We Love the '90s?: Someone I have known since she was a little girl recently posted on Facebook: "Please just let me go back to the '90s." This was odd to me since she is in her early 20s and would have been a child then. Another 20-ish person responded with "Best years of my life," to which the reply was "Better music, better clothes, better people, better everything!" Usually if you are hit with nostalgia it is for your 20s not in them. There's probably an essay in that about how making childhood too good for your kids causes depression in their 20s. (I would never write so dumb a thing, but I could see such an idiotic idea making the rounds in the more thoughtless media outlets.) The big suggestion that came from this Facebook conversation was to watch Portlandia, where the dream of the '90s is alive.
This stood out for me because it dovetailed with a book review I had just read for America Between the Wars: From 11/9 to 9/11, by Derek Chollet and James Goldgeier. I haven't read the book and I won't since it is a political review of the times and I work hard to purge all politics from my life, but I gather from the review that the argument is that the time from the fall of the Berlin Wall (the end of the Cold War) in 1989 to 9/11 (the start of the War on Terror) was a formative time. Events during that decade-ish presaged a shift from the old world -- the final vestiges of the 20th century and the us/them world of WW1/WW2/Cold War to the world of Whatever-Today-Is-I-Sure-Don't-Know. They were the calm before the storm of chaos in which we live. I suppose...
So what is to be the final reputation of the 90s? Apparently it was good for kids since they miss it so. The economy was in boom -- a lot of people made, and spent, a lot of money. Crime was dropping over most of the country. No wars -- well, there was the Gulf War but that was over in a couple of months, and Somalia, but that never made the headlines so no one noticed. Nouveau hippiedom -- also called hipsterism -- was in full bloom. Sounds like paradise.
Then how come we didn't notice how happy we all were as it was happening? That's an easy question. We never notice. I have come to the conclusion that the bulk of people in the Western world are, in fact, quite happy -- they just can't see it. The real question is how come we never learn? As I remember the '90s, we were convinced that everything was awful and there was no hope and we were living in terrifying times. Just like we were in the '70s and the '80s and now. The newspapers and opinion pages were loaded with dire misgivings. Just like today. We were certain civilization was in a death spiral of moral weakness and consumerism. Just like today. Environmental calamity was right around the corner. Just like today. We never stop misunderstanding what we see around us, which is just human nature. But we also never learn to accept that it is likely that we are misunderstanding what we see around us. We never stop to say, "Wait. Every other time I felt like this I was wrong. Maybe I'll tone down the shrill hand-wringing this time." We just replay our delusions over and over. I can only assume they comfort us somehow.
I have to admit the '90s did set the stage for my adult life. It was the time I transitioned to full adulthood from my extended post-college childhood. I started working for the company I still work for 20 years later. Moved to my beloved adopted home town of Dexter, MI, where I still live. Bought my first home and am now on my second. Joined a gym and started paying attention to my health which I still obsess over. Wrote my first novel. (Apple Pie came out in late 1999. Oh, so long ago.) It would be followed by two more and I still hope to increase that number. I early adopted the Internet and now it dominates all our lives. It was also when TV started its trajectory to greatness (Seinfeld, Buffy, Northern Exposure, Freaks and Geeks, culminating in The Sopranos) which continues to enrich us culturally.
Then everything stopped. I have previously argued that by the turn of the century the rate of cultural change had slowed to almost zero. My hobby horse examples are the movies American Graffiti and Dazed and Confused. American Graffiti came out in 1973 and was a nostalgic look back at 1962. After eleven years, the world had changed so much as to be unrecognizable. Dazed and Confused came out in 1993 and was a nostalgic look at 1976 -- 13 years and it was a new world. Today, if you look back 11, or 13, or even 15 years back, everything would look pretty much the same. No one would be carrying a smartphone, but aside from that the end of the '90s would look pretty much identical to today. Clothes, hairstyles, music, humor -- the differences between then and now are trivial and superficial.
So I guess you can't blame anyone for '90s nostalgia. It was the last chance anyone will get to look back on a different world. Nostalgia is dead. Generation Z will never know a world that was different than their own.