I’m still recovering from my week and a half stay in Austin, Texas, where I attended South by Southwest (SXSW), an annual mega-conference covering film, online life, and music, of which music is easily my favorite portion. Observers might mistake attendees like myself for people on a music-snob vacation, indulging ourselves with free beer and rocking out to some of the hottest bands in the country. Rest assured, many of us are hard-working cultural critics, imitating the rock-star lifestyle for four long, music-filled days so that we can come back and report on the latest trends, and what’s about to move from the margins to the mainstream. This year, the conclusion is unavoidable: The ’90s are back, in a big way.
Of course, attendees at last year’s festival saw this coming. Last year marked the smashing return of no-nonsense rock with performances by the likes of Le Butcherettes, Ty Segall, and Wild Flag. This year removed all doubt that the genre that ruled the airwaves in the early 90s was back in force—think Nirvana. In addition, you also have cheery, melodic girl group music such as Best Coast and Bleached, and Mazzy Star-like drone rock represented in popular groups like Chairlift and Widowspeak. But it was the clothes that really drove it home: beards, flower-print dresses, boots galore, hats, half shirts, and of course, grunge-inspired flannel. For those of us who lived through it the first time, it’s a little disconcerting, but I’m pleased to note that the flower-print dresses are less sack-like and unflattering than they were the first time around.
Is it just a matter of everything old being new again, or is there something else going on with this wave of '90s nostalgia? Hard to say, but then again, it’s hard to deny that there are parallels between the '90s and now that might be fueling a desire to return to the fashion and music of the era. Just as then, the country voted for a charismatic Democrat, rejecting the Republicans under President George W. Bush because of an economic downturn, only to turn around and hand Congress over to the Republicans in the mid-term elections. Those Republicans, furious at losing a White House they’ve come to believe is their birthright, use those electoral gains for no other purpose but obstructionism and to rain punishment on the country.
But the '90s weren’t a sour time, in no small part because the upcoming generation of young people were charming, funny, and more progressive than their parents (Full disclosure, I’m 34 years old, putting me in this cohort). Labeled Generation X, they expressed their enthusiasm by embracing hip-hop and alternative rock, saying yes to condoms, and Rocking the Vote. The rock music of the era reflected the mood. The sound was enthusiastic, loud, and liberated. Even bands like Nirvana, with their dark lyrics, had a playfulness and sense of humor that added to the exuberance.
Now we have the Millennials, the generation who answered Lady Gaga to Madonna, turning out for Barack Obama and wearing pretty much the same clothes we did when we voted for Clinton. Born in the mid-'80s and throughout the early '90s, was in fact credited with handing Obama the election by turning out in record numbers for the youthful candidate. We’re so much alike, these generations, it’s really no wonder that Millennials find our fashion and music so appealing. At SXSW, their affection for their elders was undeniable. It’s not a coincidence that the band of the festival was Wavves, a psych-punk band with a surf rock vibe that caused audiences to break into frenzied dancing and crowd-surfing like it was 1993.
When it comes to women in rock, the parallels between the '90s and now are even more fascinating. I made a point to see two of the most exciting bands of the past year or so, Best Coast and Bleached, and both of them and their audiences strongly reminded me of two of the best female rock acts of the '90s, Liz Phair and the Breeders.
Like the Breeders, Bleached is built around two sisters playing punked-out pop music with delicious melodies and a sharp sense of humor. For young women like myself, the Breeders—along with L7—were probably the most directly inspiring band if you wanted to be the sort of woman who could go about doing awesome things without feeling like your femaleness was a major burden. Bleached really captured that “Yeah, we’re ladies, get over it” feeling that meant so much back then.
Best Coast doesn’t have a lot of crossover musically with Liz Phair, at least on the surface. It mines sunny California pop, whereas Phair had a much more gritty sound on her first and most beloved album, Exile in Guyville. Still, watching the young women in the crowd sing along to every word of Best Coast reminded me of listening to Phair ten-plus years ago. Like Phair, lead singer Bethany Cosentino couples surprisingly dark lyrics about feminine longing and vulnerability with confident, hook-laden pop rock, giving the lyrics a chance to catch you by surprise. For some reason, Phair was treated like an obvious feminist in the '90s, and Cosentino is faced with accusations that her lyrics about romantic longing are somehow unfeminist. I challenge anyone to tell the difference between their lyrics, outside of Phair’s vulgarity. Both women sing songs that speak to young women’s frustrations with young men that feel compelled by masculine strictures not to treat young women with respect, much less cherish them.
Just as in the '90s, then, young women are absorbing rock music that tells them they really can have it all. They can be politically outspoken, funny, and ambitious without giving up on the desires that leave them vulnerable and, at times, hurt and lonely. Perhaps it’s because I grew up then, but this bout of '90s nostalgia gives me so much hope for the younger generation. It really was a time when young people felt assured of themselves even as they faced serious educational and economic obstacles. Seeing Millenials relate to that era makes me think there’s something seriously right about the younger generation.