct.
In this way, our fixation with 90s culture has come to characterize the modern age. We go beyond allowing ourselves to be inspired by it, as we embody the thing itself. It seems as though entertainment and media industries have quickly picked up on this potential market, as specifically nostalgia-evoking content has taken priority among the saturation of content being produced and published. We’ve seen this especially in TV, such as the return of Fuller House last May, a grown-up spinoff of the original 90s sitcom Full House, the premiere of which gained the interest of 4.6 million Netflix subscribers. Their success inspired a number of other 90s originals to make a comeback as well, such as Will & Grace, whose critical acclaim recently earned its 29th Golden Globe nomination this year, as well as Roseanne’s highly anticipated comeback, whose first episode since 1997 is set to premiere on March 27, 2018.
My personal nostalgia for the 1990s aside, I’ll always toe the intermediary line between two different generations. It’s certainly challenging, and can often times feel pretty discouraging, though I find comfort in believing everyone is grappling with more of the same. In any case, we can learn from the success of the 1990s, which also once existed in this space of the in-between, that we should 1) maintain a space for ideas to exist and grow 2) be unapologetically original and 3) make work that transcends.
Maybe, one day, nostalgia won’t feel so burdensome.