I was supposed to be training for a six-mile marathon the next day, but instead I was doing something I’ve inadvertently been preparing for my entire life: drinking nostalgia, literally and figuratively, at a 1990s-themed bar crawl.
One decision my parents made sometime in December 1986 — “Hey, let’s have sex” — doomed me to a life of affection for my childhood, even (especially) as an adult. It’s why I listen to a podcast about the ’90s, know the lyrics to a Spin Doctors song that isn’t “Two Princes” and “Little Miss Can’t Be Wrong,” and, once, during a night of deep, dark depression, clicked on a “27 Things Only ’90s Kids Know” article. I’m not proud. But even I have my limits. Full House is bad, Fuller House is worse, and Spice World is the worst.
There, I said it.
But how does my irrational fondness — which, like all nostalgia, only remembers good stuff and channels out the bad; it’s selective, false memory — for that particular decade, the one that gave us Goosebumps, and Rocko’s Modern Life, and Tamagotchi, compare to other people’s? That’s what I set to find out at the ’90s Bar Crawl in Austin, Texas, which promised to take me “back to the glory days — to simpler times, when you used pogs to barter and when you drove karts instead of cars.” But first: a ’90s quiz.
A Google search for “what is 90s kid” landed me on Quibblo. “If you can answer the majority of the questions correctly,” the website alleges, “you can officially call yourself a 90’s kid.” Question, the first: “Complete this statement: Iiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiinnnnnnnnnn West Philadelphia born and raised _______.” Sh*t, I was going to ace this, and officially become a ’90s kid.
My score was “better than 84% of people who took this quiz.” Yay? Could be worse, I suppose. Little did I know how true this was about to be. Here’s what I learned about the 1990s and so-called ’90s Kids at the bar crawl, as sorted by the song I heard the most from every year of that horrible, horrible decade.
1990 — “Step by Step” by New Kids on the Block
My favorite memory of the entire crawl came during bar number four or five — once you’ve seen one faded poster of Willie Nelson, you’ve seen ‘em all — when the DJ played the Metallica-inspired “I Want It That Way,” only to turn it off midway through. The majority of the crowd was furious; the minority was elated, because the next song was “Step by Step.” There’s a clear divide between ‘90s fandoms: Martin vs. Seinfeld, as American Crime Story taught us, but also New Kids On the Block vs. Backstreet Boys/NSYNC. If you’re, roughly, over 35 years old, you prefer New Kids; if you’re under, you’re all about BSB and NSYNC. (If you don’t like either, you’re a goddamn liar.)
Me, I was all about NSYNC, but I oddly didn’t hear a single song of theirs during the crawl. Meanwhile, Backstreet Boys were on a near-constant loop, with some singles being played more than once. (Shout out to whoever blasted “Everybody (Backstreet’s Back)” twice in a row.) I guess that means A.J. McLean, Howie Dorough, Nick Carter, Kevin Richardson, and Brian Littrell are more quintessentially 1990s than J.C. Chasez, Chris Kirkpatrick, Joey Fatone, Lance Bass, and Justin Timberlake? It probably has something to do with that last name. Thanks to his successful solo career, and that he surrounds himself with the right people, and he’s a charming dork who’s also a pretty good actor, Timberlake is less of a nostalgia act than the first draft that led to Justified, FutureSex/LoveSounds, and The 20/20 Experience. Lance Bass is a punchline to a dated joke, but most people know at least one thing about him other than he was in NSYNC (who, it should be noted, have only reunited once, at the MTV Music Video Awards; Backstreet Boys are reportedly hitting the road with Spice Girls on Boys v. Girls Tour this year). Say one fact about Kevin Richardson, other than he was The Guy Who Isn’t The Cute One In Backstreet Boys. It’s impossible. Timberlake managed to escape the 1990s — not everyone can say that. Here’s where I’d normally make a joke about someone from New Kids On the Block, but whatever, they stink.
1991 — “Motownphilly” by Boyz II Men
I am 28 years old, meaning I was born in 1987. I experienced most of the 1990s at an optimistically impressionable age, when everything was the best and nothing was the worst. For that reason, and because they’re smooth as hell, I think Boyz II Men is the best. While waiting for a flight at an airport recently, I was listening to “End of the Road” just as I hit the end of the terminal and had to turn around. I was embarrassingly happy. Boyz II Men is a very specific group for a very specific era — 1991-1995 (I still remember hearing song after song of theirs on the bus to school; the bus driver probably should have picked something more age appropriate) — but they’re still super popular. Even among people who weren’t alive when II was released. The women in the crawl crowd, who looked like they turned 21 years old that day, knew every word to “Motownphilly,” “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday,” “On Bended Knee,” all the hits. Who are these people? Did their moms introduce them to “I’ll Make Love to You”? Did they find CooleyHighHarmony organically? Why do I sound so gosh-darn old?
Boyz II Men doesn’t make me feel like a boy or a man. More of a crotchety grandfather.
1992 — “Smells Like Teen Spirit” by Nirvana
The next time you’re killing time with friends, ask them: when you think of the 1990s, what’s the first thing that comes to mind? I recently did this with a cousin, who was born in 1999, and she answered Hey Arnold. Certainly all the NickToons were a huge part of my childhood (and one of the few grade school artifacts that still holds up), but I’m not listening to the Aah! Real Monsters soundtrack on a daily basis. My ‘90s is Pavement, and Guided by Voices, and A Tribe Called Quest, and Roseanne, and most importantly, The Simpsons. It’s inarguably the best comedy of the 1990s, and probably in television history, but I didn’t see a single bootleg Black Bart shirt or “TIME FOR CHILI” hat. Meanwhile, goddamn Space Jam sh*t was everywhere (more on this later).
Also, Nirvana. Always Nirvana.
It would kill Kurt Cobain to hear this (I mean, if he wasn’t already dead), but “Smells Like Teen Spirit” fits comfortably beside “Barbie Girl.” The same people freaked out to Sisqó’s “The Thong Song” and “Come As You Are” (I prefer “Thong Song,” I’m not kidding). Nirvana is a cultural bridge between those who care too much about pop culture, and the casual observers; between people who genuinely appreciate and nerd out over Steve Albini’s production on In Utero, and people — at the crawl, they were farmer-tanned frat dudes in ironic Muggsy Bogues jerseys slurring their way through “In Bloom” — who don’t know who Steve Albini is. Neither group is wrong, unlike anyone who says “rock is dead,” or “things aren’t as good as they used to be.” I’m calling BS on that. Nirvana is held up as a shining example of Everything Right with Music. That’s wrong. Nirvana was amazing, and remains essential, but it’s not as if guitar music was shot in the head the day Cobain killed himself, and the generic Creeds of the world took over. The current “Top Rock Songs” Billboard chart is a joke, with twenty one pilots, X Ambassadors, and Disturbed all at the top, but dig a little deeper online, put in an ounce of effort, and you’ll find some amazing records from the likes of Car Seat Headrest, Mitski, and PUP. They lack the household recognition of Nirvana, but just as Nevermind famously out-sold Michael Jackon’s Dangerous, ushering in a new age of grunge, now rap dominates the charts. That’s a good thing! Popular music should be different. Eventually, it will swing back around, or a new genre will dominate. The future is thrilling — the past is, well, past.
I think that’s what bugs me about a lot of ’90s nostalgia. It’s glorifying the ways things were, instead of thinking about how things could be.
1993 — “Hey Jealousy” by Gin Blossoms
Nostalgia is a funny thing. The mood at the bar crawl would have you believe the ’90s were an easier, simpler time (this is not true at all — they were awful, like most decades). You could walk down the street to Tower Records, a Starbucks coffee in hand, and pick up the latest Gin Blossoms album. Which is to say, the only Gin Blossoms album anyone ever owned (I will go to the grave defending New Miserable Experience — it’s packed with jangle-pop hits — and now I feel like dying for defending the Gin Blossoms). But before leaving the house, you’d put on your choker, if you were a girl, or something bright and hideous out of AC Slater’s closet, if you were a boy. Or, more likely, you threw on a flannel shirt and ripped jeans. The fashion, at least, was easier, simpler.
It was the defining style at the bar crawl. Men and women alike dressed like Kurt Cobain, skaters, and lumberjack Dexter Morgan. It’s easy to see why: It’s a damn good look. Flannel, band T-shirt, jeans? You can’t go wrong there; it works for both genders, it’s ironic but stylish (I think I just summed up the ‘90s), and it’s super easy to put together. Slip dresses? Get out of here. The “Pearl Jam’s roadie” look? Now we’re talking. Also, overalls. Midway through the crawl, I texted a female friend of mine, “Everyone here is dressed like you.” She never responded. I’m still not sure if she was flattered or offended.
1994 — “The Sign” by Ace of Base
For years, the first song when listed alphabetically by artist on my iTunes was “The Sign” by Ace of Base. Every time I accidentally pushed played on my iPod, I heard “The Sign.” In my nightmares, I heard (and still hear) “The Sign,” always at a disproportionally loud volume. The song has driven me to madness, the same way I can’t hear this ’90s lunacy without shuddering because that was the sound my alarm clock made every morning to alert me, oh goodie, another horrible day of school. Naturally, I heard “The Sign” no less than four times during the bar crawl, and with every play, I grew more and more angry at the casual Ace of Base fans who didn’t understand that life is demanding, and “All That She Wants” is a better song, anyway.
Eventually, I deleted “The Sign” from not existence (sorry, Girl Talk), but at least my iTunes, and now the first song is by Action Bronson. Every time I accidentally push play, I hear “Pouches of Tuna”… (I will never download the alphabetical-friendly ABBA. Dancing Queen” would send me to the nut house).
1995 — “Big Poppa” by the Notorious B.I.G.
I came to the Notorious B.I.G. later than I should have. Or maybe not. It’s hard to say whether an 8-year-old from lilywhite upstate New York is better listening to something great that he can’t comprehend at such a young age, or if he should get the crap out of his system first, then move on to the good stuff. It’s the argument that you can only appreciate fancy wine by drinking gas station Merlot. I’m sure I heard “Big Poppa” and “One More Chance” on the bus ride to school, but I was too distracted singing along to Blessid Union of Souls and “Run-Around” by Blues Traveler (dig that harmonica solo!) to notice. Now, of course, Ready to Die is one of my favorite albums of all-time — meanwhile, I gave away Four years ago as a gag Christmas present.
“Big Poppa” finished No. 47 on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1995, which seems criminally low, especially considering Sophie B. Hawkins’ “As I Lay Me Down” topped it by eight slots. Then again, I have no nostalgia for her. That Community episode? It left little impression, except for the wordplay hilarity that comes with Britta throwing a Sophie B. Hawkins dance as a protest against the sexist Sadie Hawkins dance. It’s a weird feeling when you’re expected to know a song, or have seen a movie, because it came out when you’re at an impressionable age. We all do it. I did it when Jurassic World came out, and I found out a friend had never seen Jurassic Park.
In my defense, not knowing “As I Lay Me Down” isn’t as much of a pop culture blindspot as not watching Jurassic Park, but I don’t hold it against my friend, nor should my knowledge, or lack thereof, of mid-1990s female singer-songwriters be held against me. Unless we’re talking about Lisa Loeb, in which case [rambles for 46 minutes about the “Stay (I Missed You)” music video].
1996 — “Macarena (Bayside Boys Mix)” by Los del Río
1997 — “I Believe I Can Fly” by R. Kelly
Sorry in advance.
Nothing says “Unimportant ‘90s Nostalgia” like Space Jam. Great soundtrack, terrible movie. Even when I first saw it in a theater as a dumb kid, I knew this movie was… not good. Of course, I never admitted that to my friends at the time. Michael Jordan! Bill Murray! Newman! Sexy Lady Bugs Bunny! What’s not to like? Besides the stiff acting, feeble story, and unsubtle product placement. I love terrible movies from my childhood as much as the next guy (I have seen Dunston Checks In more than once — no one should see Dunston Checks In ever), but not Space Jam, which was represented by multiple Tune Squad jerseys. Never Space Jam. In fact, let’s boycott Space Jam (and Space Jam 2), which was released during peak MJ fever, between his fourth and fifth NBA Championships, for good. What mid-1990s movie should become inexplicably popular in its place? I’m thinking The Big Green. If I don’t see one guy dressed like Bug Hall at next year’s bar crawl, I’m going to be pissed.
1998 — “You’re Still the One” by Shania Twain
Shania Twain’s Come On Over is one of the highest selling albums ever. The country-pop record has moved more copies than Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Jagged Little Pill, and Born In the U.S.A., yet “Man! I Feel Like a Woman!” and “You’re Still the One,” two of Come On Over’s staggering 12 (!) singles, have faded into obscurity compared to the hits from the similar-selling Bat Out of Hell and Rumours. I didn’t hear a single Shania song during the bar crawl, nor anything from Garth Brooks, or Alan Jackson.
This is egregious in Texas, yet somewhat understandable.
Country in the 1990s, some might say, suffers in the 2010s from a polished, dated production (I still unabashedly love it — crank that Brooks & Dunn!). It’s not as bad as listening to Bob Dylan’s mid-1980s work, when he tried to sound 15 years younger than he was and ended up embarrassing himself as someone 15 years older, but it’s not great, either. Traditionalists disavow No Fences, and the casual karaoke-goer would choose nine Britney Spears songs before getting around to “Two of a Kind, Workin’ on a Full House.” Which brings us to…
1999 — “…Baby One More Time” by Britney Spears
Britney Spears only released one album in the 1990s — that would be the 30-times platinum …Baby One More Time — but you wouldn’t know by looking around the crowd at the bar crawl. At least a dozen women were dressed in Britney’s music video outfits from throughout her career, and every one of her candy-coated songs was greeted with exuberant, drunken cheering. The awkwardly sexual “Baby” took the crowd back to a middle school dance, and “From the Bottom of My Broken Heart” to the day after, when you wondered why the girl/boy you liked refused to slow-grind with you. I respected the DJs respecting the bar crawl’s decade theme by not playing anything from Oops!… I Did It Again, which contains some of her biggest hits (including my favorite, “Lucky”) but didn’t come out until after oops… Y2K didn’t kill us all.
This, I imagine, would shock the casual admirer of Britney’s, who associates her with the 1990s more than the 2000s. I’m unsure why this is, exactly. My half-baked theory is that when most people think of Britney, they still see her as a bored schoolgirl waiting to play basketball in a sports bra. These people are also creeps, but it’s her defining red jacket in the “Beat It” music video look. Britney (and Tinky-Winky) will always be her Rolling Stone cover. (It also means we don’t have to think about the all-too-relatable dark days.)
Near the end of the night, I took an informal poll of bar crawlers, asking them which artists they most correlate with the ’90s. Besides the one girl who answered Chumbawamba (it may have been Chumbawamba’s drummer?), everyone else replied with either Britney or one of the two major boy bands (BSB and NSYNC). If you can’t trust the definition of the 1990s from an inebriated guy in a Fresh Prince of Bel-Air shirt, who can you trust?