Back to the future: Why the 90s is seeing such a revival

Do not adjust your Discman — from Friends to the new Captain Marvel movie, the ’90s are back, writes Ed Power

The year’s first big blockbuster movie promises to be a period piece with a difference. Bonnets and bodices don’t get a look-in and fainting damsels are, by every account, in short supply. Instead, the forthcoming Captain Marvel, starring Brie Larson and Samuel L Jackson, is set in the ’90s and wears its Clinton-era trappings with a flourish.

Stills from the film confirm Brie’s Captain Marvel — aka former air-force pilot Carol Danvers — sports a Nine Inch Nails t-shirt and uses a pre-mobile phone “pager”. Her big entry scene involves her crashing earthwards… into a Blockbuster video store (America’s answer to Xtravision). The official film website meanwhile looks like something from Geocities circa 1996. It is a blur of low-res Gifs and comic sans scripts — a time capsule from that dimly-recalled age before social media.

It was decided to set Captain Marvel in the ’90s partly so that the character would have her own space. She could fight crime and crash into video stores without intruding on the rest of the Marvel superhero stable (The Hulk, Iron Man etc).

But the period-specific backdrop also speaks to the booming ’90s nostalgia industry — one that has its tentacles in cinema, television, music and fashion. Do not adjust your Discman — the ’90s are back.

Pop culture reminiscing is nothing new. What is striking, however, is the ferocity of our ’90s crush. Twenty five years after its debut, Friends is the world’s favourite comedy (Roseanne was also briefly resurrected before its star tweeted herself out of a job). Backstreet Boys have just released a number one album. Yet another Kurt Cobain documentary is on the way. In 2016 we were treated to two separate recountings of the OJ Simpson trial.

“It blows my mind,” Friends co-creator Marta Kauffman told New York magazine.

Not only that people are still watching, but that people still connect to it. I have a 17-year-old daughter, and recently someone at her school asked her: ‘Hey, have you seen this new show called Friends?’

What next — a slacker-pop revival? Oh yes, that’s happening too (see artists such as Soccer Mommy and Snail Mail). And Croke Park will be a veritable ’90s-fest this summer, with Spice Girls and Westlife taking to the north Dublin mega-bowl.

“I just wanna go back, back to 1999/Take a ride to my old neighbourhood/ I just wanna go back, sing: ‘hit me, baby, one more time’,” coos Charli XCX on her latest single, ‘1999’. On the cover, she and her collaborator, Troye Sivan, dress like Keanu Reeves in the Matrix while in the video they are done up as Kate Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic. It’s a battering ram of nostalgia — a smorgasbord of reminiscing — and astonishing considering Charlie XCX was six years old when Titanic came out.

She isn’t the only pop star looking back at the decade of grunge, White House scandals, and the triumph of Adidas gazelle runners. “It genuinely feels like the ’90s were a good time to be alive,” said Busted’s Charlie Simpson, explaining the inspiration for the band’s single ‘Nineties’ recently.

[It was] before 9/11, before the Iraq war, before the financial crisis. In the UK, the Spice Girls and Oasis were hanging out with the prime minister and Britpop was huge. Before social media, before YouTube and Netflix, everyone used to watch the same TV shows at the same time and talk about it in school the next day.

Fashion, too, is getting its ’90s on. The Busted video was shot by esteemed catwalk photographer Rankin. “I started my career properly in the ’90s with [the magazine] Dazed and Confused. It feels so recent to me but it’s definitely enough time to feel nostalgic about something. The music, the fashion, the films and the TV of the ’90s were great and deserve a comeback. The world is getting more and more corporate, and as the ’90s video hopefully proves, sometimes it’s nice to remember a less serious time.”

That isn’t just hyperbole. From claw clips to bandanas and very tiny backpacks, ’90s trends are roaring back. “The ’90s were a revolutionary decade for fashion,” writes Cosmopolitan. “And whether you loved or hated denim overalls, Adidas slides, or spaghetti-strap crop tops, many trends are making a comeback and are here to stay.”

But if the ’90s boom is undeniable, what’s less clear is why the decade should suddenly return to prominence. One theory is that there is nothing at all remarkable about this and that its turn has simply come around.

Twenty five years ago, The Beastie Boys were riffing of 70s cop shows in their videos and audiences were flocking to remakes of The Fugitive and The Saint. In other words, every quarter century or so the culture develops a crush on that period slightly beyond the lived experience of people in their 20s. As the ’70s were to the ’90s, so the ’90s are to the present.

Another school of thought is that the ’90s were the last time period that felt like a proper decade. Nearly ten years on, we’re still not quite sure how to refer to the period from 2000 to 2009. The “noughties” sounds a bit ooh-er. “Aughts” is a coinage you only ever hear on US public radio podcasts. And a decade without an agreed name really isn’t a decade at all. Ditto the years were are currently living through, which are rarely referred to as the teens.

Drill deeper and it’s obvious that other factors are at play too, however. The ’90s were unique insofar as they bridged a singular before-and-after time-clap in modern history. On January 1990, mobile phones were more or less unheard of. The internet? A literal pipe dream. By the time December 31, 1999 rolled around, the first dot-com bubble was on its way to popping and indestructible Nokias and Ericssons were ubiquitous. The ’90s was both the time in which we said our farewells to the pre-intent age and when technology soaked into the marrow of everyday existence.

“I call it the lost generation, because from 2000 to 2017, nothing really defines that whole generation in pop culture,” commented no less a figure than philosophies-rapper Vanilla Ice. “Like, how would you look back at 2000 to 2017 and remember anything? How would you see somebody wearing some gear and say, ‘Hey, that’s gotta be from 2014?’ There’s no music there, there’s no pop culture, there’s no fashion that defines the generation.

“I look at the ’90s like it’s the last truly great decade.”

- Captain Marvel is released March 8

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