Last month Microsoft, in the hope of burnishing the reputation of Internet Explorer, launched an ad that essentially asked, "Remember the '90s?" Called "Child of the '90s," the ad opened with a decade-appropriate bit of self-deprecation ("You might not remember us . . . ") before launching into a listicle of artifacts that existed between 1990 and 1999, from yin-yang necklaces on black ropes to Pogs. While some references were inaccurate (Hungry Hungry Hippos players have been shoving marbles down plastic gullets since the mid-'70s; "social networks" that weren't Oregon Trail existed, although maybe they weren't kid-appropriate), the commercial achieved at least one desired effect: getting people to go "Aw, yeah" when presented with an antiquity from 20 years ago.
They're hardly alone. ABC Family is readying the third season of Melissa & Joey, a sitcom based more on the premise of having Melissa Joan Hart (Clarissa Explains It All; Sabrina, the Teenage Witch) and Joey Lawrence (Blossom) share a small screen than on anything resembling a plot. The Twitter account @SeinfeldToday fast-forwarded that NBC sitcom's '90s-rooted characters and racked up 410,000 followers and a couple of parody accounts. And this year's Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival, set for two April weekends in the California desert, will feature three headliners—the Red Hot Chili Peppers, the Stone Roses, and Blur—better associated with the (touring) Lollapalooza era than the music-blog age.
In a sense, this nostalgia for certain aspects of the '90s—the ones that could be seen as "cool" and not embarrassing (think alt-rock, hip-hop, and Daria rather than, say, "Tears in Heaven" or Home Improvement)—was inevitable. Generations like to look back on themselves. Twenty years ago, Boomers were fully in thrall to their past: In 1993, Fleetwood Mac was revisiting their forward-thinking '70s classic, "Don't Stop," at Bill Clinton's inaugural ball; 11 months later, KISS (debut release: 1974) and Barry Manilow (debut release: 1973) helped close the year on New Year's Rockin' Eve. The next year saw Woodstock '94, held in nearby Saugerties, N.Y., and an Eagles reunion tour that made headlines for pricing tickets over the $100 mark. (Talk about lost innocence.) As the youngest members of Generation X age out of the highly coveted 18-to-34 demographic and start prepping for the 20th and 25th anniversaries of their high-school and college graduations, the drive to look back will inevitably strengthen.
But the relentless march back to the '90s—whether through reunion tours by the likes of the Afghan Whigs and Pulp or 95-page photo galleries of the decade's toy crazes—seems to be more intense than the nostalgia of previous generations. (Yes, even more the Boomers', whose self-glorification sure seemed oppressive.) Reunion tours; full-album concerts; galleries of fashion from the decade; listicles that stroke readers' lizard brains until they're endlessly looping the question "Remember when?": These all reflect a culture that seems much more interested in looking back instead of moving forward.
This is partly the result of there being just so much stuff out there now—thanks to the democratization of tools to disseminate media—that offer quick looks back at cultural touchstones from your high-school days. Sites like the viral-content behemoth BuzzFeed, which make their bones by creating "shareable" media, are at the forefront of this. Social media has in a sense transformed the high-school reunion from a one-time event to a steady drip of birth announcements and complaints about Mondays. Why not insert into those interactions some memories of the good times? (BuzzFeed's penchant for flogging the past—and clogging thousands of Facebook feeds while doing so—is particularly notorious: "BuzzFeed Editors Unsure How to Spin Petraeus Story Into Reason the '90s Were Great" was an Onion headline in the wake of the former CIA director's resignation; BuzzFeed replied with "5 Pictures Proving David Petraeus Should Have Been on Saved by the Bell.")
In a development that might be called "ironic," though, the fissures in the broadcast model began to widen during the '90s. In December 1989, FOX upstart The Simpsons went head-to-head with Bill Cosby, the '80s titan of prime-time family entertainment for the masses; HBO and Cinemax started "multiplexing" their offerings a year later. In 1994, I would be introduced to a mysterious collection of "hypertexts" called the World Wide Web. Bruce Springsteen's "57 Channels (and Nothin' On)," released in 1992, was supposed to be an absurdist statement on the amount of garbage media being beamed daily into peoples' homes—and it seemed like an upper limit. After all, who had time to watch 10 channels, let alone 57?
As it turns out, those growths were only the beginning of what would become a wall-to-wall media landscape. Today, MTV, VH1, and CMT have "multiplexed" into a slew of genre-specific channels; each of those brands also has its own website where listeners can create their own video playlists; and those websites are but a tiny fraction of the online outlets that offer similar functionality, from YouTube on down. Brick-and-mortar record stores, meanwhile, are increasingly endangered, their curated selections replaced by the search functions on Spotify and iTunes, which offer more media on demand than at any other time in history.
This glut has enabled consumers to create "Choose Your Own Adventure"–style paths through media offerings past and present. And while the Internet has made those items that do break through to mass culture seem bigger than they might have, say, 17 or 21 years ago, it's also meant fewer experiences are shared by large swaths of the population. This combination—fewer present-day common denominators and the overwhelming comfort provided by familiar objects from the past—means that advertisers, punch-line writers, and listicle crafters are reaching ever more often for the nostalgic.
Compare the exposure afforded by, say, a couple of spins on Alternative Nation (1992–97, MTV's outlet for videos by the likes of Nirvana and Weezer) to that offered by a video premiere on Stereogum. The indie-music blog's reach is certainly impressive, but one has to take the time to type in the site's url, or keep it in a bookmarks file, or be actively following the artist whose video is premiering on some sort of social media, instead of just flipping channels, happening upon a video, and being taken in long enough to write down the name of the band responsible. The Internet's serendipity factor still exists (check out randomwebsite.com), but the sheer amount of stuff out there makes it much more difficult to find time to wander and discover.
Considered as a series of discrete posts and pieces, frothing about the '90s seems innocent, but as a whole, something about it bugs me—as much for seeing the past regurgitated as for what seems to be a stubborn, market-driven resistance toward shepherding new culture. I'm not immune to it—just this morning I sent an e-mail excited about the prospect of seeing the Breeders play Last Splash live in its entirety. But I think about what got me into the subculture that eventually got shorthanded by the term "alternative" in the first place, and I can't help but feel like—here's a really '90s word—a sellout.
College pals teased me mercilessly for being on the "cusp" between Generation X and whatever cursed cohort came after it— I was born in 1975, right in the center of the gray area between Nixon's resignation and the bicentennial. Because of that, I earnestly took on the mantle of that Douglas Coupland–named age group. Sure, I adored the Monkees, but Boomer nostalgia (as epitomized by such evils as Don Henley and Glenn Frey's cash grab, that Woodstock retread, and a strange obsession with getting the next generation to wear tie-dye) was noxious and needed to be eliminated. Instead I read The Baffler, taking very seriously Thomas Frank's messages about the commodification of rebellion—as epitomized so perfectly and awfully by that era's titans of media power—and I recognized it almost immediately when in the late '90s it manifested itself as Limp Bizkit and the "Break Stuff"–inspired riots that would come to define (what else?) Woodstock '99.
Which isn't to say that I'm completely against nostalgia. Seeing The Baffler return, and use the cachet of its '90s-burnished name to make a splash, has made me happy and invigorated my brain; reading D.T. Max's heartbreaking biography of David Foster Wallace, one of the decade's most iconic authors, caused me to crack open Infinite Jest again. The reunion shows I've attended over the past couple of years have been a blast, from the wicked, sweaty shows by the revived Afghan Whigs to Pulp's swagger-filled set at Radio City Music Hall; I even pogoed around during last year's "Summerland" tour, during which the mainstream-alt likes of the Gin Blossoms and Everclear played brief sets filled with radio staples. And those bands that aren't straight-up reformations, but operate in the spirit of the decade—like Wild Flag, which comprises former members of Sleater-Kinney (est. 1994), Helium (est. 1992), and the Minders (est. 1996)—are putting on blazing sets, too.
Even the younger guard is getting in on the act. Last year the British boy band One Direction incorporated "Torn," the lovelorn Ednaswap track that later became a global smash for Aussie soap star Natalie Imbruglia, into their set. (Perhaps it was intended as a thank-you to their younger fans' parents; some were in the crowd exhibiting various levels of smittenness, while others were no doubt holders of the credit cards that had bought the tickets.)
Soundgarden—performing Thursday and Friday at the Paramount in support of King Animal, their first studio album since 1996—is certainly a major part of the '90s-recalling landscape, thanks to their strong association with that decade's alt-rock boom; they played the 1992 and '96 installments of Lollapalooza, were staples of MTV's alt-rock blocks, and came from Seattle—whose status as a hotbed of up-and-coming artists is probably best understood by counting the number of cities referred to as the "next Seattle" by overly trend-hunting journalists. They've endured in large part because their music was wall-to-wall great, constantly pushing forward and luring quite a few late-night MTV watchers (this one included) across the bridge between the hard rock featured on Headbangers Ball and the more left-field offerings of 120 Minutes.
Chris Cornell's brick-wall-piercing wail was out front on songs like the frantic "Tears to Forget" and the speaker-melting "Jesus Christ Pose," but their particular alloy was defined as much by Matt Cameron's relentless drumming, Ben Shepherd's from-an-angle bass playing, and Kim Thayil's virtuosic, mind-bending guitar work. They reformed in 2010, one year after Cornell released his much-derided Timbaland collaboration Scream; that year they played the single-city Lollapalooza and released the greatest-hits compilation Telephantasm, and in 2012 they came out with King Animal, which opens with the lines "You can't go home/No I swear you never can."
Implicit in that lyric from "Been Away Too Long" is the idea that when a band does "go home" after a long period, there's a bit of inherent danger: Some bands become even more defined by their past, to the point of calcification, while others make a series of missteps while making a grab for the brass ring of "relevance." But King Animal could be the ideal "Hey, we're back" statement.
Though Cornell's yawp sounds a bit hemmed in by time, the vocal melodies work gracefully around that fact, and the music has mercifully not fallen victim to the overcompression that's made so many other records—particularly those in the "loud rock" realm—sound like an anvil being struck repeatedly by a tuning fork. Thayil's guitar filigree helps propel tracks like "A Thousand Days Before," while "By Crooked Steps" slowly and deliberately modulates a grinding-gears riff until it blossoms into a gorgeous duet between Thayil's guitar and Cornell's vocal. Whether King Animal becomes a cultural touchstone on the level of Superunknown or Badmotor-finger is still up for debate; while it probably won't reach multiplatinum status as those two albums did, that has more to do with the fragmented nature of music consumption today than with any deficit in quality.
Last week the video for "By Crooked Steps" debuted (online, of course). Directed by fellow alt-rock refugee Dave Grohl, it's a bit of an absurdist biker-dude fantasy that context-starved bloggers compared to Sons of Anarchy. But it also evokes the type of video made by those hard-rock bands displaced on rock radio and MTV by Grohl, Cornell, Thayil, Shepherd, Cameron, and their more avant-garde ilk—your L.A. Gunses, your Mötley Crües. The members of Soundgarden are shot motorcycle-gang-style at the song's outset—although it turns out they're on Segways. Cut to a divey bar, where they overtake the pencil-necked, laptop-riding geek onstage and turn the place into a sweaty Real Rock Show, complete with debauchery and pretty women.
The real joke comes at the end, though, when the four get caught and cuffed for their hell-raising. Apprehending the suspects is none other than Joel Zimmerman—the electronic producer better known as Deadmau5, who has been at the forefront of the current EDM craze. This stunt casting seems a bit like a message to those obsessed with recapturing the past: Sure it's fun, but too much living in the past will inevitably result in the future catching up with you.
Maura Johnston is the editor of Maura Magazine and the former music editor of The Village Voice.