Saturday, February 25, 2012

How soon is too soon to start studying the nineties? a decade of cultural failure?

Let's look at this for a moment: brought to you by BuzzFeed, 48 Pictures that Perfectly Capture the 90's.

These pictures are a lot of things--they are funny. They are dorky. They are very, very accurate in capturing the decade none of us could ever forget, because we grew up there.

Besides this--quirky, kind of silly, mismatched, weird--there aren't a lot of adjectives that come to mind when you imagine the 90's. There are a lot of nouns, mostly proper nouns--Lisa Frank! Will Smith! Full House!--but it doesn't seem to have the same niche in our cultural consciousness as many other decades from the 21st century. 1990 was more than 20 years ago, but you aren't going to see anybody throwing 90's themed parties.

It's kind of an indescribable era--one can tell, one can feel, if you will, when something is "90's," but it's nearly impossible to explain why. It was a strange transitional period between the so-bad-it's-good style and media from the 80's, but not quite the shiny tech-laced era we spent the past ten years in. For this reason, as well as others, I contend that the 1990's was a decade of cultural failure.

People will protest this statement--Krista, they will say, what about Rugrats? What about Madonna? And they are correct! There are a variety of good things that came out of the nineties. Let's take a look:

  • Children's television
    • The nineties is characterized by television, namely animated shows on Nickelodeon, and animated Disney films, that were aimed at children but have the vitality to still be enjoyable to those same children today, as they become adults. Finding the balance between subtle adult humor and plots and characters that children would also enjoy was a masterful accomplishment of the decade.
  • Surrealist Music: 

What is happening in any of these? Who knows? What caused the nineties to contain this surrealism? Who knows?

  • Some good movies.
    • Pulp Fiction.
  • Good rap music
    • And for all the good rap, there is some ridiculously bad rap, too. Exhibit A: 
I'm not talking about things that are so-bad-they're-good, because people's opinions on that differ, and to be fair, the nineties is full of things like that. Even so, the quantity of so-bad-it's-good media and fashion in the nineties doesn't nearly reach that of the eighties, and much of it is good for the novelty and the nostalgia, but how much can you actually take? I'm not saying I don't love Saved by the Bell because of how ridiculous it is, and I'm not contending that I didn't watch every episode of Full House when it was on reruns on ABC family--but they aren't quite ridiculous enough to enjoy the way you can enjoy slasher-boom films of the eighties. The Backstreet Boys and NSync are over the top and crazy, but can they even aspire to the over-the-top craziness of their boy-band predecessors like Drop Dead Fred or, more subtly, Tears for Fears? Nineties fashion is hideous, but can it be rocked the way hideous eighties fashion can? 
These women know how crazy they are.
These women think they are normal. 
Further evidence:
Molly Ringwald looks great, and almost elegant! And young!

Candace Cameron, on the other hand, looks sad and old. 
Something that's really significant about the nineties is that the way we see it today is very much characterized by nostalgia--not any sort of longing nostalgia, just a sort of reflective, laughing nostalgia at how ridiculous we were. How ridiculous we just were, less than twenty years ago.

Before I make my next point, let's not rule out that perhaps there is nostalgia for many decades like this, that I can't relate to because I wasn't there. I do desperately wish that I were alive in the eighties, or the fifties, or the twenties...but I can't feel it like I can with the nineties.

Even so! It seems like we have a lot of nostalgia for the nineties, and not a lot else. The reason there is so much nostalgia, and it is so plentiful, is because we didn't actually take anything from the decade. Sitcoms have been drastically changed since then, children's television isn't anywhere near as good, we moved away from the terrible fashion as much as possible, pop has changed entirely. The only thing we really got from the nineties is...

Oh, right. That.
My friends, hipsters came from the nineties.

You know this. I know this. Fred Armisen knows this. For all the Lisa Frank, for all the cheesy, cheesy movies and fluffy rap, all the good natured, value preachin' sitcoms, we took the sad music and strange clothing from Seattle. 

I mean no disrespect to grunge, don't get me wrong. I love grunge, I really do. And I'm sure Seattle is great. 
Let's break it down a bit.

Grunge came about as a reaction to a lot of bad things that were going on in the 90's. Current events of the decade are marked by domestic bombings and civil war--Columbine, the Oklahoma City Boming, the Rwandan Genocide all happened in the nineties. Our military attention switched from Soviet Russia to the Middle East, where we began fighting a culture that we understood even less. Politics are marred by sex scandals and economic problems, resulting in a mistrust of authority. So what does it say about our improvement as a society that the cultural reaction to these negative things is what endured into the millenium? Forget how obnoxious we may find hipsters to be, their cultural basis is sad, and that says some sad things about us.

QED, the nineties was a decade of cultural failure.

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