The dream of the ’90s
A look at the decade that was, in technological and sociological terms, the last moment of human life that wasn’t totally digital, when human interaction still existed without intermediaries.
Text: Rodrigo Fresán | Illustrations Manuel Córdova
How can we reflect on a decade that is over and yet somehow still lingers and will continue to linger for all time, part of History with a capital “H” and so many personal histories, even though those of us looking back now will someday have closed our eyes forever?
The first look at a decade is panoramic. It’s Cinemascope, with a touch of a Diego Rivera mural, a dash of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album cover and a pinch of a Where’s Waldo spread. And, of course, in this case, Waldo represents each and every one of us.
As we drift down or plunge in completely, in search of a more comprehensive view of the 1990s, things get more complicated. This decade was a crossroads, a confluence of everything published and experienced to that point, the moment when Generation X morphed into Generation Y. It’s a crucial milestone for an era (an entire millennium), to be followed by “infinity and beyond,” to quote the immortal words of the decade’s space hero Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story (1995), the first movie to be made entirely on computer.
The ’90s represent a last chance to reflect, to take stock, to wipe the slate clean before leaping from the highest trampoline into the waters containing the iceberg that sank the Titanic in 1912. In 1997, that ship set sail again on the silver screen, and we boarded, knowing that when the water rose to our necks, the cast of Baywatch (1989-1999) would be looking elsewhere. Save yourselves! Women and children first!
Human interaction used to be a pleasure, before we became avatars or handles or Twitter canaries.
There have been a number of attempts to make sense of it all, but they fail to mention the most important, the most serious aspect, something that left a mark that we hope remains: human contact was still a necessity and even a pleasure. Computers weren’t toys yet. And we played Pokémon, not even suspecting that soon we would compete to become avatars ourselves or handles in chatrooms or canaries trapped in the birdcage of Twitter, hunting followers, likes and Warholian fame on YouTube. We didn’t know it then, but we should have suspected something when, on the last night of the decade – I’m sorry, but for me, decades start at 00 and end after 09 – we all cowered in fear of Y2K wreaking havoc on our hard drives. This cataclysm didn’t get farther than the first Matrix movie (1999), but it was here to stay in very different ways.
Everything and nothing
It’s no coincidence that the ’90s saw the cloning of Dolly the Sheep, as well as the beginning of the Human Genome Project, after years of speculation. The space race had lost its luster, and extraterrestrial life (if it even existed… Mars Pathfinder found no compelling evidence in July 1997) didn’t seem very interested in Earth, except as an adventure-tourism destination. Resigned, we became our own aliens. We traded the outer space of the cosmos for the inner space of our bodies and minds. It’s also no coincidence that the ’90s, in a strictly historical sense, kicked off in 1989 with the fall of a Wall – and an ideology – and closed with the destruction of two great towers in Manhattan. These events formed the perfect parentheses that could contain anything and everything.
The ’90s seemed vaguely distorted by a sort of clearance-sale feeling – cleaning out the accumulation of modern artifacts and instant antiques, like the trove of possessions at the end of Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane (which turned 50 in 1991), unbeatable throughout the decade on every list of the best films ever made.
How can we take in all of this? I’d propose, for the moment, the uncertainty of half-closed eyes, a gaze arbitrarily fixed on a point that’s sure to contain some coincidences and plenty of forgotten moments protected by a solid alibi. When playing the decade game, it’s every man for himself.
The ’90s were a last chance to reflect, to take stock and to wipe the slate clean before leaping off the trampoline.
These were years of everything and nothing. Of a television show about nothing and everything – Seinfeld, 1989-1998 – and another – Friends, 1994-2004 – where charming young people seemed to be living perfect lives in a Big Apple ready to be displaced as an icon by Steve Jobs’ Apple. Meanwhile, Fox and HBO were introducing new model families with The Simpsons (1989) and The Sopranos (1999-2007). Julia Roberts as an adorable prostitute in Pretty Woman (1990) and the savage yuppie of Bret Easton Ellis in American Psycho (1991) were presented as our Prom King and Queen, cheered on by the famous intern Monica Lewinsky doing her thing at the White House between 1995 and 1996. Jeffrey “The Dude” Lebowski sat around unemployed in The Big Lebowski (1998), and the basically instinctive Sharon Stone crossed and uncrossed her legs in 1992, while Hannibal Lecter licked his lips in The Silence of the Lambs (1991). And a “comedy about love in the ’90s” – Reality Bites – established the reign of Winona Ryder.
The fashionable glamour of amorality was evident in films like Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), Danny Boyle’s Trainspotting (1996), the Coen Brothers’ Fargo (1996) and Chris Columbus’s Home Alone (1990). Flickers of identity draped in loud music, spastic and absurd arrangements like those found in Tim Burton’s Ed Wood (1994). The pale, thin Kate Moss in Calvin Klein ads, an alternative to the tanned, voluptuous supermodels on Vogue covers, the simultaneously sexy yet frigid video for George Michael’s “Freedom! ’90” and the funereal pomp for Gianni Versace following his 1997 murder outside his Miami palazzo.
Video may have killed the radio star, but Kurt Cobain also met a violent end in 1994 after smelling teen spirit, Britney bared her stomach in a revealing school uniform, and the boys of Britpop came to blows: Oasis vs. Blur. Whitney Houston wailed at a crystal-shattering pitch in “I Will Always Love You” (1991), the Spice Girls offered a bubblegum manifesto with “Wannabe” (1996) and Madonna flirted with a lurid Erotica (1992) before finding herself with Ray of Light (1998). Ricky Martin’s “Livin’ la Vida Loca” (1999) was smothered by a wash of industrial and electronic sounds – thank you, thank you – while Soda Stereo broke up in 1997 with a heartfelt “gracias totales” to their fans. And a final thanks goes out to legends like Johnny Cash and Bob Dylan, who returned with strong artistic statements. But enough is enough. Silence please.
They were years of everything and nothing, the era of Seinfeld and The Sopranos, HBO and Fox, Hannibal Lecter and Sharon Stone.
An endless loop
With our ears covered so we didn’t hear the sounds of war in the Balkans and the Middle East, we turned to the decade’s signature books: Bridget Jones’s Diary (1995), Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone (1997), High Fidelity (1995) and Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park (1990). And it was cool to carry around a copy of Chuck Palahniuk’s Fight Club (1996) or David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest (1996), which followed Thomas Pynchon’s return from wherever he was hiding with 1990’s Vineland. In Latin America, there was Sobredosis (1990) and Mala onda (1991) by Alberto Fuguet. And, of course, the since-refuted but excellent title The End of History and the Last Man (1992) by Francis Fukuyama.
But between all these pages – still made up of paper and ink – there was one key book that many purchased, few read and almost no one understood. Stephen Hawking’s A Brief History of Time was released in the late ’80s, but it was omnipresent throughout the subsequent decade. Terms and concepts like the “Big Bang” and “black holes” entered our everyday vocabulary. In this atmosphere, the Hubble Space Telescope was launched into orbit, from where it still sends us postcards from the universe. A universe that they say will someday begin to contract, leading everything to repeat itself, the ’90s included. I don’t know about you, but I’m not eager for another round of Whitney Houston declaring her love for me until the end of time.
Until then, happy 2015, everyone! in