With follow-ups to shows like Full House, The X-Files, and Twin Peaks all incoming, nostalgia for that curious, prehistoric era — the ’90s — is clearly in such high demand as to merit its own music festival.
Said festival happened last Saturday in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and included attractions such as Steve Madden cardboard cutouts, a perhaps-impromptu Hacky Sack corner, and a plethora of references to Nickelodeon’s sliming antics (feat. appearances by the slime itself!). It also featured a lineup — with the exception of the perennially magnificent Salt-N-Pepa — that suggested a costly joke, complete with background music.
Tickets, indeed, went for $70. Jolly Ranchers, scattered here and there, were free. Sponsors included Nickelodeon, Sunny D, Jolly Rancher, Sirius XM, and Soylent. As this list of names suggests, it was a strange affair, with audience enjoyment predicated on the fact that musicians were celebrating and/or denigrating themselves as artifacts. If you weren’t too busy avoiding performances by the likes of Lisa Loeb, Coolio, Blind Melon, and Smash Mouth by sucking on neon berry candies or glugging a nutritious food substitute named after sci-fi cannibalism, you could pay a visit to… this pink room with some posters, courtesy of Betches:
This event thrived — or tried to — on the sentimental value of amusing bygones, rather than what anyone present seemed to consider the “best” of the ’90s. But the crowd also seemed wholly content with that. “The DJ [playing between acts] is hitting all the best ’90s songs, so even if they’re not what’s being performed, you’re still getting them,” said one festival-goer, with genuine excitement. And a local couple clarified that they didn’t really care so much about the bands as they did about “Dancing. Dancing. Dancing. Dancing. Dancing.”
“I can’t dance for shit — I can joke-dance till I die. But I don’t like to go to clubs, but here we can just let loose,” said the female half of the couple, who had dressed for the occasion in a zebra-print jacket and reported that she and her boyfriend were most excited to see Smash Mouth. “Our favorite karaoke song is ‘All Star.’ We’re both going to lose our shit.”
Did they know any other Smash Mouth songs? “Yes,” said her boyfriend, “but lyrics, no.”
“Those songs don’t matter,” the woman chuckled. “But when ‘All Star’ comes on, we’ll be like, ‘Hey now/You’re an all star…,'” and they trailed off into anticipatory karaoke bliss.
By mid-afternoon, after Coolio and Lisa Loeb had completed their sets, and as nobody in particular awaited Blind Melon, an imposing blackness blanketed the skies, casting an intense shade of evil over a set of gargantuan Rugrats characters roaming the asphalt tundra, promoting Nickelodeon’s new network, The Splat. But devotees — both to the ’90s and to friendships and relationships bolstered by shared cultural references — were unflappably positive in the face of the weather’s disapproval of the festival.
The timeless human ability to problem-solve was kicking in, right in front of my eyes: a group of friends all threw on their Nickelodeon ponchos as it started to drizzle. They were waiting in a long line to urinate atop radical ’90s lakes of blue dye barely masking tubular ’90s human waste and some discarded temporary Rugrats tattoos. They expressed glee at the opportunity to talk about the ’90s, despite the imminent task of navigating the fact that America hasn’t made much progress in matters of festival toilets.
“We’re all children of the ’90s, we’re all coming from the ’90s. We’re all from various parts of New York — Brooklyn and Queens. It’s not a long journey at all, especially since we keep the ’90s close to our hearts at all times,” said a young man in a poncho.
“Most everyone here is super-young, and they like to pretend we have things to be nostalgic about. People like feeling like they have good times behind them,” said his friend as, in front of her, a portable toilet opened its mouth and beckoned.
Another group of friends hovered beyond the stage, having just reconvened after various adventures. “The best thing about the ’90s is that you get to be super-unique. From skinheads to grunge to goth, we’re the walking John Hughes movie,” said Tray, a child of the late ’80s, who was accompanied by his friends Brigid and Ayaailia — and all of whom had dressed impeccably for the occasion.
Brigid added, “Once I knew these guys were coming, I wasn’t worried about the cost. We make our own fun.”
Their bond was apparent as they rattled off the things they would have prevented from happening in the ’90s, if they had the power to go back in time: “Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan.” “MTV would never stop playing music videos.” “Will Smith would have continued to sing and rap.” “Vanilla Ice would have released another single.” “I wish we could have kept Mel Gibson on his Mel Gibson track and not made him crazy.” “Can we change whatever path led to [George W.] Bush getting elected?”
These friendships and relationships were far more interesting to observe than much of what the bands provided, especially insomuch as the ’90s-themed setting seemed to make attendees feel comfortable enough to be completely candid. There was something personal and legitimately lovely about watching people gigglingly traverse a three-dimensional yearbook with old friends and longtime partners, with little care for the shitty condition that yearbook may have been in, or what paltry contents it actually housed.
Meanwhile, as the stage was prepared for Smash Mouth’s set, a torrential downpour descended. I shuffled back across the lot to one of two tiny tents, where people were huddled, singing “All Star” in its entirety in anticipation of the performance. When the band came out, they were draped in an infinite white tarp, a ghostly or perhaps seminal-looking conglomeration. But even the heavens’ aversion to The Mouth was no match for The Mouth itself, and the storm cleared. Steve Harwell and his clan emerged from the tarp and performed most of their set — which, yes, included The Monkees’ “I’m a Believer” — out in the open.
After Smash Mouth, I ventured backstage in anticipation of Salt-N-Pepa’s arrival. There, I struck up a conversation with the person just to my left, who, like me, was bemused by the fact that the massive, moving Rugrats effigies seemed to be standing in for the now-late Salt-N-Pepa, posing eerily in the bright light of the press photo chamber.
My partner in puzzlement turned out to be a writer named Allison Yarrow, who’s currently at work on a book for Harper Perennial titled 90s B*tch: The Decade That Made American Women. Sensibly, she’d come mostly for Salt-N-Pepa, whose hit singles in the late ’80s and early ’90s pushed back against the dominance of male desire in pop through asserting the power — and fun — of female sexuality.
Yarrow’s interest in the decade, she told me, springs from recent reconsiderations of its female icons. “A lot of women now are looking to rewrite narratives of women in the ‘90s,” she said. “You have Monica Lewinski giving a TED talk; she gets to tell her story for the first time. There’s a tremendous rewriting of the Nancy Kerrigan-Tonya Harding story. People are outraged that those women were treated the way that they were — you know, the white-trash bitch and the high-bred… bitch. There’s a definitely a reclaiming of that narrative.”
This politically and socially fueled analysis of the decade’s pop culture had apparently been lacking in the curation of the festival, so it seemed almost a happy accident that feminist pioneers like Salt-N-Pepa were about to play. As Sandra Denton, Cheryl James, and their DJ, Spinderella, took the stage, the audience became attentive and, seemingly for the first time, forsook the distractions of rain and nostalgic product placement.
“We were pop before pop was popular, and now everyone wants to be pop, so: ‘winning,'” Denton declared.
“Salt-N-Pepa’s coming up on their 30th anniversary, and Pepa’s still got her sexy Tina Turner legs,” James joked, between tracks in a set that included “Let’s Talk About Sex” and “Shoop,” the combination of which still seems a relevant case study of good pop: sexual, but resistant to any dominant perspective on sex. They made sure to play favorites like “What a Man” and “Push It,” and Spinderella spun a medley of samples from “Uptown Funk” to “Run the World (Girls),” the latter of which seemed an acknowledgment of their own influence at the root of contemporary pop feminism.
But even Salt-N-Pepa’s awesome performance couldn’t detract from the fact that it was, in some ways, a shame to see a group that’s actually good acquiescing to compartmentalization within a form of nostalgia that feeds off the act of declaring things obsolete. Knowledge of what’s become of the other acts bled, to an extent, into my perception of their presence here:
Smash Mouth’s most recent achievements include Smash Mouth: Recipes from the Road: A Rock ‘n’ Roll Cookbook, featuring Steve Harwell’s cultural and physical doppelgänger, Guy Fieri, and an incident where Harwell got enraged after an audience member threw bread at him, quickly historicized as “The Bread Incident.” Coolio’s recent work-of-note is a collaboration with PornHub for his breast-buffet video, “Take It To the Hub.”
Alas, even Salt-N-Pepa, whose legacy extends well beyond the realm of kitsch, haven’t produced a new studio album since the ’90s — their last was 1997’s Brand New. Even for the most vibrant of acts, it was hard to shake a sad feeling about what something like 90s Fest means for artists. After their explosive set, Salt-N-Pepa donned orange Nickelodeon ponchos, backed up against a 90s Fest backdrop, and waited as two men dropped buckets of slime on them from above. They mildly enjoyed it, everyone else mildly enjoyed it, and yet it still seemed indicative of the nature of the event that it ensured even the best act got slimed.