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.