Jonas Brothers, Ariana Grande in "thank u, next," Soulja Boy
Jonas Brothers, Ariana Grande in "thank u, next," Soulja Boy
Getty, Courtesy; Design by Quinton McMillan

Fetch Is Actually Happening: How We Traded the '90s For 2000s Nostalgia

by Chris Payne
April 12, 2019, 9:59am EDT

Ariana Grande's 'thank u, next' video signaled a sea change. What else is on its way back? And why do we constantly revisit what was hot 20 years ago, even if we can't remember it?

Following our Billboard staff-picked list of the 99 greatest songs of 1999, we're writing this week about some of the stories and trends that defined the year for us. Here, we explore how turn-of-the-millennium culture endures.

While most of us toasted the end of 2018, Charli XCX and Troye Sivan wanted to go back to 1999. 

The it-kid pop stars captivated the Music Internet last October with their single “1999,” introduced as a video that doggedly tested the thesis: maybe the late '90s were really fucking cool. There's Charli in a Steve Jobs turtleneck and glasses, cradling a "bondi blue" iMac G3. Sivan appears as every member of the Backstreet Boys. The '90s babies (Charli was born in 1992, Sivan in 1995) cosplaying Rose and Jack from Titanic and Trinity and Neo from The Matrix. Four years earlier, Charli had co-starred with Iggy Azalea in the “Fancy” video -- basically the same concept, but with Clueless, the seminal mid-90s’ teen flick. The hands on nostalgia’s clock had now crept forward. 

Decade revivals tend to go the way of Surge and Enron stock. The shifts can be tough to pin-point, but after “1999,” the next big event music video drop heralded a lasting embrace of the 21st century. At the tail end of November, Ariana Grande unveiled the video for “thank u, next,” then the No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100. Its video is a grand love letter to the early aughts, a montage of cheeky parodies of the era's biggest teen flicks: Mean Girls, Bring It On, Legally Blonde, 13 Going On 30. Grande as Regina George, Torrance Shipman, Elle Woods and Jenna Rink. Kris Jenner as George’s “cool mom.” Mean Girls’ “army pants and flip-flops girl” played by the original Army Pants And Flip-Flops Girl. Troye Sivan made a cameo in that one, too, connecting dimensions of nostalgia like Neo toggling realities. The video broke YouTube’s 24-hour streaming record.

“We’re all calling back to that early 2000s era -- it’s prime time for our generation now," the video's director Hannah Lux Davis tells Billboard. A frequent collaborator with the 25-year old Grande, the 32-year old Davis was a high school senior when Mean Girls premiered. "When you're old enough to understand the era of your formative years, you can wear that fashion again, but on your own terms," she says. "You're not in that awkward stage anymore." 

The aughts had taken over the cool kids’ table. 

These nostalgia cycles have been apparent for decades. Interest in the ‘50s, for instance, was revived in the ‘70s with Grease, Happy Days, and punk rock, and endured into the ‘80s thanks to Back to the Future, Stand By Me and the retro diners dotting the suburbs. We’re still experiencing a glut of ‘90s nostalgia, particularly in film. As a recent Esquire feature explains, successes ranging from Captain Marvel to Mid90s to Landline are deeply in love with the era. But the 2000s beckon. Ari knows it. Charli knows it. Their many, many followers -- most of them younger than they are -- know it. This is especially true in places where user-generated content has broken down gatekeeper influence: within the music industry and online, expect the nostalgia needle to skew post-millennium. Then watch everyone else play catch-up. 

Alongside the “thank u, next” video, we’ve seen some striking examples of the aughts’ nascent dominance. The Jonas Brothers’ reunion has already been more successful than anyone could have reasonably hoped. The Office is among the most watched non-native Netflix shows, and ascendant King of the Teens Billie Eilish samples a beloved episode on her debut album. There’s a Mean Girls musical on Broadway, and School of Rock, too. A third Princess Diaries film, the first since 2004, is in the works. Gilmore Girls and Will & Grace revivals have already happened. We’re preemptively lashing out at the rumored return of low-rise jeans. Massive hip-hop artists like Juice WRLD and Lil Uzi Vert rep the sonic and emotional influences of Fall Out Boy and Paramore. 

The connections are clear for 31-year old producer Purps On the Beat, who spent significant time with Juice WRLD, crafting four tracks for his recent No. 1 album. Purps grew up in Los Angeles, playing guitar and loving Cali rock bands like Blink-182 and Incubus before immersing himself in rap in his later teens. "The whole Lil Peep thing was eye-opening for me," he tells Billboard. "I was like, Oh shit, these people like the same kind of music I like. So I kind of conformed the music I grew up listening to towards modern production." Juice's lyrics find catharsis in unmasking young male emotion: "One thing my dad told me was, never let your woman know when you're insecure," he sings on his current Hot 100 hit "Robbery." "Whatever Juice is rapping or singing about, that’s in the context of what is happening in his life," Purps says. "That’s why I think the kids are doing so much more emo music. It’s not really about being cool anymore; it’s about expressing your true self."

Why the 2000s now? What creates these cycles? Two or three decades is how long it takes for kids to grow up, get jobs in media, and rep what they (and their audience of peers) loved during their teenage glory days. It’s not always that simple, though: Troye Sivan was two when Titanic came out. Billie Eilish was three when The Office premiered. It’s no stretch to wager that most of Ariana Grande’s fanbase was not old enough to appreciate Mean Girls during its original run. But now they can. "All of a sudden, MTV had those films playing," Davis says. "It opens [younger fans'] eyes if they hadn’t seen these films. They want to be in on it."

Research has shown that nostalgic feelings are heightened during periods of transition, like jumping from middle school to high school, puberty to adolescence. Teenagers don’t have decades of memories to contextualize things, so just about any defining experience can feel earth-shattering: seeing an irreverent film that captures the teen experience, identifying with an artist who expresses what you’re going through in a way that feels defiant or forbidden. But you know what’s always cooler? A senior’s version of those things when you’re a freshman. Your cool, older cousin’s music collection. Maybe even -- gasp! -- a parent. “Juice WRLD and his mom are really close, and she’s a big rock fan,” Purps says. “She understood what was going on because it was happening in her 20s. I think a lot of these guys -- Uzi, Lil Peep -- I assume their parents were like, This is what I listened to…. The kids are definitely influenced by that.”

Discovering something awesome you just missed can feel enthralling, a transmission from what feels like the beginning of time. Maybe Lorde is that for today’s Billie Eilish fans; for Billie herself, it sounds like it was Tyler, the Creator. Maybe it's Odd Future or Kanye for today’s Brockhampton fans; for Brockhampton themselves, it was most definitely Kanye. For the crowd of emo kids I hung with in the actual early aughts, it was Blink-182 and Green Day, especially Dude Ranch and Dookie, the stuff we barely remembered -- or rather, pretended to remember. 

I went to college in the late-aughts and back then, everything was ‘80s. We had all been born in the latter part of the decade but there was some unspoken rule that everyone threw ‘80s Night parties, not ‘90s Night. Legwarmers, neon spandex, and frizzy hair represented a go-to Halloween costume. Rickrolling was extremely funny. Around this time, James Murphy lamented Williamsburg’s “art-school Brooklynites” and their “borrowed nostalgia from the unremembered Eighties.” If the 2019 version of Murphy wrote “Losing My Edge” today, you already know what era those kids would be latching onto.

So what could the coming years bring? 

Millennial meme-pop has been inescapable lately: 1999’s “All-Star,” “No Scrubs,” and “I Want It That Way” were all among the top 20 most popular karaoke songs in America last week, alongside aughts entrants like “Mr. Brightside” and “Party In the U.S.A.” If a song was ubiquitous in the 2000s and also very quotable, there’s a good chance you’ll see it dominating your social media feed. "Mr. Brightside" was so inherently meme-able, it got about a five-year jump on everything else. For the future, I have personal bets on Avril Lavigne's “Sk8er Boi” (the two opening lines set up a meme so well), Gwen Stefani's "Hollaback Girl" ("This my shit / I heard that you were talking shit" already sums up about 80% of Twittter discourse), and Trapt’s “Headstrong” (l’ll literally take you on).

An iPod comeback is plausible -- specifically the iPod Classic, the model with the familiar screen and spinwheel, out of production since 2014. Scarceness begets cool, and the gadget is already a favorite of influential tastemakers like Instagram’s LilJupiter. The vinyl revival we witnessed over the past decade-plus should leave no doubt as to our willingness to spend extra to show off our music taste, even in the streaming age. 

How about a retro, blog-centric social media platform? Tumblr’s engagement has dipped since banning adult content, and MySpace recently lost all user-uploaded songs between 2003 and 2015. While there’s no shortage of self-publishing outlets online, one with the wonky, early-aughts affectations of classic MySpace, Xanga, or AOL Instant Messenger could catch a second wind.

Though a revival of triple-XL throwback jerseys seems unlikely, Purps does see looser threads getting reimagined. “Baggy t-shirts are popular now,” he says. “Maybe they’re not wearing JNCO jeans, but motherfuckers are wearing huge, oversized sweatshirts now. They don’t wanna do the same thing people used to do. They’re gonna do it their own way.” 

Davis agrees. "If you went back and watched The Fast and the Furious even five years ago, you’d be like, Oh my god, can you believe people used to dress like this?" she says. "But if you go back now and watch those films, you don’t even think twice because it’s what people are wearing today." 

That said, she cautions that, "The makeup and hair is a different story. I doubt you’ll see somebody rock tiny, thin eyebrows ever again. I think beauty and health are moving forward. But clothes, shoes, and accessories are loving the nostalgia." Who knows though....

Spend enough time recalling the 2000s, though, and you eventually have to deal with 9/11 and the War on Terror. How do you romanticize an era that revolved around crushing militaristic conservatism? It’s much easier to have a selective memory when you don’t have memories at all. None of the 18-year olds attending ‘80s Night in 2007 had to live through the worst of the Reagan years: the raiding of the public sector, the AIDS epidemic, the War On Drugs. For my age group, the ‘80s revival wasn’t about stepping back in time; it was a collection of signifiers, half-understood at best, that were good for an easy theme party, and maybe an earnest connection with mom and dad. The postmodern, neoliberal ‘90s offered a bit more cover: a President who escalated income inequality and the prison-industrial complex, but at least could look cool playing the sax on TV. Who really wants to revisit the “Freedom Fries” nadir of the early 2000s? 

The 2017 movie Lady Bird offers a more complex time-travel experience than "want to see how old Regina George is now?" The film is set in 2002 and director Greta Gerwig allows her characters to exist alongside agonizing television news reports -- and occasionally interact with them. There are references to anarchism and A People’s History Of the United States. But also messy feelings, awkward kisses, and adoration of a Dave Matthews song no one can seem to figure out was actually from 1996. Today’s teens may be the first generation to grapple with global climate catastrophe and a host of other disasters in real time. Wanting to rewind the clock isn’t going anywhere. 

"You always try to recreate the era when you felt young, pure, and innocent," Davis says. "I think people really love nostalgia, specifically or not so specifically to this era, because it brings people together. You can relate to it with somebody else more-so than they could other sorts of newer content. Just Like how a meme is super shareable: oh my god, I can totally relate to this! I feel like nostalgia has that same affect. It makes people feel like they’re in on something together."