Why Was The 90s So Obsessed With Swing?
When people with media studies degrees want to sound smart (hi), they'll explain how culture recycles itself in these predictable 30-year nostalgia cycles, or even 10, 15, or 20-year cycles, and that they're so predictable we're now exactly 16 weeks away from everyone asking their hairdresser for the Rachel. But what no one ever talks about is a 50-year nostalgia cycle. After all, what kind of teen would be interested in listening to the same jams as their grandpa? But if it doesn't exist, how do we grok why, for a very specific time in the 1990s, the American zeitgeist resembled a rerun of Leave It to Beaver?
The mid-'90s saw a sudden explosion in swinging -- and not the fun kind that involves putting your car keys in a bowl and getting naked in your neighbor's conversation pit. Almost overnight, the entire United States was jumping, jiving, and lindy hopping to a freak '40s big band revival. Neo-swing bands popped up on the Billboard charts and late-night shows, clutching their Super 55 microphones and playing trumpets dirtier than a rusty trombone.
But this wasn't your shell-shocked grandaddy's swing. Big bands like the Squirrel Nut Zippers and the Cherry Poppin' Daddies left the Harry James records in their dad's hi-fi. Instead, and despite being whiter than Elvis's last calcified shit, they mirrored themselves after the uptempo, zoot suitin' swing of the Black and Latin scenes in postwar America.
Yes, pop culture occasionally has these fits of musical Alzheimer's (remember that time in the teens when everyone was briefly into electronic Prohibition jazz?), but this wasn't a mere music fad. The swing revival immediately bled into every other aspect of 90's pop culture. Gen X'ers started talking jive, calling each other "doll" and "hepcat" like they didn't grow up with color TVs. And no Saturday night was complete without polishing your wingtips, throwing on an oversized checked sport coat, and taking your beat-up Cadillac to the retro diner to hit on ironic roller waitresses.
Where neo-swing really hit the mainstream was in Hollywood movies. This first started around 1992 when every historical flick had to include at least one swing dance scene, from the Gorgeous Ladies of Baseball in A League Of Their Own …
To the prodigal Nazi-punching Swing Kids …
To Malcolm X, where Spike Lee has the FBI's most wanted civil rights leader doing the lindy hop dressed like a Tex Avery cartoon devil.
Speaking of Looney Tunes zoot suits, before long, movies started squeezing in not just some musical numbers but the entire swing revival aesthetic. The most iconic example of this has to be The Mask, the cinematic equivalent of the fever dream you'd have falling asleep in front of the TV during a Dick Tracy marathon on Nickelodeon.
But neo-swing didn't hit peak Hollywood saturation until John Favreau's debut film, Swingers. Set in 1996 L.A., the movie captures the day-to-day life of 20-something shincrackers who're all about being "so money" while going broke buying bowling shirts and Brylcreem.
But as quickly as the swing revival hit the scene, it split. Like a Glenn Miller brass section, the cultural fad got too mainstream too fast. No later than 1998, the final nail was driven into its voodoo coffin when The Gap tried to pander to jaded Gen X'ers with a commercial about Swinging Khakis.
To this day, no one can really explain why swing fever burned so bright and so hot in the '90s. Maybe it was because grunge had just blown out its brains in a Seattle greenhouse, and everyone was tired of being sad and cynical. Maybe the end of the Cold War made Americana hit the reset button on the past 50 years. Maybe it was just because people in the '90s loved wearing ill-fitting clothes. Conversely, others claim that swing didn't come back because it never really left. Swing has always been there, lingering in the background of our cultural consciousness, only revealing itself when you attend a wedding and have to clear the floor for that annoying couple who wants to show off what they've learned in their therapist-mandated couples dance class.
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Top Image: Miramax Films