So I was at a party recently and someone asked me how old I was. I tell him I’m 28, and he goes, “whoa! You lived in the 90’s then!” Well, yes. Yes I did. I’m now technically old enough that I can theoretically socialize with people who were infants while I was eight years old. The demarcation line between my millennial generation and the next is becoming clearer. Five years out from the end of the 2000’s and we are left in the shadow of the War on Terror, the economic recession, and the interconnectivity of social media. Halfway through the new ‘10s, and we are inundated by smartphones, the slow-but-sure economic turnaround, and the mainstream trend toward social liberalization. The world has become different and I’m finally able to look back and articulate how, at least to a small degree.
First, I lived three years in the ‘80s. Granted for me it was a blur of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Sesame Street, and Duck Tales. It was only through hindsight that Reagan and the post-New Deal era made sense to me, with the selfish yuppie-ism of Gordon Gekko in Wall Street or the blitheness of Ferris Bueller. If the zeitgeist of that decade was unfettered selfishness, then the ‘90s were consumed by the rejection of that and the institutions that built it. In 1990 Earth Day had become an international holiday, with environmentalists radicalizing and forming the crest of the antiglobalization movement later on in the decade.
I saw these themes play out in some of my favorite cartoons and movies: Captain Planet and the Planeteers, the ABC Sonic the Hedgehog series, Robocop and Terminator. The future we were heading toward was one where international conglomerates supplanted states and had a firm chokehold of society as we know it. More often, the bad guys weren’t evil dictators or warlords, but us, taken to the logical extreme, while the heroes were freedom fighters and vigilantes who were, for all intents and purposes, terrorists rebelling against the established order.
This is to say nothing of ‘90s pop culture icon Bart Simpson, who would serve as the poster child for the nonconformist attitude of the early ‘90s. Meanwhile, Hulk Hogan would turn heel at the ’96 Bash at the Beach, proving to a generation of wrestling fans that even a Real American could be corrupted. This would be the seeds of acceptable ideas of civil dissent and a critical examination of authority figures, at least in the eyes of thousands of other 90’s kids including myself.
90’s music is probably best epitomized by grunge & industrial music, along with East & West Coast hip hop. Challenging music performed by frustrated young people, with a sound that wasn’t particularly radio friendly. Grunge rockers were unkempt and straightforward artists, characterized by the guttural moans of their guitars and distortion effects. Clad in unpretentious thrift store flannel, grunge rock evoked themes of social alienation, nihilism and a tender vulnerability, juxtaposed by the rage. Hip hop, meanwhile, would evolve from emcees flowing over dance record remixes to a palpable militancy. Racial profiling and inequality would be explored in depth, echoing recent headlines. It is then unfortunate that figures from these ‘90s genres would be marred in tragedy.
It was a sincere, if manufactured era. The ‘90s were a new gilded age of triumphant sports heroes, of independent expression in the arts, and were forward-looking in the rise of the technology bubble. Then the 2000’s came, and with it the War of Terror against an enemy that seemed to change on a monthly basis, a dogmatic approach to conservatism, and an economic recession that cost many Americans their homes and livelihoods. I grew into my teenage years during this time, and it was through the shadow of those sobering experiences that I came to know how naïve we were. But, we were prepared for it. The cynicism of the ‘90s guided us, and the optimism of the very same era grounded us.