90s Nostalgia is Right on Time
Jenna Goldman recently contributed an interesting, well-written article to The Faster Times called Those Were Different Times: TeenNick and Early-Onset Nostalgia that did, however, lead me to question one of the conclusions at the center of the piece: Is nostalgia for the 90s really early-onset?
Nostalgia in entertainment is nothing new. It can be seen in film as early as the 70s, when 50s nostalgia was king. This was more or less ushered in with George Lucas’ American Graffiti in 1973. Some other obvious 50s nostalgia vehicles were the 1978 films Grease and American Hot Wax, and the TV show Happy Days (1974-84). Nostalgia for the 50s didn’t completely go away until after Back to the Future (1985), even as 60s nostalgia began to dominate cultural consciousness.
Nostalgia for the 60s slowly swept away 50s nostalgia, more or less peaking (in original television programming at least) with The Wonder Years, which debuted in 1988 and brought 60s nostalgia into the 90s. One of the last high profile 60s nostalgia vehicles was The Sandlot in 1993.
Nickelodeon launched Nick at Night, pretty much purely a vehicle for nostalgia, in 1985, debuting with shows such as The Donna Reed Show (1958-66), Dennis the Menace (1959-63), and Route 66 (1960-64). Mr. Ed (1961-66) became a staple the following year, and Nick at Night (among other cultural forces) helped speed up the whole nostalgia process. After a few years, Nick at Night branched out into 70s nostalgia, broadcasting episodes of SNL and SCTV mostly from that decade, and also briefly running 70s mock talk-show (and Mary Hartman, Mary Hartman spinoff) Fernwood Tonight.
70s nostalgia arrived full-force with the turn of the 90s, visible in original TV programming and film, as well as Nick at Night’s programming. Several movies, including The Spirit of ’76 (1990), My Girl (1991), Dazed and Confused (1993) and Now and Then (1995) basically ran on 70s nostalgia. And then of course there was television’s most obvious 70s nostalgia vehicle, That 70s Show, which debuted in 1998.
TV Land launched in 1996, originally airing shows mostly from the 50s-70s. Some staples became Three’s Company (1977-84) and The Cosby Show (1984-92). Nostalgia for the 80s began in earnest around the turn of the century. One of the earliest and best shows to capitalize on 80s nostalgia was Freaks and Geeks (1999-2000), which was set in 1980-81. 80s nostalgia gradually began to dominate the cultural landscape since then, resulting in the obvious and pathetic That 80s Show (2002) and continuing into the present (take a look at last year’s Hot Tub Time Machine, or the upcoming remake of Footloose).
The general rule of thumb is that the quality of nostalgic references and programming, etc. declines as time goes by. Look at how 70s nostalgia started with the syndication of Fernwood Tonight and slowly degenerated into That 70s Show. Or the gradual decline from Freaks and Geeks to Hot Tub Time Machine and corny references on commercials. There are a few exceptions: The Sandlot, The Wonder Years, and Back to the Future were all fine vehicles for 60s nostalgia that arrived late in the 80s; and the craptacular That 80s Show arrived toward the beginning of the 80s nostalgia phenomenon.
I love the 80s as much as the next person, but 80s nostalgia has just about run its course: I can’t remember the last time I saw an 80s cultural reference that didn’t seem really forced and lame (have you seen any commercials lately?). As with other decades, it will probably take the emergence of 90s nostalgia to gradually wash 80s nostalgia away. (It will probably still be a few years, but my point is that we need 90s nostalgia to usher in the change.)
So is 90s nostalgia really early-onset? The general rule of thumb is that nostalgia arrives from two decades back or so, and believe it or not Clarissa Explains it All and Doug both debuted 20 years ago, in 1991. Perhaps it’s fair to call nostalgia for Keenan and Kel a little premature (and we really should probably let that one age a few years) but for the most part 90s nostalgia is right on time. (All That was never really any good and no amount of nostalgic value can redeem it.) We need 90s nostalgia, not simply for its own sake ― because a lot of aspects of 90s culture are so superior to the times we live in (compare Clarissa Explains It All or Blossom to, say, iCarly) ― but also so that 80s nostalgia can gradually be put to rest before it ruins one of my favorite decades.
Anxiety towards 90s nostalgia is perfectly understandable. It does seem odd that the 90s already seem like a wistful, long ago time, because so many of us that associate our childhood and/or adolescence with that decade haven’t reached anything resembling full-fledged adulthood yet (a key point in Ms. Goldman’s article). It may be that this is the reason that 90s culture returning in nostalgic form seems early-onset; not because it is premature, but because it seems like we haven’t left it yet in some ways. That’s the way that nostalgia works, though. It’s because we’ve never really stopped sympathizing with Clarissa that watching Clarissa Explains It All now engenders such tender, nostalgic feelings.
Another reason 90s nostalgia creates apprehension is the “What comes next?” factor. That is, how can anyone possibly be nostalgic for the 2000s? Personally, I’d prefer to think of the whole process starting over again in a way, with a futuristic 50s nostalgia permeating the cultural landscape: all digital touchscreen jukeboxes at retro-futuristic diners and hover-bike gangs…or something like that.
So, lament it if you must, but the time has come for 90s nostalgia. I suggest kicking back in a flannel shirt and/or your best Blossom hat (I like to mention Blossom), cracking open a Pepsi, and riding it out in style.
More Faster 90s:
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