Hot '90s acts are cool again

August 04, 2005|By Rebecca Louie | Rebecca Louie,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

Still savoring '70s chic and '80s emulation?

As if!

The 1990s are the "It"-era of today.

Though the not-so-distant decade ended only five years ago, its "sooo last century" status has been reason enough for the entertainment industry to start recycling its wares.

Rhino Records' new release, Whatever: The '90s Pop & Culture Box, is a seven-disc compilation that features hum-happy hit makers like Crash Test Dummies and Hanson and underground bands like Stereolab and Cibo Matto.

Since-cooled hot acts have also found a home on the small screen. Reality television boasts an impressive roster of '90s names: Bobby Brown, Tommy Lee, INXS and TLC all headline their own series. Programs like NBC's Hit Me Baby One More Time and VH1's The Surreal Life feature a revolving door of familiar faces. This year, VH1 rolled out I Love the '90s: Part Deux, a sequel to its hit campy clip show I Love the '90s.

While it may seem premature to tap a keg of culture that has had little time to ferment, the thirst to dwell in and on the past is fed by deeper social and psychological needs.

"People tend to look back to cultural events, ranging from clothing to music to food, that were popular in their late adolescence and early adulthood," says Morris Holbrook, professor of marketing at Columbia University's Graduate School of Business. "Nostalgia generates the feelings you had at a time when you felt secure, sheltered and safe."

And feeling a little secure can go a long way, especially in the post-Sept. 11 era.

During the 1990s, political preoccupations included then-President Bill Clinton's tryst with Monica Lewinsky and the fight over young Cuban refugee Elian Gonzalez. The dot-com boom and general bull market kept consumers well-financed and fed.

Now, the war in Iraq has destabilized the country's economy and polarized its constituents. People live in constant fear of terrorist attacks.

"Who wants to live in this time in America?" says Carol Wilder, associate dean and chairwoman of the media studies department at the New School in New York. "Fear powerfully affects our ability to seek and process information. Living in the past is like having a thumb to suck on."

That, she says, explains the proliferation of reissued content, which, she adds, is ideal for media outlets because it's cheap and easy to produce.

"There is a gaping maw of 24/7 media to be fed," Wilder says. "If [reality shows] are cheap [to make], `re-editing' an inventory of film, television and such from the past hundred years is cheaper. Fear, denial, supply and demand - as American as apple pie."

During the 1990s, the airwaves served up a feast. The decade witnessed the birth of grunge music, the angst-filled, Seattle-based phenomenon that gave rise to rockers like Nirvana and Pearl Jam.

At the same time, hip-hop elbowed its way into the mainstream and, in just 10 years, went from MC Hammer to Biggie Smalls and Vanilla Ice to Eminem.

Commercial pop yielded saccharine fare like the Spice Girls and the dance craze "The Macarena." John Srebalus, one of the producers of Whatever: The '90s Pop & Culture Box, observes that the music of the era was notable for its diversity.

"Bands like No Doubt and LEN wanted to just have fun with music," he says. "In hip-hop, it became a badge of pride to do well financially, and artists did. And then you had the middle ground where you had people searching for artistic credibility, doing things for the sake of something new. There was a lot of self-expression. In youth culture, you were urged to do your own thing."

He also points to the 1990s as the era in which the pop industry began to exploit the commercial potential of consumers' nostalgia.

"A lot of the music of the '90s popularized [the consumption of] nostalgia because the reverence of the '70s began," he says. "Sampling in hip-hop had a lot to do with that, taking elements from the soul of the '60s and the '70s. That created a more immediate market for looking back."

Ultimately, looking back may be ideal for those who need a break from today's deluge of news and information.

"We live in a disposable pop-culture world, where something is hot one day and not the next," says Karla Hidalgo, an executive producer of VH1's I Love the '90s. "Information comes so fast through the Internet and cable, trends change so quickly. It's nice to look back to the '90s, when things weren't moving so fast and ideas and people were allowed to linger."

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