Friday, May 6, 2022

Thoughts on the '90s Nostalgia "Boom"

If one goes by those in the media whose job it is to keep track of such things, we are in the midst of a boom in '90s nostalgia.

I have to admit that it doesn't feel that way to me.

This is not to deny the existence of the product. Certainly there have been efforts to rework some of the movies (Jurassic Park, The Matrix) and television shows (like the 2017 feature film version of Baywatch, or the small screen sequels to Full House and Saved by the Bell) of that decade, while Adam F. Goldberg broadly attempted to do with the '90s what he had done with the '80s on The Goldbergs in Schooled. At only a short remove depictions of the scandals of the '90s seem to quite the presence, notably evident in the film I, Tonya, and the series American Crime Story (which has produced season-length arcs about the O.J. Simpson trial, the murder of Gianni Versace, and the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal). And I am sure one can point to a good deal else.

Still, it falls short of the sense of saturation in the '60s and '70s that we had in the '90s, or of saturation in the '80s that we experienced in the '00s and the '10s. Part of that, I suppose, is that, as seemed to me earlier, the pop culture of that period was never really promising for this kind of usage, its ambiguities and blandness making it hard to pick out anything distinctively '90s. Remembering follow-ups to '90s-era cinematic hits like The Addams Family, or Mission: Impossible, I wonder: looking at all this stuff are we nostalgic for the '90s, or the '60s? Or in the case of Mission: Impossible, simply continuing to enjoy a franchise that never stopped going, just as so much of what we saw in the '90s never stopped going (like the use of that awful, awful, awful word "Whatever!")? And what about Jurassic Park? One could argue for its recalling that prior monster-themed Steven Spielberg blockbuster, Jaws, but it was not very blatantly evocative of the '70s, while also not being particularly '90s--watching it now less likely than a good many other films to, for example, recall to mind the music or fashions or sensibility of the decade the way Jaws would make us remember the '70s (or for that matter, seem quite so novel an experience at the movies as that older movie did).

The recycled character of the product apart, there was what those earlier periods the '90s so shamelessly milked lacked had that it lacked--great arguments and the great passions, and the way all this becomes manifest in art. The '90s may not have been the "end of history" as so many insisted in their generally muddle-headed ways, but the artists of the period certainly acted as if it was in that period of neoliberal triumphalism. The result was that what passed for "provocative" was, as Peter Biskind put it when writing of the era's "independent film," a "largely cultural" sort of rebellion that mainly consisted of a "bad boy aesthetic," with Quentin Tarantino no more than "the Howard Stern of indies," and making a far longer and more successful career of being that than should have ever been possible--nothing of substance behind the pretension and the edgelordism. And what was new and different either left us nowhere to go (as with the era's smug, ironic smirk; what can you do with Seinfeld but watch it again?) or has long since been superseded to such a degree that we are the ones now smirking at it ironically (as with the way The Truman Show became a sensation by presenting the idea of a culture of reality show addicts as science fiction--while today the extreme amplification of the idea in The Circle struck critics as already trite). Certainly I do not think I was alone in feeling that Schooled had a lot less to work with than The Goldbergs did--and was not surprised to see it sputter out after two seasons as The Goldbergs went on to its ninth, or the way in which really big success has proven elusive for purveyors of such content. (In fairness, Jurassic World was a blockbuster--but again, the role of nostalgia here seems to me weaker than in the other product on offer.)

However, if the '90s gave us little to work with it also seems the case that the sheer volume of pop cultural product being churned out now, and its extreme fragmentation--and ephemerality also a factor. Never has so much critical praise been lavished on so much work so certain to be lost in the shuffle, crowded out of the market, or, even when enjoyed, totally forgotten as an inundated audience quite casually and quickly moves onto the next supposedly "This will change the world" sensation that it will also forget in its turn five minutes later. The result is that, for better or worse, a great deal can pass us by very easily, or go over our heads, and as yet it seems that this can be said for the '90s nostalgia boom too.

Would that one could say the same of the doings of the Kardashians.

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