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welcome to the 2010s renaissance
modern family on tiktok, the hunger games, and the eras tour
Taylor Swift stands on stage in a floor length gown, shimmering as the rain falls on her. “Please don’t be in love with someone else,” she sings. The video has 1.5 million likes. Watching from my screen, I sing along, too. I was never a Swiftie, but I know the lyrics. I was an 11-year-old girl when this came out. Of course I know the lyrics. Please don’t have somebody waiting on you.
The 2010s are back, like they never left in the first place. Last weekend, Ty Burrell trended on Twitter during Father’s Day for his role as America’s dad on Modern Family. Videos tagged #modernfamily have been trending all over TikTok, amassing over 13.7 billion views as of Tuesday. Earlier in the week, Olivia Rodrigo announced the name of her next single, “vampire,” which immediately sparked several fan theory connections to Twilight — further inflamed when Taylor Lautner commented “K WHO TF BIT YOU” on her Instagram post (Team Jacob, I will not apologize, and Stephanie Meyer, you will pay for your crimes). Two weeks ago, One Direction fans supposedly leaked a song from the Four album, “Where We Are,” also the name of the final tour the band did as a five-member crew, as well as the tour that launched opening act, 5 Seconds of Summer, into global fame. Not to mention, last month, the trailer for The Hunger Games’ upcoming prequel film was posted to major fandom excitement. Even Miss Apex White Woman Taylor Swift’s 2008 single “Fearless” became a viral audio, after her landmark Eras tour began in March.
I can’t peel my eyes away from references to vampires, mobile games like Doodle Jump, or the way we used to take selfies on the brown Instagram app. I can’t stop listening to “Post to Be,” and remembering how much we used to screech the lyric “but you gotta eat the booty like groceries.” I find myself telling the younger end of Gen Zers, you know, back in my day, SZA tickets were $25 — that’s what I paid to see CTRL.
“all my 20 something teenagers…. our time has come,” one user wrote on TikTok.
It’s easy to point to this 2010s renaissance as proof for the implosion of our own endless thirst for content. There is so much discourse online about the flattening of the 20-year trend cycle right now. Fast fashion is moving too quickly, our consumption is outrunning our resources, we’re going to drown in plastic with Amazon dildos in our mouths. And social media is often at the center of figuring out why our pattern of consumption is collapsing. It’s the genesis of microtrends and the catalyst for our goldfish-like attention spans. Perhaps there is an aspect of truth in it. But what I think we’re actually beginning to see here is a concurrent trend cycle.
“I think the resurgence of 2010s content largely comes from the fact people whose childhoods took place in that time are now a part of the creator economy, so they’re producing things that make them and their peers emotional, and thus making those things get cool again,” internet culture journalist Kelsey Weekman said when I asked her about it. “There’s a lot of looking back and reframing opinions happening right now with 2010s nostalgia, as well.”
When discussing memory encoding, psychologists often point to the theories of the reminiscence bump, a period between the ages of 15 and 30 where individuals are able to recall more memories if prompted with a cue. The memories tend to be focused around adolescence and autobiographical memories; the bump peaks at around 20 years old, declines into one’s 30s, and then turns upwards once more (the overall pattern called the lifespan retrieval curve). Now, the eldest of Gen Z are hitting their mid-20s, right in the middle of the reminiscence bump. Last year, the first synthesis of brain research and nostalgia was published, and researchers found that the medial prefrontal cortex (mPFC) was a key brain region activated during feelings of self-reflection (memories involving you) and emotional regulation (that bittersweetness) — which, lo and behold, is the area of the brain that finishes developing at 25 years old.
We are beginning to solidify our own generational identity as we get older, and therefore, our own genre of nostalgia content, which I’m sure Gen Alpha will bully us relentlessly for. We’re going through career or education crises, watching everyone start to get married or engaged for real, encoding key memories for our own self-identities. Look no further than the trending phrases like “it’s a canon event,” or “you just had to be there,” signaling that the cornerstones of a shared worldview have begun to crystallize.
“Nostalgia has always been a really powerful sales tool,” Kelsey said. “It inspires emotion without having to do much work. It’s like, one of our basest feelings, and one on which content producers (like BuzzFeed) have long tapped into. I think Gen Z nostalgia content is just better documented because it’s more normal to carry a camera around on your phone and take screenshots of things.”
Note: Of course, I have to hedge this with the fact that this is still very much divided by the stratifications of race, class, gender and nation — my friend told me a story about going to wedding reception and requesting “Kiss Me Thru The Phone,” and it fell flat with the white people there, which is embarrassing for said white people.
On a larger scale, nostalgia is also a restorative emotion, attenuating dysphoric feelings of stress and existential anxiety, with evidence that it builds optimism and self-confidence. The summer of 2015 was the last year of pre-Trumpian politics, a time when a game show host running the country still felt farcical, and the vaudeville of American democracy didn’t seem so obvious. Experts were reminding us on the radio that the Zika virus was not a global crisis, and it wasn’t. The biggest cultural war was the Taylor versus Kanye conflict, which seemed to be looking up after their photo together at the 2015 Grammys. It’s an era many of us have concrete memories of, the last hurrah with any glimmer of hope.
Amid global insecurity, it makes sense then that we’re thinking about the before times a little sooner than anticipated. And our nostalgia is fed to us through the language of the internet, via fan-made content and Easter eggs and sleuthing. So what does that say about our consumption habits now?
Since social media found its sea legs and began evolving into the all-encompassing reality it is now, we’ve begun to see the crest of its cultural trend cycle. We went from drawn cartoon memes to Impact font over images to Vines to now, where anything plucked from its own history — an old viral tweet or a celebrity Instagram comment — can be used as a punchline. The pacing of references is accelerating much faster than at the beginnings of social media as we build our lexicon, opening a depth of desire with endless scrolls and short-form video. The best part of any of these fandoms was always the online communities that came along with it. For the producers of top–down content, that means the ways they tap into our nostalgia — television, film, music, fashion, technology — the ways they sell virality, will more and more tap into the heartbeat of the social media cycle.
Grassroots culture (fancams, memes, lore) then informs cultural product (movies, tours, albums), which informs the for-consumption products that prey on our existence within culture (fast fashion, wellness, beauty). It’s not to say that the pace of for-consumption production is slower than grassroots culture by any means, but more and more, it has become reliant on the heartbeat of fan conversation to create. What will be adjudicated is how things go as sectors of the internet continue to fracture. Not everything can be a reboot, after all.
I don’t think the 2010s are hitting the climax of their return. Once we start wearing chokers and skinny jeans, and Apple starts selling iPod Classics again, maybe then I’ll admit we’ve reached the summit. But I think we’re in the introductory period, when users online are thinking more about it as our brains begin to become less wobbly from development, and content producers are aware that there is an opportunity to sell something to us at this point in time, whether that’s a movie or a song or a click on a short video.
“No matter what, I think nostalgia is always half looking back on when things were better and half getting angry that people are into something that you now see as ridiculous,” Kelsey said.
Until then, I shall leave you with this song to play in the car with your windows all the way down this summer, when you can pretend you’ve just gotten your license, and you have all the time in the world.