How the ’90s Became the 2000s

December 17th, 2011 at 12:17 am | 6 Comments |

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Last week, I took a (semi) objective look back at the 1990s nostalgia craze in our politics, from Democrats who remember the time with all the glory and majesty as the most ardent Fox Newsie remembers the Reagan ’80s, to Newt Gingrich’s comeback on the Republican side of the ledger.

Before I sign off for the year next week (I’ll be back with reviews of two late December/early January wide releases, Meryl Streep’s look at Britain’s indomitable Iron Lady, and the awards-bait adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s novel Everything is Illuminated), I thought that perhaps a more personal look back at what and where I was “coming from” in that article was in order, having come of age in the 1990s myself.

People in my age group — the tail end of “Generation X” (born from 1975 through 1980) — are a funny lot. We were too young to be a part of what is now recognized as “Generation Jones”, the in-betweeners of the Boomers and their children (e.g. President Obama, Bret Easton Ellis, George Stephanopoulous, The Brady Bunch kids). But we’re too old to identify completely with the Millennials of 1985 and 1990 vintage. We still have (and are the last people to have) a working memory of a world before social networks, Wikipedia, iPhone apps, and electronic-based media and magazines took over completely.

And just as my Millennial kid brothers and sisters defined themselves politically by (or in opposition to) Bush II and Cheney in their twilight, and Obama in his rise, my beginning political consciousness was first truly shaped under Bill Clinton, Newt Gingrich, and the very beginning of the Bush II era.

When I was in my high school and college years, it never even occurred to me that I would have it “easier” or better than my parents and grandparents, whose glory years came at the height of postwar, pre-global prosperity. In the Roger Sterling 1950s and ’60s, “orderly”, “stable”, and “reliable” were the signs of proper, effective management. But by the time I became an adult, well after the Donald Trumps, Michael Milkens, Barry “Killer” Dillers, and Michael Eisners had taken the reins, those old buzzwords were the textbook definitions of lazy, bad, fire-able management. You wanted a marathon runner, not someone hobbling along on crutches!

And after I watched Bill Clinton wail about “feelin’ yer pain” shortly after assuming office, my teenage heart didn’t bleed; my stomach turned. Watching Clinton reduce the very real fear and pain of Roger & Me and Roseanne-era, lower-middle-class America to drag-queen burlesque–with every teardrop and bitten-lip strategically timed for maximum ratings impact–seemed as offensive and tasteless then as the worst of Bachmann and Palin today. In eight long years of Bill Clinton’s televised reality soap opera, one looks for even one scene that could be described as heroic or graceful or even in good taste, and comes up almost empty.

Then again, being alienated from (and amiably contemptuous of) the antics of my parents generation seemed to come with the territory. My generation came of age watching movies like Clerks and Spanking the Monkey, about smart young men thwarted by their surroundings, whose parents didn’t “get” them (and didn’t want to). We watched TV shows like Friends, 90210, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Dawson’s Creek, and Party of Five, where people over 35 all but didn’t exist, like the wah-wah trumpet grownups in a Charlie Brown cartoon.

And if I seem coldly indifferent to the so-called ”prosperity” of the late ’90s, it’s because I was indifferent to it, because it was indifferent to me (and my friends) as we entered our 20s. As a sassy sitcom housekeeper on a 1990s TVLand rerun might have said, “Wasn’t doin’ anything for me, honey!”

After Geocities and Blogspot suddenly made everyone an (unpaid) ”writer”, why, we simply couldn’t have just anyone thinking that they are an Author, a Critic, dahlink! Agents and editors began referring to themselves as “gatekeepers”, and with rejection rates driven well past the 90% margin, those gates became more iron-clad than ever. (It also created a booming business for scam-artist and incompetent “agents” and “editors”, too.) Even veteran authors and journalists started saying that this was the “worst [climate for publishing] they’d ever seen,” that they could “never have made it if things had been like they are today.” (Little did they know what was still to come!)

By the end of the 1990s, unknown writers starting out were suddenly expected to come pre-equipped with bulging “writing portfolios”, referrals from name authors at conferences or tony colleges, and a well-known literary agent representing them before they would even be considered by a major house or magazine. (Unless they testified at OJ’s trial or ran a call-girl operation or got a big rating on MTV Live or Springer — then the industry would come to them.) Freelance paid writing gigs became almost nonexistent.

Of course, expecting all this from some struggling young writer-guy (or gal) waiting tables or clerking at a video store was so laughable in its unrealism, it made the Tea Party’s economic theories look worthy of the Baron de Rothschild. But in this Brave New World, that was filed under the category of “too bad”.

Ditto my friends and acquaintances. Despite our alternative lifestyles and social libertarianism and pro-choiceness, in many ways, we were all as conservatively idealistic as an Ayn Rand character, as we hung out at all the CD stores, Blockbuster Videos, bookstores, and non-Starbucks coffeehouses, that now a decade later exist only in the twilight of our collective memory.

We all thought that, yeah, we’re going to have it harder than before, but still, if we just kept at it, the publishing/media/art/music world would eventually take care of us, just the way it had punched our parents and grandparents generations’ tickets. Everyone’s gotta pay their dues at first, right? Right??

It was during the “prosperous” late ’90s when I had to brutally un-teach myself everything my well-meaning grandparents (who had raised me along with my mother) and my Professor Fifty-Year-Olds had told me. It was when I (and my other friends) learned, to put it coarsely, that simply being polite, sober, and putting up good work on time didn’t get you “jack” in a world where, “I’m not sure I really respond to this,” We’re undergoing a re-branding”, “That’s not our target demographic”, and “Because I said so!” were the super passwords.

But while publishing (and US manufacturing) “got there first”, at least witnessing this panic-button lockdown gave me a head-start on anticipating the 2000s economy. From the energy companies faced with global warming to the US manufacturers faced with global competition, decades-old business models were upset on an almost daily basis during the past decade.

And most of their leaders would react like the Cookie Monster let loose at Hometown Buffet — mindlessly devouring everything whole in sight while they still could, until things just plain ran out. (Hiya there, Kenny-boy, Dick Fuld, Uncle Bernie!) Why “save” and “plan” for the future, after all — if there might not be a future for your business anymore?

I can still remember the day in January 2000 when I left the theater after seeing my favorite movie that year (and there were a lot to choose from in ’99 and ’00), Magnolia. The Aimee Mann/Jon Brion songs played over the closing credits were called “Save Me” and “Nothing is Good Enough”. A perfect capper, I thought, for a decade that didn’t deserve a kiss goodbye, so much as it deserved to be kissed off.

If someone had told me then — or on the two days when the 1990s really died (September 11, 2001, or the day exactly nine months earlier when the Supremes decided Bush vs. Gore) – that one day I or any other thinking person would recall the 1990s as halcyon “good times”, I would’ve laughed in their face.

Yet even I now look back and sometimes think, “Gee, it wasn’t really all that bad.” But I also realize that this is the nostalgia a bypass survivor has for cheeseburgers and chili dogs, that the recovering “alkie” or drug addict has for his dance hall days, that the incest survivor has before she remembered. It’s for the last time we could still pretend that things might work out the way we were always told they were “supposed” to — and get away with it, even for a second.

Perhaps the other best summary of how I feel about the 1990s came from the 1995 memoir of the noted literary author Carolyn See, as she visited her much younger sister (who’d had a serious drug problem). See asked her Sis if there was anything she wished she could do over again. Her sister immediately remembered her late boyfriend, a handsome dealer who’d drowned in the swimming pool after a drug-induced heart seizure. She said wistfully, but with little hesitation, “I wish [he] were still alive and we were back in business. I know I’m not supposed to say that, but it’s true.”

I think that’s how many of us look back on the ’90s today, even if we enjoyed them at the time. We all know deep down that it really wasn’t very good for us. But somehow as we look back today, that doesn’t seem the point anymore.

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6 Comments so far ↓

  • Traveler51

    As we all have or will learn, there are various ages, or periods in our lives where we have everything figured out. My father was dumber than a box of rocks when I was eighteen. Can’t believe how much he learned over the next five years. I noticed the same phenomenon in my two kids about the same time in their lives. Moving on into my 30′s and having become quite world-wise I was again feeling that bit of arrogance I had at age 18. That passed of course and now at age 60 I’ve come to know that I still have nothing figured out for sure. My kids are in their late 20′s and one aged 40. They are going through that smug top of the world sense of accomplishment I did when I was their age(s). By the time they, or you, Telly, are age 60, they will look at this period of life quite differently than they do now, as will you. Wait 10 years, dig this article you wrote from the dustbin of that old computer memory bank, or whatever form it will be in by that time, and ask yourself if you are still sure of how the 90′s became the 2000′s. I’m willing to bet you will completely rewrite the article. Just keep on writing. You’re good at it.

  • Graychin

    …simply being polite, sober, and putting up good work on time didn’t get you “jack”…

    Here’s a news flash for you, youngster – that never did get you “jack.” In the best of times that might have kept you off the unemployment line, but if you wanted to “get ahead” you always had to be a lot more strategic and self-aware than that. Ambition would help too.

    The ’90s WERE relatively good times, even if they didn’t meet your expectations back then. Make fun of Bill Clinton’s accent if it makes you feel smarter than him, but he was a pretty darned good president. What was not to like? The peace? The prosperity? (I know! Newt Gingrich was “not to like.”)

    Traveler – I agree with Telly that the ’90s ended when the Supremes picked a president to begin the new century. You seem to allude to another event that started them. If not Bush v. Gore – or freaking 9/11 – I’m curious about what you think it was.

  • Ray_Harwick

    Bye bye Miss American Pie for the 90s. I’m at a loss to even comment on Telly’s popular culture-based view because I was deaf then and about 99% of television and films wasn’t captioned. I lived on what I could read in the newspaper and sports was about the only thing you could watch that could be understood without the ability to hear. I learned sign language in the 90s and hung out with deaf people; mostly the kind of deaf people who were born deaf or lost their hearing in early childhood before they mastered English. That group, as today, were as intelligent and resourceful as any hearing person but they had an average reading level of 4th grade. On the one hand, it gave me status to be among them with 2 college degrees and the writing ability to speak for them as an advocate. We honored President George HW Bush for signing the Americans With Disabilities Act because it forced the media into captioning so we would fall further and further behind. But we remained at war with private business and the medical establishment over our communication needs. Deaf people wanted jobs and guarantees of clear instruction about what their job responsibilies were. The didn’t want to use their infant children as interpreters to help them do things like buy a casket for a deceased relative or force them to be the one to tell mommy or daddy, “You have cancer.”

    My career was wiped out in the 90s because of my deafness. I had been a public school teacher and I couldn’t hear my students. People told me to go back to college and switch to special education or deaf education but I didn’t have the signing vocabulary to attend college courses and make that transition. I was competing with kids of Telly’s generation for employment. I’d had eight years in the Air Force, four with IBM, and nearly a decade teaching school and *none* of those jobs were accessible to me any more. Oh yeah, I spent several years trying convince employers that I could do most of the things I had previouly done as long as I didn’t have to answer a telephone or deal with people in a communications setting. I had, after all, graduated first in my community college class, won the highest professional award the Air Force had for my special, and another honor as an administrator where I represented the Air Force as the nominee against the entire administrative classes of every branch of the federal government. So it wasn’t like I didn’t have any credentials. It was that those signs you see hanging in the waiting area of personnel directors that say, “We Hire The Handicapped” are lies. After I came to terms with that lie, I took the experience and skills I had to the internet and begged others to hold my hand while I learned. Telly’s generation was helpful to a degree but as with any other generation, it was busy. I hung on for nearly 20 years with piecemeal knowledge of web design, HTML and database programming; or enough to help get some web sites onto the informaton highway. I’m pretty sure I’m not exagerating when I say I averaged 12 hours of work a day for about 15 of those years. I had no idea what was on televions or in the movies because I never had the time to look and if I did get to stop for a glance, it wasn’t captioned.

    The 90s beat me to death and what remained of my ambition was replaced with the bare instinct to simply survive. I retire on my husband’s social security because I wasn’t eligible for SSI. The told me so. Twice. It was humiliating. I applied again about a year ago and for the third time they said I wasn’t eligible. So, I’m 58 years old and looking for the day that I turn 65 and I’m like Telly in that I don’t know if Medicare will be around in seven years. Based on my record with Social Security, I probably wouldn’t be eligible anyway.

  • gmckee1985

    Clinton and Gingrich…two of the most powerful men in the world during that time. Both scumbags. Bar was pretty low….Obama is terrible but at least he’s a decent human being, for the most part. Boehner too.

    • baw1064

      And yet, the economy was doing very nicely, in spite of Clinton and Gingrich. Conversely, when you say that Obama is terrible, what could McCain, Romney, or anyone have done as President to prevent the Euro crisis, or to suddenly send real estate and stock prices back to 2007 levels? I think the lesson is how little influence political leadership has on the economy, for good or bad.