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We're in a Golden Age of '90s Needle Drops

TV keeps poking at our '90s nostalgia, and we're highlighting the shows that do it better than most.
  • Scenes from Yellowjackets, Derry Girls, and That '90s Show (Photos: Showtime, Netflix / Primetimer graphic)
    Scenes from Yellowjackets, Derry Girls, and That '90s Show (Photos: Showtime, Netflix / Primetimer graphic)

    It’s a great time for TV fans who love ’90s music. Many, many shows — from prestige dramas to old-fashioned sitcoms — are either set in the Clinton years or lovingly reference that era’s songs, which should fire the pleasure centers of anyone who knows the words to “Zombie.” But not all Cranberries needle drops are created equal. That’s why Mark Blankenship and Joe Reid, Primetimer staffers and former ’90s teens, are investigating how TV shows are using the decade’s music and which ones are doing it the best.

    Mark Blankenship: Joe, you and I talk to each other about ’90s music all the time, but last week, I realized we need to officially investigate its use on contemporary television. When I reviewed That ’90s Show, I noticed that James Iha, guitarist for The Smashing Pumpkins, is the show’s composer. Frankly, this blows my mind, because back in the actual ’90s, nobody from Smashing Pumpkins would’ve been caught dead near a mainstream, multi-camera sitcom like that one. A cameo on The Simpsons? Absolutely. But something like That ’90s Show (or its predecessor, That ’70s Show) just wasn’t cool or acerbic enough to suit the band’s image.

    But times change, of course. I say more power to Iha for scoring such a lucrative gig. I’m sure all those other ’90s musicians appreciate getting their songs on the soundtrack, too. In the very first episode, there’s a joke about Dee-Lite’s “Groove is in the Heart,” and during Episode 3, a character’s attempt to look sexy at the mall is scored with both Montell Jordan’s “This Is How We Do It” and Salt-n-Pepa’s “Shoop.”

    What do you make of our era’s hits being used in this way? Are they all destined to become nostalgia signifiers in broad-appeal sitcoms?

    Joe Reid: If it could happen to the '50s, '60s, '70s, and '80s, it's definitely no surprise that it's also happening to the '90s. In fact, culture is moving so fast these days that we've already gotten a taste of early-aughts nostalgia with shows like PEN15 and Girls5Eva (and even some other shows without numbers in their titles, like The Afterparty). Any era whose totems stand out as boldly as those of the '90s was always going to become grist for the nostalgia mill. Lord knows I think about those early Real World seasons and Clinton-era preoccupations about whether the President ever inhaled marijuana and sigh wistfully for them.

    With something like That '90s Show, that kind of aggressive barrage of needle drops and '90s signifiers is part of the mission statement. The joke is basically "look at all this '90s!" What interests me more is the way that '90s music is used in shows that don't explicitly call out their penchant for nostalgia in their mission statements.

    My favorite example of this in the last year was The Midnight Club. Based on the works of YA author Christopher Pike, the show told the story of a group of terminally ill teenagers living in a group home. Every night they gather and tell stories and talk about the possibility of life after death. There is nothing about that premise that demands that the show be set in the '90s. It's a stylistic choice on the part of creator Mike Flanagan. The '90s setting is a mood. It's a nod to Pike, whose novels mattered a lot to kids who came of age in the early '90s. And that mood is established by an impenetrable wall of needle drops. In the first episode alone, we got Stereo MCs, Stone Temple Pilots, Cypress Hill, Collective Soul, and Harvey Danger. Later in the season, Bush's "Glycerine" played as the big-feelings conduit for teenage longing that it was always meant to be. Soundgarden's "Fell On Black Days" never felt more appropriately ominous. Did the show toss in Crash Test Dummies and Dee-Lite? You bet it did. And with each song, The Midnight Club opened an emotional portal back to wherever we were when we were listening to those songs on our Discman.

    This was a tactic that had been used the previous year — and for similar reasons — in the Fear Street movies. Again, the plots of R.L. Stine's novels didn't require them to be set in the '90s, but if you're already playing off of nostalgia by adapting R.L. Stine in the first place, why not vibe out entirely on the '90s-ness of it all? It's the Stranger Things ethos bumped forward by a decade or so.

    Mark, where else have you been feeling those '90s vibes? Which Discman classics did TV revive for you in the last year or so?

    MB: I’m so glad you mentioned The Midnight Club, because I am still getting a chuckle out of a scene that used L7’s “Pretend We’re Dead.” The kids on that show would probably listen to that edgy alt-rock hit, of course, but its usage is also a morbid joke about how all of them have terminal diagnoses. I love all those layers!

    I feel similarly about the first season of Yellowjackets, Showtime’s soon-to-return drama about a group of ’90s teens who survive a plane crash and form a feral society in the woods. In one of my favorite scenes from Season 1, the girls try to keep things light by choreographing a routine to “This Is How We Do It” (there’s that song again!) They’re having a blast until the batteries run down on the little speaker they’re using, and the loss of their music signals a major severance from the lives they had been living just a few days prior. It’s such a nice evocation of how music creates a sense of time and place for people.

    On that note, I was consistently moved by the way ‘90s songs showed up in High School, the Amazon Freevee drama based on the childhoods of indie rock duo Tegan and Sara. Every character got to express themselves through the music they loved, from the mom belting out Tori Amos during a tense moment to the girls cutting loose at a Green Day show. The final episode also ended with a montage set to Sinead O’Connor’s “The Last Day of Our Acquaintance,” and that particular song in that particular context did more than just nod to the past. It distilled how all the characters were wrestling with the pain of a relationship ending.

    For me, a music cue becomes exceptional when it triggers a memory and also impacts the story. Are there any recent ‘90s sound drops that improved a storytelling moment for you?

    JR: One of my great regrets is not getting into Derry Girls early on. It's been sitting right near the top of the list of shows I've been meaning to binge, but I never got to it before the series finale last May. But someone sent me a clip of the montage that closed out the final episode, set to The Cranberries' "Dreams," perhaps the most '90s soundtrack song of all time. After decades's worth of that song showing up in everything from You've Got Mail to Boys on the Side to Gossip Girl, I figured pop culture had wrung everything it was going to wring out of it. Hell, in 2022 alone, it showed up in the Netflix movie Do Revenge and the aforementioned Yellowjackets. But there I was, watching this montage from a show I hadn't ever watched about young girls in '90s Northern Ireland, coming of age around the time of the Good Friday Accords, with tears streaking down my face. Maybe it was hearing the voice of the late Dolores O'Riordan in possibly the most appropriate context, ushering in a new day and an optimistic future for these Irish girls. Maybe I'll get even more out of it once I finally watch Derry Girls! I'm not sure my heart could take it. That probably tags me as the ultimate mark for '90s music drops, that I can lock into a show that quickly through the nostalgic shortcut of my first favorite band.

    Before we go, Mark, can we take a second to lament the surprising lack of '90s needle drops in Netflix's Blockbuster? If ever a show had written itself a permission slip to overdose on '90s music, it was that one! What happened?

    MB: Alas, Blockbuster! Its number one problem was its flaccid central romance, but right behind that was its refusal to let its goofball characters sing “Cotton-Eyed Joe” or something similar. And since it was set in the present day, it could’ve added some contemporary commentary about, like, Lisa Loeb’s cat-eye glasses. That self-awareness might’ve tempted more Gen X viewers to watch, since good retro jokes can be satisfying even without those narrative layers I mentioned above. Consider how Derry Girls, a show you really will love, dedicated an entire scene to recreating the Shakespear’s Sister video for “Stay.” That reference is obscure enough to reward only the biggest ’90s dorks in the audience, and that’s the kind of clever, deep-cut nostalgia I’m always hungry for. If there’s a series out there that’s willing to spoof P.M. Dawn’s video for “Set Adrift on Memory Bliss,” then I will love that series with all my heart.

    JR: Severance Season 2, it’s time for one more music dance experience!

    TOPICS: Yellowjackets, Amazon Freevee, Netflix, Showtime, Blockbuster, Derry Girls, High School, The Midnight Club, That '90s Show