Order your Businesswomen Special™: Tomorrow, April 25, marks 20 years since the release of Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion — arguably the greatest movie ever made about the invention of Post-its.
History has proven that Romy and Michele is culturally significant for a number of reasons. First, the movie introduced us to Heather Mooney, the patron saint of telling everybody to fuck off (a.k.a. my fairy godmother). Second, it delivered a choreographed dance routine set to Cyndi Lauper’s “Time After Time,” performed by stars Lisa Kudrow, Mira Sorvino, and Alan Cumming. But most importantly, it joined the ranks of classic, culture-defining teen movies.
Which is but one example of a single fact: The 1990s were a golden age of pop-culture nostalgia, especially through the delightfully versatile medium of movie soundtracks.
The 1990s were hooked on the past in a big way. Yes, the resurgence of checkered bell-bottom pants, bright colors, and baby bangs played its aesthetic part in the decade (duh) — but just as importantly, the big-screen soundtracks of the ’90s were fascinated with the artists and scenes of eras that came before. Movies like Now and Then, The Wedding Singer, Dick, That Thing You Do!, and 200 Cigarettes weren’t just set in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s, they were also soaked in the musical moods of those decades, connecting magical moments to era-appropriate artists and songs. Remember: Teeny, Roberta, Chrissy, and Sam rode their bikes — a symbol of freedom — to “Knock Three Times” and “All Right Now,” while The Wedding Singer’s Robbie and Julia fell in love over a montage set to playfully era-appropriate Hall & Oates. Without Carly Simon’s “You’re So Vain,” Betsy and Arlene’s send-off to Nixon in Dick wouldn’t have been nearly as impactful. And let’s face it: The most important Dazed and Confused character was arguably its ’70s-era soundtrack.
Even in that setting of nostalgia-rich music movies, though, Romy and Michele stands apart. Songs like Bow Wow Wow’s “I Want Candy” evoked the la-di-da nature of resident idiot Billy Christiansen circa 1987, while Belinda Carlisle’s “Heaven Is a Place on Earth” signaled the liberation of those who’d left their Billy Christiansens behind (particularly as it plays while Romy, Michele, and Sandy Frink rise above and leave their classmates — in a literal helicopter). But most powerful of all was the film’s contrasting use of “Time After Time.”
Lauper’s 1983 ballad recurs in the movie as a subtle way of charting the evolution of Romy and Michele as people. We’re first introduced to the track while the two dance together after realizing Billy abandoned Romy at prom. Two hours into the film, however, their dance is different: With our heroines joined this time by fellow A-Team reject Sandy, the Lauper song morphs into an anthem of liberation. By the film’s end, none of them want or need the approval of Tucson High’s alums, and they prove this by dancing the way they want to a song that once defined one of the saddest nights of their teen lives.
As all Cyndi Lauper songs should be danced to, TBQH.
Of course, Romy and Michele wasn’t the only classic teen film of that era to use old music as a way of communicating joy, power, and freedom — even when the films themselves weren’t set decades back. In 1999’s 10 Things I Hate About You, Patrick Verona used Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” to try to win back Kat, and in 1995’s Empire Records, Joe used AC/DC’s “If You Want Blood (You’ve Got It)” to vent his frustration with Lucas. In 1994’s Reality Bites, the core four busted moves to The Knack’s “My Sharona” in a 7-Eleven, and may we never forget the part that Queen’s “Bohemian Rhapsody” played in 1992’s Wayne’s World.
Nineties teen-movie soundtracks sent a strong message: The past was where the magic was. (How else can we explain the dedication to Celtic jams of the 1910s in the wake of Titanic? Or the reboot of Prince’s “When Doves Cry” in Romeo + Juliet?) So while a shit-ton of our own cultural consumption is currently rooted in the romanticization (or over-romanticization) of the 1990s, it’s less a short-term generational phenomenon than it is the continuation of a bigger cycle that transcends time and place. Because while ’90s soundtracks currently evoke memories of childhood or our teen selves, those soundtracks are also part of a larger story. By devoting themselves to the music of the past, they introduced us to music outside of our peripheral vision. And that helped us merge the worlds of then and now (or Now and Then, #LOL), ultimately delivering unto us a beginner’s guide to nostalgia.
Even if, 20 years after Romy & Michele, some of us still don’t know the words to “Footloose.”