WASHINGTON, DC: The ‘90s are back.
Exhibit A is the news that the beloved Tanner family of “Full House” fame will be returning to our TVs — or any other screen of our choosing — in a Netflix reboot scheduled for 2016. And the new “Fuller House” isn’t the only, or even strongest, evidence of turn-of-the-century deja vu.
Recent months have brought other ‘90s TV revivals, such as a “Boy Meets World” spinoff and Fox’s announcement of a new series of “The X-Files.” Hopeful investors are meanwhile inquiring about the market value of their prized Princess Di-inspired Beanie Babies. The wacky adventures of Screech from “Saved by the Bell” are garnering headlines anew. Massive amounts of hype and cash are flowing toward Silicon Valley start-ups that seem to have nonexistent revenue streams.
Certain elements of ‘90s-era fashion have returned, too. Witness the revival of culottes, crop-tops and that abominable garment once known as “leggings” (newly rebranded under the faux-health-conscious name of “yoga pants”). Even Kurt Cobain has a new single out.
And, last but not least, a Bush vs. Clinton presidential race could be in the offing. Can it be long before one of them — Jeb, perhaps? — hits the trail sporting “The Rachel”?
It’s tempting to explain away all this as indistinguishable from any previous outbreak of monetized nostalgia, what the fictional ad executive Don Draper described as capitalizing on that “twinge in your heart.” Cottage industries have sprung up to make a quick buck off the pop cultural accouterments of every aging generation; even the theme song to the original “Full House” expressed an aching for the golden days of yore, an era of “predictability — the milkman, the paper boy, evening TV.” Media innovators such as BuzzFeed have refined the nostalgia-milking industry into an A/B-tested science, through endless “you might be a nineties kid if” listicles, replete with the many toys and treats of happy millennial childhoods: Ring Pops, Tamagotchis, Dunkaroos, Lisa Frank Trapper Keepers.
But I suspect there is something particularly appealing about reviving the ‘90s today, and it’s not just because we millennials are growing up and wanting to relive the sugar and schmaltz of our youth. The ‘90s were an unusually happy time for Americans more broadly, on two key fronts.
One was economics.
The economy of the ‘90s was bright and blossoming, marred only slightly by a shallow recession that lasted just eight months. Economic expansion was so strong, steady and prolonged that economists began to think they had finally tamed the business cycle, leading to a new era hubristically dubbed “the Great Moderation.”
It was, after all, a time of booming productivity growth, price stability, low unemployment and rising living standards. The job market was so tight politicians could kick millions of Americans off the welfare rolls and expect many of them to find stable employment.
Inequality was expanding rapidly, sure, especially in the second half of the decade, but people didn’t seem to mind because those at the bottom were seeing their fortunes swell, too. The rising tide was lifting all boats; who cared if it lifted yachts a bit more than your run-of-the-mill canoe?
The second aspect of this golden age was, at least in the United States, a pervasive feeling of relative peace and safety.
Between the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the declaration of the War on Terror almost exactly a decade later, Americans’ greatest existential threat was no villainous superpower or radical guerilla group but an unarmed bogeyman called Y2K. It seems silly to call any time “a simpler time,” but in a way it was: This was, remember, a period when rom-com heroes could jump the line at airport security to catch itinerant pretty girls before they flew away forever.
Those of us who grew up in this golden age, awash in both peace and prosperity, may not have been totally cognizant then of how fortunate we were. But today, in an economy that has kicked some of us to the curb, where violence and terror seem to lurk around every bend, it’s hard not to look back wistfully, even enviously, at the safety and security of our childhoods.
Which is why I suspect you may see a disconnect emerging in the commentary surrounding the politics of the upcoming presidential race. The prospect of a dynastic Bush vs. Clinton face-off might have older generations retching and eye-rolling. But don’t be surprised if it makes my generation feel a little warm and fuzzy instead.
© 2015, THE WASHINGTON POST WRITERS GROUP
Catherine Rampell’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org