Things That Make You Go Hmmm: Why 2018 Was a Year of Nineties Obsessions

The hardest-working decade of 2018? That’s easy: the Nineties. The whole concept of the Nineties continues to haunt the pop imagination, epitomizing everything our sorry excuse for a decade fails to be. Let’s face it, the “teens” never became a thing, just like the “zeroes” didn’t. So as we head into the final year of this decade which is bizarrely not one, we look back to the last one that counted. Decades are more popular than ever these days, as a useful shorthand for how culture changes over time. But more than ever, we’re not living in one. As people loved to say back in the Nineties: What’s up with that?

Charli XCX captures this whole cultural malaise brilliantly in her Troye Sivan duet “1999,” which she dropped this fall: “I just wanna go back to 1999 / Sing ‘Hit me baby, one more time.’” In the video, they re-enact Titanic, starring Charli as Kate and Troye as Leo; Charlie turns herself into Left Eye and the Spice Girls, while Troye turns into all five Backstreet Boys. But my favorite scene is when they dress up as Marilyn Manson and Rose McGowan on the VMAs red carpet. Charli was born in 1992 and Troye in 1995, so neither one is reliving their teen memories. Instead, they’re dreaming up a fantasy decade they missed. How did we get here — borrowed nostalgia for the unremembered Nineties?

That Nineties fever is everywhere this year. Country singer Jimmie Allen dropped “21,” pining for the good old days of Matchbox 20. (“If I had a time machine, I’d point it to me and you and Matchbox 20” — that might sound like a crazy way to waste a time machine, but he’s not crazy, he’s just a little unwell.) American Idol runner-up Lauren Alaina took aim at country-radio misogyny with “Ladies in the 90s,” shouting out to Shania, TLC, the Dixie Chicks and the Spice Girls. As she sings, “I was raised on radio waves where the ladies dominated!” (Unlike the Nashville of 2018, to say the least.) Alaina’s currently on tour with Jason Aldean, whose best hit was “1994.”

It’s one thing to hear time-travel trips from veterans like Maxwell (“1990x”) or Redman, in his excellent summer jam “1990 Now,” with his salutes to Deion Sanders, Goodie Mob, El Nino and Living Single. These guys were there; at least they have their memories. But it’s weirder to hear U.K. ingenue Anne-Marie chirp her huge global synth-pop hit “2002,” an ode to feeling nostalgia for everything at the same time. “Oops, I got 99 problems singing ‘Bye Bye Bye’ / If you wanna go and take a ride with me / Hit me baby, one more time” — geez, what a mess. These songs aren’t even from 2002 (depends on whether you hear her “oops” as Britney, Tweet or Blu Cantrell) yet that just makes it more poignant. She really raises the ante on King Princess singing “I love it when we play 1950.”

Decades are big business these days — the “I Love the 90s” revue just opened a permanent Vegas residency. Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath likes to tell the crowd: “Welcome to the Nineties. Some of us never left.” When I asked McGrath about it last year, he lamented how the post-Y2K era never got its own identity. “What would you call it, the Noughties? The 2000s? No one knows what to call it. No one knows when it started or ended.” The collapse of the music business added to the confusion. “There was no Nirvana in the 2000s, no band to come along and usher in the new decade. So they didn’t have a new decade. Nothing replaced the Nineties, even though the decade was over.”

His fellow philosopher Vanilla Ice makes a similar point. As Vanilla told me, “I call it the lost generation, because from 2000 to 2017, nothing really defines that whole generation in pop culture. 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 Nineties like it’s the last truly great decade.”

Vanilla makes a good point—people love decades. They just do. “Life’s pretty cheap, it’s sold a decade at a time,” as the great Eighties punk band Flipper sang. They’re a handy way to process the past—the Roaring Twenties, the Depression Thirties, the WW2 Forties, the malt-shop Fifties, the swinging Sixties, the all-cocaine all-the-time Seventies, the big-hair Eighties, the grunge Nineties. You can go to Party City and shop for “Decades Costumes” from “Roaring 20s Gatsby Flapper Headband” to “90s Schoolgirl ‘As If’ Accessory Kit.” Somewhere in your town is a dance club with a “Battle of the Decades” night. No wonder we heart the Nineties: we don’t have a decade of our own. So whatever happened to the 20-teens?

The Seventies, Eighties and Nineties were all into mythologizing themselves—when Neil Young sang “Look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s,” he was only a few months past 1969. The Village People, who really were on the run in the 1970s, closed out the decade with their disco anthem “Ready for the ’80s.” Spin magazine waited all the way until March 1990 to proclaim, “The Eighties revival is officially underway,” in an Everything But The Girl review (which I admit I wrote). The Nineties ended in a panic over Y2K—“pre-millennial tension,” as Tricky put it. Pop stars scored hits about the millennium (Robbie Williams’ beat Will Smith’s); every magazine did special millennium issues (which sold big and made a fortune in ad pages, because that’s how magazines rolled then). The A&E Network did a countdown of the millennium’s most influential people (Number One: Gutenberg). On New Year’s Eve 1999, No Doubt played live on MTV — at the stroke of midnight, they did R.E.M.’s “It’s The End of the World As We Know It (And I Feel Fine).”


But the zeroes never gelled into a decade, and — so far — neither have the teens. Ten years ago, a few late-to-the-game editors tried to get people to start calling it the “oughts,” but since nobody actually said that, it never caught on. Like the 1900s and the 1910s, these decades never got a name, because they didn’t end in that amiable suffix “–ies.” You can always start arguments in a bar over the best music or movies or TV of the 1980s or 1990s. It’s a lot harder to argue about the zeroes or teens. You could probably spout a few off-the-dome cliches about the 1890s (the Gay Nineties, twirly mustaches, robber barons) or even the 1880s (Oscar Wilde, gunfights at the O.K. Corral). But not the 1900s or 1910s. Gertrude Stein dismissed those eras as “a lost generation” — a century before Vanilla Ice.

People are still having trouble coping with the math, as witness the bizarre way some people keep saying “two thousand and eighteen,” as if they’re still in denial that we’re in a new century. (You might as well say “two thousand and ten and eight.”) No wonder we don’t want to say “twenty-eighteen”; that would mean conceding the teens are a thing, the 21st Century is a thing, and this decade is not a nightmare we’ll wake up from tomorrow morning.

This year’s Nineties trips got dark, from The Assassination of Gianni Versace to Jonah Hill’s semi-autographical film about troubled skater kids, Mid90s. The Netflix sitcom Everything Sucks masterfully used indie rock like the Softies to evoke a 1996 Oregon high school; it got instantly cancelled, a tres Nineties fate. Andrew Dice Clay showed up in an Oscar-contending movie, 25 years after his film career peaked with Brainsmasher: A Love Story. Hell, 2018 was the year a Roseanne revival blew out of nowhere to become America’s favorite TV show, and then (just as suddenly) crashed and burned. But that’s the crucial role decades play in our cultural memory — they reassure us even the bleakest eras eventually come to an end. These days, that’s a welcome reminder. Maybe we look back to the 1990s because we know we’ll never get nostalgic for 2018. We’re already planning to forget this year and the decade it rode in on. Bring on the Roaring Twenties.

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