The Nineties began on January 1 of 1990, except for the fact that of course they did not. Decades are about cultural perception, and culture can’t read a clock. The 1950s started in the 1940s. The sixties began when John Kennedy demanded we go to the moon in ’62 and ended with the shootings at Kent State in May of 1970. The seventies were conceived the morning after Altamont in 1969 and expired during the opening credits of American Gigolo, which means there were five months when the sixties and the seventies were happening at the same time. It felt like the eighties might live forever when the Berlin Wall fell in November of ’89, but that was actually the onset of the euthanasia (though it took another two years for the patient to die).
When writing about recent history, the inclination is to claim whatever we think about the past is secretly backward. “Most Americans regard the Seventies as an eminently forgettable decade,” historian Bruce J. Schulman writes in his book The Seventies. “This impression could hardly be more wrong.” In the opening sentence of The Fifties, journalist David Halberstam notes how the 1950s are inevitably recalled as a series of black-and-white photographs, in contrast to how the sixties were captured as moving images in living color. This, he argued, perpetuates the illusionary memory of the fifties being “slower, almost languid.” There’s always a disconnect between the world we seem to remember and the world that actually was. What’s complicated about the 1990s is that the central illusion is memory itself.
The boilerplate portrait of the American nineties makes the whole era look like a low-risk grunge cartoon. That portrait is imperfect. It is not, however, wildly incorrect. The decade was heavily mediated and assertively self-conscious, but not skewed and misshapen by the internet and social media. Its trajectory can be traced with accuracy. Almost every meaningful moment of the nineties was captured on videotape, along with thousands upon thousands of trivial moments that meant nothing at all. The record is relatively complete. But that deluge of data remained, at the time, ephemeral and unavailable. It was still a present-tense existence. For much of the decade, Seinfeld was the most popular, most transformative live-action show on television. It altered the language and shifted comedic sensibilities, and almost every random episode was witnessed by more people than the 2019 finale of Game of Thrones. Yet if you missed an episode of Seinfeld, you simply missed it. You had to wait until it was re-aired the following summer, when you could try to manually record it on VHS videotape. If you missed it again, the only option was to go to a public archive in Los Angeles or Manhattan and request a special viewing on eight-millimeter videotape. But of course, this limitation was not something people worried about, because caring that much about any TV show was not a normal thing to do. And even if you did, you would pretend you did not, because this was the nineties. You would be more likely to claim that you didn’t own a television.
That, more than any person or event, informed the experience of nineties life: an adversarial relationship with the unseemliness of trying too hard. Every generation melodramatically assumes it will somehow be the last, and there was some of that in the nineties, too—but not as much as in the decade that came before and far less than in the decades that would come after. It was perhaps the last period in American history when personal and political engagement was still viewed as optional. Many of the polarizing issues that dominate contemporary discourse were already in play, but ensconced as thought experiments in academic circles. It was, in retrospect, a remarkably easy time to be alive. There were still nuclear weapons, but there was not going to be a nuclear war. The internet was coming, but reluctantly, and there was no reason to believe it would be anything but awesome. The United States experienced a prolonged period of economic growth without the protracted complications of a hot or cold war, making it possible to focus on one’s own subsistence as if the rest of society were barely there. Concerns and anxieties were omnipresent, but the stakes were vague: Teenagers were allegedly obsessed with angst, and the explanation as to why was pondered constantly without any sufficient answer. It didn’t even seem like those asking the question particularly cared what the explanation was, or at least not until twelve kids were massacred by their classmates at a Colorado high school in 1999. But by then it was too late, and the question seemed less important than the problem, and the problem had just become what was now considered normal.
It’s impossible to claim that all people living through a period of history incontrovertibly share any qualities across the board. It’s also difficult to dissect a decade that was still operating as a monoculture without habitually dwelling on the details of dominance (when I write “it was a remarkably easy time to be alive,” I only refer to those for whom it was, and for whom it usually is). Nothing can ever be everything to everyone. But it’s hard to exaggerate the pervasion of self-constructed, self-aware apathy that would come to delineate the caricature of a time period that already feels forgotten, mostly because those who embodied it would feel embarrassed to insist it was important. The fashions of the 1980s did not gradually fade. The fashions of the 1980s collapsed, and—almost immediately—the zeitgeist they’d elevated appeared garish and gross. There was a longing for the 1970s, but not in the way people of the seventies had longed for the fifties. It was not nostalgia for a time that was more wholesome. It was nostalgia for a time when you could relax and care less. In the nineties, doing nothing on purpose was a valid option, and a specific brand of cool became more important than almost anything else. The key to that coolness was disinterest in conventional success. The nineties were not an age for the aspirant. The worst thing you could be was a sellout, and not because selling out involved money. Selling out meant you needed to be popular, and any explicit desire for approval was enough to prove you were terrible.
The paradox is that the indoctrination of these attitudes had little impact on how the decade actually unspooled. The nineties ethos was deeply internalized but sporadically applied. The number of midlevel celebrities increased, as did the public appetite for personality-driven news. Unemployment peaked in ’92 but decreased thereafter. The economy boomed, much more than it had during the wealth-obsessed administration of Ronald Reagan. Banking deregulations untethered the financial superstructure from frugal orthodoxy, most notably the 1999 repeal of legislation separating commercial banking from investment banking. Income disparity enlarged. Many of the goals now associated with the eighties did not really come into fruition until the nineties. Despite an overabundance of historical information, the collective memory of the decade tends to be simplified and minimized, dictated more by the texture of the time than by anything that transpired.
And yet: The texture is what mattered. The feeling of the era, and what that feeling supposedly signified, isolates the nineties from both its distant past and its immediate future. It was a period of ambivalence, defined by an overwhelming assumption that life, and particularly American life, was underwhelming. That was the thinking at the time.
It is not the thinking now.
Now the 1990s seem like a period when the world was starting to go crazy, but not so crazy that it was unmanageable or irreparable. It was the end of the twentieth century, but also the end to an age when we controlled technology more than technology controlled us. People played by the old rules, despite a growing recognition that those rules were flawed. It was a good time that happened long ago, although not nearly as long ago as it seems.