Alexander Hellene

Don’t Romanticize the Nineties, Part II: A Sympathetic Rebuttal

My post “Don’t Romanticize the Nineties” generated a lot of good discussion over on the bird app. Friend Andrew Meyer responded with a link to a counterpoint article from a website called The Doe titled “The Best Decade Ever: A Nostalgic Love Letter to the ’90s: A child of the 1990s explains why it was a time we should all miss dearly” written by a person named Captain Yossarian, a self-described Millennial, Moderate, and Secret Agent. Okay. I think Captain Yossarian, who I suspect didn’t truly earn that rank, is younger then me by a fair margin, but regardless, it’s always good to take a look at perspectives of people younger than me.

A brief digression: I like young people. I really do. I am not a person who harbors ire for the generations behind me. I actually tend to save it for older generations. My goal is to not be like those who came before. Being young is torture. It certainly was when I was growing up, and as a refresher, I was born in 1981, so I truly came of age in the 1990s: I was nine at its beginning and eighteen at its close.

By “torture,” I don’t mean that I, personally, had a bad home life. Far from it! I was blessed with a wonderful familyI grew up in a bucolic small town with so little crime that even petty things like shoplifting or public drunkenness were considered controversial. I mean the idea that no one understands you, especially older people. Many didn’t want to understand us back in the 90s. In fact, we were—and us boys, especially—considered lazy, stupid, and utterly devoid of motivation merely for not being Boomers. Gen X got painted with this brush too, but speaking as a member of Gen Y, the Xers were always cool to me. We bonded over this mutual low-grade benign neglect.

One thing I do remember, though, was my grandparents’ generation always being sympathetic and offering a friendly ear or words of encouragement. That’s how I try to be to younger people.

Moving on, I think that Gen Y was the worst generation in the modern post-World War 2 age to be born in. It sucks. We were maleducated, raised to believe all sorts of lies, and thrust into the workforce right on the cusp of an economic collapse. And then we were told all of our problems were our fault, and we just sucked at life. Millennials got some of that too, but being younger, they were supposed to be the younger Boomers’ and older Xers’ partners-in-crime. Gen Y was just sort of there.

So yeah, I understand the messed-up world the Zoomers have been born into. Like Ys and Millennials, Zoomers are the victims of social experiments being conducted on them without their consent. However, unlike Ys and Millennials, Zoomers and their parents are aware of it and can act accordingly. Still, surveying the bizarre, degenerate, barely-functioning anarcho-tyranny Zoomers are coming of age in, I absolutely understand their nostalgia for the proverbial world they never knew.

It’s an overused meme, but it’s a good one.

That said, I still contend that the 1990s are not that world. I’ll go through this article paragraph-by-paragraph in a second, but I also want to delve a bit into some of the darker corners of the Internet I dwell in to try and get the pulse of where young people are.

You’ll see from these screenshots I took from some very popular image boards that many, but certainly not all, have a rosy view of the 1990s. But when I see it called “degeneracy free” or “extremely patriotic” with “no social sickness,” I have to throw the challenge flag. That is certainly not how I remember the decade, not in the first half and not in the second half.

There was tons of degeneracy. Everything on TV was about pushing the envelope. I mentioned Seinfeld in my last post, and that show was pushing degeneracy about as benignly as you could without alienating advertisers. They had entire episodes centered on things like sex, masturbation, and penis size. Yes, the 1990s still had somewhat of a bifurcation between “family time” and “prime time” when it came to television programming, but I remember Seinfeld playing at 8:00 p.m. Lots of kids in the 8-12 range were still awake then, and watching TV. Also, this was the era when consumer electronics were plummeting in price, so tons of kids had televisions in their rooms. They weren’t watching Sesame Street.

And “exciting technology without that technology ruining lives”? Sure, the tech was far more impactful in the 1990s than it was now; I mean, in 1990 having an affordable desktop PC, printer, and fax machine in your house was mind-blowing, let alone a cellular phone. And if that was mind-blowing, the Internet itself was mind-disintegrating. That said, do you know what the first business to explode in popularity at the advent of the Internet age was? It wasn’t bookstores, I can tell you that. And it was delivered into your home sans restrictions, because censorship is icky, don’t you know.

“No social sickness”? Drugs, racial strife, the burgeoning wokeness that was called “political correctness” at the time. For every social good, like sexual harassment in the workplace finally being taken seriously, there was bizarre anti-male feminist nonsense, a drive for more race-based quotas, and clowns like Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson stirring up racial unrest against whites, Jews, Koreans, and anyone else they could morally extort for economic and political concessions. Some American cities had a renaissance in the 90s, but that was largely undone in the post-9/11 world. And getting back to “extremely patriotic,” you had far-left activists in all sectors of the entertainment world spreading anti-Americanism, even when Bill Clinton reined—the man wasn’t left-wing enough for the likes of Michael Moore and Rage Against the Machine.

The point is that saying everything was better in 1990s America to score points against 2022 America is flat-out inaccurate. Maybe there was no golden age of America, but I still contend that 1950 to 1972 or so did seem pretty awesome.

Enough of that. On to the article:

Stone Cold Steve Austin. Sega Genesis. AOL Instant Messenger.

American culture reached its peak in the 1990s, and millions of people are only waking up to that fact now. The nostalgia bomb that hits millennials when they come upon Rocko’s Modern Life T-shirts or throwback snacks, like Dunkaroos, speaks to a vibe that’s long past in the United States: a time of fun, a time of carefree cool, a time when everything in the world wasn’t so serious.

Consumerism isn’t a sign of things being less serious than they are now. The 1990s is when things started to get serious. For example, environmental concerns and social consciousness were injected into nearly every aspect of entertainment, from cartoons to comic books. And Captain Yossarian is conflating pop culture with culture. Who were America’s poets, composers, and artists of the 1990s? Exactly. So in that respect, I suppose I cannot blame Yossarian for this. In the absence of any meaningful high culture, pop culture is all we’ve got.

The ’90s Era: A Simpler Time

In the ’90s, it felt like everyone got along. Buddy cop movies starring a Black guy and a white guy were so common it became a trope: Beverly Hills Cop III, Lethal Weapon 3 and 4, even Men in Black (a buddy cop film at heart, with some aliens in the mix). The vibe of the comedy PCU was mainstream then, when people from every background hanging out was cool and all the self-segregating identity groups were fringe.

PCU was a movie. It was not real life. That vibe actually didn’t exist in the real world. Racial tensions were still very much a thing. Remember: this was an era where affirmative action had been in effect for a few decades, and instances where the white workplace superior either reprimanded or passed-over a non-white workplace subordinate ended up in a lawsuit. And people still largely self-segregated. This was the era where anti-whiteness, already prevalent in a lot of comedy and pop culture in the 1970s and 1980s, started to become mainstream. We all laughed at it, mainly because nobody wanted to be called racist, and no white person imagined they’d actually be segregated against in the future. It was “all in good fun,” with a healthy dose of justified paranoia nobody voiced out loud. That was not healthy.

Another part of why so many are wistful for the ’90s vibe is because men were men and women were celebrated for their beauty. Masculinity was popular, with action stars, such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone, ruling the box office by virtue of strong physiques and capable, dominating personas. Baywatch was beloved because of beautiful women like Pamela Anderson and Carmen Electra. Those same women would be reviled today for somehow portraying women in a negative light by displaying their beauty.

This is true, to a degree. In my last post, I discussed how the “sensitive 90s type of guy” stereotype came into being. This was the early version of what we’d call “soy.” The 1990s was the death of the action movie star. Rambo and whomever the hell Arnold was playing at the time were roundly criticized for being “knuckle-dragging,” “neanderthal,” and “retrograde.” The 1990s were when the nerds gained primacy over the jocks, and the fact that “nerds” had been bullied not really for their hobbies but for being fucking annoying was swept under the rug.

Also, the 1990s were when the whole “women are more than beauty!” movement started to pick up steam. And that’s true! Women are smart, capable, tough, strong, and so on. However, three points: 1) this fact cannot negate the biological truth that men prefer attractive women, 2) there are objective standards of beauty, and 3) this movement coincided with another movement to denigrate boys and men, what I call the “Girls rule, boys drool” mentality that our female schoolteachers in the 1990s were not shy about sharing.

Baywatch was heavily criticized at the time for being sexist.

Unlike Today, Popular Things in the ’90s Were Actually Good

The whole American culture was marinating in itself, too. Movies and music were building on past successes, while today’s culture attempts to clone yesterday’s hits and delivers results that look like a freak lab experiment. Art forms today have become watered down, imitations of the men and women who rocked the ’90s, from rap and comedy to sports, like basketball, and even “sports entertainment,” like pro wrestling.

“Good” is subjective. It is strange to argue that everything popular in Era A was good, and everything popular in Era B is bad. Boomers thought everything kids liked in the 1990s was objectively bad and liking it was a sign of poor taste. Now, every single note of music produced between 1964 and 1972? That was real music, kiddo!

As a kid, I used to watch pro wrestling with my father, mesmerized by the out-of-control characters, such as The Ultimate Warrior and “Macho Man” Randy Savage. I would go bananas watching this giant-sized drama of heroes and villains, try to do wrestling moves on my dad and end up getting body slammed in return. It was amazing.

I can’t speak to wrestling, only being a mild fan for a year or so, but wrestling was huge in the 1980s and 1990s. You couldn’t watch anything without seeing commercials for Monday Night RAW or whatever. But I will concede that pro-wrestling in the 1980s was far less vulgar than it became in the 1990s.

After my father passed away, I rediscovered the wrestling stars of the ’90s we used to watch together and found that wrestlers like Razor Ramon, aka Scott Hall, had great depth to themselves and what they conveyed in the ring. Wrestlers like Hall talk now about how wrestling today is not what it was in the ’90s. I’d venture to say that this criticism seems to hold true throughout all modern culture.

This criticism does not hold true throughout all modern culture. Every older person thinks their era was the objective best. Chronological snobbery is a thing that young and old need to be aware of.

Artists are not allowed to be free. The corporations now are in total control.

But in the ’90s, the human spirit was alive and free. And that’s the vibe that resonates with me.

This is patently false, and I find it shocking to read someone say that corporations were not in total control in the 1990s. You could argue that they were in total control decades earlier. And the mid-1990s was when the consolidation of corporate control really began, with three or so giant conglomerates gobbling up other TV stations and media outlets as a rapid place. There were complaints about corporations all over the place in the 1990s! The human spirit was just as commodified then as it was now. This is my point: All the stuff young people hate about now began in the 1990s.

My simple Nokia cellphone interrupting The Matrix by playing ringtones with simple beeps and boops. Going to the local movie theater with my friends when movies were an event, not a Netflix upload. Staying up all night to play Magic: The Gathering with intensity because everyone’s focus and attention was right in front of them, not divided and distracted a thousand ways by cellphone apps and social media notifications.

This point is one I agree with Yossarian on. Smartphones and their consequences have been a disaster for the human race.

The ’90s Were the Best Decade, Thanks to Its Amazing Pop Culture

I remember driving to the beach on “senior skip day” with a gorgeous English Black girl named Toni, and when we arrived, our crew of friends was fully present. There was no digital elsewhere clouding anyone’s minds. We played frisbee in the surf, we drank and we had love and affection for each other and the moment.

This spirit infected everything. When I was assigned to cover the Warped Tour and be onstage with the bands, the excitement of everyone to be there at that moment was palpable. Everything was exciting, everything mattered.

Michael Jordan, Smashing Pumpkins, Nintendo 64, The Adventures of Pete & Pete.

Pick an area of pop culture, and the ’90s consciousness still reigns supreme.

It makes me sad to see consumer brands being used as the litmus test for an era’s greatness. And the “’90s consciousness still reigns supreme” because we’re stuck in the 1990s. These were all fun things that people did, but the 1990s is when pop culture products became replacements for more meaningful and transcendental things. Star Wars became a literal religion. People became gamers, devoting their life to video games. Or they were collectors. Gotta catch ‘em all!

See, when you sweep aside religion, something has to fill the void. And the 1990s were when those pesky Christians finally had any sort of meaningful influence on politics and culture stripped away. Religion (read: Christianity) was to be mocked and ridiculed. Yet man cannot live on consuming product alone . . . or can he? He sure can, when these products are imbued with mystical importance. You are authentic because you drink this soda and listen to that band—hell, the entire alternative music subculture was built upon this idea. Forget God; the 1990s sure did.

It was a better time because there was nowhere else we wanted to be, and everyone was free to be themselves.

That’s the magic we yearn for and, God willing, will one day have again.

We most certainly not free to be ourselves in the 1990s. In fact, you’re more free to be yourself now, what with politicians promising that it’s fine and dandy to put three-year-old children on hormone blockers or whatever because little Jimmy likes playing with his big sister’s Barbie dolls. So there are relative degrees of “freedom.” Yossarian, forgivably, I have to add, falls into the trap of failing to ask “Freedom to do what? Freedom of what?” Freedom to achieve virtue? Or freedom to consume product?

What those of us who lived through the 1990s actually yearn for is very different that the pop culture. In fact, what those of us who lived through the 1990s yearn for is what our parents had: low inflation, low crime, the ability to support a family on one income, lower immigration rates, affordable housing, affordable education, an actual manufacturing sector that provided economic opportunity for those who couldn’t or didn’t want to go to college, an environment where religion and spirituality was still considered important to good living, the ability to find a spouse and start a family young if one so chose, and more importantly, a ruling class that didn’t hate us.

I hate to break it to you, but by the time the 1990s wore on, the hatred was real. But it was also a hedonistic time. That’s right: the lasting legacy of the 1990s was that times were so good, most of the country got fat, happy, and high off its own supply of unearned self-righteousness and didn’t bother to combat the rot that had taken root at its core.

But totally radical dude! I am Captain Planet! Eat Dunkaroos and play vidya while drinking chocky milk, man! Duck Tales! The X-Games are on! Episode I and The Matrix! Michael Jordan! Check out my PlayStation; do you see those graphics?

– Alexander

14 thoughts on “Don’t Romanticize the Nineties, Part II: A Sympathetic Rebuttal”

  1. I always find it weird when people talk about the 1990s as a unified era. As I pointed out with Cultural Ground Zero, everything good about the time was extinguished IN THAT VERY DECADE. All the changes that led to the miasma of the ’00s was all there by 1998 and has been with us ever since.

    Also find it weird when random things get mashed together. People who watched Pete & Pete played Genesis and Super Nintendo. Different group of people. The action movies we watched were from the 1980s and rented at the store (pre-Blockbuster) and the ones in the theater were already vastly different. It’s like in Sabrina the Teenage Witch where one season she was waiting in line for the Smashing Pumpkins and the next she was going gaga over NSYNC. We somehow forgot that these are not the same groups of people, and the latter group is the one still around today.

    Pop culture aside, the Telecommunications Act of 1996 alone is a mark against the ’90s forever. That one moment alone is bad enough without going through everything else that sucked about it.

    1. JD,

      The 90s can be bifurcated into very distinct halves. The period from 1990 to 1995 or so is basically like a continuation of the 1980s, and then suddenly things got very, shall we say, green-filtered very fast into the faceless, badly Photoshopped and Pro Tooled late 1990s period there is still some sort of mystifying nostalgia for. And this is just in the pop culture realm, forget actual life. I think the Telecommunications Act had a massive part in this. Media consolidation felt like it happened overnight.

  2. I’m still trying to wrap my head around the 90s supposedly being the era of the Stallone and Schwarzenegger action flicks when Last Action Hero, which marked the end of those flicks through a parody of the formula, and Demolition Man, which lamented how effeminate and sanitized movies had become, both came out in 1993, when the 90s were still figuring out what they were.

    1. Malchus,

      The 1990s was the era of the anti-action hero. It makes me wonder about the author’s credibility that he thought the 1990s were the heyday of the action flick. The 1990s were when action movies were deconstructed and masculinity generally snuffed out. Like I said in my piece, “sensitive 90s guy” was just the precursor to “soy.”

  3. Alexander,

    The 90s was a fine decade up until 96/97. There was change but we didn’t understand until now. I disagree the smart phone has been disaster. The real disaster was and is letting the neurodiverse take control of social media. Regular people didn’t grasp the far reaching effects until it was too late. As I’ve stated numerous time, the neurodiverse simply are incapable of social communication with its give and take.
    So they rely on AI, truth and safety, ‘fact checkers’ and do on.
    Well we know the results.
    The 90s was a transition decade before the internet was ubiquitous and we still lived as our predecessors.

    No need to be nostalgic but reflect what we did wrong and reverse course. There’s no sunken cost fallacy to do so.

    xavier

    1. Xavier,

      There were certainly good aspects about the 1990s, as there were about any decade. I think your approach about reflecting on what was bad and not doing that is healthy. I also think Heorot’s approach as I mentioned in Part I of Zoomers taking aesthetic bits of the past that they like sans historical context and using them as material to forge something new is also very healthy and indeed the way all great art and culture is built.

  4. Like most conservatives, I preferred pedo and butthole stuff in private, such as behind closed doors within the offices of National Review . Yet now that gay stuff is the bedrock of our society we must celebrate it

  5. Anytime you see a badly written nostalgia article, ask yourself a simple question “Who was their daddy and what did they do?”. And every single time you’ll discover said article writer most likely cannot name who their father is or was and what he did. Or the rest of their family or even their neighborhood once they lived in.

    This is because these types of articles could only be written by kids with distant or missing fathers or dysfunctional divorced parents (or worse semi abusive ones) that bribed their kids with all sorts of sugary goods and toys, hence the endless mash ups of bad processed food, questionable tastes in disposable cartoons, and some how being able to afford every single video gaming system under the sun. Because that’s all they really ever had.

    It’s like if you ever observed Milo Yannopolis talking about his past, you’ll notice he never talks about his father or the neighborhood he ever lived in, but he sure can endlessly talk to you about his mother. Or some of his old dinner bills.

    By contrast those of us that did work our ways up in the world, our nostalgia is more about acquaintances, people loved and lost. So when some of us reminiscence it’s not about sugar cereal on a Saturday morning.

    1. Grames,

      It sounds like this author did have a good relationship with his father, but also that his father died when the author was relatively young. So that may have something to do with this pop-culture-soaked reminiscence. It is odd that we are supposed to love and wish to emulate an entire time period merely for its consumer products.

      Brian Niemeier mentions how Gen Y and Millennials were bribed by guilt-wracked Boomer parents too busy living their own lives with the best toys ever, which is similar to what you are describing. I think there is truth to that. In the absence of parental authority, much like in the absence of religion, product becomes mother, father, and God.

  6. Tangentially, have you read the “The Family: A Proclamation to the World”? Published in 1995, it’s a clear declaration of values. I remember reading it at the time and thinking “well, duh, this is obvious stuff” about family, marriage, kids and so on, but the subsequent years have shown that indeed, the currents running through society in the 90s that stood in contrast to those values were indeed leading to dark, troubled places. Not that such was a surprise, but the *speed* of corruption has surprised me a bit.

    1. Tesh,

      I have not read that. You make a good point that we should have been more worried about the fact that such obvious statements sounded so radical at the time. These sentiments most certainly not obvious now in America in the year 2022. They are even more radical now and, in fact, dangerous positions to hold.

  7. I think this guy mistakes nostalgia for his childhood as nostalgia for the 90s. If you look at what he says he mentions that kind of stuff that usually only children or kids get to experience.

    1. Heorot,

      Really good point. Everything he reminisces about is pop-culture products from that era aimed at kids. Those things are powerful since they can remind us of a particular time and place in our lives, perhaps a really good time and place, but these are not things you can build a new culture around.

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