Dana Kohlmeyer and her fiance, Marc Hassan, always keep eyes out for new concerts. Earlier this year, when the Royal Farms Arena announced the "I Love the '90s" tour, Hassan quickly emailed Kohlmeyer the lineup: Salt-N-Pepa, Coolio, Color Me Badd, All-4-One and more blasts from the recent past.
"I looked at the list and I'm like, 'Absolutely,'" Kohlmeyer, 42, of Greenspring, said recently. "We were very excited. ... I'm in my 40s, and that's what started me going to concerts — loving different genres of music."
Kohlmeyer is far from alone, as '90s nostalgia appears to be in full swing in popular culture, whether it's TV (reboots of series like “Full House” update “Fuller House” and “The X-Files”), movies (the recently remade “Point Break”) or fashion (plaid and overalls feel grunge-inspired, while hip-hop staples like Starter jackets and retro Michael Jordan sneakers are sought after online).
Music, one of our indelible markers of time, is also a major proponent of '90s nostalgia, as evidenced by the upcoming local concert calendar: “I Love the '90s” on Saturday, the Summerland Tour (Sugar Ray, Everclear) at Power Plant Live July 16 and the My 2K Tour with 98 Degrees at Pier Six Pavilion on Aug. 18.
The lineups span multiple genres, but are all connected by the time they found their peak success. Jamie Jones of All-4-One (best known for the R&B ballad, “I Swear”) said fans remember the era warmly because so many different sounds — pop, hip-hop, R&B and rock — fit the radio, which reflects these lineups.
“The lines between Top 40 really got blurred in the '90s,” Jones said. “You could listen to Top 40 and hear all kinds of stuff. It wasn't just Top 40 rock or Top 40 pop.”
But what was it specifically about the '90s that so many people, music fans in particular, still gravitate toward today? Or is this simply a function of time passing, and all decades eventually get their turn to be viewed through a romanticized looking glass?
The answer probably falls somewhere in between.
Dwight DeWerth Pallmeyer, an associate professor of communication studies at Widener University in Pennsylvania, said the era felt “invulnerable” until the Sept. 11 attacks transformed the general feeling of '90s fun-loving cheer to uneasy malaise. As we relied more on the Internet and social media, he said, that restlessness seeped into our collective consciousness, which made the '90s seem more hopeful.
“There is longing for a simpler time and a more innocent time, and certainly a time that was more optimistic,” Pallmeyer said. “The stock market was still doing well. It was the magic of looking forward to the year 2000.”
Danny Mays, a 32-year-old bassist from Crofton, performs along the East Coast with his Baltimore '90s cover band, Here's to the Night. His band, which plays everything from Britney Spears to Pearl Jam, is booked up this year and already planning shows for 2017, he said. The success, he said, comes from the escapism they offer.
“Everyone's bummed and angry and spitting venom at everybody [now]. Even when you sign on to Facebook, it's all of these crazy articles,” Mays said. “[The '90s] wasn't too long ago, but it was long enough that people can look in the rearview mirror and go, ‘Man, that was cool. That was fun back then.'”
With enough time, it's easy to look back at any era and see what you want to see, which means the '90s were both unique and just another 10 years of existence. That's why Amy Bree Becker, assistant professor in the department of communication at Loyola University Maryland, rejects the idea that the '90s were a simpler time. She points to the issues at the heart of FX's recent series “The People v. O.J. Simpson” — racism, class, police misconduct, sexism — paralleling the issues of the times now.
She, instead, believes the current wave of '90s nostalgia is a byproduct of young parents reminiscing about their adolescence.
“A lot of the people who came of age in the '90s are now adults with kids, and they want to share some of the same things they remember from that teen period with their children,” Becker said.
Regardless of the reasons and circumstances, no one interviewed for this story expects the '90s momentum to go anywhere soon.
Jon Boesche, a morning host on Baltimore Top 40 station Mix 106.5, said listener data shows their Throwback Thursday mix — eight condensed minutes of almost strictly '90s artists — is the second most-listened-to segment of his show on any given week. To him, the decade's popularity is easily explained.
“There's no real scientific answer. It's a romance about when you were bopping along to music when you were 19 or 16 years old,” Boesche said.
He credits social media's environment of constant sharing as part of the reason, too. Now, it's easy to broadcast your taste, even if it's stuck in the '90s, to the world.
“Because of social media and the way we express ourselves and show our lives on social media, this throwback mentality has gone from fad to lifestyle,” he said. “It's just part of what you do as an adult.”
For the artists on these tours, there's a certain calm and confidence that comes with performing the hits. This is not a tour for rare B-sides and forgotten solo attempts, nor is it a launching pad for anyone's second big break. It's a night for fans knowing what to expect and seeing if these acts can still deliver.
Drew Lachey of 98 Degrees — who will be joined by O-Town, Dream and Ryan Cabrera on the My 2K Tour — said he's recognized more on the street these days for winning “Dancing With the Stars“ than his time in a multiplatinum boy band, but it's close.
After 13 years passed between albums, 98 Degrees attempted a comeback with 2013's independently released “2.0.” The album didn't come close to their previous heights, but not for a lack of trying.
“Honestly, I think we were all hopeful and optimistic about making new music. Yes, we all change and it was different,” Lachey said. “It's very much a what-have-you-done-for-me-lately type of model that's out there right now.”
98 Degrees learned, like many acts do, that once you're so closely associated with a vivid moment in time, it is extremely difficult to ever escape it. So for the 39-year-old Lachey, touring with his group is more about providing an experience both nostalgic and high-energy to fans. That can be tough for a group most known for its ballads.
“We're going to have to sprinkle some [uptempo songs] in there, whether they're album cuts or whether they're covers,” Lachey said. “Our goal for the My 2K Tour is to not make it about 98 Degrees or O-Town or Dream or Ryan Cabrera, but to make it about the event.”
Bryan Abrams of Color Me Badd, who performs Saturday with the “I Love the '90s” tour, knows fans will have a fun time at the show, but he hopes that the group is even still performing can inspire the audience, too.
“To see the same group, and we're still at it and doing our thing, it kind of gives your fans — not to sound corny — a little bit of hope,” Abrams said. “We've changed. I've eaten a few hamburgers and pizzas since the '90s so I look different. … But just because we're older and have kids doesn't mean we can't have a good time.”
While Abrams was the only one to admit it, it's easy to think these artists — once household names and purveyors of cool in their industry — still have something to prove, too.
“Of course you want them to leave in a good mood, leave with memories,” Abrams said of the fans. “But my pride honestly wants to say, when these people leave, I want them to go, ‘Holy [expletive], these guys still got it.'”