Mixed paper, bottles, and Bradys

Instant Nostalgia issue

Reduce, reuse, recycle: It’s the ’90s mantra, and for better or worse, it’s carried over to our culture. Judging from the clothes in our closets, the dramas in our theaters, and the music on our stereos, all good ideas belong to the past. Remake, remix, remodel.

The ’90s were the decade when thrift stores got picked clean. Right beside the urban bohos, food-stampers, college art majors, and other down-at-heel types, you could see suburban housewives/husbands rummaging through the faded souvenir T-shirts and mauve acrylic sweatpants on the dollar table. Everyone was searching for their own Marcel Duchamp toilet.

Fashion practically invented the trend pendulum, but over the past decade, the glossy-magazine mavens outdid themselves, resurrecting every subcultural style of the past for its own 15 minutes, from Louis Prima’s wingtips and Walt Frazier’s Pumas to Mott the Hoople’s patent-leather platforms.

Wily movie producers also spent the decade foraging in the bins. They went beyond their usual book-to-movie deals and began pilfering from TV: everything from Star Trek to Beavis and Butthead. Even TV skits inspired cinematic elaborations (Coneheads, Wayne’s World, A Night at the Roxbury). The medium-shift also went the other way, as movies were turned into TV shows (Clueless, Buffy the Vampire Slayer) and Broadway musicals (Victor Victoria, The Lion King, Footloose). Of course, any film that enjoyed a modicum of success merited a sequel, a prequel, or a line of plastic toys available exclusively at Burger King.

Remember the law of diminishing returns—the trope that an object loses value with each use? The Recycling Decade proved the economists wrong, as audiences clamored for familiar content in an updated context. How else can you explain the success of TV Land and Nick at Nite, cable channels dedicated to reruns of Bewitched and Rhoda and old Tide commercials? What other motivation could there be for Quentin Tarantino’s blaxploitation homages or Gus Van Sant’s shot-for-shot remake of Psycho?

Nowhere is the ’90s fixation on turning one man’s trash into another man’s treasure more evident than in music. Hip-hop DJs were ahead of their time on the recycling tip; they’ve been sampling from the past for decades. But in the past few years, these alchemists have joined other pop musicians in churning out outright covers—something that previously meant instant credibility-death in the hip-hop world. What critics excoriated Vanilla Ice for in 1990—unearthing an ’80s pop hit and turning it into a top-40 jam—they lauded Puffy Combs for seven years later. Then the remixers showed up, and they made even Bush and Sarah McLachlan palatable.

Everybody’s gazing backwards so intently that 1998 has blurred into 1978. Both of those years saw new releases from the Rolling Stones, Aerosmith, the Ozzy Osbourne-led Black Sabbath, and the Peter-Paul-Ace-Gene Kiss lineup. Imagine if half of the 1958 hit parade had shown up with new records in 1978.

Future social historians will no doubt label each year in the ’90s by its resurgent music/fashion/lifestyle trend: ’70s hard rock, late ’70s disco, ’60s ska, ’50s lounge, ’40s swing, ’80s synth-pop. As fast as hipsters scurried to find a new historical niche that offered safe haven, the corporate prophets rooted them out and deployed their weapons of mass-production. Mainstream culture’s learning curve for any fad has become very sharp indeed, and the 20- and 30-year-olds who’ve spent their lives making the best of a previous generation’s hand-me-downs are cashing in as double agents for marketing firms and ad agencies.

All the while, the recyclers, with their jaunty rallying cry of “It’s not new, but it’s new to me!” continue on their hegemonic quest. But next time you haul those bins curbside, consider the consequences: The life you save may be Greg Brady’s.