Monday, December 11, 2006

The Cultural Identity of the Late '90s

I was watching a Pinky and the Brain episode where the lab mice appear on a parody of MTV's The Real Life. The episode, written by Jed Spingarn and directed by Kirk Tingblad (whom I'll always think of as the guy who animated the scene in Animaniacs where Slappy Squirrel lipo-suctions lard out of Roger Ebert's stomach), aired in 1998, and I was enjoying all the late-'90s stereotypes in the show: the depressed female wanna-be poet, the backwards baseball caps, the grunge rock, the fashions.

And then it occurred to me: the late '90s are, by simple mathematics, less than a decade old, and yet they already seem to belong to a distant past -- and they have a cultural profile that is much stronger than many other eras.

I can barely remember what the early '90s were like, in a cultural/fashion sense, even though I was in high school then and, in theory, I should have been noticing stuff. But boy, do I remember the music, fashions and cultural obsessions from about 1996 right up to the dot-com bust.

We can all think of stuff that symbolizes that era. Internet cartoons. Alanis Morissette (and I'm not talking about the teen pop queen Alanis, either). The cable news channels caught up in Monica Lewinsky fever. Titanic. Austin Powers. Anything whatsoever to do with the term, or aimed at the people considered to be, "Generation X." Bad Friends ripoffs on every network. Mawkish tributes to the "Greatest Generation" (that would be the World War II generation, or so said Tom Brokaw). The debuts of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Sabrina the Teenage Witch, and the general ubiquity of empowered kick-ass females in popular entertainment. The march of Starbucks.

And, above everything else, an absolute obsession with people in their '20s who don't know exactly what to do with their lives.

This particular era was killed stone dead by, first, the dot-com bust, which killed the mystique of the 20-something by making it clear that we would, in fact, never get rich and there wasn't anything cool about us. And second, September 11, 2001, which ushered in a bunch of new, different worries.

So what are some other things -- shows, clothes, things like those -- that you associate with that particular cultural moment?

And here's an excerpt from the Pinky and the Brain episode that started this whole post; see how many late '90s things you can spot that already seem like ancient history. The guest voices, by the way, include Pamela "Milhouse" Hayden, Scott "Nick on Family Ties" Valentine, and LeVar Burton.

1 comment:

Mike said...

I believe you mean "The Real World," yes?