For Pop Stars in Their 20s, It’s Totally the ’90s All Over Again

The bright, aerodynamic video for Dua Lipa’s “Break My Heart” seems to take place in an indiscriminate time period — or perhaps just in the floating, eternal hyper-now of the pop music video.

An aquamarine dance floor glows from below as the British singer and her dancers strut in miniskirts and scrunchies, looking like extras from “Clueless” (a movie released in 1995, the year Lipa was born). Lipa’s bleached, middle-parted bob is affixed with her now-signature hair clips, which evoke the glory days of mall culture by way of Claire’s Accessories. The song, too, is a sleek fusion of the present and various pasts: The elastic guitar riff borrows from INXS’s 1987 hit “Need You Tonight,” while the digitized dance-pop ambience conjures not so much the first wave of disco as its turn-of-the-millennium revival, helmed by the virtually enhanced glitter of Jamiroquai and Kylie Minogue.

Something about that phrase crystallizes an aesthetic bubbling up over the past year or so, as a micro-generation of ’90s babies has matured into musical stardom and begun controlling pop music’s emergent trends.

Artists like Ariana Grande (b. 1993), Normani (b. 1996), Charli XCX (b. 1992), Troye Sivan (b. 1995), Summer Walker (b. 1996) and SZA (b. 1990), among others, have in various ways begun to riff on the Y2K-era pop of their childhoods, creating songs and music videos that feel like they are recalling and subsequently rewriting their earliest musical memories.

Nineties nostalgia is of course nothing new — the pop-cultural landscape has long been littered with hallmarks of the early part of that decade, like flannel and “Jock Jams”-worthy athleisure, and the revivalist sounds to match. But time marches on, and so, too, does that roughly 20-year cycle of the old becoming stylishly new again. And now the halcyon, almost-forgotten pop artifacts of the late ’90s — boy bands, winking futurism, inordinate amounts of glitter — are being dusted off and refurbished by today’s younger stars.

The fashion and design worlds got to this future nostalgia first. In 2016, Evan Collins started a popular Tumblr called the Institute for Y2K Aesthetics, which one write-up described as a compendium of “Baby G watches, Britney Spears cradling a robot dog, a shimmering pink bean-shaped Walkman, [and] inflatable backpacks.” Last July, GQ ran a piece about why, suddenly, “Y2K-era gear became the hottest thing in the vintage-clothing world.” Bold, label-obsessed and often future-fixated, the style of that window of time between 1995 and 2001 was the result of, as the writer Erin Schwartz noted, a “jumble of excitement and anxiety about the spread of technology at the turn of the millennium.”

So was the music. The Y2K era coincided with the rise of the glistening, Swedish-engineered, factory-efficient teen pop of Britney Spears, ’N Sync and the Backstreet Boys, as well as the futuristic R&B of TLC, Destiny’s Child and Aaliyah. What united all these sounds was a cyborgian fusion of the “artificial” and the “real”: the acoustic guitar lick trapped beneath the frosty digital sheen of TLC’s “No Scrubs,” the hammering piano riff that underscored Spears’s digitally processed “oh-baby-baby.” (Rest assured; though not a girl, she was not yet a robot.)

Back then the music industry was still heedlessly optimistic and flush with cash — not yet stymied by streaming services or even fully feeling the effects of file sharing. (Napster debuted in June 1999 and shut down in July 2001.) So many labels were happy to make bets on potential new stars or shell out money for high-concept music videos. Everything was, to quote the longest-running No. 1 song on MTV’s popular early-aughts video countdown “TRL,” larger than life.

And so there was something disorienting about Ariana Grande’s 2019 headlining set at Coachella, when, as her surprise guests, Grande brought out four of the five members of ’N Sync. They seemed small, ordinary or maybe just disarmingly human. The script had flipped: All at once, the clamoring young fan had become the all-powerful performer — “I’ve been rehearsing my entire [expletive] life for this moment,” Grande gushed to the crowd — and the once-futuristic heartthrob-kings of the record industry had been reduced to another beloved revival act. Ashes to ashes, boys to men.

Variations on the Y2K aesthetic have been percolating for several years just outside the American pop musical mainstream, whether in the experimental stylings of the PC Music collective or the global crossover success of K-pop’s immaculately choreographed girl groups and boy bands. Still, to the average listener, Grande’s most recent album, “Thank U, Next” from 2019, represented the highest-profile update yet of the millennial-pop sound. On the saucy single “Break Up With Your Girlfriend, I’m Bored,” she put her own spin on a refrain from ’N Sync’s 2000 track “Makes Me Ill,” though with an edge, and an expletive, that pop radio wasn’t quite ready for 20 years ago. The massive hit “Thank U, Next” evoked the ascending weightlessness of Y2K pop while, in the video, Grande cosplayed as the heroines from some of the era’s most beloved teen movies.

Justin Timberlake didn’t make it to Coachella’s ’N Sync reunion, but he did link up with the millennial icon SZA on “The Other Side,” their recent dance-pop duet from the “Trolls World Tour” soundtrack. The video is a retro-futuristic early-aughts extravaganza complete with a fish-eye lens, a set that looks like the air-locked chamber of a spaceship, and SZA clad in silver sparkles that make her glimmer like Spears in the “Toxic” video. A month earlier, the rising R&B star Summer Walker released “Come Thru,” a sultry single that samples Usher’s 1997 classic “You Make Me Wanna …” and features Usher himself as Walker’s music-video paramour. Aging, “TRL”-era heartthrobs: the season’s hottest accessory!

No music video has conjured turn-of-the-millennium pop quite as expertly as Normani’s 2019 clip for “Motivation,” which finds her paying direct homage to Spears, Jennifer Lopez and early solo-career Beyoncé — not to mention wearing a top proudly spray-painted “1996,” for the year she was born. Charli XCX and Troye Sivan paid tribute to another classic year in “1999,” their ode to the glory days of pop and “hanging out all night, no phone.” The hilarious video finds them flipping through more late-90s/early-aughts parodies than Blink-182 in “All the Small Things.”

Two other artists featured on Charli’s most recent LP have also been mining similar mood boards: Caroline Polachek’s excellent 2019 album “Pang” remixed sleek pop with the kitsch hits of millennium-era adult contemporary, while the sisters of Haim have personalized a late-90s throwback vibe on their latest singles. The sumptuous “Now I’m in It” holds the distinction of being the first Haim song to draw comparisons to Savage Garden.

It can be surreal to process nostalgia for eras that feel like they just happened — for so long (perhaps because we never settled on a decent thing to call them), “the 2000s” were simply the present. But if aesthetics are easier to see in hindsight, so, too, are their expiration dates. The Y2K bug certainly didn’t send us retreating into our canned-good-stocked bunkers — we’d only have to wait 20 years for a pandemic to take care of that — but two very different unforeseen events would burst the music industry’s maximalist, techno-utopian bubble instead: the rise of file sharing, followed by the solemn shock of 9/11. Suddenly the future didn’t seem as bright.

But the music of the Y2K moment remains, a glorious, extravagantly budgeted, neon-hued dream forever frozen in that moment right before the alarm clock brrrrring-ed it back to reality. And as the internet makes it easier than ever to revisit the pasts we yearn for, millennium-pop will continue to hold an escapist allure. In the YouTube comments section for the 2001 Jennifer Lopez video “I’m Real,” one viewer writes, wistfully, “I came here for the late 90s early 00s sparkle sound.”

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