Let’s do an experiment. Go out into the street and ask people, of any age, what the “best decade” in America was. Chances are you’ll hear a few ‘50s, more ‘70s and an overwhelming amount of ‘60s. These were the good times. American culture hit some of its highest highs in music, film and social activism. Modern culture is obviously a product of the past, but these times seem to hold a special relevance today. Now let’s continue the experiment, but this time on a college campus or a downtown cafe.
“What is the best decade?”
If you didn’t get this answer before, you are now assured to hear “the ‘90s.” It’s become a staple of youth culture, this reverence of the decade before Y2K, when torn flannel flour bags ruled the fashion scene and Biggie Smalls and Tupac made a generation of young gangsters into poets. Many think it’s novel to be a “‘90s kid,” but it goes deeper than that. On the surface the appeal of the ‘90s appears to be one big joke concerning everyone who was a “‘90s kid,” but if we think about how our society has developed since then, it is clear that the ‘90s may have been the last time we were innocent and our problems were narrow in scope.
But yes, our first consideration of the ‘90s is superficial. It is a tongue-in-cheek joke to think that the ‘90s was significant for music or style. When people who were young adults in the ‘90s think about that time today, they cannot help but laugh at how the culture of angst mirrored their own feelings, feelings which they have grown out of. The novelty of ‘90s nostalgia has spawned countless internet memes and parodies. Society — internet culture at least — has reached a point where this decade is itself a meme: a small behavior or knowledge that is spread from individual to individual (almost always by means of the internet).
If you frequent internet forums, chances are you have seen the meme “only ‘90s kids will get this.” For those unaware, this text is overlaid onto a photo of a classic ‘90s thing: toys like Furby that aged out of time or special red cups that Pizza Hut discontinued at the turn of the century. People gleefully accept these memories with open arms, connecting with that distant trend for the first time in years. This is the drug of nostalgia. It makes people of any generation feel good to remember what made them happy as children and connect that memory directly with others who had similar interests. For the ‘90s, the decade in which many things we take for granted were born into popular culture, this connection is profound. ‘90s kids grew up with these trends like friends, some of whom dropped off like Furby but a few which kept in contact and grew with them into adulthood.
We can think of the ‘90s as a teenager: petulant, anti-establishment and edgy. It was the last innocent time in America before we matured into cynicism. The ‘90s was concerned with fitting in, dealing with mental health, discovering identity and defining its own trends. Now we deal with the problems of a mature society that are international in scale: divisive politics, national identity, bigotry and the spread of terrorism. We face these issues in a post-9/11 world. Americans have learned that some might have a problem with their way of life.
The young decade has left its mark on our culture. Behind the novelty of remembering ‘90s culture is a legitimate nostalgia for a time that was in many ways better. Those who remember will always look back with reverence at the time when our problems could be overlooked by our love of music, fashion and all things that American culture has since made trivial.