Screengrab via NBC's TODAY show

Our obsession with the 90s is a sign of the times

We crave a connection.

Feb 29, 2020, 7:50 am*

Internet Culture


Gillian Branstetter

If you tuned into NBC’s TODAY show on Friday morning, you might have experienced some serious déjà vu.

Rap sensations Vanilla Ice and Salt-N-Pepa joined a cadre of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles to promote the “I Love The 90s Tour,” an act that will also include Kid ‘N Play and All-4-One in a beyond desperate bid to capture your youth.

Add other recent remakes like Fuller House, the Babysitter’s Club reunions and the questionable return of Surge soda—and it’s clear that the 90s are back in far more ways than you ever wished they could be.

Part of this is cyclical, of course. Millennials raised during the 90s are now mass market consumers, eager to relive their youth through merchandising and TV deals. The 1990s themselves saw a rise in 1970s nostalgia and the 1970s likewise saw a reprisal of the culture of the 1950s (think Happy Days and Grease).

No generation, however, has had quite the ability of millennials to relive the culture of its childhood thanks to the archival nature of the Internet and the sheer willingness of studios, advertisers, and websites like Buzzfeed to promote it.

No generation has had quite the ability of millennials to relive the culture of its childhood thanks to the archival nature of the Internet.

It’s this saturation of culture that likewise might encourage us to yearn for a time before every individual’s media consumption could be tailored to their unique interests. This isn’t merely about your Pandora stations looking different than your friends—consumers today have an unprecedented ability to filter out the content they don’t want and retain the programming that they do. This has inevitably created fissures between us, divisions of experience which make it more difficult to relate and discuss what we have seen with others who have seen the same thing.

As we crave that connection, it’s only sensible that we would likewise crave the culture that created that connection—hence nostalgia.

In 2016, we’ve seen that hunger dive outside of fictional creations or mass market consumption and into the actual events which make up our cultural history. FX just wrapped up American Crime Story: The People v. OJ Simpson and CBS is planning its own true-crime retelling of the JonBenet Ramsey murder. Last week, HBO unveiled Confirmation, a film-length portrayal of Clarence Thomas’ Supreme Court justice hearings and the ensuing Anita Hill scandal.

But what makes these three cultural tales far more notable than Full House sequels or All That reunions is that each is coated in its own reflection of racial and gender politics, as specific to their time as they could be educational of our own. This is particularly true for ACS, which has been met with incalculably positive critical acclaim and feature success on Twitter, which turns water cooler talk into national sensations. Mashable’s Scott Huver praised it for capturing “the still-all-too-relevant racial divides” seen within the O.J. Simpson trial. Flavorwire’s Alison Herman agrees: “Much has been made of how the O.J. Simpson trial turned out to be the Petri dish from which modern American culture sprung.”

What they also were, however, are the few events of the 1990s to ride a thin line between history and pop culture.

The 90s were a decade full of intrigue and tragedy. From the siege on a well-armed apocalyptic cult in Waco, Texas, to the Oklahoma City bombing and President Bill Clinton’s impeachment. The decade also brought us Seinfeld, Nirvana and…the Internet.

At last year’s meeting of the Television Critics Association, president of FX Networks John Landgraf coined the term “peak TV,” suggesting American television had become so overburdened with original scripted shows the average consumer could never follow even a fraction of it. Predicting a decline in TV programming, Landgraf suggested that “this bubble has created a huge challenge in finding compelling original stories and the level of talent needed to sustain those stories,” making it harder for networks like his own (which aired ACS) “to cut through the clutter and create real buzz.”

As technology allows us to curb our consumption habits towards the things that only interest us, it’s becoming readily apparent that concept of the monoculture is dying.

The social effect of this, however, is it is increasingly unlikely you, your friends, and your followers on Twitter or Facebook are consuming the same media. On any given night, primetime Twitter might be discussing four or five different shows on a national basis. Music critic Robert Christgau deemed the era before our own one of a “monoculture,” meaning a singular societal experience that consumes the same art and news. As technology allows us to curb our consumption habits towards the things that only interest us, it’s becoming readily apparent that concept of the monoculture is dying.

Obviously, this is not entirely true. There are still singular moments when everyone everywhere seems to be consuming the same thing. Old standbys like the Super Bowl and Hollywood awards shows are still huge rating draws and the fervor with which we want to consume and dissect live television is creating a bit of a crisis in the industry. Shows like Game of Thrones and cultural apexes like Beyonce’s Lemonade video still create the “buzz” Landgraf mourns. But as each generation used to such events grows older, it’s not entirely clear future consumers will feel the same need to create or enjoy these experiences.

The resurgence of the 90s is an attempt by both viewers, studios, and marketers to recreate the last era before our pop culture became so fractured by its sheer variety and size. The entire reason we can have nostalgia is because we have a shared experience. But as our experience becomes more personalized and further apart from that of our neighbors, it’s going to become increasingly difficult to sustain that shared experience at the level we can with the 90s right now.

Gillian Branstetter is a social commentator with a focus on the intersection of technology, security, and politics. Her work has appeared in the Washington Post, Business Insider, Salon, the Week, and xoJane. She attended Pennsylvania State University. Follow her on Twitter @GillBranstetter

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*First Published: Apr 30, 2016, 3:20 pm