I’m a Nineties kid. You know what that means: Tamagotchis, Super Mario, Sega, primitive cell phones, slap bracelets, skateboarding, The Simpsons, Seinfeld, David Koresh, scooters, Britney Spears, the Backstreet Boys, the Spice Girls, the first bombing of the World Trade Center, the Nato bombing of Sarajevo, Pokémon!, Blink-182, Bill Clinton, Friends and the friends of Bill Clinton.
What a decade! Only Nineties kids will understand it. And as even Nineties kids grow up, Nineties nostalgia is now big business. Everyone from the Spice Girls to Smashing Pumpkins has launched comeback tours on a rising tide of misty-eyed affection. McDonald’s brought back Tamagotchis and Furbys and other veteran Happy Meal toys. Friends is set to make a highly profitable return. Plus, every four years the Democrats try to reboot the Clintons. Aging millennials are pining for the lost world of their youth.
This happens to every generation to varying extent, but Nineties nostalgia is especially acute. That makes it especially delusional. The Nineties had some kind of innocence, if only in retrospect. We said goodbye to all that in the fires of 9/11 and the carnage of Afghanistan and Iraq. As Vanilla Ice, of all people, has pointed out, the Nineties were also the last decade before the internet fragmented popular culture.
‘How would you see somebody wearing some gear and say, “Hey, that’s gotta be from 2014?”’ Mr Ice recently pondered. ‘There’s no music there, there’s no pop culture, there’s no fashion that defines the generation. I look at the Nineties like it’s the last truly great decade.’
It is perhaps a little strong to say that, as Vanilla’s contemporary MC Hammer advised, you can’t touch that. The Noughties had a vestigial coherence too: there are plenty of people who see long fringes, black clothes and wristbands and are transported back to the halcyon and miserable days of late-Noughties emo. But the Nineties had a common culture in a way that subsequent decades have not. About what will the children of the Noughties say ‘Only Noughties kids will understand’? ‘Mr Brightside’? Paris Hilton? The financial crash?
Still, I hate the Nineties. Don’t get me wrong, they were OK for me. I enjoy a lot of Nineties art and media: The Simpsons, The Sopranos, Radiohead, Stone Cold Steve Austin. Children like me were very fortunate to be raised in a relatively safe and prosperous time. God knows, nobody ever feels nostalgic for the Thirties.
But we must admit the Nineties were a decade of spectacular complacency. The Twin Towers were felled in 2001, for example, but it was in 1993 that their foundations were shaken by an Islamist truck bomb. Islamic radicalism had fermented for years, yet throughout the Nineties it remained no more than a blip on western radar systems. When jihadists were recruited to fight in the Yugoslavian civil war, almost no one thought they could become a problem. The same went for the recently victorious jihadists in Afghanistan. The USS Cole was rammed with an exploding boat, but few gave it much thought. While jihadist ideology transcended Western actions, America was caught up in cruel and reckless misdeeds like Bill Clinton’s missile strike against the Al-Shifa pharmaceutical factory, which disrupted the production of Sudanese medical supplies but not the activities of Osama bin Laden.
It is common and clever now to poke fun at Francis Fukuyama for writing in The End of History that we had reached ‘the universalization of western liberal democracy as the final form of human government’. But fewer people disagreed at the time. Tony Blair, the human incarnation of The End of History, breezed to power to a soundtrack of D:Ream’s ‘Things Can Only Get Better’. For a while they did. But Blair soon began to test the limits of liberalism with mass immigration at home and ‘nation-building’ abroad. He coasted along for a while on rising prosperity. It could not last.
Bill Clinton breezed in with boyish positivity, but the bloom was off that rose before you could say ‘Paula Jones’. The strike against Al-Shifa should have been more damaging to Clinton’s standing, but his Kennedy-esque extramarital affairs in which the whiff of intrigue led to the big reveal, a stain of semen, were more exciting. The media’s insatiable desire for water-cooler content, which encouraged and pandered to the public’s desire, presaged the pornification of all and the rise of reality television.
In Silicon Valley, tech companies surfed on waves of venture-capital dollars. Hard as it may be to imagine, most people looked to the internet in hope, not fear. As the internet and the world wide web went public, Fred Turner writes, a ‘utopian near-consensus about their likely social impact seemed to bubble up out of nowhere’:
‘The Net would level social hierarchies, distribute and personalize work, and dematerialize communication, exclaimed pundits and CEOs alike. The protocols of the Net were said to embody new, egalitarian forms of political organization. They offered the technological underpinnings for peer-to-peer commerce, and with them, claimed many, an end to corporate power. And well above the human plains of financial and political haggling, suggested some, those same protocols might finally link the now-disembodied species in a single, harmonious electrosphere.’
The Nasdaq rose five-fold between 1995 and 2000, but by the end 2001, most of its companies had gone bust. The survivors and the social-media second wave broke liberal democracy, destroyed small businesses and annulled privacy. The internet has its blessings, of course, but corporations like Facebook and Amazon are now more dominant than ever. Charlatans and hacks abound. The dazzled are manipulated and the news is fake. Irate anons trade abuse, racists and conspiracists LOL their moral faculties to sleep and hardcore porn floods our screens. We are all philosophers in hindsight, but it is astonishing how rarely anyone grasped in the Nineties that our creations would reflect and exaggerate our flaws.
Much of Nineties popular culture looks less charming now than it did then. The decade’s cinematic Everyman was Kevin Spacey, who endeared himself as a pathological liar in The Usual Suspects (1995), then charmed us all as a sexual predator in American Beauty (1999). Harvey Weinstein was a Hollywood wunderkind. The slacker aesthetic, perhaps most vividly embodied by Kevin Smith’s Clerks, looks embarrassing now that its foremost representatives have revealed themselves to be more earnest, yet no more interesting, than they appeared. Much of the music, from Oasis to the Red Hot Chili Peppers, heaved with second-hand pretension — like immensely talented but slightly hollow tribute acts.
The Simpsons, my favorite television show, now looks otherworldly when you consider that ill-educated Homer was supporting a stay-at-home mom and three children in a comfortable home on a single wage. How exactly did the friends of Friends live in such beautiful apartments in Greenwich Village despite spending most of their time in a coffee shop, unless they were working as escorts? No less illustrative of the sickly nature of Nineties nostalgia is the mawkish Notting Hill (1999), a fairy tale of fame that has mutated into folk memory and mass tourism.
There were reactions against this glossy consumerism such as Fight Club and Marilyn Manson, but even they were weakened by a mischievous, short-sighted nihilism. Consider an example close to my heart, professional wrestling. Throughout the Nineties, the rise of ‘hardcore’ wrestling encouraged an endless barrage of chair shots to the head and dives from balconies onto concrete. It looked great and it provided gratuitous relief from suburban boredom. But somehow no one anticipated the ruined lives that were the result of all of those concussions and broken bones.
None of this means you cannot enjoy Friends or Fight Club, or even Oasis. None of this means you cannot look back fondly on a great deal of the Nineties. It would be fantastically childish to deny that a whole decade lacked moments of beauty, excitement, insight and inspiration. I loved Twin Peaks, The Sopranos, Calvin and Hobbes, The Simpsons, Michel Houellebecq and Haruki Murakami at the time, and they, unlike me, have aged well since then. I’ll even admit to watching and enjoying Extreme Championship Wrestling matches, though I cannot help but wince when metal meets bone. But when people wax nostalgic for a decadesdead idyll, it makes me lash out with exaggerated hostility.
Of course the Nineties seem like a good time. So does a drive through placid farmland before you reach storms, swamps and psychopaths. True, there were undercurrents of surreal paranoia — from Radiohead’s OK Computer to the Ruby Ridge siege of 1992 — but these warning bubbles generally did not disturb the calm surface of consumption. If the 1980s had been characterized by material excess, then the 1990s were characterized by spiritual deflation. They set us up for a rude shock in the 2000s.
The Nineties, then, are not a lost golden age, but a daydream from which reality had to shake us awake. The truth is, Dr Pepper tasted terrible. Sunny Delight, too. We all thought it was healthy at the time — it had Vitamin C — but what mind-mangling garbage was also lurking in that lurid, saccharine stuff? No wonder everything since the Nineties has been weird.
This article is in The Spectator’s June 2020 US edition.