What Did The 1990s Mean?

By Patrick J. Kiger

When we think of the 1960s, we think of youthful rebellion and social upheaval, while we associate the 1970s with hedonism, disco music and the Arab oil embargo that left motorists in long lines at the gas pump. The 1980s evoke images of excess--pinstripe-clad corporate raiders greedily gobbling up companies like Pac-Man, and pop singers with aerodynamic mullets and parachute pants gyrating on MTV. But the 1990s, in contrast, elude such facile characterization. It was a decade of jarring, sometimes incongruous motifs without a theme to tie them coherently together— the Persian Gulf War, the coming of age of Generation X, the sudden popularity of tattooing, the O.J. Simpson case, AOL diskettes in your mailbox, goatees, Seinfeld, the rise of anti-government militias, Princess Diana’s death in a car crash, Quentin Tarantino movies, the Dotcom bubble, fear of Y2K.

Indeed, the last 10 years of the 20th Century was a decade with an existential crisis of sorts, more of a vague borderline than a pivotal moment. If we’re looking for a comparable period in time, it probably came exactly 100 years before, in the 1890s. The fin de siècle, as European intellectuals saw it, was a jaded time of “world-weariness, of decadence tinged with despair.” In more optimistic America, that period was the tail end of the Gilded Age, when ambitious business tycoons amassed vast fortunes, immigration from southern and eastern Europe was altering the nation’s demographics, and still nascent technologies such as the automobile and wireless communication hinted of a new world that hadn’t quite arrived, but which would be markedly different.

Similarly, the 1990s was a time in which the foundation was laid for the startling, disruptive changes and new order of things that would suddenly emerge in the early 21st Century. “I saw the decade in, when it seemed the world could change at the blink of an eye,” the British pop group Jesus Jones sang optimistically in 1990. Early in the decade, the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the demise of communism as a threat led some to embrace Francis Fukuyama’s argument that we were witnessing “the end of history,” because western-style capitalist democracy had been proven to be the ultimate, final form of human government. Then-President George H.W. Bush gave a 1991 speech in which he proclaimed a “new world order,” in which the U.S. would lead the world in enforcing the rule of law and reining in chaos and aggression.

But that optimism about human progress eventually was shattered by an ethnic cleansing campaign in the Balkans, genocide in Rwanda, and home-grown anti-government extremist movements that perpetrated deadly bombings on American soil. In 1993, a nascent terror network of Islamic militants launched its first attack against the U.S., exploding a bomb in the basement of the World Trade Center that killed six people and wounded 1,500. It was the first inkling of a conflict that would explode in a national trauma and change the course of history eight years later.

It also was a decade which saw the ripening and blossoming of changes that started earlier—from the rise of the Internet and wireless mobile communication to the shift from an analog to a digital information culture, to the shift to economic globalization, in which investment and finance reached across borders and manufacturing flowed to developing countries with the cheapest labor. It was a time when the growth of national chains’ “big box” retail stores accelerated and wiped out smaller “mom and pop” retailers, so that commercial strips in metropolitan areas across the country began to take on a disorienting sameness.

At the same time, we started to see the world differently, because the media underwent a major transformation. One major influence was the O.J. Simpson case, in which a famous athlete-turned-actor and celebrity endorser was accused of murdering his wife Nicole and a man named Ronald Goldman in 1994. From the moment that Simpson led police on a freeway chase that was televised for Americans to watch, the case became a mega-event that consumed public attention, as much lurid entertainment as news. The announcement of a not-guilty verdict in Simpson’s criminal trial in 1995 was covered by 10 different networks, and became one of the most-watched events of the decade, attracting nearly 60 million viewers. As Washington Post writer Kent Babb recently observed, “In the years since, the lineage of so many cultural phenomena — the 24-hour news cycle, a never-ending stream of reality television shows and many Americans’ unquenchable thirst for celebrity gossip — can be traced to this nearly 16-month span.”

CNN, which pioneered continuous cable TV news, was joined in 1996 by upstarts MSNBC and Fox News, which positioned itself as a politically conservative alternative. Radio capitalized upon a 1987 repeal of federal regulations that required equal time for opposing views, and began filling the airwaves with highly opinionated, often hyperbolic commentators such as Rush Limbaugh; in the course of the decade, the number of talk stations nationwide roughly tripled, to nearly 1,200.

But the online world, which developed into a mass medium in the 1990s, had an even greater impact. The World Wide Web, a graphical, point-and-click version of the Internet that allowed users to jump back and forth between interrelated content by clicking hypertext links, altered how people found information. The amount of content grew from a single website in 1991 to nearly 258,000 sites in 1996, and by the end of the decade, there were nearly 17.1 million websites. One of the big drivers in popularizing the Web was America Online (AOL), a service that deluged the U.S. with easily-installed software that enabled even inexperienced users to get on the Web and even to create their own web pages.

The people most powerfully influenced by all these changes were the 50 million Americans who reached adulthood in the 1990s, the so-called Generation X. Those who were older often described them as self-absorbed and apathetic—“slackers, cynics, whiners, drifters, malcontents,” as Atlantic writer Ted Halstead put it in 1999. That stereotyping seems as shallow as the notion that all Baby Boomers were revolutionaries on the barricades, but even Xers seemed to buy it. Two decades later, a 2014 Pew Research Center study found that only 49 percent of Xers see their generation as unique, compared to 58 percent of Boomers and 61 percent of Millennials, the group born after 1980. But what’s more revealing is that Xers usually are nestled between Boomers and Millennials in terms of their attitudes and beliefs on a range of issues, from immigration to same-sex marriage. Of course, that could merely be a function of age. But it also could be that Generation X, like the decade in which they came of age, formed a bridge between old and new ways of thinking and living.

What Did The 1990s Mean?

What can we say about the '90s? A decade that eludes the easy characterizations of its predecessors, the 1990s were filled with incongruous motifs, without a single theme to tie them together.

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