As America pivoted from the 1980’s to the 1990’s, the culture as a whole seemed to undergo a seismic shift: from the staunch conservatism that dominated the previous decade, by 1991 the entirety of the country seemed to shrug off the social and economic mores that centered the country after the chaotic 1960’s and hippie hangover malaise of the 1970’s, cleaned up their act, and once again looked at the social landscape and began questioning just what they were doing.
Part of this had to do with Gen X–those born in the early to late 1960s and were teenagers and young adults in the conservative 80’s–that began becoming the dominant taste-makers of the country. Hindsight would pinpoint their relatively small number and disproportionate cultural influence with the economic powerhouse America entered the 1990’s as, with Baby Boomers having aged out of the “hip” demographic but, having found that youth culture was a major money maker, sunk hundreds of millions of dollars into developing the cultural output of Gen X in an attempt to cash in.
Meanwhile, the culture found itself once again becoming more socially liberal, looking to stretch the boundaries once again of what was not only socially permissible but what on a large scale could be depicted in the culture. At the same time, this anti-authority pose was safely packaged so that it wouldn’t be actually anti-authority: instead, it was attacking perhaps the easiest target ever created in history: the shallow depression of living in economic prosperity and a comfortable life when you have just so much darn emotional turmoil, maaan! In other words, it was like shooting teenagers in a barrel.
And it worked pretty great: tens of millions of music albums were sold, entire styles were easily adopted by a capitalistic adolescent population, and movies produced then had a lot of edginess and violence without any real message, purpose, or motivation behind them besides being allowed thanks to a relaxed social atmosphere.
I’ve brought up the point before that this sort of “alternative” pose was shrink-wrapping rebellion and selling it at ten bucks a pop for teenagers to easily absorb and discard that does nothing productive–or indeed have any actual meaning outside of personal emotional resonance–but kept the economy healthy and safely packaged the idea of rebellion without parents’ children dropping out of school, moving into communes, or having anything to protest for any actual cause or reason–as they once did a few decades before and now as responsible adults didn’t want to watch as their children rebelled against them as the “squares” to take down.
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One reason is that, by and large, there was no actual cause for the adolescents of the 90’s to fight against: the country was more economically successful than ever, by and large the middle class was not only booming but wildly comfortable, and–at least for my generation–we lived in a land of milk and honey. Heck, we could blow our money on CDs and Smashing Pumpkins shirts and concert tickets and still ride around in our cars for $1.19 a gallon while paying for all of it at our 20-hour a week part-time job at the local grocery store or fast food restaurant. Who cared? The country was doing great, we were the safely raised veal of our parents, and nothing would ever go wrong from here on out. Never ever ever. Of course, something went terribly, horrifically wrong on a day in 2001 that I can’t seem to recall. September 12? 10? It escapes me.
I kid, I kid–mostly because not being able to kid about it means being eternally sad about it. For my generation (once known as Generation Y but for some reason was conflated into being Millenials for no other reason than it’s easy to generalize without thinking about what make generations different from each other), who lived in an America of wealth, comfort, and nothing but every step being a step upwards, the ramifications of 9/11 on my generation is difficult to quantify but easy to understand. At the moment my generation became adults, the entire way of life we were raised to live (and more importantly, succeed) in was wiped out and never came back.
C’est la vie, I suppose: the citizens of Pompeii didn’t see that volcano exploding any time soon, the 1918 influenza outbreak invisibly killed more people than all the shells and bullets of World War I combined in just a year’s time, and in one fell swoop one beautiful Tuesday morning the American Dream of the 20th century came literally crashing down. So it goes.
Maybe this is why my generation in particular is a heavily nostalgic one: we look to our past and cling to our past, our perfect childhoods and adolescence, safe from the awful unfair future, living in comfort and security, awash in a healthy, brilliant culture with incredible music, movies, and television being produced every year.
With this in mind, let us not mourn the past but praise it. In this series of articles, I’ll be looking back at the movies, TV shows, and trends of the 1990’s. It was a big decade with America on top of the world, with perhaps even more money being made and distributed than even the 1980s. We even ended the decade with a national surplus–the last time that’s happened since.
A rising tide lifts all ships, and I posit that the cultural output of the 1990’s was positively influenced by the commercial success of the American market in that decade. It was an exciting time to be alive: the economy was strong, the culture was rich without being opulent, and a new medium was just beginning to emerge–the very one you’re reading these words on.
Besides, it was a great decade that saw the meteoric rise of independent film in America, the explosion of cable television as a nearly default installation in many people’s homes, a proliferation of fantastic television programs–including great original programming for kids and teens on Nickelodeon and MTV–and of course the first pangs of the internet, where dorks like me first started to make websites and talk with other nerds about things nobody else we knew in real life cared about before it became the default most popular mode of communication in the world. It was a decade that delivered an embarrassment of riches.
So please join me as I look back on the 1990’s with a lot of nostalgia and good will. It’s my favorite decade of my lifetime so far. I spent the last bit of my childhood in the early 90’s and then turned 12 in 1994, spending my adolescence at the moment in time when America was at a pinnacle of success and influence. It was a hell of a time to be young and alive. As such, I’ve come to celebrate this decade and all that was produced in it. So let’s take a look back at the radical 90’s!