Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The '90s Nostalgia Phenomenon

Alright, loyal readers, this is it. This is the final entry for “Smells Like the ‘90s.” This blog has had a solid four-year run, and I’ve enjoyed every moment of it. But all good things must come to an end (excuse the cliché).

So for my last entry, I decided to explore the reason I started this blog in the first place—nostalgia for the ‘90s. You can’t escape it and you can’t ignore it. Hell, you’re reading this blog right now, so you’re obviously somewhat interested in it. But what’s with all this retro revivalism? Why the hell have I been writing about it for the past four years?

What’s There to be Nostalgic About?
Deep-set nostalgia for a particular period of time is a fascinating phenomenon, but it’s definitely nothing new. Decade-centered nostalgia is usually 20 years removed, so it was only a matter of time before everyone started bringing grunge back (or at least the millennial notion of grunge).

Nineties nostalgia has slowly manifested itself in everything from clothing to food. But since this is a music blog, let’s talk about this retro obsession’s impact on your favorite bands.

With 20th anniversaries popping up for some of the biggest albums of the ‘90s, bands have been milking their fans’ nostalgia by releasing ridiculously expensive box sets, most notably the incredibly overpriced 20th anniversary edition of Nirvana’s In Utero. Do you really need all those unreleased tracks on vinyl? Of course not. But people will fork over the cash because hearing those unreleased tracks feels like Nirvana is releasing new material for the first time in 20 years. It’s like the band never stopped recording.

Along with box sets and reissues, ‘90s bands have also started touring together again, creating festivals designed specifically to make you feel young again. The most notable festival is the Summerland Tour (and yes, I’ve seen it twice).

The festival was created by Everclear’s Art Alexakis and Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath in 2012, and is currently in its third year touring. The lineup has featured both one-hit wonders and alternative mainstays, including Marcy Playground, Gin Blossoms, Filter, Eve 6 and Spacehog.

"Wow! It's like I'm back in college,
except with a mind-numbing office job
and a receding hairline!"
As if that wasn’t enough nostalgia, Sugar Ray decided to break off and start their own (decidedly inferior) festival in 2013 called Under the Sun. This one features poppier bands like Smash Mouth and Fastball.

Both Summerland and Under the Sun are prime examples of nostalgia marketing. I can tell you from experience that the vast majority of the crowd includes aging Gen X dads reliving their college years, with some younger ‘90s enthusiasts (like myself) mixed in. While it’s a fun blast from the past, you slowly start to realize that it’s just not the same anymore.

Why Do We Get Nostalgic?
Nostalgia for anything provides a source of comfort. It reminds us of a somewhat simpler time when we didn’t have nearly as many responsibilities. For Gen Xers, that means thinking back to their formative high school and college years, before adulthood crushed their carefree spirits.

Okay, that’s a bit of an overstatement. Obviously adulthood isn’t a death sentence, but it’s still a frightening concept for people (like me, for instance) who are currently in that comfortable period between adolescence and the “real world” (and not the MTV version of the “real world”).

Marketers and the like are aware of this, so they try to make their audience feel as wistful as possible.

Internet culture is a huge part of this. Just browse Tumblr for a few minutes and you’ll find a metric ton of ‘90s nostalgia blogs. You can look through eBay and find your old Pokemon cards and unopened bottles of Crystal Pepsi and a rare Woodstock ’94 shirt that’s about three sizes too big, but you wear it anyway (okay, maybe that last one is just me).

Probably the only '90s GIF that matters.
Buzzfeed is also a huge culprit with its numerous articles and quizzes catered to Gen X. Just browse their “Rewind” section and you’ll never get anything done ever. “Remember that obscure cartoon series you loved in the ‘90s? So do we! Find out which character you kind of resemble through a series of unrelated questions! Here are some GIFs!”

I personally don’t have a problem with Buzzfeed, but the sheer number of nostalgic articles on that site is staggering. They know their audience well.

But of course, nostalgia tends to let us view the past through rose-colored glasses. Not everything about the ‘90s was perfect, but we tend to focus on the better aspects because hey, nothing will ever be that awesome again, right?

It’s totally okay to get nostalgic about the past, especially if it’s comforting to you. But don’t get stuck in the past! The future may look daunting, but we’ve all got to move forward at some point. The ‘90s were pretty rad, but there are some great things happening right now.

So go ahead and take those Buzzfeed quizzes and listen to those ‘90s party jams (but please don’t buy those unopened bottles of Crystal Pepsi). Throw a ‘90s-themed party, but don’t stay there forever.

-- Sam Boyer, reporting from the ‘90s.

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