Like us, you may have noticed recently that the abundance of pop hits coming out today are starting to sound just a little bit generic and at times, dare we say, even a bit dull and unflattering. It seems we might currently be in an era where pop music is struggling to find a bit of variety. But fear not, due to this abundance of today’s generic sounding hits, there very much seems to be a revival happening which artists are using to spice things up again.
That’s right, the 90s are very much back in fashion! And you really don’t need to look too far to see the influence this era is now having over today’s pop music. The exact reason for this is hard to pin down – whether people love it purely for the nostalgic element, or whether this decade simply just did produce more vibrant and better music, with it’s influence now rubbing off on today’s artists – we do not know for certain, what we do know is the 90s are very much back, and judging on how positively this revival is effecting today’s pop music, we’d very much like this era to stick around for a while.
Halsey’s latest hit single, “Without Me,” is in many ways entirely of the moment: a mid-tempo track with intense confessional lyrics—seemingly about a recent breakup—and a buzzy video that features a look-alike for her real-life ex, G-Eazy. But it also has a decidedly old-school secret weapon: Justin Timberlake’s 2002 hit “Cry Me a River,” which famously was written about his real-life ex, Britney Spears, and had a video featuring her look-alike. In the bridge of the song, Halsey slightly alters the lyrics to the Timberlake classic, serving to both evoke memories of the pervasive pop classic (as well as the video and the corresponding narrative around the song), while also, as they say, making it her own.
Evoking a song from the past—whether via similar lyrics or an actual sample—is of course nothing new. In all arenas of pop culture, nostalgia is a juggernaut force, whether it be the continuing churn of TV remakes or as evidenced in, say, Kim Kardashian dressing as Pamela Anderson for Halloween. And samples from previous decades have been a hallmark of pop for ages; sometimes an entire song is constructed around an iconic sample, like the 2009 Kesha-Flo Rida smash “Right Round,” which was built around the 1985 Dead or Alive hit. Other times it is a bit more subtle, in the way M.I.A.’s “Paper Planes” borrowed a riff from The Clash. (Oftentimes, this sort of “homage” can hew so closely so as to result in a lawsuit, as Bruno Mars can tell you.)
But the current nostalgia wave in pop marks a transition point: not only are we getting the earliest rounds of late 90s and even early-00s nostalgia, but it’s coming from singers who were children, or barely even born, when all this culture came around the first time. In addition to Halsey’s J.T.-spiration, Troye Sivan and Charli XCX recently released a song titled “1999,” which features references to Eminem, Spears, and Jonathan Taylor-Thomas (!) among many others. The video, which has been viewed more than 12 million times, features an assortment of visual references, as well, including The Matrix and TLC’s “Waterfalls” video. (That many of these references did not actually occur in the year 1999 was not an apparent concern of theirs.)
Up-and-coming British pop singer Anne-Marie released a successful single this summer called “2002,” which, like “1999,” also references Spears’s “. . . Baby One More Time” in its chorus; her video, which pays visual tribute to the Spears hit, has racked up more than 204 million views. (Perhaps one of the takeaways here is that Spears—singular among her peers—is, as we move farther from the decade, becoming more clearly defined as the patron saint of that era, with the most lasting impact on the generations who came after.)
Sivan was four years old and Charli XCX was seven in 1999; Anne-Marie was 11 in 2002. So, given that timing, this current output of nostalgia-infused pop is nostalgic for an era these younger artists probably remember mostly through a lens of other people’s memories, the way someone born in the 80s might have developed a sense of what “the 80s” represented through the movies and television shows he or she watched later in life.
The nostalgia goalposts always shift as time simply passes, and a new pop-star set moves in and unpacks their bags. Millennials who have gotten used to 80s and 90s songs as the references of choice now have to adjust as the late 90s, and early 00s, are becoming the target period on this imagined Nostalgia Schematic. We can see this happening in other areas of pop culture as well. Drake recently had a 00s-themed party (to which Kendall Jenner wore a Von Dutch hat). Spaghetti straps and tracksuits are back in vogue. Will & Grace has now returned, with strangely little modification to suggest that it’s been 20 years since the premiere of its initial run. Even if the choice to reference a “Bye Bye Bye” or an “Oops I Did It Again” might be somewhat calculated, it’s still a powerful effect for those who remember the original. Listening to a 23-year-old sing the same Britney Spears lyrics you belted when you were 23 (or younger) isn’t quite the same thing as hearing Britney sing them yourself, but the facsimile is still pleasing, like a stranger making a dish based off of one of your parents’ original recipes.
Whether due to the inevitable passage of time or an understandable yearning for a pre-9/11, pre-streaming music era of booming economy and boy-band hooks, these Gen Z-ers have come around to their own appreciation of the art and music that millennials grew up with and held dear; millennials, who might have “discovered” early-80s Madonna in their own teenage years, have no choice but to relate. While it may be confounding for millennials to witness teenagers singing about Britney Spears songs, there is something joyful in it, too, in their reverence for pop-culture icons from before their time. If bright visuals and sugary pop feel as if they are from a bygone era, Halsey, Troye, Charli, and company are doing their best to provide us with a fresh version, offering a surprisingly refreshing revival in an increasingly bleak pop landscape.
Article first published on Vanity Fair. Read original here