Our Culture Loves to Bathe in Nostalgia

Are we stuck in the past or our present simply sucks?

Our culture seems to mystify the sphere of pop music, fashion and beauty trends of the ‘90s. Sure, the ‘90s were electrifying but so is every period, packed with charm. One thing that can be said about the decade is that it was infused with hefty social and cultural change due to the technological tools that allowed recording and broadcasting into everyone’s living room, and which furthermore made the ‘90s the one to host the clashing transition from analog to digital formats.

Looking retrospectively, people were in awe of what the digital sphere could mean for human civilisation but today we remake this transitioning period with polaroids, camcorders, reboots of tv shows and we hear that even Tamagotchis are back. Our recent years feel like we’re somehow ready to dive back into the ’90. But the reason for it is not because we miss the times of low-rise jeans but because we miss the comfort of being in a moment we know well, especially in times of crisis. That’s why nostalgia is a recurrent theme in marketing campaigns: they evoke positive memories that can hearten our mood by connecting us to shared experiences.

Everywhere we look there’s a reboot, remake, revival and anything else that stands for reproducing the past. Batman and Spider are back on the silver screen and Marvel and Star Wars keep adding profits. We came out of the lockdown wearing wired headphones, preppy style, 90s and 2YK fashion. But more than that, we came out to a world that feels fragmented and hopeless, especially for those who were just starting their careers, for whom opportunities and possibilities are turning abstract and less attainable. As social and economic crises hit these generations the most, to monetise feelings of comfort, security and love is to head back to the 90s and early 00s.

Nostalgia sells because it reconnects our past to our present, and companies are giving it all for these generations as the 20-somethings are the ones who will set the tone for the next economic and cultural shift. For instance, our contemporary ally Spotify, with over half of its users aged between 18 and 34, has exploited nostalgia with the feature “Your Time Capsule,” a personalised playlist that “takes you back in time to your teenage years,” curated based on listeners’ country of residency, favourite genres and age.

But since we cannot virtually go back to the past, we are left to consume repacked emotions of the days gone by. Only look at Tommy Hilfiger, who last year dropped merch featuring the Backstreet Boys, Britney Spears and other nineties icons, and launched a 17-piece capsule in collaboration with outdoor footwear brand Timberland to pay homage to the ’90s, the decade when the boots became visible in the hip-hop and urban culture. Headlines announcing these collaborations sit next to those that read “economic recession” and “It’s here! Friends: the reunion is now streaming.”

Of course, nostalgia doesn’t just revive the past as it was. And Just Like That is an example of how the revolutionary sitcom Sex and the City has been updated with today’s ideals — featuring a cast of various sexual orientations, backgrounds and ethnicities — yet keeping the essence of the characters and situations that made us laugh and push through our day. The entertainment industry is all about “only kids born in the ‘90s and ‘00s will understand.” 
And we get it. We love to return to the time when living with our parents wasn’t a choice but the norm, especially when two-thirds of the 20-somethings who moved in back with their parents during the lockdown continue to live with them, only because the soaring rents and living costs are beyond our meaningless pay check. So we retreat to our happy place: watching the remake of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air and praising Sex Education for celebrating the cringe of our coming-of-age and the colours of the ‘90s fashion.