How 90s Con helped me understand 90s nostalgia

by Rider Strong

I was onstage, the pressure mounting.

Across from me, Melissa Joan Hart, star of “Sabrina the Teenage Witch” glared, willing me to fail.

Finally, I said, “Scrunchies?”

The crowd burst into cheers.

This was not some fever dream brought on by watching too much Disney+. This was part of my very real experience participating in a trivia contest at the recent 90s Con in Hartford, Conn.

As one of the actors on the ABC sitcom “Boy Meets World” from 1993 to 2000, I was not there simply as a guest, but to help make the era come alive for everyone attending. While I am an object of 90s nostalgia for some people, my time on the show corresponded exactly with my teenage years, so I have my own sentimentality about the decade. (My first concert: Weezer; my pager code: 21.)

According to its organizers, more than 10,000 people attended 90s Con — there were snap bracelets and Trapper Keepers everywhere. Thanks to the recurring playlist blasted over the speakers, I heard “Waterfalls” by TLC more than two dozen times, an experience mitigated by getting to meet actual members of TLC in person.

But the more time I spent there, the more I wondered why the 90s hold a particular grip on us right now.

I’d love to say shows such as mine, and other 90s staples from music to fashion, endure or find new popularity because of their intrinsic artistry. But I think there’s a simpler explanation. The word I heard over and over again at the convention was “comfort,” as in “comfort TV” and “comfort songs.” The 90s are the “comfort decade” that people need right now, whether they lived through it the first time or not.

Attending this convention during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine was a reminder that the 90s have a significance beyond Tickle Me Elmo and JNCO jeans. The period between the fall of the Berlin Wall at the end of 1989 and the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, was a time of mostly war-free bliss for America. Domestically, our country was reveling in tech optimism and economic expansion. I remember adults around me saying, “There’s no difference between Republicans and Democrats” and meaning it.

It was also the last gasp of a time when we all seemed to watch the same shows, listen to same music and see the same people in magazines. While breaking up the monoculture is for the best — doing so makes room for more voices, more tastes and more representation — I admit that I miss the comfort in the connectivity it provided. In today’s meme-a-minute world, it can be hard to find generational touchstones, to build a community beyond a niche. I might remember 2021 as the year of “The Underground Railroad,” while you were busy watching “Loki.” But if I say “yada yada,” almost every American who had a television in 1997 (and the millions who caught “Seinfeld” in syndication in the years that followed) will probably smile.

Sharing a past, or celebrating aspects of an era you weren’t even part of, connects people. And while it’s essential to confront the blind spots and pitfalls of the past, it’s also valuable (and fun) to forge communities. We don’t go to a Renaissance Faire to burn witches and reenact colonial invasions. We go to wear tunics, eat turkey legs and speak in bad English accents. We go to relive the weird, wonderful and frivolous parts of a bygone era.

Over my weekend at 90s Con, the frivolous certainly reigned supreme. There were a lot of neon colors, Tamagotchis and attempts to reproduce the exact sound of a dial-up modem. Nobody mentioned the L.A. riots, Clinton scandals or Rwanda.

Lenin famously said, “There are decades where nothing happens, and there are weeks where decades happen.” In many ways, the 90s feels like a decade where nothing happened. Or rather, a decade during which people my age, caught in the naïveté of youth and protected by baby boomer denial, could live as if nothing were happening. A serious reassessment of our optimism and pride for that period is long overdue … but not at 90s Con.

Instead, it was a time to experience the warm, irrelevant glow of escapist nostalgia. To “win” that trivia contest by declaring which Spice Girl I would be (Baby, whatever that means). It was banal, and banality was the point.

To paraphrase a wise song from my youth: Sometimes you don’t want to chase a waterfall, but rather, stick to the rivers and the lakes that you’re used to.

Rider Strong is a director and writer. He co-hosts the podcast “Literary Disco.”