Back to the future: Why the '90s never really went away
'Friends' is on TV, 'Independence Day' is at the cinema and The Stone Roses are rocking Dublin. Why is the cultural pull of the Britpop decade still as strong as ever
Published 09/07/2016 | 02:30
Ireland's soccer team bestrides the world stage after a cheeky win against Italy. The Stone Roses and Pixies are about to play Dublin. Fianna Fail is the country's favourite political party. In a few months a Clinton will probably be in the White House. Tony Blair has been all over the news. Matt LeBlanc is everyone's favourite new TV star….
It's been a while coming but now that the '90s revival is here it is inescapable. 'Friends', 'Frasier' and the 'X-Files' are the buzzy TV shows everyone is tweeting about. Every rock band worthy of the name wants to sound like Nirvana. A slavish sequel to deafening 1996 juggernaut 'Independence Day' has just hit cinemas, on the heels of a 'Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles' movie (don't worry - 'A Mighty Morphin' Power Rangers' film is en route too). The 20th anniversary of the Spice Girls' first hit has spawned endless think pieces about the resonances of "girl power".Name a famous model - you just thought of Kate Moss, didn't you?
Why a '90s comeback - and why now? The answer is, at one level, blindingly obvious. The '90s was the last period in which the internet did not play a pivotal role in our lives and how we interact with one another. Music was a word-of-mouth thing: you got into a new band because your friend had loaned you an album on cassette, not because some bearded blogger was banging on about them on Snapchat.
Meanwhile, television was a genuinely collective experience. You may have hated 'Friends' but you still sat through every episode. There was nothing else on and, besides, if you didn't watch it, what could you talk to your own friends about? Even the zeitgeist seemed more zeitgeisty. Britpop might have been nakedly jingoistic, yet who could argue that it was a genuine cultural moment - as was grunge before it. Music, fashion, movies… things just seemed to matter more than they do nowadays.
In Ireland, especially, the music was far better. Back then, we listened to Sultans of Ping and Fatima Mansions. Kids nowadays have Kodaline and the singing man-bun that is Hozier. Don't know about you, but I wouldn't swap my 'Where's Me Jumper?' 12-inch for all the designer iPhone wallets in the world. Even U2 were writing progressive interesting songs. What a time to be alive.
Young people will roll their eyes and those deeper into middle age will say that, actually, the Stone Roses and Nirvana don't hold a candle to The Smiths and Sisters of Mercy (they're right, at least where the Sisters are concerned). And yes, it's true - every generation places on a pedestal the sounds and fashions of their 20s.
But what makes the '90s different is that it brought to a close a 40-year span in which popular arts defined the age. This was an analogue era, of mix tapes and cigarettes rolled out on the back of a vinyl records. When the internet became ubiquitous youth culture was replaced by technology culture.
We are today pigeonholed not according to our favourite band but by whether we use an iPhone or an Android device, Facebook messenger or Google chat. When someone gets around to making a documentary about the early 21st century, it will all be about the technology. Movies, music, literature will hardly merit a mention. Perhaps that is why the '90s revival feels so intense. The decade marked the end of something.
Which isn't to say we were better off. If young people think they have it tough with zero-hour contracts and 10pc-plus unemployment, they should have been around in 1994. Back then being skint was not a figure of speech. When people said they had no money, they literally meant it. Poverty meant not having enough money for the gas meter in your gaff - not running out of Meteor credit.
There is also the fact that nowadays people have more cultural choice than ever. A TV show will never capture the imagination of the entire world in the fashion of 'Friends'. But that's because everyone is bingeing on 'House of Cards', 'Game of Thrones', 'Orange is the New Black' and whatever else suits their specific taste. You no longer have to sit through a TV show you don't like because there's nothing else on. There is always something else on.
Ditto with music, with a ¤9.99-a-month Spotify or Deezer subscription buying you access to tens of millions of songs. In the '90s you and a sibling might go halves on that new Throwing Muses cassette - and it would still take you a month to save up.
So, though the past might seem appealing, who could deny it is best enjoyed in the rear view mirror? Tellingly, while millennials are passionate about the music of yesterday, they have no wish to actually travel back to the eras themselves. They're fine enjoying the Stone Roses 20 years after the event.
"I think our generation is fortunate to have a great body of work to listen back to and treasure as well as enjoying the vast wealth of current musical talents," says radio DJ and proud millennial Claire Beck. "Traditionally, music and fashion were always linked; young people would proclaim their musical tribe through their personal style.
"Nowadays, instead of it being tribal, people reference vintage styles for their fashion and mix them up with modern selections their way. There's a parallel there with how we consume our music."
It's something to remember while trudging out to Marlay Park to see Stone Roses this weekend (don't worry, tickets are still available). If you consider the '90s the greatest of all decades, be honest with yourself as you reflect on whether you'd really want to live through them again.
Nineties versus now: Which decade is the best?
Friends V Big Bang Theory
Dysfunctional pals negotiate a cruel and uncaring world. The difference is that in the '90s the cast were conventional Hollywood-lead types and the jokes were about relationships and career angst. Today, the actors are styled in an ironically geeky fashion and quip about Twitter and Steve Jobs.
Jeff Buckley V Ed Sheeran
A troubled troubadour with the weight of the ages of his shoulders - and a ginger man-boy whose songs are blander than an Irish Rail sandwich.
Batman and Robin V Captain America: Civil War
George Clooney's "nipple suit" against Robert Downey Jr suffering an existential crisis while dressed as a flying robot. There can be only one.
Féile V Electric Picnic
Mud, warm cider, getting separated from your friends and falling sleep in a ditch. That was the '90s festival experience for many. Nowadays, in contrast, it's all yurts, spoken word stages and wine-tasting classes.
Retro running shoes and Nirvana T-shirts V erm... retro running shoes and Nirvana T-shirts?
Fashion has moved on - but only a little.
Verdict: If this was a soccer match it would go to penalties.