I was born in the glorious 90s. And because of that, I am nostalgic for the late 90s and the early to mid 2000s. And while I’ve talked before about how important being a 90s kid is to me, I wanted to talk about the generational divide and why it’s strange being stuck in a nostalgia-loop.
From television, to movies to music: it seems like we’ve been stuck in a perpetual loop that glorifies the 1980s and 1990s. And that makes sense: many of the media creatives that are major producers now were born in the 1980s: it would make sense for them to want to look back to a simpler time that meant a lot to them.
There’s this thing called a nostalgia cycle: it’s a funny sort of thing. It essentially states that the media that is popular reflects an era that’s either 10, 20, 30 or 40 years from the current year. Think of the 1990s being nostalgic for the 50s and 60s. And I’m far from the first essayist to comment on this nostalgia cycle but it’s worth mentioning because it does seem to be never-ending. But there’s one aspect of it that I think we’re missing when we talk about weaponized nostalgia: it’s been surprisingly forgetful of the past while claiming to be doing something new.
I’m writing this right before Black Panther hits theaters here in the U.S. and for many this is the first black-led superhero movie. [update: I did see Black Panther and the movie is out and successful!] To which, many and all comic book fans roll their eyes. Blade is hilariously underrated and fantastic and was a black-led superhero movie in the 1990s. Not to say that I am not excited about Black Panther nor do I hope to quell any of the hype any folks may have for this film: it is a big deal but it isn’t the first anything right now.
Similarly, almost all the music that is popular nowadays seems to sound just like music did when I was growing up. Lots of house beats, tons of 80s synth influence and way too many songs that never end and just repeat lyrics. Not to mention that fact that we have yet to seem to get rid of the girl/boy band.
I think I’m most struck by this because I have a younger cousin who stands in as the avatar straw-man of all the reasons 90s kids are at odds with Gen Z and why Baby Boomers must hate us damn millennials. When I was home for Christmas, I got to sit and watch the yearly ritual of him receiving hundreds of dollars in gifts because he is an only child like I am and thus is spoiled rotten as I was. This year, he received an outfit that I’m almost certain my elementary school classmates wore from the sunglasses to the dark khaki joggers and a very retro looking smartwatch: hell, I think it still had a calculator on it. And in a brief moment of time that was only the two of us: I could hear him reciting the lyrics to Good Morning, a song from Kanye West that I love and is now nearly 10 years old. Everything from the yuppie fashion to the questionable music choice made me think of myself when I was his age now almost 15 years ago.
I’m also very torn by how sanitized the narratives are for this new wave of nostalgia. Sure, the 90s and the 2000s were great but they weren’t perfect. We had racism, school shootings, terrorism, inequality and all the things we still have just with more Spice Girls and legitimate battles over which boy band was better. But if you look at Stranger Things, a love letter to the 1980s, you’d think the 80s was a magical time where nothing bad happened and racism wasn’t a thing and political correctness existed. But we’ve been bad about that for some time. I’m reminded of the Johnny Rocket’s franchise, which begs you to think of the 1950s as a time for sock hops and milkshakes and not Civil Rights battles and police brutality.
It’s especially troubling considering that we’ve taken nostalgia to it’s only logical place which is to make huge profits off it. F.Y.E. just had a huge promotion selling Reptar Bars, a part of my childhood from Rugrats that I always wanted to eat but never could: they also briefly sold Reptar Cereal and while the sale went over great: it did seem out of place. I hadn’t given thought to Rugrats as a show for years: I’m pushing 30 and that was T.V. show I watched as literal child. There seems to be no end to the things that want to push anniversaries and the nearly endless stream of reboots, remakes, sequels, prequels and more that make it seem like all the things I knew as a child never really left.
If you asked me at 16 if I’d still be playing Pokemon, Street Fighter and still listening to Kanye West and The Killers while there would still be Star Wars movies: I would have first had a lot of questions about how time travel works and then probably say that such a thing wouldn’t make sense. One would assume that media would move on, one would assume that as technology progressed: we’d make progress and not just nicer versions of old things we loved. Now, don’t get me wrong, it was lovely getting a stylish Castlevania anime but I’d also love that energy placed into something new and original.
I’ve talked about nostalgia before when it comes to Pokemon: Sun/Moon and Pokemon: Ultra Sun/Ultra Moon and how its marketing and gameplay centered around the nostalgia of late 20-somethings like me who had been playing the games for all these years and understood and respected such callbacks. But is the game so enjoyable if you don’t know these references: my little cousin likely get through the game but he wouldn’t have the gut punch I did seeing Red and Gary show up like traveling boyfriends asking about this new Hawaii-like region. So why put them in there? If the average actual player of a Pokemon game isn’t likely to get that reference: why put it there? And that’s the issue with our current weaponized nostalgia. It isn’t done to teach, improve or just enjoy: it’s there because it’s there.
And the sad thing is: we keep buying into it. I’m not sure if you are aware but at least here in parts of the great old United States, things are a hot hot mess: we’re using media to escape our current realities more and more as we refuse to face the current situation of an orange-tinted warmonger in office and issues like racism, homophobia, violence and the threat of terrorism, war and natural disasters. And this isn’t new: we’ve been escaping reality for as long as we could through story, substance and more but at least when I was younger: all of this was new. When I was 12 and saw InuYasha for the first time, it was radically new and different. When I was 10 and arguing with friends over which Boy Band was the best: it was because music like that hadn’t been explored in such a way. When I was 9 playing Pokemon, no game like that had been crafted and distributed for American children. And that’s what this nostalgia cycle is leaving behind: sure, the 1990s were cool and the 2000s were the best: but what made them great was innovation: we didn’t stay stuck thinking of how cool the 1950s were. We did meditate on those things briefly while still continuing to move forward.