90s Nostalgia Is a Band-Aid for Our Misery

But there's something about this revival that feels, well, familiar.
June 28, 2017, 5:00pm

You don't have to look too far for weepy 90s nostalgia at the moment, especially the kind available for purchase. You can play Super Nintendo at home or old SEGA games on your phone, buy Oreo-O's cereal at grocery stores, download fonts from your favorite 90s shows, slurp on a Mr. Misty at Dairy Queen, and get advance tickets for Alanis Morissette's musical adaptation of Jagged Little Pill (coming to Massachusetts' American Repertory Theater in 2018). You can now watch the rebooted Twin Peaks and, soon enough, Roseanne and Will & Grace. The GAP recently released its "90s Archive" clothing line—because I guess surviving a Trump presidency isn't shitty enough without high-rise denim shorts.


The hands-down best podcast of the moment is Truu Stowray, on which former MTV VJ Dave Holmes (who hit his cultural peak in the 90s!) and former Soul Coughing frontman Mike Doughty (the 90s!) reminisce about the first season of Real World (the 90s!). Fuck S-Town—it's the best. Sure, the 90s are back, but there's something about this late 20th century revival that feels, well, familiar.

While doing research on 90s nostalgia, I stumbled upon 90sFest, a music festival "for the #tbt generation" that debuted in Brooklyn two years ago. I was at the inaugural event, and witnessed artists like Coolio, Lisa Loeb, and Smash Mouth remind me what it felt like to watch live music in my 20s. I went under duress but ended up enjoying myself immensely, singing along with every lyric, even the songs I pretended I was too cool to like during the 90s. It was a profoundly stupid weekend and I still remember it fondly.

It's a bizarre feeling to catch yourself being nostalgic for that time you were nostalgic. I was like a snake eating its own tail, an Ouroboros feasting on memories of itself watching Seinfeld reruns.

The remarkable thing about nostalgia—whether it's for the 90s or any other time period—is that it's ceased to feel remarkable. Nostalgia used to arrive in predictable 20 year patterns. In the 70s, we were nostalgic for the 50s, lapping up sunny reminders of the past like Grease, Happy Days and Sha Na Na. In the 80s, the 60s was our nostalgic cultural catnip. In the 90s, movies like Dazed and Confused, Boogie Nights, and pretty much everything by Quentin Tarantino made us feel warm and fuzzy about the 70s. But today, we're nostalgic about everything—every decade, every pop culture moment we personally experienced or just heard about secondhand, it's all grist for the nostalgic mill—and we miss it all simultaneously.


Life has become one big Buzzfeed listicle, boomeranging between the 27 Jokes we'll only understand if we've seen Star Wars and the 47 photos we'll only understand if we were an '80s girl and the 22 pictures that show how different the Internet was in 2007 compared to now. The only thing we can all agree on is that today sucks, and some point in the recent or distant past, depending on your experience or your favorite media, was discernibly better.

As the National Review recently noted, "Nostalgia is our national mode." Or if you want to be even more specific about it, as the keyboardist for the Hold Steady summed up in his Slate review of Lizzy Goodman's Meet Me in the Bathroom, our culture has become "curdled nostalgia pouring downhill in five-year increments." We have a nostalgia addiction. But is it a harmless addiction, or an obsession that's doing more harm than good?

Back in the 17th century, when a Swiss doctor named Johannes Hofer first coined the word nostalgia—which he described as a "neurological disease of essentially demonic cause"—the compulsive nostalgia we experience today would've been unthinkable. (If masturbation and homosexuality was enough to get you commuted to a nuthouse, imagine what a commitment to "Throwback Thursday" said about your mental state.)

But while we're no longer accusing people who get misty-eyed over Buffy The Vampire Slayer reruns of being demons, there are plenty of cultural critics who don't sympathize with that shit. Ross Douthat, a New York Times columnist, called nostalgia a symptom of decadence. "Not the decadence of orgies and debauchery," he clarified, "but the decadence of drift, stagnation, and repetition." Nostalgia has been accused of everything from "a longing for a sanitized impression of the past" to causing a "disconnection from the present and therefore its blindness to the future." So basically, nostalgia gets it all wrong; past, present and future.


Michael Chabon, writing in the New Yorker last March, was (slightly) more generous. Nostalgia is fine, he wrote, as long as it's the right kind of nostalgia. "Nostalgia, most truly and most meaningfully, is the emotional experience—always momentary, always fragile—of having what you lost or never had, of seeing what you missed seeing, of meeting the people you missed knowing, of sipping coffee in the storied cafés that are now hot-yoga studios," he wrote. "It's the feeling that overcomes you when some minor vanished beauty of the world is momentarily restored." I'm not sure if he means it's okay that I binge-watched the new Twin Peaks series last weekend rather than take my six-year-old son to the park, but that's how I'm interpreting it.

More From Tonic:

Chuck Klosterman, in his new collection of essays, X, argues for a less emotion-based definition of nostalgia, which he calls "simply the byproduct of accidental repetition," He's nostalgic for Ozzy Osbourne's Bark at the Moon album not because it's particularly meaningful for him, but because it was one of "only six cassettes" he owned as a teenager. "The middle '80s were a time when I might lie on my bed and listen to a random Ozzy song 365 times over the course of 12 months," he wrote. "It's not an emotional experience. It's a mechanical experience."

None of this matters anyway, because as Forbes reminded us recently, 2016 was the "Year We Hit Peak Nostalgia." It's all the Internet's fault, of course. In the June issue of The Atlantic, a feature story called "The End Of Forgetting" warned that nostalgia is in jeopardy because it's no longer a rare commodity. "Today, thanks to our devices, we can experience nostalgia on demand." Last month, Wired posted a story with the ominous headline "Enjoy the Early-'00s Nostalgia Wave—It Might Be the Last Revival," which made a convincing case that "Our shared moments of cultural consciousness… are becoming rarer and rarer. Years from now, when we finally gaze back at the pop highlights of this modern age, will any of us even be looking in same direction?"


But then again, if any of this sounds familiar, it's because the end of nostalgia had already been predicted, all the way back in 1997, by no less an authority than satirical newspaper The Onion. "U.S. Dept. Of Retro Warns: 'We May Be Running Out Of Past'" the headline read. Let's all take a moment to be nostalgic about that time Wired Magazine was satirized for being alarmist assholes a full two decades in advance.

Academia, at least in the US, hasn't had better luck explaining nostalgia. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that nostalgia makes consumers more likely to spend money—a revelation that comes as no surprise to anybody with more than one Stars Wars "special edition" in their entertainment libraries. Researchers from Cornell University and UC Santa Cruz studied the musical preferences of college students, and discovered that they had the deepest emotional connections with music they listened to in their youth. Which is as shocking as claiming the first time you get your heart broken is the worst.

Researchers in the UK have managed to be slightly less obvious, and offer more promising evidence that nostalgia can be good for you, even if it's not the kind that Chabon approves of. Several studies at the University of Southampton suggest that people who indulge in navel-gazing nostalgia end up feeling less depressed and lonely, and could be better at creative thinking. Erica Hepper, a psychologist at the University of Surrey, has studied nostalgia extensively and she believes that rather than keeping people stuck in the past, nostalgia might actually "make us more optimistic about our future and more motivated to work towards goals that are important to us," she says. "It can also help us cope when life gets us down, by combating feelings of angst and restoring a sense of well-being."


Any of that sound familiar? Who, especially this year, needs a reason to feel hopeful about the future and a little help in circumnavigating their soul-crushing angst? You know who we're talking about.

The more you listen to psychologists and academics explain nostalgia, the more it seems like the best possible life raft for friends and family who can't stop posting anti-Trump memes on their respective Facebook pages. David Gerber, a professor emeritus of history at the University at Buffalo, says that modern nostalgia has become a way for people to "deal with loss and make the transition to another place or another time of life. It has the value that is often attached to grieving. We lament what has been lost, but remember fondly the pleasure it once gave us, and somehow prepare ourselves by doing so to move on." How is that not somebody who still has an "I'm With Her" bumper sticker on their car?

If nostalgia isn't about moving on, it's at least about momentarily ignoring the shitshow that 2017 has become. As Guardian columnist Brigid Delaney noted in a recent essay, "In these black days, I've finally come round to nostalgia." In a terrible year when it's easy to forget what it felt like to attend "a big concert and not worry about a terrorist putting a bomb in the foyer, or storming the venue with guns and explosives," Delaney has learned to appreciate nostalgia "like a warm bath." The reasons why stunned Democrats have been feeling so nostalgic lately are the same reasons why younger people tend to be the most nostalgic, Hepper says. "Nostalgia may be prompted by the experience of transitions in life," she says, "to help cope with impending endings, challenges and uncertainties."

But nostalgia isn't just a coping mechanism; it may be what got us into this political mess in the first place. "When we as individuals experience personal nostalgia for the past, we remain capable of understanding that not everyone in the country has the same idealized memories," says Stephanie Coontz, author of The Way We Never Were: American Families and the Nostalgia Trap. "But when we as a society cultivate nostalgia for the past, we take one idealized experience, salient precisely because it was rare, and project it as the norm for everyone all the time."

Which is how we (allegedly) ended up with a presidential race that pitted one nostalgic sentiment—"We need to make America white and Christian, er, I mean great again!"—against another—"Remember when a Clinton was in power? I was in college and the world was less complicated! The 90s were super-awesome!" You could make an argument that Trump's nostalgia was more convincing than Clinton's nostalgia, and that's how he won and now nostalgia is helping Clinton's supporters cope with losing. "Clinton isn't president? Fine. I'll soothe the pain with Power Rangers and high waisted reverse fit jeans."

You know all of your annoying friends who claim that a Trump presidency won't be so bad because, just like during the Reagan years, it means we're going to get a lot of brilliant new punk bands? They're probably wrong. Punk music as a response to a crappy presidency is so 20th century. In 2017, the backlash to a semi-fascist government will likely be a wave of nostalgia. The 80s had the Minutemen, but in the depressing mid-aught-teens, we'll have only a Hey Arnold! movie to keep us sane. Read This Next: You Won't Find Happiness Without Deep Dark Sadness