Unless you’ve been living under a rock for the last six months or so, you’ll have noticed that a new revival is underway. That’s right: despite promises that the days of Paramore, Natasha Beddingfield, and S Club 7 were well and truly behind us, the 2000s are back in fashion.
Revivals are in no way unusual, but this one – perhaps because it’s the first resurgence of a decade I personally remember very well – feels a little bizarre, not least because the 2000s were distinctly crummy. If the 1990s were the main event, the following ten years were the slightly sicky after-party. In the past, we’ve looked back on the decade 20 years prior in the pursuit of authenticity, but the Y2K years were an era in which we accepted inauthenticity as part of the deal. Nobody felt surprised when they discovered their favourite pop star didn’t write their own material, and there was a palpable sense that labels were feeding us calorific, highly commercialised music to our detriment. And yet, all of those things we regarded as corny, cheap and painfully tacky are now the height of cool.
Revivalism is so embedded in pop culture that it’s almost a bit of a cliché to acknowledge its existence. Back in the 2010s, Simon Reynolds wrote a book called Retromania: Pop Culture’s Addiction To Its Own Past in which he explored the phenomena, noting: “Once upon a time, pop’s metabolism buzzed with dynamic energy, creating the surging-into-the-future feel of periods like the psychedelic sixties, the post-punk seventies, the hip-hop eighties and the rave nineties”. However Reynolds then observes that “the 2000s felt different”.
Reynolds regards the 2000s as marking the moment we lost our momentum, leading to fewer and fewer innovations and more reliance on recycling the creativity of past decades. As the past took on more cultural cache, the present got relegated to the sidelines, creating a sense that the 2000s wasn’t about itself but about “every other decade happening at once”. All of this begs the question: if the 2000s were already an era dominated by revivalism, what is it that we’re currently reviving? Are we already caught up in an endless loop of reinterpretation? From where I’m standing, it appears the 2000s were still unique enough to hold something worth recycling, a small raft of collective experiences that today’s Gen Zers are now using as an antidote to a cultural sphere defined by homogony and hyper-individualism.
One of the key differences between the 2020s and the 2000s is the way we consume culture. Before the advent of streaming services, we had fewer opportunities to cultivate an individual cultural sphere. The lack of algorithms meant that our music choices were part of a larger conversation happening in society. As such, the charts were, generally speaking, still a fairly good indicator of what the nation was listening to. Today, the way we experience music is so fragmented that the idea of an entire generation of children being caught up in S Club fever feels unimaginable. Is it possible that the ’00s revival is actually a reaction to a sense of cultural isolation? I wouldn’t be surprised; when everything you value (phones, music, fashion, opinions) quickly loses its value and is replaced by something shinier, I can’t blame people for feeling a gnawing sense of emptiness.
In psychological terms, collective nostalgia is defined as an “emotional attachment to collective cultural identities without earlier personal participation experience”. The tendency to identify with periods that one hasn’t necessarily lived through can give the individual a sense of belonging. Perhaps, then, the ’00s revival is simply a last-ditch attempt for Gen Z to form some sense of cultural identity? By basking in nostalgia for a period where people watched MTV instead of living within an echo chamber of their own taste, are Gen Z attempting to simulate the joy of shared experience? Possibly, but I think that would be an oversimplification.
Some have argued that the 00s has taken on widespread appeal because the music of the era still hums with the optimism of the previous decade. Despite the cataclysmic events of 9/11, the charts in the 2000s were remarkably optimistic. No wonder Natasha Beddingfield’s 2004 hit ‘Unwritten’ has been doing the rounds on Tik Tok recently. In an era in which the future holds little of the mystery it once did, the singer’s calls for us to reach out for “something in the distance” seem fascinatingly alien. The track implies a belief that things can only get better, that the future is a bright, happy, jubilant place to be. With the 2007 financial crash and the rise of climate awareness, that belief seems to have fallen through the floor.
These days, such a hopeful outlook would come across as wholly insincere, if not willfully ignorant. But part of me wonders if optimism is precisely what we need right now. Few of the ’00s revivalists seem to recognise that in basking in the same optimism of the early ’00s they are also basking in the complacency that allowed that optimism to flourish. Surely when it comes to environmental disaster, poverty, and war, the last thing we should be doing is burying our heads in the sand. Easier said than done, I grant you, but I can say for sure that I don’t fancy living in a world in which happiness itself is second-hand.