What’s your safe space? The place you go in your head when things get too much. When every Zoom meeting could’ve been an email, your feeds are full of #alllivesmatter and your flatmate won the who’s-allowed-a-lockdown-fuckbuddy coin toss.
In my more anxious moments, I like to imagine I’m Alex James in the ‘Country House’ video. Smirking incredulously around a world of colourful chaos full of runaway pigs, marching bands, milk floats and Benny Hill chases knowing that all I’ve got to do that afternoon is go “oooh!” in a bubble bath while Jo Guest waters me from a teapot and it’ll be straight to Number One atop a tanker full of Moet by bedtime.
Of course, the actual experience of the ‘90s was more like being Graham Coxon in the ‘Country House’ video. Embarrassed that everything seems to have got a bit out of hand and awkwardly trying to ignore all the ‘ironic’ sexism. But I’m not alone in turning to the decade that subtlety forgot in times of distress.
In these months of lockdown misery, Covid paranoia, dislocation and hardship, many are looking to the pre-Starsailor age for comfort. The Friends are reuniting. Illegal raves are back, although the ‘dodgy pills’ circulating these days are more likely to be hydroxychloroquine. Early Resident Evil games have been remade, giving a new generation of gamers the chance to know what it’s like to run screaming from a zombie in a panicked sweat, with all your bullets and health packs gone, straight into a door which takes seven and a half minutes to open. Someone even paid $6 million for Kurt Cobain’s guitar, presumably assuming it’s inhabited by the spirit of a far simpler sort of misery than we know in the age of Lewis Capaldi, revenge porn and Grammarly.
With its garish neon dancefloors, its oomp-ah choruses and its Jamie Theakston, the ‘90s seemed such a bright and frivolous time. 9/11 hadn’t happened yet, nor Bo’ Selecta. We had no idea that Katie Hopkins existed, or that our entire families were so racist. Tony Blair seemed like a ‘win’, the charts still mattered, Richard Branson looked like a decent enough bloke and the internet felt like a hotbed of technological opportunity, not just somewhere you go to get cancelled. It was the last decade when Britain felt in any way – gulp – carefree.
The time is ripe then, you might think, for the long-awaited ‘90s revival. The ‘80s revival was the longest in recorded history, lasting almost twice as long as the original decade, from The Killers’ ‘Somebody Told Me’ in 2004 to Muse’s ‘Simulation Theory’ in 2018. The cultural tide cycle dictates that we should be a good 18 months into the ‘90s comeback by now, and most of the bands from that era have reformed in preparation for the national knees-up.
Yet new acts simply aren’t emulating their mockney joie de vivre, their suburban sauciness and surly swagger, their gleeful worship of ‘the chooon’. Such pleasures seem naïve and irrelevant today, like Carry On films and voting Lib Dem.
If the ‘90s seem like an unrepeatably idyllic moment in time, it’s because they were. Thatcher was finally vanquished, but her cruel legacy of stagnant pay, unaffordable housing and crippling youth debt hadn’t yet kicked in. In fact, everyone’s parents had bought a cheap house and seen it rocket in value, so they felt unfeasibly rich despite basically owning something that was always going to be worth ‘one house’. Student grants were being crushed and ‘top-up’ loans introduced, but no-one was yet coming out of university with a debt like a blockbuster movie budget on their back.
Sure, we were living in roach-infested, woodchip-festooned flats above shops, but they didn’t yet cost us 127 per cent of our income to share a room of 12, or have the toilet in the kitchen.
How could we ever recapture such a world of possibility, and the musical exuberance that came with it? In the wake of the Iraq War, austerity, spiralling student debt, Brexit, coronavirus, escalating climate change, Trump and Gal Gadot’s ‘Imagine’ who, today, can honestly say they’re feeling supersonic? There will always be acts like The 1975 around to lift us out of the morass for an hour or so, but not enough of them to define a movement or an era, and even their music is an internal battle of contemporary darkness versus melodic light – the millennial ‘Common People’, if you will.
Mid-lockdown in the Cummingsian era, it’s tough to imagine that Britain will ever be ready for another ‘90s. Perhaps when global warming has advanced so far that environmental annihilation is inevitable and there’s no point worrying about it any more, we’ll throw off our cares and rock our way, fatalistically, into extinction, like Alex James in the ‘Country House’ video – but with typhoons and water wars instead of bubble baths and Matt Lucas. Until then, more pop psychedelia, anyone?