By Darren Franich
Updated August 03, 2020 at 06:13 PM EDT

The opening credits sequence of Dec. 9’s Young Adult is suffused with ’90s nostalgia. Charlize Theron plays a writer of a young-adult literary franchise that sounds quite a bit like Sweet Valley High. She finds a mix tape created for her by her high school boyfriend — and is there anything that more precisely defines everything we are supposed to love about the pre-digital era than The Mix Tape? Because she apparently lives in a bizarro universe, Theron’s car still has a tape deck. So she puts in the mix tape and starts singing along to Teenage Fanclub’s “The Concept,” which I’m sure is a song beloved by anyone who was precisely 17 in October 1991. While the credits roll, the camera fetishistically zooms into the cassette, the tape going round and round and round. It feels a little bit like we’re being set up for an extended trip down memory lane to Nostalgia Town, with a brief stopover in Twee Village and a hearty lunch at the Gosh-Wasn’t-Generation-X-Secretly-AWESOME Café. But as the credits continue, Theron continues rewinding the tape to the beginning, and listening to “The Concept,” and rewinding and listening, rewinding and listening. It’s no longer a nostalgic vision; it’s a vision of nostalgia steadily approaching madness.

Now, nostalgia isn’t a bad thing. Oh wait, actually, strike that: Nostalgia is a horrible thing. Rooted in the rose-colored remembrance of a time long gone by, nostalgia blinds us to the truth, the factuality, the actual thingness of a thing in favor of our frail perception of how much fun we used to have with that thing. But it’s only human to look back in longing to a time that seems less complicated (and more fun) than the present. It’s especially understandable now, in this cruel modern era, when our country has had to weather a decade of terrorism, war, psychotically divisive politics, and the slow-but-steady of the global economy. By comparison, the 1990s can’t help but look like a glowing wonderland of peace and prosperity: A time before strife, before reality TV, before Auto-Tune, before Michael Bay really became terrible.

After almost a decade of retr0-’80s chic, the 1990s have been coming back in a big way. TeenNick has reinvented itself as TV Land for twentysomethings. TV Land has reinvented itself as the Frankenstein clone of NBC’s “Must See TV” lineup. These are just early stirrings, but there is more on the way (a new American Pie movie, the burgeoning meta-career of James Van Der Beek), and if I know my generation, we are just a year or so away from a full-blown blast of ’90s nostalgia. There will be much talk about how the contemporary music scene is dominated by a monolith axis of teen pop, corporate rap, and Swedish beats, with Rihanna singing the chorus. There will be much talk about how kids today like the Hannah Montana and the iCarly and the Twilight. There may even be some complaints that Hollywood used to make real movies, and not just endless superhero franchises.

Some of those complaints are reasonable, but they are all predicated on the argument that the 1990s were somehow better. And therein lies the problem: The 1990s were horrible. In the 1990s, rock and roll flailed through one final deconstructive burst of creativity (grunge rock) before evolving in two distinctive awful directions: the bourgeois pep of pop-punk and the slurry anti-music known as rap-rock. In the 1990s, Hollywood perfected the aesthetic of global-appeal flavorless blockbusters, cranking out flavorless tripe like Independence Day (worse than you remember), Twister (proof that digital effects not crafted by Steven Spielberg rarely age well), or The Rock (proof that Michael Bay was never as good as you remember).

Anyone who thinks that Hollywood’s treatment of women is problematic today should peek back at the 1990s, where “women’s pictures” were either erotic thrillers that equated a female sexual appetite with homicide or extremely unsettling romantic comedies like While You Were Sleeping — in which beloved Hollywood star Sandra Bullock plays an insane stalker-woman who pretends to love a man in a coma but then falls in love with his brother — and You’ve Got Mail, in which beloved Hollywood star Tom Hanks plays a horrible taunting douchebag who essentially spends half the movie playing an elaborate game of Wait Until Dark with poor confused Meg Ryan.

Now, of course the ’90s weren’t all bad. Although it technically debuted at the very, very end of the ’80s, The Simpsons spent the greater part of the decade pushing the entire medium of television in a million exciting directions. And yet, as much as you have to admire its accomplishments, you also have to note that The Simpsons were pretty lonely at the pinnacle of television. Cable television was still primordial; Friends clones reigned supreme; Matlock was still on. The most admirable thing about The Simpsons was that it paved the way for the medium-wide creative renaissance that TV experienced in the ’00s.

That’s actually a common thread when you examine the 1990s: Even the best parts about the era only really began to pay off in the ’00s. The ’90s witnessed the rise of a whole generation of independent filmmakers like Steven Soderbergh, Quentin Tarantino, and (in the distant mists of England) Christopher Nolan, but you could argue that Hollywood really became exciting when it started giving those filmmakers a place in the studio chain. The first Harry Potter book came out in ’97, but the series only really got good in the ’00s, when it tapped in (perhaps unconsciously) to the global mood of paranoia. Likewise, I will always have a spot place in my heart for Total Request Live, the music-video countdown that defined the teen-pop era of MTV. But in hindsight, Total Request Live just looks like an extended awkward warm-up for YouTube.

Heck, as much as people complain that the Internet ruined the music industry, the argument cuts both ways: In the ’90s, the only real method for a band to get big was to go through the labels. Which meant there was no Justin Bieber, but also there was no Arcade Fire. I suspect that one of the main issues people have with our modern era is that — because of the splintering of pop culture — most media have reached an all-or-nothing point. Television is simultaneously better than it’s ever been (see: Breaking Bad) and worse than it’s ever been (see: reality shows).

But this is obscuring the main point of ’90s nostalgia: The notion that, even if our culture wasn’t better back then, it was more fun, and safer, and less scary. None of that is true. The 1990s saw the emergence of a new American narrative: The Angry Melancholy of the Upper-Middle-Class White Male. Movies as diverse as Reality Bites, Falling Down, American Beauty, Office Space, and Fight Club tapped into the same well of Caucasian-dude self-pity: A free-floating anxiety that the good times were over, that our fathers betrayed us, that we were living in a boring time period, that job security wasn’t enough. Only one of those movies really holds up now — Office Space was savvy enough to give the material a light touch. The rest of those movies simultaneously look utterly inconsequential (in light of 9/11) and eerily prescient. A liberal sees in Fight Club the birth of the Tea Party; a conservative looks at Fight Club and sees the birth of Occupy Wall Street.

There was more going on in the 1990s than the sadness of white men. Much more. Nineties nostalgia is, in a sense, nostalgia for a time before Americans actively had to care about the outside world — a time when the Rwandan Genocide got less press than the O.J. Simpson trial. One of the most terrifying sequences in this season of American Horror Story presented a mid-’90s school shooting — the sort of event which happened with shocking frequency during the decade, and which created (in my corner of American suburbia, anyways) an all-encompassing anxiety that seems totally absent from the history books.

Listen, I’m not a robot. Some part of me will always love the things I loved when I was a kid. A rush of memories hits me when I watch the credits for Hey Dude or realize that I can quote whole scenes of Men in Black from memory. I will never be capable of not buying new albums by anyone associated with Blink-182, even if nothing they come up with will ever equal the experience of playing “All The Small Things” on repeat with my windows down while driving down the highway away from school on a Friday.

But it’s important to keep nostalgia in perspective. We should look to the past with clear, skeptical eyes. We should be willing to challenge our preconceptions about the things we loved when we were young. We should remember that Pulp Fictionthe best movie of the ’90s — was soundly defeated at the Oscars by a movie that was a madhouse of cutesy revisionist history and boomer self-congratulation! Actually, maybe Forrest Gump really was the ultimate ’90s movie: Relentlessly nostalgic, and much worse than you remember.

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

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