The 20th century brought us many wonderful things: nuclear power, Birkenstock sandals, personal computers, SPAM.
But it also gave us a unique idea: the decade.
Before the 20th century, a decade was just a chunk of ten years. But in the 1900s, people began to get the sense that these ten-year periods could be defined and distinguished by the trends, figures, and fashions that were prominent in them.
When consumer culture reached dizzying new heights in the post-World War II glow, the first decade (in this sense) took shape in the ‘50s, defined in popular imagination by cars, hoop skirts, anti-communism, and rock’n’roll.
For much of the 20th century, each decade could be defined by how different it was to the ones it followed. Rockabilly became flower power became bell-bottoms became Gordon Gekko. If one person from 1940 stepped into 1960, they would be instantly recognizable as out of place.
Starting in the 1970s, though, a lot of pop culture became nostalgia culture, and people fixated on ideas of what they thought the past used to look like. The romance of idealized times past was positively addictive, as more and more movies, television, music, and books were cranked out which both showed how unlike the present earlier decades were, but also how they were kind of better, in a way.
So what about now?
Well, now, we have the internet, and while that might not seem so important, it’s actually massive.
The internet gives us the power to summon up nearly any image, film, sound, or text from recorded history within seconds (minutes, if Google’s being stubborn). The ‘90s were supposed to be the decade of launching into the future, but we didn’t know at the time that we’d be recycling a lot of what we were doing, seeing, tasting, wearing, and saying at the time 20 years on.
While some things like beards and bicycles have been pretty steady in their ability to go in and out of fashion, the whole pattern of recycling what was popular 20-30 years ago is pretty novel, and it’s almost certainly got something to do with how much time we spend depicting, talking about, thinking about, and viewing images of the past.
Here are a few of the ways in which the past comes back around, and why we’re happy to see it when it does.
Just after a brand or a style has passed out of fashion, the trend-conscious wouldn’t be caught dead in it, and it soon becomes either forgotten or mocked. (Think baggy shirts, choker collars, and tiny backpacks.) What was up is now down.
But a funny thing happens after a little while:
Something that used to be fashionable sticks in people’s minds as something that used to be fashionable, and they get a warm feeling when they think of their childhoods or times past when those shoes/glasses/media players were in high demand, and then, ironically at first, and then in earnest, they swing right back into fashion again.
A great example is high-waisted jeans. Back in the late ‘90s and early 2000s, anyone with any fashion sense sneered at these as mom jeans. Hip-hugging, low-cut jeans were in, and before long they’d be overtaken themselves by yoga pants or leggings. But mom jeans bounced back because the high waist is more comfortable to wear, while the straight leg is more accommodating for different body types and less worrisome to the self-conscious. What was once taboo swung all the way back into first place,
364 million pairs of women’s jeans were sold in the U.S. in 2019, up from 22 million in 2018.
But the comfort of high-waisters aside, why does this happen? Fashion historian James Laver created a theoretical timeline for fashion, in which it’s indecent ten years before its time, hideous ten years after, and amusing 30 years after. The department store Neiman Marcus even used this idea to stock its shelves in the ‘60s. But that doesn’t explain the resurgence of late ‘90s fashion in 2019, or the explosion of flat caps on bearded 30-somethings these days.
Laver’s timeline: Shameless five years before its current - Daring one year before - Frumpy one year after - Hideous ten years after - Beautiful 150 years later
It seems a lot more likely that, as far into the future as we are, we spend a lot of our time focusing on the past and remembering what we enjoyed about it. We then recycle what we used to wear and enjoy because we can count on others having had the same feelings, which helps us feel not ridiculous, but knowledgeable, or even, in a roundabout way, trendy all over again.
Film reboots like RoboCop and The Lion King, as well as yet another live-action Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie; Lady Gaga, Adele, and BTS; ports of Nintendo 64 games for Android and PC.
This is a tiny sampler of the properties, works, or trends that have been rebooted, repackaged, referenced, or otherwise recycled since 2000.
2005 was the record-setting year for film reboots, with 33 released in that year alone.
What reboots tell us is that people still want (or at least producers and designers think people still want) the same stories they grew up with, although maybe with slightly better special effects and an updated wardrobe.
You could say that this started with hip-hop. Back in the ‘80s, hip-hop began to take center stage in the controversy over sampling, in which musicians would recycle older songs to create new works. But what early hip-hop artists like Public Enemy, Run-DMC, and De La Soul were doing was just a more straightforward version of really good nostalgia: recall what made the past seem pleasant or desirable or interesting and recast it in a way that makes a new point.
Statistics show that Hollywood remakes the same movie every 23 years on average. What’s even more interesting, though, is that once a remake is made, the amount of time until the next remake is significantly shortened.
Take Spider-Man, for example.
The first Spider-Man movie was made for television in 1977. Then Sam Raimi’s reboot came along in 2002 - 25 years later - followed by two sequels, a second reboot ten years later, and a third five years after that.
Spider-Man (1977) - Spider-Man (2002) - The Amazing Spider-Man (2012) - Spider-Man: Homecoming (2017)
An astonishing example of the power of the internet to revive and reinflate: in 2007, singer Rick Astley’s 1987 single “Never Gonna Give You Up” was used in an obscure in-joke on the message board 4chan, which eventually became the ‘Rickrolling’ phenomenon. What no one could have known is that Astley, who had been retired since 1993, would experience one of the most unusual career revivals after this. Astley has since released three best-selling albums, and in 2019 even opened for ‘90s legends Take That, themselves the beneficiaries of a return to popularity.
We live in the Technological Age. There has never been a period more defined by the use of advanced technology in daily life than this one. So it might seem a little odd that something like outdated technology could make a comeback, right?
Well, as practical and pragmatic as technology is, it’s never free of design or cultural considerations. If that were the case, we’d all have learned simple programming languages to interact with our computers, none of which would have the sleek, sci-fi packaging that’s deliberately designed to make us feel like we’re in Star Trek.
Blogger Patrick Metzger has described fashion and pop culture as working on a ‘30-year pendulum’ - 30 years after it first got old, it bounces back new, if only because the people who enjoyed the thing in question - Silver Age comics, Crystal Pepsi, Ben Stiller, what-have-you - are by then financially solvent adults, living in a world in which nothing ever truly disappears, and these adults are only too eager to purchase a little piece of the past in an effort to capture that feeling again.
So we get: relaunches of old Nokia phones like the 8110 and the 3310; a modest revival of cassette tapes; vinyl LPs in every surviving record store; and reproductions of the Super NES.
Even late ‘90s mega-hit Tamagotchi has a new lease on life with the price ramped up to $59.99 and special editions being released periodically.
So why is this?
A lot of it’s to do with marketing. Tech is released as a product, which means the company releasing it has to find ways to get you to buy it, whether through advertising or product placement. The aforementioned Nokia 8110 became enormously popular in 1997 after Keanu Reeves’ character in The Matrix drops one out of a window. (This was somehow a selling point.)
So technology is always couched in popular or consumerist culture, which influences how we feel about it. The reason you probably don’t have strong feelings about basement-filling reel-to-reel mainframe computers from the late ‘50s is that they were never sold to you. They were revolutionary, but they weren’t easy to consume. When we’re sold tech, we’re sold a thing that has some appeal to us: we can play on it, we can talk with it. We’re not really worried about how advanced it is, but about how it makes us feel.
So when you see kids walking around today wearing Reeboks, mom jeans, and round glasses, while blasting Prince on a sparkling new Walkman on their way to see The Goonies XIII: Chunk’s Return, take a second to think about it. Chances are you’re actually looking at something really interesting about 21st century culture. Just don’t be annoyed that you already saw it 30 years ago.
Featured image by Pixabay