December 06, 2011 at 11:00 PM EST
Lee Ann Womack: Paul Natkin/Image Direct

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.

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