Is Everyone Stealing From the ’90s Now?

Is Everyone Stealing From the 90s Now
Photos: Getty Images

Like many sentient elder millennials, I’ve fallen under the spell of Olivia Rodrigo’s sublime, no-skips debut album, Sour. Sure, she’s 18 and I’m 39, but I’m of the opinion that angst knows no age and the teenage girl within never truly goes away. The likes of “Driver’s License” and “Favorite Crime” send me spiraling back to my tortured teen years in the mid-to-late ’90s (oh, the exquisite pain of JNCO-wearing crushes with mushroom cuts), when the soundtrack to my life was full of feral female voices: Alanis, Tori, Shirley, Fiona. In my mind, I’m on a first-name basis with them all.

My past and present recently collided when Courtney Love, the chief musical influence of all my seventh-grade sleepovers, accused Rodrigo of copying the mascara-streaked prom queen on the cover of Hole’s seminal 1994 album, Live Through This, in a photo promoting her Sour Prom concert film. There are forlorn, tiara-clad women clutching bouquets of wilting flowers in both images, which was enough to spark Love’s ire. “Stealing an original idea and not asking permission is rude,” she wrote on Facebook after sharing Rodrigo’s Sour Prom picture across her social media accounts.

The fracas raised questions about homage versus creative theft, although—as The New York Times noted, citing an art law professor—it would be hard to copyright the idea of a beauty queen cracking just below the surface. If one could, both Love and Rodrigo would likely owe a debt to the gory prom scene and titular queen played by Sissy Spacek in 1976’s Carrie. But to me, the head-trippiest part of the Love-Rodrigo clash was the fact that the rock stars of my youth had become Gen Z’s retro influences. As Rodrigo commented on Love’s Instagram: “love u and live through this sooooo much.” Fans of Sour already know how she feels about Billy Joel.

The ’90s and early aughts have long been resurrected on Instagram, from Princess Diana’s bike shorts-and-sweatshirts street style to red carpet throwbacks of Brad Pitt and Jennifer Aniston (and, for that matter, Gwyneth Paltrow). Combat boots and bodysuits hath risen; Bennifer is back; and now “our” music is visibly trickling down to a new generation. The cheeky cover of Lorde’s new single, “Solar Power,” called to mind a memorable shot of Anthony Kiedis’s scantily-clad bum from the Red Hot Chili Peppers’s “Give It Away” video. Willow Smith is collaborating with her self-proclaimed idol Avril Lavigne on new punk-pop music; the two were recently photographed shooting a video in coordinating plaid pants and necks covered in spikes and chains. Charli XCX and Troye Sivan’s “1999” is itself an ode to the famed final year of the millennium, name-checking Britney Spear’s “...Baby (One More Time),” and recreating TLC’s “Waterfalls” video and Titanic’s sweeping “I’m the king of the world!” moment.

Everything old becomes new again; it’s the way of the pop-cultural world. I vividly remember my parents’ heady nostalgia when I started wearing bell-bottoms and clogs and dipping into my dad’s Beatles tapes (yes, cassette tapes) in junior high. These days, tapes are twee tchotchkes at Urban Outfitters, and I’m okay with that. Is it wild to watch the songs and stars I worshipped only yesterday (or so it seems) revisited and adopted by a new crop of youngs? A tad. Charli and Troye were seven and four years old, respectively, in 1999, when I actually attended junior prom. Live Through This dropped nine years before Rodrigo was even born. But it’s also glorious to see the music I loved—and still love—coming alive again. For all the age and space between us, I totally get why Rodrigo loves Love and Live Through This. Angst is ageless.

After Love aired her issues with Rodrigo’s photo, users on Twitter accused the former Disney star of lifting a guitar riffing from Elvis Costello’s “Pump It Up” on “Brutal,” the first track from Sour. But Costello came to Rodrigo’s defense, tweeting that “Pump It Up” was itself influenced by his musical forefathers: Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and Chuck Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business.”?

“It’s how rock and roll works,” Costello said. “You take the broken pieces of another thrill and make a brand new toy.”