In deepest, hippest Brooklyn a few years ago, I noticed a girl wearing tapered, bellybutton-high, comically unflattering denim shorts that nobody -- well, certainly no 20-something -- had worn since the height of grunge. It was a visual shock, a retro fashion statement outlandish even by Williamsburg's infamous standards.
I chalked it up to an isolated, ironic incident. Little did I realize it was a portent of something bigger: the '90s would soon, like Arnold in T2 (1991), be back.
Today, you'll see '90s styles -- baggy jeans, chain wallets, corduroys, flannel button-downs, flowered Elaine Benes dresses, bucket hats, even bleached hair -- on any block of NYC and beyond. '90s theme parties, '90s karaoke nights, '90s radio stations, countless '90s Internet listicles... No Doubt, Blink-182 and the Spice Girls got back together, and Sublime (kind of) got back together with a new, sound-alike singer, reminiscent of how boomers' favorite bands would tour with a dubious ratio of living original members.
My generation's favorite music had become golden oldies, and our adolescences had become ripe for marketing: Jurassic Park converted to 3D, Boy Meets World reimagined as Girl Meets World, and Tupac Shakur performing at Coachella, albeit in hologram form. There's a blockbuster Ninja Turtles movie in production, Will Smith scores millions of YouTube hits whenever he breaks out the Fresh Prince rap, and Urban Outfitters blasts Salt-n-Peppa for shoppers browsing through '90s-influenced apparel.
All of this served as inspiration for my new book '90s Island, about a Kickstarter campaign to create a 1990s-themed commune in paradise that goes disastrously wrong; it's kind of like Lord of the Flies, except with Mighty Mighty Bosstones and Street Fighter II references.
Just like everyone else who came of age back then, this revival goes straight to my brain's pleasure center, but I can't help but wonder: is this healthy? And why is it happening?
We'll get to the former in a second. As for the latter, there are a few reasons...
The world sucks now. Corporations have replaced millions of jobs with unpaid internships, and a corrupt Congress does nothing. America has been at war for more than a decade. Climate change is no longer a doomsayer theory; it's a reality than intensifies hurricanes, melts polar ice caps and wreaks havoc on any previous concept of normality. Is it any wonder that we're pining for the '90s, back when our biggest national crises were "sellouts," "poseurs," and where exactly Monica Lewinsky stuck that cigar?
Generation Y is getting older. Millenials suddenly have terrifying responsibilities: marriages, kids, sky-high urban rents, careers (if we're lucky) that demand 24/7 exertion. Breaking out the Super Nintendo or Sega Genesis console -- or buying tickets to the 98 Degrees/Boyz II Men/New Kids on the Block tour -- is our way of retreating to the familiar, soothing glow of childhood. After the crap we've been through, who can blame us?
Nostalgia is a cycle. In the aughts, our pop-culture glamorized the 1980s, itself a decade when Americans glamorized the 1950s. And, really, the '90s were a time of nostalgia for the '60s and '70s, from Woodstock II to Austin Powers to Oasis aping the Beatles to Tarantino resurrecting Travolta and Grier.
Glamorizing the past, though, means sanitizing it. We remember Norman Rockwell's idyllic scenes and forget Japanese-American internment camps. We remember Freddy Mercury and forget government apathy towards the AIDS crisis that killed him. We remember Dunkaroos and forget plenty of terrible stuff that happened in the '90s. (Will the inevitable Naughty Aughties revival celebrate vertically striped shirts, Crocs and Paris Hilton while forgetting Iraq, torture and subprime mortgages?)
There's another problem with too much nostalgia: You stop living in the now. When I realized that my music collection overwhelmingly dated to the '90s, and I could only name a handful of bands from the past few years, I knew it was time to expand my horizons. Because at some point, you're not actually enjoying an old song; you're just enjoying the memory of enjoying it.
The '90s were an objectively better time, and its culture -- from music to movies to sitcoms, and even the goofy fashion -- are still worth loving. The colors were brighter, the humor was zanier, and nobody cared about zombies because everybody didn't feel half-alive.
But culture must move forward, not backward, or else it loses all purpose. And it's the same for us as individuals if we want to feel fully alive, which is something that can't simply be remembered.
Still, I look forward to Hillary winning in 2016. Hey, it's the closest we can ever get to Bill's third term.
For more, read Marty Beckerman's new book, '90s Island.