The 1990s were the first retro decade. Moreover, a virulent strain of 1950s, 1960s and 1970s pop culture permeated 1990s pop culture. This is evident from the popularity of TV shows like Mystery Science Theater 3000, the films of Tim Burton and Quentin Tarantino, the music of Big Bad Voodoo Daddy and the Reverend Horton Heat, the reemergence of swing dancing, cocktail culture and the Tiki revival. One could argue that retrophilia was so ubiquitous during the 1990s that it was easily overlooked in much the same way that fish fail to notice the water. There are myriad points which serve as evidence for this assertion, and each one will receive its own post in due time.
Of course, nostalgia existed in previous decades, and there have always been entertainers who seemed men and women out of time. It’s easy to forget that Sha-Na-Na played at Woodstock, or that The Stray Cats made traditionally-crafted rockabilly tunes into top forty hits in the early 1980s, or that The B-52s cracked the Billboard Hot 100 with the absurdist surf anthem “Rock Lobster” in 1979, or even the decade-long run of a television show like Happy Days. These are the exceptions that prove the rule. By that same token, the decades following the 1990s have maintained a certain retro undercurrent. The most obvious examples are the neo-garage rock explosion of the early 2000s which made The White Stripes and The Hives household names, the ill-fated career of Amy Winehouse, and the popularity of AMC’s Mad Men. Additionally, the statute of limitations on 1980s retrophilia has expired and Hollywood has made summer blockbusters out of nearly every cartoon that was popular during the Reagan administration, most notably Transformers (2007), G.I. Joe: The Rise of Cobra (2009), The Smurfs (2011) and their many sequels.
It would also be foolish to assert that nothing new or original happened during the 1990s. Musically, the rise of grunge and alternative rock along with the slow and steady cultural ascendency of hip hop set the zeitgeist for the rest of the decade. The industrial stylings of bands like Nine Inch Nails and Ministry along with the underground rave scene and popularity of techno/house music pushed inorganic production techniques directly into the mainstream. By the end of the decade, all of these elements combined to create a whole lesser than the sum of its parts in the cringe-inducing artless dreck that was nu metal. Television pushed the boundaries of self-depreciating humor with the ridiculously popular Seinfeld (a self-proclaimed show about nothing) and Friends, while simultaneously setting a new standard for lengthy story arcs with The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Although it’s turned out well, computer generated animation seemed a mixed blessing, at best, when its unnaturally pixelated manifestations first lumbered awkwardly onto the screen in The Lawnmower Man (1993) and Species (1995). The cutting edge technological revolution guaranteed by the advent of “virtual reality” ultimately went nowhere. But, man, was it ever a big deal at the time, promising to completely and irrevocably change the world real soon now.
The question remains, why did the 1990s spend so much time focusing on the past? What made a generation who listened to new wave or moshed at thrash metal shows start buying Ultra-Lounge compilations or take up swing dancing? What compelled men from a generation raised on Star Wars (1977) to brave the effete pretentiousness of their local art house theatre for screenings of Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! (1965)? These people weren’t even born when Ed Wood’s movies played to a very limited release in a handful of theaters and Elvis reigned as king. To paraphrase that venerable scholar of the human condition, Pee Wee Herman, certain questions get answered, and new ones get asked. It’s like trying to unravel a giant sweater that someone keeps knitting and knitting and knitting and knitting. Did we simply run out of ideas? Did we run out of past as The Onion once pondered? Had we accomplished so much so quickly from a pop cultural standpoint that we needed a moment just to take it all in? Perhaps it goes deeper. After Soviet communism imploded and David Hasselhoff triumphantly sang atop the remains of the Berlin Wall, did the American populace need a decade or so to pat itself on the back and take a good, long, slow, self-congratulatory wallow in its collective Cold War identity? Did a significant portion of Generation X explicitly reject the self-righteous flower-child preening of its Baby Boomer parents and pick up the mantle of its confident WWII-Vet Greatest Generation grandparents? Did the rise of political correctness so thoroughly castrate the racial identity of white Americans that the only socially acceptable outlet for expressing ethnic pride other than NASCAR was via an embrace of the recent kitschy, and implicitly white, past cloaked in a plausibly-deniable veneer of smirking irony?
I don’t know.
This blog seeks to answer all of these questions and more, as we explore, analyze and search for the meaning of all things retro in the 1990s.