I remember the first time I witnessed a DJ drop the Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song while I was hanging out at a bar. I don’t often find myself regarding local bar DJs with much reverence, but in that moment, I remember thinking that this dude was some sort of virtuoso of the profession. With the exception of "Happy Birthday" and maybe "Jingle Bells," the theme song for The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air is perhaps the most well-known song in the English language. Every single patron in the bar began to belt the lyrics at the top of their lungs. Suburban white girls everywhere were stealing the hats off the heads of their male companions. It was pure, unadulterated jubilance.
Stories of this spectacle must have spread widely because, in the weeks and months that followed, I began to notice a trend forming. Every third time I went out, a similar series of events would unfold. The DJ would play the Fresh Prince theme song, the crowd would react enthusiastically, but for me personally, the magic of that first night could never quite be recreated. Having grown weary of this gimmick, when it occurred once again at a wedding reception, I cynically rolled my eyes. As usual, the DJ had played the extended version of the theme song—rather than the one edited for TV—and it created this awkward tension as everyone stood around, waiting for the song to circle back around to the part they knew. During the interim, I heard someone turn to an unfamiliar acquaintance and audibly say, “So, how are the kids?”
If these impromptu Fresh Prince sing-alongs existed in a vacuum, I doubt I’d dedicate much thought to their popularity. Unfortunately, rather than isolated incidents, they appear to be symbolic of a much broader cultural phenomenon—the rise of nostalgia as a primary driver of artistic consumption. There’s a popular meme that describes this phenomenon in a nutshell. Someone will post a picture of a thing that existed 15 years ago—say, a CD Walkman—and caption it “Only '90s kids will remember this.” Overcome by their nostalgia, ‘90s kids will thoughtlessly share this meme, without stopping to consider that there’s nothing particularly profound about the notion that two people who lived during the same time period will inevitably share the same reference points.
If I was forced to try to intellectualize it, I suppose there’s something to be said about the merits of nostalgia as a force that allows us to feel less alone in the universe. While there’s a certain bleakness to the realization that no two people can truly share the same thoughts and emotions, our shared nostalgia is proof that there are an infinite number of other things that connect us to millions of strangers. And yet, this sentiment, beautiful as it is, is probably also responsible for the existence and success of the Netflix show Fuller House, so fuck it into a million pieces. At the risk of sounding like Grampa Simpson in the “Old Man Yells at Cloud” meme, I’m fairly confident in my assertion that nostalgia, in and of itself, is not a legitimate signifier of artistic virtue.
Of course, as a person who engages with the 2017 cultural landscape, the irony of this tirade is not lost on me. Nostalgia is an inescapable vortex and no one, including myself, is completely immune to its charms. If I was fervently committed to this cause, I’d be forced to boycott an almost oppressive amount of media. Avoiding the many TV and film reboots would be difficult, but sidestepping nostalgia’s influence on music simply wouldn’t be possible. Short of walking through public spaces with my ears plugged, singing “la, la, la, I’m not listening, I’m not listening,” there would be nothing I could do.
My generation’s love for reminiscing has impacted music in a couple of very noticeable ways. On the one hand, it’s easy to see this reflected sonically, with so much of the music that has been released in recent times sampling and/or harkening back to the sounds of ‘90s R&B (DVSN, Sonder, Tory Lanez, Kehlani, etc.). On the other hand, it’s even easier to see this reflected in our musical consumption trends, which point to a recent, overwhelming obsession with mid-’90s—early-2000s rap and R&B throwbacks.
For better or for worse, these throwbacks are an incredibly ubiquitous part of the modern musical climate. Terrestrial radio stations across North America have changed their format to incorporate them more regularly, Boyz II Men, New Kids on the Block, and Paula Abdul are currently on a joint arena tour, exploiting society’s insatiable craving for them—there’s even an entire day of the week dedicated to them on social media. Every time I've been to a bar, lounge, or wedding reception in the last few years, the DJ will inevitably dedicate a super-sized chunk of the night to playing songs from this bygone era. The only thing that brings my generation together more than our love of a good throwback is our mutual disdain for exorbitant student loan debt.
As someone who has never particularly enjoyed conventional top 40 dance music, there was a time when I would look forward to this portion of a night out. It was always a nice reprieve from the many overplayed pop songs that would typically dominate the speakers over the course of a night. At a certain point, however, I began to notice that DJs were using these throwbacks—much like the aforementioned Fresh Prince sing-alongs—less as an opportunity to celebrate the large wealth of incredible music from this era, but more as a tactic to bring the crowd together through a collective, abstract feeling of nostalgia. DJs don’t play throwbacks to pay tribute to great art, they do so in order to emotionally manipulate the crowd into thinking that they’re having a good time. For the most part, it works. It’s an incredibly effective technique.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that the world’s DJs all colluded together and formed some sort of pernicious agenda, but I think there is something to be said about the fact that most of their throwback sets usually consist of some combination of the same 10-15 songs. Curators don’t even need to think about what songs to play anymore, they can simply choose songs off a proven playlist that is guaranteed to elicit the necessary nostalgic response. I understand that very few crowds want a DJ to play obscure ‘90s deep cuts, but we’ve come a long way from crate carrying to this.
Here’s a playlist of 15 songs I made off the top of my head that seems fairly comprehensive of the throwbacks you might hear on a given night:
- The Notorious B.I.G. - "Hypnotize"
- Dr. Dre - "The Next Episode"
- Blackstreet - "No Diggity"
- 2Pac - "California Love"
- Montell Jordan - "This Is How We Do It"
- Bell Biv Devoe - "Poison"
- Jay-Z - "I Just Wanna Love U (Give It 2 Me)"
- Dr. Dre - "Still D.R.E."
- Faith Evans - "Love Like This (Fatman Scoop Remix)"
- R. Kelly - "Ignition (Remix)"
- Mark Morrison - "Return of the Mack"
- Big Pun - "Still Not A Player"
- Nelly - "Ride Wit Me"
- OutKast - "Ms. Jackson"
- The Notorious B.I.G. - "Mo' Money Mo' Problems"
Here’s the thing—these are all great songs, and I don’t blame anyone for wanting to listen to them. For me personally, however, I worry that my love for these songs will be cheapened as they continue to be used by unimaginative DJs as sentimental cheat codes. Sadly, I’ve already noticed this trend beginning to occur. It feels like the musical integrity of these songs has been scrubbed away in favor of a conditioned nostalgic response. When I first heard "Still D.R.E.," I remember admiring the intricacies of the production, but I can no longer listen to it without picturing a bunch of white people at a party rapping along, conveniently forgetting to censor themselves when saying “Still Dre day, n****, Still A.K. n****.” "No Diggity" was one of the first songs I remember genuinely loving as a child, but this song has now been used as a medium for emotional manipulation so frequently, that my genuine love for it now somehow feels manufactured.
In the grand scheme of things, I’m aware that this is a fairly trivial concern to raise. I’ve brought this complaint up to many people in conversation, only for them to respond by disinterestedly nodding their head, shrugging it off, and quickly changing the topic. Nonetheless, when you have a strong pre-existing relationship with these songs—the way I’m sure many of us do—it feels kind of shitty to see them reduced to gimmicks.
I take some solace in my prediction that this will likely only be a concern for a few more years. In five years, as the last of my generation ages completely out of this stage of our lives, DJs will turn to a new crop of mid-2000s hits to stock their generic throwback playlists instead. ‘90s nostalgia—a force that once felt so excessive because of our newfound ability to consolidate and mobilize our nostalgia via the internet—will become a thing of the past, and DJs will embark on a mission to ruin a new bunch of songs for a new generation of people instead.
By Hershal Pandya, a freelance writer based in Toronto. He's on Twitter.
Photo Credit: MOP$