Op-Ed: Rider Strong: Being part of the 90s con helped me understand 90s nostalgia


I was on stage, the pressure was increasing.

Across from me, Sabrina the Teenage Witch star Melissa Joan Hart stared at me, wanting me to fail.

Finally I said “hair ties?”

The crowd erupted in cheers.

This wasn’t a fever dream triggered by too much Disney+. This was part of my very real experience entering a trivia contest at the last 90’s con in Hartford, Connecticut.

As one of the cast members on the ABC sitcom Boy Meets World from 1993-2000, I was there not just as a guest, but to help bring that era to life for all who attended. While I’m an object of ’90s nostalgia for some people, my time on the show paralleled my teenage years, so I have my own sentimentality about the decade. (My first concert: Weezer; my pager code: 21.)

Organizers say more than 10,000 people attended the ’90s con — there were snap bracelets and trapper keepers everywhere. Thanks to the recurring playlist blasted over the speakers, I heard TLC’s “Waterfalls” more than two dozen times, an experience tempered by meeting actual members of TLC in person.

But the more time I spent there, the more I wondered why the ’90s had such a tight grip on us right now.

I would love to name shows like mine and other 90’s music classics to fashion, endure or find new popularity because of their inherent artistry. But I think there is a simpler explanation. The word I kept hearing at the convention was “consolation,” as in “consolation TV” and “consolation songs.” The 90s are the “comfort decade” that people need nowwhether they experienced it the first time or not.

Attending this convention during the Russian invasion of Ukraine was a reminder that the ’90s have meaning beyond Tickle Me Elmo and JNCO jeans. The period between the fall of the Berlin Wall in late 1989 and the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001 was a period of largely war-free bliss for America. Domestically, our country was in high spirits technical optimism and Economic expansion. I remember adults around me saying, “There’s no difference between Republicans and Democrats” and being serious.

It was also the last gasp of a time when we all seemed to be watching the same shows, listening to the same music, and seeing the same people in magazines. While breaking up the monoculture is for the best – this makes room for more voices, more flavor and more representation – I’ll admit I miss the convenience in connectivity it offers. In today’s meme-a-minute world, finding cross-generational touchstones to build a community beyond a niche can be difficult. I may remember 2021 as the year of The Underground Railroad while you were busy watching Loki. But when I say “yada yada,” probably just about 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 didn’t even participate in brings people together. And while it’s important 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 wear tunics, eat turkey drumsticks, and speak with bad English accents. We leave to relive the weird, wonderful, and frivolous bits of a bygone era.

During my weekend at the ’90s Con, the frivolous definitely came first. There was a lot of neon colors, tamagotchis, and attempts to accurately reproduce the sound of a dial-up modem. No one mentioned the LA riots, the Clinton scandals, or Rwanda.

Lenin once said, “There are decades when nothing happens, and there are weeks when decades happen.” In many ways, the 1990s feels like a decade when nothing happened. Or rather, a decade in which people my age, trapped in the naivety of youth and sheltered by the denial of baby boomers, could live as if nothing had happened. A serious reassessment of our optimism and pride for this period is long overdue… but not at the ’90s Con.

Instead, it was time to experience the warm, irrelevant glow of escapist nostalgia. “Winning” this 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 stick to the rivers and lakes you’re used to.

Rider Strong is a director and writer. He is the co-host of the Literary Disco podcast. Op-Ed: Rider Strong: Being part of the 90s con helped me understand 90s nostalgia

Caroline Bleakley

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