MUSIC: Reliving the '90s

Written by Steve Pierce on . Posted in Music

I have a theory that I have cultivated over the past few years and propagated to just about anyone within earshot. It goes something like this — culture (and specifically American popular culture) runs in 20-year cycles. Think about it. Approximately 20 years after a certain style of music or trend or fashion was first cool, we tend to re-appropriate it for our own modern usage, if still with slight modifications.

A broad example: the slew of ’80s parties that marked the last decade of Provo weekends. It was simultaneously ironic and cool to get nostalgic for the dancing, fashion and trends of the Reagan era — you guessed it, 20 years after the fact. This ’80s revival peaked in 2009 with the death (and subsequent career renaissance) of pop icon Michael Jackson — an event which defined our lovefest with the decade, but also marked our transition into the 2010s and, per my theory, a 1990s nostalgia to boot.

Don’t tell me you haven’t noticed it. The ’90s are making a comeback. Where Provo youth once craved legwarmers and frizzy hair, they now wax nostalgic over Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers and late ’90s boy bands they totally pretended to loathe when said groups were actually (non-ironically) popular. Hell, another James Cameron monstrosity even rests atop the box office again for the first time since 1997 (albeit without the dazzling star power of a young Leonardo DiCaprio).

Still skeptical of my theory? Think about some of the most recent fashion trends, then consider their cultural roots. Case-in-point: you can’t walk anywhere in the year 2010 without seeing a multitude of young, hip men dressed in well-tailored flannel shirts. Now, we didn’t snatch this idea directly from the lumberjacks; nay, the flannel shirt first prominently entered American popular culture in the grunge scene of the early 1990s. Granted, Kurt Cobain and his mop-topped contemporaries wore them oversized and unbuttoned most of the time, but they pioneered the look as an acceptable fashion choice nonetheless.

Now, 20 years later, we’ve resurrected these grunge relics while also adding our own modern spin. We don’t wear them loose and grimy like they did in Seattle circa 1993, because that would just be gross. Instead, we channel Cobain through our 2010 prism — clean, crisp, well-fitted — and come out with the $40 flannel you recently bought off the rack at Urban Outfitters. We’re essentially adopting the look, feel and meaning of styles and symbols from decades past, but also providing our own modern alterations to maintain their relevance.

These things are happening, whether we want to believe them or not, for better or for worse. We run in 20 year cycles, powered only by strands of memory and misplaced nostalgia for simpler times that weren’t, in reality, any simpler than today. But we like to think they were, and I suppose that’s fine. After all, I don’t make the rules — I just write about them.

I have no doubt it will only be a matter of time before it becomes uber-hip to host Dawson’s Creek marathons, seeing as it’s already become acceptable to drive down the highway and scream along to “I Don’t Want to Wait” by Paula Cole (the show’s very ’90s theme song) at the top of your lungs. Indeed, we’ve thrown ourselves headlong into this most recent revival over the past six months — undoubtedly because our generation was actually alive and socially conscious for most of this stuff, providing a strong emotional tie to the decade’s cultural oddities. We love the ’90s because we lived the ’90s, and now we want to do it all over again.

Such is the motivation behind local musician Drew Danburry’s new project, Reliving the ’90s. Each month of 2010, Danburry will produce a video featuring a cast of local musicians covering songs that graced the Billboard charts 20 years ago — with a bit of a modern spin, of  course.

As you may have guessed, this project a) essentially proves my theory all by itself, and b) has wrapped me up in its warm embrace of awesomeness. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to the series’ January installment, featuring local folk songstress Katie Brandeburg covering Lisa Loeb’s seminal love song “Stay” (embedded above), despite the fact that I can’t stand Loeb’s original recording. Just as we’ve collectively done with flannel shirts and the like, Danburry and his crew infuse this ’90s classic with a few new millennium sensibilities to create a version of the song that’s true to its origins while also maintaining accessibility for a modern audience — and it’s wonderful.

In reality, Danburry and Brandeburg’s “Stay” is the epitome of our constant desire to adopt and update the things of yesteryear, resulting in a carousel of culture that remains relatively the same even as we subtly change it to fit our evolving needs and tastes. Just as I’m excited to see the results of our latest and (potentially) greatest cultural reinvention, I’ll be waiting with baited breath for each and every musical time machine Danburry and his band of merry co-conspirators can produce to take me back down memory lane without ever having to really remove my feet from modern ground. I hope you’ll join me.

Steve Pierce is editor and co-founder of Rhombus.

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