What were the shiny, grimy 90s really about?

Latter stages of 2010s are stuck in 1990s scattershot but edgy cultural collage

Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain. “In pop culture terms, what was interesting about the 1990s was how subculture and edginess became completely mainstreamed.” Photograph: Time Life Pictures/DMI/Getty Images

Nirvana singer Kurt Cobain. “In pop culture terms, what was interesting about the 1990s was how subculture and edginess became completely mainstreamed.” Photograph: Time Life Pictures/DMI/Getty Images

It’s impossible to avoid the omnipresence of the 1990s in contemporary pop culture, fashion and media. The 1990s revival that had been threatened for so long has embedded itself in the mainstream, with a generation that was born post-2000 appropriating the cheesiness of the 1990s as contemporary cool, and those who grew up in it confused about the re-emergence of everything from tiny sunglasses to bleached-out hair, lo-fi rock and oversized logos.

Because nostalgia for the decade immediately preceding the one you’re currently in is jarring, the cheapest nostalgia tends to go back two decades. The most fertile ground for mining is 20 to 30 years ago. That’s also why a good deal of the 1990s vibe was in fact rooted in the 1970s; rock and roll, flares, postmodernism, heroin, mood rings, long hair, plaid and so on. And it’s also why 2018 looks and feels increasingly like the mid-1990s. The 1990s began 28 years ago, so reaching for its trends now is just like 1988 referencing 1960.

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