Alexander Hellene

Don’t Romanticize the Nineties

The 1990s were not paradise.

Going back to the way things were in the decade of Clinton would not make anything better. In fact, the seeds of what people rightly hate now were not planted in the 90s, but the 90s are when they began to take fruit.

Comparatively, I accept that the 1990s were a better time to grow up in than now. They were still insane, but the insanity had not yet reached the gargantuan proportions of the 21st century. You have to remember that school shootings were a thing in the 1990s. Columbine was just the cherry on top of a decade that included the Paducah, Kentucky and Springfield, Oregon. You can take a look at them here. As someone who entered the third grade in 1990 and graduated from high school in 2000, everyone wondered if a school shooting would happen at some point. We didn’t do drills yet, nor did we have metal detectors or cops in schools, but after the Columbine shooting in 1999, things like long trench coats were banned.

Cyberbullying wasn’t really a thing because there was no Internet. But there was still bullying. Such is life.

Racial harmony was not really a thing in the 1990s either. Sure, wokeness hadn’t gotten so crazy, but in pop culture and daily life it was okay to make jokes about white people, straight people, men, and Christians, while verboten to make jokes about anybody else—those who did might not have gotten as utterly ruined as they would now—again, mainly only because the mechanisms for doing so such as social media weren’t there—but they were still forced to recant and repent. On the racial front, the O.J. Simpson verdict showed that the system was already bifurcating along racial lines, at least in the minds of people who had not swallowed the Kool-Aid that identity didn’t matter. The Rodney King beating some years earlier not only brought issues of police brutality back to the forefront of American society, but also showed several things, including the fact that Los Angeles was becoming a crime-filled hellhole of third-world proportions.

Anti-Christian bigotry was on the rise culturally. The much-derided moral majority of the 1980s, who turned out to be correct about the consequences of everything, had their small moment of actual cultural power destroyed by 1994 or so. This was reflected in movies, television shows, and music. Take a look at Marilyn Manson. Dude ripped Bibles up on stage, routinely mocked Jesus Christ, and when Christians protested got a national platform to smirk with lipstick-smeared lips and say “Not very Christian of you to protest, is it?” That’s right: the 1990s were the epitome of the “Don’t like it? Don’t watch it.” attitude, except if you didn’t want to see certain regime-approved things on TV and in your music.

And the West hadn’t been blown up, stabbed, shot, or otherwise massacred enough by Jihadists to really start to wonder “Hey Mr. Brave Shock-Rock Guy, try doing that with a Koran.”

Don’t like the N-word? Then just don’t listen to the hardcore gangsta rap flooding the airwaves . . . but you’d better not say the N-word. Don’t like gay stuff? Just don’t watch TV . . . but you’d better not oppose gay marriage. Don’t like violence and sex? Just stay out of the movie theaters, prude. And so on.

Abortion was similarly becoming a sacrament in the 1990s. So was the holy and all-sacred Constitutional mandate to teach young schoolchildren about whacking off and how to put condoms on cucumbers. We had talks about safe sex in the third grade. Third grade.

But whatever. Sex was cool and no big deal. If it feels good, just do it. TV shows like Seinfeld made that sort of sterile urban life look awesome: sex with a different girlfriend every week, a cool apartment where your cool friends dropped by, funny situations that always worked out absent heartbreak or, you know, VD? Sign me up! Or maybe Friends was more your thing; I dunno. I never watched that show.

Nickelodeon was a cultural powerhouse in the 1990s. Some of the shows on it were really messed up. Ren & Stimpy might be funny, sure, but it was marketed to children. They used to show it after Rugrats and Doug. Yes, we also had more wholesome fare like the Disney Afternoon, featuring pre-groomer House of Mouse cartoons like Duck Tales and Darkwing Duck, who for my money is the last great character Disney every created. We also had other excellent non-Disney shows like Batman: The Animated Series. But then there was Nickelodeon, chock full of shows where adults, especially fathers, were portrayed as barely functioning retards while their children really knew everything, were truly wise, and whom their parents actually learned from. Really upside-down sort of stuff; you used to see it on TV commercials too.

Oh, by the way, Beavis and Butthead might not have been explicitly marketed to children, but it was certainly done so implicitly. Why were Beavis and Butthead comic books sold alongside Spider-Man in the grocery store wire rack? Doesn’t that strike anybody as a little messed up?

Latchkey kids were a huge thing in the 1990s. Boomer parents both worked, so once the little rugrat was old enough to walk home from school on his own, he could just chill out until mom and dad got back around 7:00 or 8:00. And who was raising the kiddos until then? Say hello to America’s Babysitter (television).

Let’s get back to music. There was grunge, but then everything started to sound like grunge. Soundgarden begat Seven Mary Three; nuff said. The 1990s was an era of media consolidation, and the first time I could really remember the phenomenon where, if one band in one style came out and hit it big, then a million imitators would come down the pike. For every truly genre-busting, unique sort of band like Primus, Faith No More, or (even though I don’t like them) the Red Hot Chili Peppers, you’d have a few dozen faceless imitators, especially as the decade wore on and nu-metal became a thing.

This was the milieu in which the self-contradictory idea of “selling out” came into being. All of these too-cool-for-school bands didn’t want to “sell out,” receive money for their music, or have big audiences, you know, actually listen to them, yet they got pissed off at people who didn’t “get” what they were trying to do. Being commercial failures–but critical darlings!–became proxy for “authenticity,” a nebulous term that to this day no one can really agree upon what it means. But whatever, man, as long as the underground ‘zines in New York like what you do, you’ve made it. Or something.

Rock music had a brief renaissance in the world of alternative rock, when it truly offered something different for fans of guitar-based music who weren’t into new wave, hair metal, or slick pop. Not that those genres were bad, but it was cool to see oddballs like the aforementioned Primus and Faith No More get major exposure along with punk-minded rockers like Nirvana, who paved the way for The Melvins to get signed to a major-label deal. The rest of those early Seattle/Pacific Northwest groups were also pretty exciting: Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains, The Screaming Trees, Mudhoney . . . good stuff. Stone Temple Pilots came later, getting more interesting and carrying the classic rock torch with every album. The Smashing Pumpkins came into their own too, bringing guitar heroics and psychedelia into their blend of heavy metal thunder and delicate emoting. Punk had a comeback, back when Green Day used to be fun. And I’m not into rap, but I hear it was a good decade for that genre as well.

Oh yeah. Rage Against the Machine were a 1990s band. So like I said, 90s music wasn’t all rainbows and sunshine.

But when nu-metal came along, there were more and more imitators, each more faceless and boring than the last. For every Korn and, dare I say it, Limp Bizkit who were at least doing something new at the time, there was a Crazy Town and a Taproot. Everything got dumber, but in the bad way.

Anyway, I have pinpointed the exact moment that rock n’ roll ceased to be cool, and you can blame goofy fruit Michael Stipe of “how the hell did they get so famous?” college rock band R.E.M.:

Just look at these dorks. Don’t like “Muh social conscience!” in your celebrities, or your corporations? Guess when that all really started?

Cinema didn’t escape the 1990s decline. Movies started to suck. Action movies qua action movies were on their way out. Nothing could be sincere, they either had to be ironic and winking, or male characters’ unabashed masculinity had to be mocked in favor of a sensitive, touchy-feely sort of thing that started to become prevalent in the 1970s but truly flourished in the 1990s. And by “flourished,” I mean “the emasculation accelerated.” And anyway, as with music, copycat filmmaking was all the rage. Why have one volcano movie when you can have two! Or an asteroid movie!

International Islamic terrorism was a thing in the 1990s. Evil jihadists tried to blow up the World Trade Center in 1993, remember that? Remember the U.S.S. Cole bombing in 2000 (the last year of the 1990s)? Guess who did that? Domestic terrorism was a thing, too. Timothy McVeigh blew up the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. That killed 168 people and inured several hundred others. Horrific stuff. The Federal government also engaged in a little terrorism, murdering men, women, and children in Waco, Texas and Ruby Ridge, Idaho.

You might say, “At least there weren’t any new wars!” but the United States, under the auspices of its puppets in NATO, bombed the hell out of Bosnia and Herzegovina, getting involved in a civil war that didn’t involve it. The bombing intensified in 1998, which I’m sure had nothing to do with the coincidental breaking of the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal.

For those too young to remember, a President cheating on his wife used to be a source of moral outrage back when we were all stuck-up prudes or whatever. But the part they never tell you amidst all of the “It’s just sex, stupid,” stuff is that Bill Clinton lied under oath when asked about other instances where he sexually harassed women. But he kept abortion legal, so feminists in media offered to orally service him for that alone. No, I’m not making that up.

Yes, the 1990s was truly a wholesome time. Semen-stained dresses is a totally normal part of dinner table conversation, bigot.

At least video games were really, really good.

*     *     *

The point of this isn’t to criticize Zoomers and other young people who think that the past was better than the present. It’s easy for young people to think this, but the trap of nostalgia for an era you never lived through is a strong one. I know, because I used to think this way myself.

I know what my dad felt like when my brother and I would say “Man, the 60s and 70s must’ve been awesome to live in . . . the music, the movies, the art . . .” and then my dad would always say “You know, that doesn’t paint the whole picture of how things were . . .” There may be cultural artifacts you enjoy about times before you were born, but to actually live just like that is a different story. Lest you forget, there was already a lot of 1960s nostalgia by the early 1990s.

The past is never coming back. Ideas or aesthetics from the past do all the time, but the actual state of being is gone forever. The conditions that led to the 1990s, or any other time period, only existed in that time period. The past was a unique set of circumstances that can be used as inspiration, but can never be recreated.

Zoomer friend Heorot has really put his finger on what the younger generation look for in taking bits and pieces of past culture they find admirable, and it is most definitely not an attempt to LARP as those who came before them, but to take the best bits, absent any historical context, and use them to create something new:

This is the cultural landscape we grew up with: as the artistic world outside started to become boring and dull, a digital world easily acessible promised plenty of hidden treasures waiting to be brought back into the light from the ruins of the past, by teenagers whose taste was still in formation. And that is when things should become clear: to us youngsters this stuff is not historical in the slightest. We did not experience it as history, at best we just had to come to terms with the fact that its creators were older than our parents. Because we were, again, discovering it for the first time in that moment, and enjoying it as it was and because we liked it, not because of historical value, and because we shared it with our friends who did the same, the impact of old art was in our present and immediate.

This is why Gen Z does not care about the actual history of the 70s, the 80s, or the 90s, not when discussing aesthetic matters anyway. We care very little about your actual childhood (and may you forgive us for it); what is a factor of attraction is the aesthetics that surrounded it, and those elements of it that became cult as the years went by. This immediate enjoyment of old artwork, detached from the actual historical context, created the interesting consequence an appreciation of it that goes out of a confined timespace. Young people absorb old art as something that is relevant in the moment, ready to be re-elaborated by taking what makes it good and transferring it into the current context.

I like this, and I think this is the way. Far from creating a pastiche or a cheap imitation of something old to trigger an audience’s nostalgia switch and, hopefully, get them to shell out some bucks, this approach allows for the building upon of old works, the way that one classical composer or artist would create something new upon old movements that they admired.

However, culturally a lot of 1990s art embodied a spirit of disinterested ennui, of bored slackerism, of winking irony. If you are not happy with the modern hyper-snarky tendency to slather everything with layers upon layers of insincerity instead of just being able to, you know, honestly enjoy something for what it is or, God forbid, express a real emotion, well I hate to break it to you, but the 1990s were when that attitude came to fruition. It was the true battle of who could care less. About anything.

Some of that was Boomers blaming Gen X for not being as awesome and totally bitchin’! as they were, particularly in the economic realm. “Our kids are just loser slackers!” came the refrain (from everyone) and you know what? I think Gen X started to believe it. They—and I include myself in this depending on how you break down the generations—heard nothing but laments that they weren’t as good as their parents, and when statistics started to show that Gen X would be the first generation to do worse than their parents, yet received little to no help or encouragement from said parents, they (we) said “Fuck it.” Especially if you were a boy. Yup, the 1990s were the full flowering of the “Girls rule, boys drool” attitude that is still with us, just hyper-accelerated.

“Fuck it,” indeed.  

*     *     *

Do you know who is stuck in the 1990s? Bill Maher. He’s one of these—and may Christ forgive me from even uttering this abhorrent term—“classical liberals” who thinks their own side has gone too far. Bill would love to go back to the so-called good ol’ days of the 1990s when you could say what you wanted, dammit, and get away with it!

I cannot stand people like this. They are totally blind to the fact that they themselves back in the 1990s created the conditions for what they lament now. People like this are long on narcissism and short on self-awareness. And anyway, you most certainly could not say “whatever you wanted” in the 1990s.

The 1990s were a time where we were all being lied to on a monumental scale about what was going on and about the intentions of the people who were running the world. Don’t like the hollowing-out of the American middle class via offshoring the majority of our manufacturing jobs to foreign countries with cheap labor? Blame the 1990s. Don’t like wokeness? Do you think that the racial grievance-mongers and weird sexual perverts have gone too far? Blame the 1990s. Upset that feminism has ruined normal man/woman relationships, the job market, and the educational establishment? Blame the 1990s. Are you anti-war, someone who opposed spending trillions of taxpayer dollars on proxy wars on behalf of foreign nations? Blame the 1990s. Lament the decline of religiosity, and the lukewarm nature of the vast majority of mainstream churches who are desperate to accommodate the world and not the Word of God? By now, you’ve figured out the time period that brought us here.

Returning to a 1990s ethos absent anything else changing would just get us back to where we are now in another twenty years. In truth, we’re living in the third decade of the 1990s, forever frozen in aspic.  

So what can we do about it?

I don’t know. I think Heorot’s approach artistically is a good start. I also think a lot of those younger folks waging the culture war have learned the lessons of the 1990s and actually have the stones to fight by their opponents’ rules without apology and without remorse. So there is some hope after all.

And yet, in the true fashion of those of us who came of age in the 1990s, a large part of me just wants to let the inmates running this asylum start eating each other (likely literally) and just watch it burn. Whatever.

– Alexander

8 thoughts on “Don’t Romanticize the Nineties”

  1. When I think of things I like from the 1990s it is always personal memories or the art and entertainment, both of which taper off hard by the end of the decade. The more I have looked into the decade, the more certain Cultural Ground Zero becomes a reality in how the 1990s were a downhill slide into the muck of where we are today. Everything we deal with today is still due to falling in that pit a quarter of a century ago.

    However, I have been convinced that CGZ’s influence is coming to an end. How long that’ll take, I don’t know, but from the decay of public trust around the media, the entertainment industry, the schooling system, government control, and just about everything we used to worship back in the ’90s, to the ascension of new groups dedicated to bypassing the old order (such as PulpRev was), it’s really just a waiting game at this point. The ’20s are going to be dicey, I think, but by the ’30s I think we’ll all be surprised at how much things have changed in the right direction. It’s just not going to be obvious right away.

    That might seem unrealistic to Gen Y, considering our whole lives have been based on a consistent downhill societal slide, and getting some level of levity and hope when we are nearing retirement age is odd, but I don’t think that is too out of joint with the way things have worked in the past. Until then, just hold the line!

    Might be a bit too optimistic of me, but there’s no reason to not hope for the best. All we can do is what we can do, after all.

    1. JD,

      It does feel like something has to change eventually. Perhaps media consolidation has reached its limit, and the disruptive power of the Internet is finally being understood and harnessed to make significant inroads the mainstream in order to forge something new. As you said, once can only hope. However, it’s not unreasonable that a new technology would take a generation or two to be used to its full potential than it was in the so-called Wild West days of the old Internet.

      Change typically happens as old people die off. That sounds horrible, but that’s how time works.

  2. Good one! Difficult to take seriously people who romanticize the circumstances and metaphysics from 30 years ago … that led exactly to where were are right now.

    1. Rajeev,

      Glad you liked the post. I agree to the point that those who weren’t alive at a certain time aren’t really authorities on what it was actually like, or if we’d want to “go back” to that era. There are aspects of the 90s that may be worthyof emulation, but you can say that about any age. To say that the 90s were objectively better than now sort of misses the point though, since the 90s were just the beginning phases of the dystopia we have today. It was an incredibly hedonistic and materialistic time, just as much as the 80s purportedly were, but the 90s are when traditional religion was finally swept out of American life and replaced with the new faith–the one we’re living with now.

  3. Alexander,

    I was much older than many of you during the 90s. I remember something changed after ’96 but couldn’t put my finger to it. Now I know.
    I have no nostalgia for it. It was an interesting decade.

    It should’ve been my decade, finally enerting the work force, etc but the Boomer sabotaged that.


    1. The 90s, as many friends have said elsewhere in response to this piece, was truly two distinct time periods smushed together. 1996/1997 is when, looking back, I notice a sharp dividing line as well. Very interesting.

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