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.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

'N Sync

Sound Familiar?
“I Want You Back,” “Tearin’ Up My Heart,” “Bye Bye Bye”

Who Are They?
The boy band that provided some healthy competition to the Backstreet Boys (and spawned multi-talented megababe Justin Timberlake).

Chris Kirkpatrick, like many talented young men, missed the cut for the Backstreet Boys in 1995, so he met up with producer Lou Pearlman to form a second boy band. Lou agreed to finance the group, but only if Chris found the rest of the members himself.

Joey Fatone joined the group after getting a call from Chris, but the two ran out of possible bandmates fairly quickly. Lou suggested Mickey Mouse Club heartthrob Justin Timberlake, and Justin suggested his buddy JC Chanez. Once Jason Galasso joined the group, ‘N Sync was complete.

(Fun fact: ‘N Sync got its name from a combination of two things: Justin’s mother commented on how “in sync” everyone sounded, and the name is a play on the last letter of each of the original members’ names—JustiN, ChriS, JoeY, JasoN and JC.)

If you’re wondering who the hell Jason Galasso is, it’s because he left the group before recording even began, citing the ridiculous teen idol lifestyle as a major concern (as in he didn’t want any part of it). Lance Bass took his place.

After constant rehearsing and promotion, ‘N Sync scored a record deal with BMG Ariola Munich and released its self-titled debut in 1997. The boys became a big hit in Germany, and were eventually signed to RCA the following year.

‘N Sync’s first American single was “I Want You Back,” but it was “Tearin’ Up My Heart” that made them pop radio mainstays. Constant touring an appearances on Janet Jackson’s Velvet Rope Tour and Sabrina, the Teenage Witch helped *NSYNC sell more than 10 million copies.

Meanwhile, ‘N Sync entered into a heated legal battle with Lou Pearlman, claiming he and his record company defrauded the group of more than 50 percent of its earnings. Lou and RCA countersued after ‘N Sync threatened to leave the label, but the two parties reached a settlement and the boys eventually signed to Jive.

Where Are They Now?
Officially over (but after their one-off reunion performance, I can retain some hope).

With their legal trouble behind them, ‘N Sync began to work on their second album, No Strings Attached, released in 2000. The first single, “Bye Bye Bye,” became the group’s most popular song (though I guess that’s debatable depending on how much of an ‘N Sync fangirl you were are).

Marionette Justin's cold, dead eyes
(courtesy of my Instagram)
(Fun fact: Like with most teen sensations in the ‘90s, ‘N Sync had a shit ton of merchandise to its name. No Strings Attached in particular spawned an entire line of marionette dolls, which people actually bought. And by people, I mean me. I had a Justin Timberlake marionette doll that is still in my basement. It’s creepy as hell.)

‘N Sync’s third (and final) album, Celebrity, dropped just one year later, but didn’t sell nearly as well as the first two records. By April 2002, the group went on an unofficial hiatus, with Justin embarking on his incredibly successful solo career. It wasn’t until 2007 that Lance admitted ‘N Sync was done for good.

With Justin riding wave after wave of solo success, everyone else decided to go their separate ways.

JC went solo as well, releasing his first album, Schizophrenic, in 2004. After leaving Jive Records, JC decided to work behind the scenes for other artists, writing and producing songs for David Archuleta and, ironically enough, the Backstreet Boys. JC will also play Pontius Pilate in the upcoming North American tour of Jesus Christ Superstar.

Chris appeared on the CMT show Gone Country 2 in 2008 and shocked the hell out of just about everyone by proving he could write some decent country songs. He also makes a nice living by being a voice actor. You may know him as the voice of Chip Skylark on The Fairly Oddparents.

Joey has been busy hosting The Singing Bee and The Price Is Right Live!, along with being the announcer on Family Feud. He’s also played lead roles in Rent, Little Shop of Horrors and The Producers on Broadway.

Lance decided to leave the planet after ‘N Sync went on hiatus (or at least he tried). He was certified by both NASA and the Russian Space Program as an astronaut, but after his financial sponsors backed out, Lance was denied a seat on the mission to the International Space Station. Lance also started his own production company, A Happy Place (later renamed Bacon & Eggs), in 2001. He has since produced a couple of documentaries, and even created a new boy band called Heart2Heart.

‘N Sync reunited for a one-off performance at the 2013 VMAs, but Lance said the group currently doesn’t have any plans for a new album or tour.

But Why ‘N Sync?
Because my inner pre-teen got way too excited for that VMA performance (and ultimately way too disappointed when Lance confirmed that the reunion wasn’t permanent).

What Does Sam Think?
Unpopular (?) opinion: I liked ‘N Sync more than the Backstreet Boys.

There. I said it. I got so much shit for this as a kid (kids in the ‘90s were mean when it came to their favorite boy bands), but I don’t even care.

Now I guess I have to back this up. Okay, so if you take a peak at my Backstreet Boys entry, you’ll notice that I did, in fact, like the Backstreet Boys as a kid. But I do believe that ‘N Sync was my first favorite “band” (even before Creed).

Granted, most of my obsession with this group stemmed from my huge crush on Justin Timberlake (and that’s still true), but after reliving my own childhood by giving No Strings Attached another listen, I realized why I liked these guys so much.

‘N Sync had some strange production, especially on the latter two albums. Lots of weird noises, lots of vocal effects and lots of dance beats. In terms of the number of danceable tracks, I think ‘N Sync had the Backstreet Boys beat. The latter was more into ballads, and while those do make all the young girls swoon, I always preferred the more upbeat tracks. Despite appearances, I was a pretty happy child.

Though I was hypnotized by the sugary sweet catchiness of ‘N Sync’s brand of pop, I still wouldn’t compare them to more advanced pop idols like Michael Jackson or Madonna. Yeah, these boys had nice voices and sick dance moves, but they weren’t particularly revolutionary in terms of popular music. Justin has since become essentially a white version of Michael Jackson, but ‘N Sync was far from groundbreaking.

But that’s okay! Like I mentioned in the Backstreet Boys entry, there’s nothing wrong with boy bands. They’re part of everyone’s life (yes, even One Direction). So when you hear “Bye Bye Bye” at a bar this weekend, don’t be ashamed of knowing all the words (and drunkenly screaming them on karaoke).

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