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Why ’90s Nostalgia Isn’t Ready for Its Closeup

There's a reason we're not seeing a resurgence similar to the never-ending '80s wave

The 1980s technically ended 30 years ago, but you’d never know it.

Just ask the teen heroes of “Stranger Things.”90s-nostalgia-wedding-singer-mullet

‘80s nostalgia has been a cottage industry ever since Adam Sandler rocked a mullet for the 1998 rom-com “The Wedding Singer.” The “Hot Tub Time Machine” series saluted the decade’s best … and (very) worst styles. The same holds true for ABC’s “The Goldbergs.”

Even flops like the short-lived “That ‘80s Show” and 2011’s “Take Me Home Tonight” fell back on those parachute pants and synth power ballads.

What about the ’90s? Turns out the subsequent decade defies easy categorization.

Yes, we’ve seen a glut of ‘90s retreads. That “X-Files” reboot. Netflix’s “Fuller House.” “Mad About You.” “Will & Grace.” “The People vs. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story.”

And, of course, the upcoming “Friends” reunion.

They all hearken back to the ‘90s. They don’t necessarily mimic the decade like Sandler once did with the ’80s. How do you conjure a decade lacking mullets, beehive hairdos or bell-bottom pants?

’90s Meets the World Wide Web

Rob Weiner, humanities & popular culture librarian at Texas Tech University, says the ‘90s found American culture starting to splinter. And we can partially blame the Internet for that.

Web-based chatrooms and newsgroups let people dig deeper into their interests, connecting with souls across the globe who shared similar interests, Weiner says.

Cable television also began to diversify, embracing niche programming to suit a smaller, yet more demanding audience. Consumers could ignore NBC’s “Must-See TV” lineup and pursue their passions directly.

'Seinfeld' debuts on Hulu

The decade became “much more compartmentalized,” he says. The runaway success of both “Friends” and “Seinfeld” proved robust exceptions. It didn’t help that the ‘90s lacked the creative lows charted just a few years prior.

“A lot of pop culture in the ‘80s sucked, but it was interesting in its terribleness,” he says. “’The Lost Boys’ is a great movie, but you look at that hair and you wanna cringe.”

The Lost Boys (1/10) Movie CLIP - I Still Believe (1987) HD

When a TV show or film evokes the ‘80s now it falls back on the decade’s fashions to lead the way. Or just evoke an embarrassed chuckle.

The Anything Goes ’90s

Jennifer Barger, a personal stylist for DC Style Factory, says the ‘90s marked the moment when style rules took a holiday. The grunge trend instigated by Seattle’s music scene made an impact, but it didn’t stretch beyond the early ‘90s, Barger says.

“Everything’s in and nothing’s in,” says Barger, who contributes fashion articles for The Washington Post and Washingtonian Magazine. “Put on whatever you want and make it stylish.”

We do see flashes of ‘90s-era fashions in today’s cultural scene. Remember that Cake song about the “girl with a short skirt and a loooong jacket.”

“They’re back in now,” she says.

Hip Hop Hooray for the ’90s

Jessica Montour, owner of Denver’s Fashion Forward, says rap left its mark on ’90s pop culture.

“It’s the decade when hip hop went from the underground to becoming mainstream,” Montour says. It still wasn’t as widespread, or eminently mockable, as those ‘80s styles.


The ’90s saw a cross-cultural shift, a transition from ’80s mainstay Molly Ringwald’s look. That added a jolt to the scene, but it also diversified its fashion template. The result? Ensembles that didn’t allow for easy mimicry by Sandler or Team Hot Tub. pop culture reporter Jen Chaney suggests a ‘90s wave could still be ready to wash over us.

The Hollywood executives greenlighting projects tend to be in their 40s or 50s, Chaney notes. For them, the ‘80s still matter. Now, a younger generation is pushing forward, people who connect with the ‘90s as their coming of age decade.

clueless-90s-nostalgiaThe Internet, which helped splinter public interests in the ‘90s, could ironically fuel the ‘90s resurgence.

“Half of Buzzfeed’s content is based on ‘90s nostalgia,” says Chaney, author of “As If!: The Oral History of Clueless as told by Amy Heckerling and the Cast and Crew.”

It just might not have the intensity of ‘80s nostalgia, though. The cultural splintering that occurred thanks to the Web and cable television applied to popular music, too. Top 40 radio’s dominance faded during the ‘90s, Chaney says.

The ’80s onslaught shows no sign of stopping.

The same director that delivered the ultimate ‘70s film, “Dazed and Confused,” gave us an ‘80s version of youngsters via “Everybody Wants Some.”

“Sing Street,” the latest movie/music fusion from “Once” director John Carney, nailed the era’s musical notes from a distinctively Irish perspective.

The recent “We Summon the Darkness” stages its bloody theatrics during the Reagan era’s hair metal phase.

We Summon the Darkness Official Trailer (2020) - Alexandra Daddario, Keean Johnson, Johnny Knoxville

No matter the cultural shifts in discussion, looking back at past decades isn’t going away. Hollywood won’t let it, for starters. Brands rule in modern America.

The trick, Chaney says, is creating content that speaks to both those who remember the decade and others with few ties to it.

“Any decade can be ripe for revisiting if it’s done really well,” Chaney says.

One Comment

  1. I found 80s nostalgia annoying enough. I would have found it more tolerable if its perpetrators tried instead to keep alive the memory of the decade’s genuinely great films such as The Right Stuff, Prizzi’s Honor or Amadeus, but instead they focused on crap like Porky’s, The Goonies, and the Friday the 13th series. I just hope 90s nostalgia focuses on the good old days of Yahoo Geocities instead of trying to revive the career of Pauly Shore.

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