The result isn’t even bittersweet but just bitter, like a kola nut. By replacing Crystal Pepsi’s original promise of early-90s purification—clearwashed though it was—with a generic appeal to murky, childish recollection, Pepsi inadvertently reveals that clarity was never as unambiguously virtuous as anyone once thought it might be. It’s the lost dream of achievable purity for which sentimentality is warranted—even if undeserved.
PepsiCo circa 1992 endured some criticism for coopting Van Halen, but the band’s message was already undeniably saccharine. “Right Now” read like a soda ad way before Pepsi entered the picture. The company’s branded rendition was entirely compatible with it. “Right now, only wildlife needs preservatives,” the launch ad quips. Crystal Pepsi awakens a yearning for such a simple, accessible, and visible form of moral, political, ecological, and commercial righteousness. One you could dance to while printing Earth Day flyers from the ImageWriter II. (Even the relaunch is nostalgic for contra-corporate adbusting over conflict palm oil in Pepsi products.)
In place of the grubby, baby boomer hippie dream of universal peace and love, the early ‘90s put forward a tamed version of it, one compatible with the commercialized, technologized reality that the yuppies had refined from their own prior hippiedom. A future without compromise, where pure affect could spill through clear eyes and clear colas toward unadulterated progress.
The reality proved murkier. Soda itself is in a tailspin, for example. High fructose corn syrup, aspartame, and other artificial sweeteners are increasingly shunned. The original clear beverage, water, has outsold carbonated beverages for the first time this year. But even that accomplishment’s blessing is ambiguous. Bottled water produces more plastic waste than ever, for one part. And for another, one of the factors driving sales is the decay of American water infrastructure, a calamity the crisis in Flint, Michigan has brought to the public’s attention. Even the decline of the sugar-water business proves to be a double-edged sword.
Clarity is an ambiguous virtue today. It’s more frequently called “transparency” now, and the naive still advance it as a simple salve for all ills. But the ills of the early 1990s never left us. If anything, they doubled down, demonstrating how comparatively oversimplified issues like ozone depletion, statist territorialism, and rain forest conservation really were—simply being able to see the issues were supposed to lead to the implementation of their obvious remedies. Today that false dream remains, in the form of technological innovation that promises to “change the world” by producing an even more commercialized version of progress than we endured two decades ago. Would it be a step too far to call Silicon Valley one big, compostable bottle of Crystal Pepsi? Probably.
The nostalgia you drink when you drink a reissued Crystal Pepsi is not a nostalgia for taste, nor for the gewgaws of the 1990s, nor even for the youth that might have accompanied the original. It is a nostalgia for a moment when a new secular, global righteousness seemed simple enough that drinking a branded cola could legitimately contribute to it.