At the beginning of October this year, a tweet went viral. Following a common trope on social media, it claimed "i want to live in this era" and attached a disposable camera photo of a young white girl with bright pink hair, holding a game controller attached to a weighty, '90s TV. Initially the tweet found an audience among younger users sharing it sincerely, before it reached those in their mid to late 20s and 30s, bemused by the late '90s nostalgia.
As often happens with nostalgia content, those sharing it were split between the sincere and the indignant. But as it was shared more, different elements in the photo began to distort the idea that this was referring to the '90s, as many presumed. The biggest anachronism is a visible poster for the Arctic Monkeys' 2013 album, AM.
Ryan Broderick, an internet reporter who writes the newsletter Garbage Day, dug deeper into this, eventually finding that the photo was actually posted in 2020 by a Spanish-language blogger and Instagram model with a huge Pinterest following who is part of the resurgence of ‘soft grunge’, a Tumblr aesthetic popularised on the site between 2012 and 2014.
As Ryan wrote in his newsletter on the subject, this particular tweet is "not about being nostalgic for the 90s, nor is it about being nostalgic for the early-2010s. Instead, it’s about being nostalgic for being in the early-2010s being nostalgic for the 90s. It’s a lot to wrap your head around."
We are used to nostalgia online – it is in many ways the life blood of the internet, fuelling both aesthetic sensibilities and how we consume online media. But this particular iteration felt different. The merging of different aesthetics, technologies and styles that looked too old to be 2010s, too modern to be '90s and too current to be either feels jarring, almost uncanny.
In some ways there is a simple explanation: the nostalgia for soft grunge Tumblr is part of a wave of early to mid 2010s nostalgia as identified by Rebecca Jennings in Vox last year: "Reliving a very specific subculture from the period that roughly spans from 2009 to 2014 — the era of indie pop, ironically oversize eyeglasses, and late-wave finger mustaches — is what countless millennials and Gen Z kids are doing right now, online and in their bedrooms."
The aesthetics and subgenres of taste in that era spanned beyond the world of indie music and soft grunge (in their video analysing Tumblr aesthetics of the 2010s, Modern Gurlz identified 10 distinct styles that were most popular, from ‘swag girl’ to ‘pastel goth’ to ‘twee hipster’). Soft grunge is currently the most popular in the 2020s. The aesthetic was a ‘softer’ version of grunge brought together with aspects of earlier emo aesthetics and the then modern silhouette of high-waist skinny jeans or pleated skirts and crop tops or T-shirts, with the biggest influences being the mid to late '90s (think slip dresses, oversized flannel shirts, chokers and ripped jeans).
In the video’s comments, ‘soft grunge’ occupied the strongest place in people’s hearts. One commenter said: "The soft grunge aesthetic literally brings me so much comfort, just really reminded me of my middle school days AND i still have a playlist with all of the tumblr songs like the 1975, 5 seconds of summer and arctic monkeys… it was the time of my life."
Another user commented on its perceived longevity, saying that the punk influence in the aesthetic which stems from the '70s means "at this point I would basically call it a timeless alternative look," adding that "E girl fashion is a rehash of soft grunge as well I think."
For those of us who weren’t part of that particular trend at the time or were long beyond their teens and early 20s, it feels uncomfortable to see something that feels so recent already back in the zeitgeist. But this unease isn’t new either. To take an example from my teenage years, the band Bowling For Soup has a whole song about the transformation of your youth into a site of nostalgia for younger people. What is new in the nostalgia for ‘soft grunge’ is that it’s only in part about 2014. The melding of old and new technology in the creating and sharing of this photo (going viral on both Twitter and Pinterest and presumably edited but taken with a disposable camera), together with the 2020s hair and makeup on a 2014 stylised version of the '90s makes the aesthetic feel unstuck from time. It’s not nostalgia anymore but a kind of ‘newstalgia’.
‘Newstalgia’ is defined on Urban Dictionary as "something new that harkens back to something old", although it has primarily been used in a marketing context where "nostalgic elements like familiar faces and childhood games" are combined with "futuristic features like augmented reality". Now though, it is becoming part of the life blood of many social media sites thanks to the collapse of the conventional trend cycle and technology increasingly blurring the edges of reality.
Most ideas are borrowed from the past in some way. This is true across the board but is particularly apparent in fashion, with traditional wisdom being that trends cycle through every 20 years or so. But the way that we take that inspiration has shifted over the years. For most of fashion history it was not the historical inspiration but the silhouette that defined an era – a photo from the 1920s will always look '20s, whether or not the particular image had explicit reference to ancient Egypt (a common style at the time), because of the dominant silhouette. Inspiration from the past was an addition to the dominant style, it was not the style itself.
Now, thanks to the acceleration of fast fashion industries, the call back to earlier trends gets increasingly recent but the silhouette stays the same. Karolina Żebrowska points out in her video essay on the topic: "With the evolution of fashion that is no longer tied to a single dominant silhouette and the emergence of vintage fashions entering the mainstream, what differentiates '80s and '90s photos from modern photos?" The trend is what we wear and the newness comes from accessories, technology, hair and makeup. Beyond that it is far harder to differentiate the style in an image from the '90s and one from the 2020s taken on a disposable camera.
This is all exacerbated by technology: social media and digital media thrive on nostalgia as it is such an easy content source. As Ryan tells me over email: "I think nostalgia is really easy for machines to recommend content around. Think about Facebook's On This Day. You open the app and it slams you with a photo from 10 years ago. It's not even trying to do something specifically nostalgic, it's just showing you old content. But you get a lump in your throat or a bittersweet feeling. It's a really easy and powerful thing for the algorithm to do."
We’re served more and more of these images and references, giving younger users a glut of elements to pick and choose from to create ‘aesthetics’, all while encouraging them to make something new. And because we lose so much context online, the clear lines that delineate something as ‘90s’ or ‘2010s’ or even ‘soft grunge’ are blurred. While you could draw a line from '80s Laura Ashley dresses back to late Edwardian fashion without getting too lost, the blending of true vintage and vintage-inspired and modern pieces makes everything unstuck from time. And when you take all those elements and make them into something new, you can embrace your nostalgia without feeling that you have to justify your liking in the same way.
Despite the name, none of the impulses in ‘newstalgia’ are really new. The escapism of pop culture and its associated eras and aesthetics has always been there. What is new, however, is how easy it is to peel your own nostalgia onion. With the trend cycle getting ever closer (we can’t be far off a return to the 2016 choker), there is often a sense that nostalgia is too well worn to produce anything new. But these styles become their own in their immersion in the digital world, deliberately clashing old and new, and making millennials indignant on Twitter.