Graphic: Nick Wanserski

It’s September, which must mean I’m back in New York for 90sFest, the now two-years-running bacchanal of retro kitsch and past-their-prime musical acts buried in a time capsule for the bygone era of a couple decades ago. Things are a little different this time around: Last year’s inaugural festival was a co-production of the NYC Department Of Parks & Recreation; this year’s event is brought to you solely by the good people at Nickelodeon. In practice, this means the decade has been stripped of many of its defining elements in favor of an all-Nick-all-the-time aesthetic. In short: No clips of Beverly Hills, 90210 on the big screen, though certain, nigh-parodic ’90s stereotypes can’t help but be included.

The stage at 90sFest (Photo: Alex McCown-Levy)

Once again, I’ve been sent here by The A.V. Club to capture the music, the attendees, and the overall vibe—which, to be honest, I’m worried will suck. Not the event itself, mind you. When I attended last year, even though the weather and the embarrassing rules imposed on me by my co-workers made the whole ordeal quite trying, I still enjoyed parts of it (read: Salt N Pepa). No, I’m worried I’m all ’90s-ed out—that there’s really nothing left to say about those most generically recognizable parts of the decade that linger in the collective consciousness, like the cast of some eternal season of Celebrity Rehab.

At least this year I’m dressed better. Last time, I was forced to wear one of those Cat In The Hat hats, and it made me wish the earth would swallow me whole the entire time I was there. I vowed to never again allow such humiliation, so this time, the ’90s fashion was kept to a tolerable minimum of ripped jeans and an “Eddie Vedder For President” T-shirt. This way, I figured, I could retain some dignity while talking to my fellow festival-goers, whom I once again would have to ask a predetermined list of three questions—this time with a few tweaks:

  • If you could only listen to one of the acts here for the rest of your life, who would it be and why?
  • What ’90s artist do you wish were playing today?
  • If prompted, would you be able to sing any part of the following songs: Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life,” Pearl Jam’s “Even Flow,” En Vogue’s “Free Your Mind,” or (previous 90sFest performer) Coolio’s “Gangster’s Paradise”?

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Despite my relatively benign costume, the average 90sFest attendee will still look askance at me, as I am still a creepy loner wandering around a daytime music festival, staring at people and continually jotting things down in a tiny notebook. But at least this time, I won’t have that damn hat.

2 p.m.—Governor’s Island

This year’s festival has been transported from a random Brooklyn street corner to Governor’s Island, that tiny plot of land between Staten Island and Brooklyn that most New Yorkers think of as, “Oh, yeah, that exists, huh.” As opposed to last year’s temperate but eventually stormy weather, New York is a hot box of humidity and sun this weekend—exactly what you want for an outdoor festival where you wait around for bands to play that one song.

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You could literally swim between the two islands. (Photo: Alex McCown-Levy)

I’ve got an hour to kill before doors open, so I wander the island. Did you know Governor’s Island is a treasure trove of American history and military architecture from various centuries? You can walk the entire length of it in about a half hour, and there’s tons of great stuff to see that could easily fill a day. But you don’t give a shit, because there are Pauly Shore anecdotes to get to. However, I will note in passing that the Governor’s Island Art Fair has some worthwhile exhibits, like an anthropomorphic banana who was apparently the victim of a drive-by shooting.

I call this one “Food Desert.” (Photo: Alex McCown-Levy)

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2:50 p.m.

I get impatient and decide to flex my media muscle, getting access 10 minutes early by picking up my press pass. (Remember this detail; it’ll be important later.) It’s a casual process, the exact opposite of last year, when I was frisked like I was delivering a strangely shaped cake to Rikers Island. As always, the first thing I do is scope out the bathroom situation. Once again, the organizers have woefully underprepared. I begin making plans for commando-style bathroom alternatives and note a promising-looking thicket of bushes.

“I love dying of sweat already, but if only there was a way to do it with sand in my butt crack.” (Photo: Alex McCown-Levy)

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I also discover that the entire middle ground of the festival is now a manmade sandy beach area—a nightmare for sane people who wore porous shoes, as though they were planning to stand all day or something. Kiddie pools, beach chairs, and—most foolish of all—innumerable plastic beach toys also litter the landscape, courtesy of Zico coconut water. These things won’t last an hour under the feet of drunk twentysomethings.

Sure, we all looked like Punky Brewster in the ’90s. (Photo: Alex McCown-Levy)

Just like last year, there’s an array of vendors hawking retro goods with only a tangential relationship to the decade. The ’90s Throwback Shop sells a random assortment of goods outside of official 90sFest T-shirts (available in the Friends and Saved By The Bell fonts, to name a few). Old-school candy, Mickey Mouse/Looney Tunes apparel, and trading cards of everything from WWF Wrestling to Ninja Turtles are on hand. Fresh Prints Studio is selling those brightly colored hats of the kind worn by Wesley Snipes and Woody Harrelson in White Men Can’t Jump. A booth is selling “custom pockets,” meaning it’ll attach a pop-culture-festooned piece of fabric to just about any item of clothing you want. And Nickelodeon is selling a “Nick Box” for the low price of $50, which contains odds and ends that would likely individually retail for a total of $15. These things all definitely, sort of evoke the ’90s. Keeping that thematic cohesiveness, the whole place retains the Nickelodeon aesthetic of looking like a Day-Glo factory threw up on it.

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Photo: Alex McCown-Levy

3:15 p.m.

The doors are open and the music begins with Lauryn Hill’s “Doo-Wop (That Thing)” kicking off the festivities at a startlingly loud volume for the size of the venue. I’m no wilting daisy, but holy hell this is loud. The DJ proves to be similarly aggressive; not even a minute in, and he’s already scratching and cutting into it. This will continue throughout the day.

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A guy wearing MC Hammer pants who’s a dead ringer for Gavin Rossdale walks by. I consider taking a picture, until he walks up and introduces himself as one of the festival organizers.

3:30 p.m.

You love Double Dare, right? SAY IT. SAY YOU LOVE DOUBLE DARE. (Photo: Alex McCown-Levy)

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Nickelodeon has set up an obstacle course to promote The Splat; it’s a sort of miniature cross between those seen on Double Dare and Legends Of The Hidden Temple. Unfortunately, the line doesn’t appear to be moving, and the mic’ed emcee is only sporadically chiming in with “Yes, yes, y’all”-style exhortations for us to show love for Nickelodeon’s classic programming. Just a guess, but the guy in front of me is probably fucking stoked.

“Yes. You nailed it today, Todd. Good work.” (Photo: Alex McCown-Levy)

The course itself is surprisingly serious business, as seen by the strictly enforced pads and helmets. DJ Maxwell (as I later learn he’s called) is starting to work himself up, prepping for the first runners of the day, when the voice of DJ Suga Ray booms from the main stage and silences Maxwell, who appears put out by the intrusion. DJ Suga Ray begins to call people up for Nickelodeon-based trivia questions. Suddenly everything cuts out in a squeal of feedback, then goes silent. There’s a lengthy pause, during which the entire fest seems to freeze. Then we hear the voice of DJ Maxwell—and his separate, generator-powered speaker system—chime in smugly, “That’s the sound of justice.”

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Back on track, Maxwell has the first team of three run the course. By the time it hits the button atop the mini mountain of barriers, triggering a flashing light and burst of smoke, the team’s exuberance has proven infectious, and I clap along with everyone else. I also realize that I’m pretty anxious—there’s a lot of people watching. Thankfully, a different kind of embarrassment saves me: The girl at the front of the line asks, “Where’s the rest of your team?” I tell her I’m by myself and will need to be paired with two other people. She looks at me with the kind of pity normally reserved for orphans or people who come alone to daylong outdoor festivals.

I’m shown the exit.

4 p.m.

The Bayside Tigers, house band of the weekly Saved By The 90s event here in New York, takes the stage. This is the second year the group has opened 90sFest with a peppy medley of ’90s pop hits, all filtered through its standard guitar-bass-drums setup. And it’s just as relentlessly—almost angrily—upbeat as last time, kicking things off with Green Day’s “When I Come Around.” The band has downscaled a bit, however: There’s minimal choreography, leaving its sole female member to sway and slap her side during songs where she has nothing to do. But then Meredith Brooks’ “Bitch” fires up, and it’s her time to shine.

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I cannot overemphasize how much people’s affinity for this kind of thing baffles me. Everyone. Loses. Their. Minds as the band rips through Blink-182’s “What’s My Age Again?” and generally behaves as though Blink-182 were actually here, not the equivalent of a bar mitzvah band. I realize I’m being a grouch, and maybe all the people here are just Saved By The 90s regulars. Still, is hearing a garage-rock version of “I Want It That Way” really this goddamn delightful? (On the other hand, the average age here is maybe 22, and most of these people seem incredibly high.)

During the Tigers’ token hip-hop medley (where they’re joined by our old friend, DJ Suga Ray), Pauly Shore makes his first appearance. I’m pretty sure he’s already drunk, which means he’s learned a dangerous lesson from last year about lack of consequences. Shore actually interrupts the Tigers to introduce himself, with a streamlined version of his opening set from last year: “How many remember the ’90s?” [Cheers.] “How many here were born in the ’90s?” [Massive cheers.] I realize I’m not going to beat last year’s record of waiting three whole hours before rewarding myself with a beer.

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As the Tigers wind down their set with versions of The Proclaimers’ “I’m Gonna Be (500 Miles),” 4 Non Blondes’ “What’s Up?” (which gets church revival levels of adoration), and Salt N Pepa’s “Shoop,” I look around for some people to interview. The band launches into its final number—Third Eye Blind’s “Semi-Charmed Life”—by encouraging everyone to sing along. So much for that part of my pre-planned questions.

4:50 p.m.

Pauly Shore returns to the stage having already changed clothes and seeming somehow less drunk. “Bio-Dome, Bio-Dome, Bio-Dome,” Pauly Shore says. He then proceeds to just name all his other films—repeating each one three times for effect, perhaps in hopes some of these kids will remember to stream them later this weekend, thus earning Pauly his first residuals check in years.

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Beyond that, however, his crowd work is a little uneven. As he spends approximately three minutes on stage trying to remember if DJ Jazzy Jeff was ever on The Fresh Prince Of Bel-Air, I make my way over to a friendly-looking couple named David, 27, and Beth, 29, and launch into my three questions. Without hesitating, David calls Sugar Ray his desert island music (“They’re my favorite group of all time, so…”), while Beth boldly decides on The Bayside Tigers, given the endless jukebox of ’90s music she’d have at her disposal. They list ’N Sync and Third Eye Blind as their dream 90sFest bookings, proving they truly are the ideal demographic for this thing. And since the Tigers ruined me asking if they could sing along to “Semi-Charmed Life,” I substitute that old chestnut, Spin Doctors’ “Two Princes”; neither David nor Beth know it. However, David gets Pearl Jam, and they both nail Coolio. We’re off to a good start.

4:57 p.m.

The ’90s crowd has arrived in full force. The place is lousy with crop tops and backwards baseball caps. It’s like a cosplay convention where everyone has forgotten three items of clothing and has their hair done up like Jennifer Aniston in Friends.

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Without warning, a group of women dressed like Baywatch lifeguards clears a space on the sand and launches into a synchronized dance routine. According to Viva, a bubbly woman manning a nearby table who hands me her card, they’re here hawking the Bodyroll Workout, a New York-based dance aerobics program. Okay. I take a breather near the station where young women can get their hair and nails done “’90s style,” so long as they post it to social media with the hashtag #UGotThis. After watching for a few minutes, it seems clear that what u got went out of style for a reason.

Two girls holding up Nickeolodeon “The Splat” signs offer me an array of cartoon buttons. I choose a Ren & Stimpy and ask if I can interview them, which is the cue for a lengthy debate as to whether they’re permitted to talk to me. Hey, Nickelodeon, ease off the reins a bit. What are you trying to hide?

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Instead, I have a brief chat with Amy, 26, and Ashley, 25, whom I recognized as two of the first people through the gates. They also both immediately choose the Bayside Tigers as their desert island music, then list Spice Girls, Backstreet Boys, ’N Sync, and Britney Spears as the ’90s musicians they wish were here. Sadly, they don’t get any of the songs in the quiz, though they assure me they’d know them if the songs came on at a party—they just don’t know the titles, which, fair enough. As I’m leaving, Ashley asks who the interview is for. When I tell her, she brightens. “Oh, I know that! I have a bunch of nerdy friends, so A.V. Club shows up in my feed all the time.” Touché, Ashley.

5:15 p.m.

Well, hello there. (Photo: Alex McCown-Levy)

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It’s time for C+C Music Factory, which is apparently down to just one member, who reminds me of an older Pitbull. I guess the woman who sang all those refrains was laid off from the music factory. C (or whoever) has clearly updated his style to fit the times—“Who got the motherfuckin’ weed in they pocket?!?!” wasn’t on any of the tracks I remember—and the hits are still catchy, even if I’m one of the only people here who seems to recognize “Things That Make You Go Hmmmm….” Weirdly, he disappears right at the start of “Everybody Dance Now,” the hit that finally sends the crowd surging forward, but pops back out to reveal that he just needed a second to take his shirt off in private. Jesus, is this guy cut. I’m entranced. He’s, like, aging Hollywood action star cut. Give me a moment.

5:40 p.m.

’90s Pitbull is done, and Nick is playing old TV clips on screen, including a feature on Clarissa Explains It All’s obnoxious little brother, Ferguson. Pauly ambles back on stage to TLC’s “No Scrubs.” These people love “No Scrubs.” And when it transitions into “Creep”? Forget about it. Then DJ Suga Ray shoots himself in the foot by cutting abruptly to some song even I, an actual grown person, don’t recognize. The crowd utters its first mild “boo” of the day.

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6 p.m.

It’s time for DJ Jazzy Jeff, and people are going nuts. Even I’m a little excited. He starts with a great, scratch-filled mashup of ’90s video game themes (unsurprisingly, Super Mario Bros. gets the biggest whoop of approval), then proceeds to deliver a compelling set that proves his reputation on the turntables is no joke. I feel a little bad for Dayne Jordan, stuck with the unenviable position of playing hype man throughout a set that gets the biggest response when Will Smith’s prerecorded raps echo through the speakers.

DJ Jazzy Jeff and Dayne Jordan (Photo: Alex McCown-Levy)

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Mr. C+C—still shirtless—joins Jeff and Dayne Jordan on stage for a number, and suddenly I’m very attentive again. Jeff plays the Fresh Prince theme, which is great, and follows it with the Cheers theme, which is even better. By the time he pulls the trigger on House Of Pain’s “Jump Around,” even the VIP section is bouncing. Beach balls are flying around and striking people in the head. I witness three different people stagger from the impact and am making an amused note about it when it happens to me.

By set’s end, Jeff is smiling, drenched in sweat, and scratching “Smells Like Teen Spirit” with abandon. His kitchen-sink approach—The Beatles, Nirvana, Jefferson Airplane—makes him the perfect performer for the fest: Like all nostalgia, it’s built purely on the pleasures of sense memory, and it doesn’t matter if cramming all these pop culture references together (some of them not even from the ’90s!) doesn’t actually make sense.

6:40 p.m.

Somehow, Viva and her Baywatch girls have pulled some actual stage time. “You want to see some fly girls in action?” she asks. It doesn’t play as well with the kids.

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There must have been a few boos I didn’t hear, because Pauly Shore comes back out and berates the crowd. Overall, I’m starting to think Pauly is more sober than last year. Good on him! He’s definitely very on message, insisting every performer shout out their Twitter and Instagram handles and that even these kinds of marketing stunts must be cheered.

I decide it’s a good time to interview another person—especially once I realize Pauly is pulling up a contest winner whose reward, shudder, is to “hug the girls.” Nate, 31, is standing alone, and therefore seems like a comrade in arms. He chooses Sugar Ray as his desert island group, then expresses sadness that the Spin Doctors only played the Jersey date of 90sFest. He then proceeds to absolutely run the board on the song quiz. I briefly consider inviting him to hug me as a reward, but that would generate even bigger shudders.

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7:30 p.m.

What a gorgeous squandering of energy. (Photo: Alex McCown-Levy)

Unlike just about everybody else here, Sister Hazel is not technically a nostalgia act, having just released its ninth LP, Lighter In The Air, which charted in the rock, indie, and country Billboard charts—all of which the singer helpfully announces from the stage. Kudos, Sister Hazel. Meanwhile, the average age inside the tent has flipped from 24 to 42. Personally speaking, the group’s nonthreatening, folksy rock twang isn’t my thing, so my attention wanders to the always gorgeous, electricity-draining NYC skyline. My only real takeaway from the set: Until this very moment, I always thought Blues Traveler wrote Sister Hazel’s only real hit. As the band finishes up with what we’re told is its contribution to the soundtrack of the awful, Brendan Fraser-starring Bedazzled remake, really giving it their all, I notice all four of the sound guys are checking their phones.

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8:32 p.m.

I don’t know how this happened. I’m talking to Bone Thugs-N-Harmony.

Thirty seconds from an impromptu interview. (Photo: Alex McCown-Levy)

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In general, I avoid the press opportunities at these events, but in my quest to get some higher-quality pictures that weren’t of New York skyscrapers, I ventured to the press pit, flashed my media wristband, and asked if I could be let in to take a couple. Before I know what’s happening, I’m ushered backstage (Pauly Shore is there, having changed outfits again), and suddenly I’m at the back of a very short line, being told I’ll only have time for a few questions for which I haven’t prepared in the slightest. My mouth goes dry. Over the next 30 seconds, I manage to think of exactly one question—which turns out to be a blessing, because I’m then informed that’s all they’ll have time for. I find myself escorted up to them, where I stammer this out:

AVC: Looking at how your group’s music has endured through the decades, what do you think it is about your particular style of hip-hop that has managed to last where so many others have been forgotten?

Bizzy Bone: I don’t want to give up the secrets, even though we inspire people, motivate them—there’s a lot of people that gravitate to it, and a lot of people that do Bone Thugs-N-Harmony whether they admit it or not.

Krayzie Bone: When we came into this business, we came in as family. We didn’t come in as a group that was put together. We came in as brothers. Him and Layzie Bone is brothers. Wish Bone is their cousin. Me and Bizzy been doing this since the sixth grade. And our parents knew each other before we even knew they knew each other. So our fans, we connected with them emotionally. Once you do that with your fans, you can expect longevity if you come in with the right music.

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It was a surprisingly great exchange. Still, I own E. 1999 Eternal and listen to it semi-regularly, and Bone Thugs was the act I was most looking forward to today. Had I known this would happen, I could’ve prepared some real questions, being a professional something or other.

I’m still in something of a daze when 90sFest’s tireless point person, Jessie, tells me Sugar Ray is coming immediately after, and I should just wait right here. I have no idea what to ask Sugar Ray. Does anyone? Do you? Let me rephrase: Can you think of something to ask them that wouldn’t be snarky or—at the very least—passive-aggressively rude? My editors couldn’t either, which I found out when I texted them to ask for help. I quickly throw together a few lighthearted questions, and you can read the results here.

While the interview was mostly half-assed, I am genuinely curious about how Sugar Ray views its enduring success, given that many of that era’s more critically acclaimed bands have fallen off the cultural radar, while Sugar Ray’s music is still known by basically every generation of human in the Western world. I assume they’ll probably have a “Who’s laughing now, assholes?” attitude toward the whole thing—including us at the The A.V. Club—but Mark McGrath proves surprisingly humble, expressing gratitude and a general view that his band probably doesn’t deserve the success it’s enjoyed. It’s dumb luck, as the guitarist notes. I walk away with a respect for them as people, even if I still don’t care for their songs, aesthetic, general vibe, etc. And Mark McGrath says he likes my T-shirt.

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Me-N-McGrath. (Photo: Alex McCown-Levy)

9:10 p.m.

Guess who still totally destroys live? Bone Thugs-N-Harmony, that’s who.

9:38 p.m.

I stumble, via my own dumb luck, out of the Hypercolor-clad throngs in the tent’s main area into the VIP section. Let’s see how the one-percenters of ’90s dorks live.

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Unsurprisingly, they pay for the privilege. My second drink costs $5 more than the exact same one did 20 yards away. Still, the psychological effect is profound. Have you ever seen those experiments where they gave people more money at the start of a game of Monopoly, and the people proceeded to behave like rich assholes? I immediately feel superior to the assembled riffraff I was a part of only moments prior, wondering how I could’ve ever been among their number. How do they even survive?, I think. Thank goodness this metal barrier manned by security keeps them out. Maybe we should build a wall?

All my self-entitlement aside, I figure I owe it to you guys to do something with this newfound power. So I get the best seat in the house for Sugar Ray. For you.

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Nobody I know likes Sugar Ray. (Even editorial coordinator Becca James, who loves Matchbox Twenty with the fire of a thousand suns, doesn’t care for them.) Still, everyone I know can sing along to Sugar Ray. We all know “Fly.” We all know that one about the halo hanging from his girlfriend’s four-post bed. Like the Black-Eyed Peas, Katy Perry, or the films of Paul W.S. Anderson, we may not find them to our liking, but we remember them. There’s been untold scores of essays on the danger of nostalgia—many very good and that just happen to live on our site, so I won’t rehash them here. But something McGrath said to me during our interview keeps haunting me: “Nostalgia is the greatest gift there is.” This is directly counterfactual to everything every intelligent person has ever written about the phenomenon. Nostalgia is narcotizing. It’s the death of critical thought. It evacuates both reason and judgment. It’s anti-intellectual.

Except intellect isn’t everything. Hell, it isn’t even half. Despite all that we think and feel, the overwhelming majority of our decision-making isn’t based in critical thinking. Most of what we think and feel comes from unconscious codes and signals—in the case of politics, usually directly so (sorry, libertarians and others who think they are one of the few voices of reason in the world)—and music is one of the most primal triggers we possess. It’s why earworms are both the best and worst thing we encounter, musically. It’s why musicologists can compare The Beatles to Mozart with a straight face. Our helplessness in the face of certain notes and harmonies renders our higher functions worthless.

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If we take Freud’s pleasure principle at least halfway seriously (and we should), nostalgia is at least both good and bad, a trigger for memories and pleasure senses that are almost always welcome by the body. And the weird thing is, even negative connotations, over time, get rolled into the simplistic pleasures of nostalgia. You know what I fucking hated as a kid? Sugar Ray. Still can’t stand their music, if you asked me. But there’s an undeniably weird sensation to hearing something you dislike so thoroughly, yet is so enmeshed in your brain that you will never stop being able to nod along in recognition.

Mark McGrath, testifying. (Photo: Alex McCown-Levy)

“You’re here for the music, not the irony, and that touches my heart,” McGrath says toward the end. This is debatable at best, especially since young people are rarely able to distinguish between ironic and sincere appreciation (myself included). But I’m not so sure Sugar Ray can either. During the set, it covers both EMF’s “Unbelievable” and The Ramones’ “Blitzkrieg Bop.” Do they love those songs, or do they know those songs? Ultimately, the point of 90sFest is that it doesn’t ask you to know the difference.

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Still, I think next year I’ll tell my bosses I’m planning to be sick this weekend. Unless the Gin Blossoms are playing. I like them… I think?