A Compelling Case For Why ’90s Kids Need To Snap Back To The Present
When I was still in school, a bunch of my friends’ dads used to walk around with stubby pagers strapped to their belts. They were hideous. At the time, I used to wonder why my dad didn’t own one. “Are we,” gasp, “poor?” I questioned occasionally. A quick primer for anyone who’s not a fossil: pagers are ancient 20th-century devices that people used to own in a pre-cell-phone world. I don’t remember what it is they did exactly, but they did something. I think they were like cell phones except that you couldn’t make or receive calls on them. And you couldn’t play Snake either. The closest things we had back then were the toy walkie-talkies for children. Oh, and cordless phones.
It’s become an internet catchphrase now: “Only ’90s kids will get this!” Attach any pointless relic from a bygone era to a post on social media, caption it with a nudging-winking sentimentality, and you’ll get thousands of young adults reminiscing over childhoods they remember fondly. And it needs to stop. Pagers. Nataraj pencils. Ramayan on TV on Sundays. F.R.I.E.N.D.S. Gaudy music videos on MTV. Floppy disks. Friendship wristbands, slam books and FLAMES. Sachin Tendulkar in Sharjah. Tazos and trump cards. WWF. That ‘blip-bloop’ sound your computer made when you connected to the internet using a landline. The Walkman. The Discman. Contra. It all needs to stop.
This is what our grandparents used to do when we were young: they’d prattle on endlessly about how much cheaper everything used to be back in their day, until we begged them to shut up. And here we are now, doing the exact same thing.
I should confess that I’m being a tad disingenuous here. I understand nostalgia intimately, and I’m well aware of its irresistible lure. Put two beers in me, fill up the room with people I grew up with, and I will probably spend the entire evening rhapsodising about Mango Bite, Tu Tu Main Main and that Onida ad or something, and how being in my thirties totally sucks.
The reasons that the ’90s are still trending in pop culture, 20 years since they ended, are plenty. There’s the fact that most people who came of age or formed their first meaningful thoughts in the gaping hole called the ’90s are now working full-time jobs in the media. They’re in their late twenties or thirties or forties, and calling the shots. And so, naturally, they’re mining their childhoods and adolescence for content. It’s pop psychology 101, but as we become older, more burdened by responsibilities, more aware of the terrible things around us and, consequently, more jaded, our instinct is to cling to a romanticised past. As children, our worlds were narrow and colourful; we were bright-eyed and more open to new things. So our default reaction is to recall those innocent times.
It was also a period of great change. There were, like, a hundred different wars that took place over the decade. Countries and empires simply evaporated. Remember Yugoslavia? Poof. In India, too, the liberalisation of the country in ’91 exposed generations of kids to a whole new world that didn’t exist just a year or two before. We went, in Delhi, from eating Wimpy’s and Nirula’s burgers, which were great in their own right, to the joys of the global behemoth called McDonald’s. The Big Mac! Information became less filtered, easier to access. While our understanding of cultural differences and diversity may well be stilted even today, it at least had begun to expand ever so slowly from its previously motionless state.
A lot of the art created back then is cited as an influence in modern movements, and the ’90s can rightfully be looked at as a rewarding period of music, film, literature; all kinds of art, really. My musical grounding, too, is rooted in that period, with so much of its music creating a lasting impression on me, a lot of it still informing my politics and how I view the world at large.
And then there are the turbulent after-effects of the millennial shift. There exists an entire generation of people, some of them may well be 15 to 20 years apart in age, who’ve been defined by this one specific New Year’s Eve — Y2K and the global panic it brought. Anyone at an impressionable age during the turn of the millennium, the shift from the 1900s to the 2000s, has been loosely classified as a ‘millennial’. That’s a whole lot of baggage to carry around, let’s be fair here.
Which is all a roundabout way of saying that, yes, I do understand the romance attached to the period. It’s the same as our parents looking back fondly at, I don’t know, Kishore Kumar or The Beatles or black-and-white TVs or whatever. I’d be a shameless liar if I didn’t admit that navel-gazing trips down memory lane are an absolute ripping blast. But it’s a slippery slope, isn’t it?
My discomfort with glorifying bygone days lies not in the concept of it — I too had great times playing ‘pen-fight’ in school and watching Cartoon Network — but with the lens through which all of this is viewed. It’s been fetishised to a worrying degree. Today, nostalgia has been co-opted by unimaginative content generators and reduced to a cheap, garden-variety shorthand. ‘33 pretty mediocre FMCGs that’ll make you long for the ‘90s’ ad nauseam. Without naming names — a quick Google search will do that for you — there’s pretty much a nostalgia cottage industry out there. It’s an assembly line of garbage material churned out for easy eyeballs, numbers and ‘engagement’. Art, by its very design, is supposed to challenge. It’s supposed to question preexisting notions of the world, not cement them further. It’s supposed to excite and enthral and puzzle and exasperate you, it’s supposed to make you yearn for the past, but crave a brave new future.
Does the constant mass-production of ‘only ’90s kids will get this!’ disposable content accomplish any of these abstract ideas of what art can do? I’m not so sure. It feels symbolic, perhaps. Of a certain reluctance to acknowledge the joys of the present. Of a refusal to embrace the here and now. We are caught in an existential loop of ephemeral, instant stimulation for its own sake. Aka wankery. The repeated backward glances to what was, let’s be honest, a relatively pretty awful time (tapes getting stuck, CDs getting scratched, no public transport, shockingly regressive attitudes, very limited access to what was going on in the world or even next door, women and people on the margins treated even more poorly than now, constant power cuts and so on and on and on…) seems to stem as much from a need to enjoy a privileged past as it does from a strong resistance to change.
That’s really the whole problem. On its own, nostalgic reminiscing can be fun: a temporary escape from the rigours of life to recharge and refresh. But ever so often, a romanticised past seems to function as an emblematic trope signalling how terrible things are today (a constant refrain, and one I’m sick to death of hearing, is how difficult it is to find good, “honest” music nowadays, when it couldn’t be further from the truth: literally anyone can make and publish music today; all it takes is the effort of finding it and keeping an open mind).
To make a slightly contentious point, one which should be viewed in good faith and not as a literal comparison, the political situation in India these days is fraught, for so many reasons. And what we end up seeing is this unwillingness to make any real progress, and instead engage in circular arguments about a distant history. About freedom fighters who died 40 years ago, politicians whose names we hadn’t heard in decades, even about kings and emperors who probably existed 4000 years ago. It’s ridiculous that this is the discourse we have to swallow, but here we are. The danger — an extreme one, admittedly — of fawning over what’s behind us, specifically in regard to pop culture, is that we forget about the todays and the tomorrows for the sake of the yesterdays. We miss the forest for the trees.
Honestly, things are better than they’ve ever been in so many ways. Recycling and celebrating history, tempting as it is, signifies a rejection — or at least a contemptuous dismissal — of modern values and contemporary cultural developments. It suggests implicitly, but just as often explicitly that what we have today lacks merit or substance or, most excruciatingly, ‘soul’. It leaves us running around in circles, tied to a flawed version of the past. And worst of all, it’s annoying as heck.