It always seems to be some piece of clothing that sets off the panic—a sartorial flashback that reminds us how our teenage memories are being mined for a revival. We expected it, of course, but not quite so soon. For Amelie Gillette, the Onion's Hater, it was American Apparel's homage to Generra's thermochromatic Hypercolor shirt. For other observers it's been kids rocking Cross Colours hip-hop gear. But for me it was a pair of Reebok Pumps on the shelf at Saint Alfred. I still vividly remember the Pump's introduction amid a boom in sneaker-technology advancement, the unfulfilled lust it engendered in me and thousands of other middle school boys with sane footwear budgets—and the realization not too long after the shoes hit the market that they were in fact hideous, especially the bulbous rubber half-basketballs you used to inflate the tongues for that custom-fit feel.
Like other flavors of pop culture nostalgia, the 90s revival is driven by the twin engines of fashion and music. It's not too wild a guess that the fashion victims sporting Cross Colours might be into the Cool Kids—who unabashedly worship old-school hip-hop acts like EPMD—or that the ones breaking out the Day-Glo T-shirts and leggings are following the lead of the British nu-rave scene. These two fickle fields have been aiding and abetting each other's backward-looking tendencies for a while now. After rock bloated to dinosaur size in the early 70s (with pant-leg widths expanding accordingly), the late 70s and early 80s brought a return to the scrappy 50s and early 60s. The 90s reintroduced the hippie to pop culture, to no small amount of notice in rags like Rolling Stone, and then went ahead and reclaimed the 70s as well, first with shag rockers like Urge Overkill and then Sabbath-worshipping stoner rock from the likes of Kyuss. (I'm just skimming the surface, of course—let's not even get into third-wave ska or the second garage revival or the No Depression movement or neosoul.) And of course a few years ago the next wave of kids who wished they'd been there back when started fetishizing the first decade in which I was actually cognizant of music: the 1980s.
It's hard not to notice that pop culture's been picking up speed as it tears through its own archives. We're bringing back new retro styles well before old ones can lapse back into uncoolness, causing multiple reanimated time frames to collide in ways that are occasionally amusing—like fringe-and-feathers freak-folk types mingling with plasticized electroclashers. And just look at how quickly VH1's I Love the 80s begat I Love the 90s and now I Love the New Millennium. The promotional copy on the I Love the New Millennium Web page starts, "Kick off your Ugg boots and put down your iPod . . . " The rockabilly renaissance of the 80s represented a generation reclaiming the music of their parents' youth—if not their grandparents'—but now we're supposed to get misty about trends that haven't even gone away yet?
The 90s revival hasn't quite blossomed into its own thing yet, not like the 80s thing that electroclash inspired and the Killers brought to middle America's Hot Topics. The aforementioned Cool Kids and nu ravers are still referencing acts who never had much mainstream popularity in America in the first place. And although there's a disconcerting amount of flannel for sale at H&M right now and The Wackness, a coming-of-age flick set in '94, is set to be a summer cult fave (see J.R. Jones's review in Movies), there are still only a few bands out there that you might call neo-grunge with any degree of accuracy.
No, I think what's making people like me tense is the inevitability of the 90s revival, and the feeling that we're speeding down the track to a point where nothing can happen without immediately getting recycled. When was the last time you listened to "House of Jealous Lovers"? I dropped it in a mix the other day and I swear I could see a little sparkle in the eyes of everyone on the dance floor, like everyone was already thinking how great it would be to bring back 2002.
One weird side effect of this phenomenon is the insertion of an artificial generation gap between those of us who were active in the mid-90s music scene and those who were around for it but too young to participate. Or, to be a little blunt about it, you kids are making us feel old, even though you were in middle school when we were playing in our first bands. We've been denied the extended adolescence granted to the baby boomers, who got in a good couple decades of influence and admiration before seeing their styles recycled and realizing that it meant they were officially past their prime.
We've been treating retro movements like we've been treating global oil reserves—recklessly consuming them with some sort of vague idea that they'll last forever. At this rate we're soon going to be left with a few not-so-great options. We could get all meta and start reviving revivals, as in "No, I'm not a neo-60s hippie, I'm a neo-90s retro hippie," which could be confusing and too much work. Or we could try to check our addiction to retro—but c'mon, that's probably not going to happen.
Our best option from here on out might be to embrace the ridiculously short turnover between run and rerun and let the snake finally start eating its own tail. If nothing ever goes away, nothing can really ever be recycled.v
Care to comment? Find this column at chicagoreader.com. And for more on music, see our blogs Crickets and Post No Bills.
We've been treating retro movements like we've been treating global oil reserves—recklessly consuming them with some sort of vague idea that they'll last forever.