Millenials and Gen Z are often put at loggerheads with Boomers over a variety of socio and economic issues, primarily revolving around what’s been lost in privilege and ambition. To an extent however, our experiences parallel those of the youth in the 1960s when cultural revolutions stirred fresh bouts of hope and vigour for civil rights and a new quasi-enlightenment. Now, if we travel back to the 1990s, we can see quite a juxtaposition in the cultural values and liberal ideals espoused then, by the rising Gen X, against what’s promoted today.
In the 1990s, a new world was born from the metaphorical ashes of the Cold War. What was important in the 1980s became promptly unimportant in the 1990s. George H.W. Bush’s policies no longer reflected America as they had done four short years before and in 1992, the people were ready for a new kind of leader and Democrat (and you may interpret that “kind of” as you please) in Bill Clinton; a fresh young face of 40-something. In the meanwhile, the gaudy, glitz of 80s popular culture was eviscerated and torn a part by the ushering in of a more natural, albeit pessimistic dress sense and music scene. Nirvana rose to prominence in glorious fashion, even if it was against their singer’s instincts. Bands like Pearl Jam and Soundgarden followed suit, undoubtedly talented and unique in their own way, though far from what one could have imagined ten years before, occupying the mainstream Skateboarding took on a whole new dimension of popularity. Indie, auteur filmmakers emerged as the exciting current in cinema. The Simpsons undercut the idealistic family-centric tendencies of 80s television and the attitude which dominated youth culture got drawn as one of indifferences and cynicism.
It was a time buoyed by economic growth and hopeful prospects in America but, alas, the spirit of the 1940s, 50s, 60s, or even 70s wasn’t there. Perhaps this can be attributed to the age-old truth that successive generations will go against what their parents did before (or at least go in a different directions). Perhaps, a new attitude was born as a reaction to the overt-commercialisation and rightward trend of 1980s politics. It’s difficult to determine any one specific truth, especially when covering a subject as broad as generational divide. It’s fascinating, more so, when we reflect on these cultural values in light of what we see today.
A good case study for this cultural shift can be found in the Bill Clinton scandal. The Monica Lewinsky one. Today, we look back on it as an abuse of power and a classic case of sexism dictating media. We acknowledge that Lewinsky was treated unfairly, especially with the hindsight of the toll it took on her mental health. This wasn’t the popular perspective of the time however. People were certainly outraged that Clinton had acted the way he had but more so because he lied about it under oath and because of the headache the ensuing impeachment hearings caused (which eventually yielded a positive upswing for him in the polls, when people felt the Republicans were pushing it). Lewinsky, meanwhile, was subjected to a barrage of late-night jokes and dismissed by many as a silly, immature home-wrecker.
Was it a case of people back then lacking empathy? Well, the treatment Lewinsky was given by the media was cutthroat and cruel but for many, Clinton too had been given merciless scrutiny from the get-go; like no other president before. And for the most part, Democrats were happy with his performance. What was this scandal in light of the greater issues at hand then? Of course, today, this scandal still comes to the forefront of any profile on the 42nd president, which suggests perhaps that we take these work-relationship dynamics more seriously and/or have lost perspective on what’s actually important, feeding the outrage machine further.
This conveys that people were somewhat looser with political correctness in the 1990s. The decade before had been a PC one, in its own sense, albeit of a right-wing, religious kind; apparent notably via the relatively safe-handed approach taken to TV sitcoms and movies. Where the ’70s had reflected a Vietnam-era, mistrust in authority attitude (with the likes of Taxi Driver and Serpico), often with morally ambiguous protagonists, the 1980s saw the rise of a more capitalistic, spectacle type of entertainment. The good guys were once again the good guys.
Artists of the 90s sough to separate themselves from the 80s by creating less formulaic, hero-first works, by returning (in part) to the ethos of a now-nostalgic 70s. Quentin Tarantino was at the forefront of a new kind of cinema; a fantastic of 70s films, he instilled his with references to the greats, morally-ambivalent characters, and violence. Indie darling Richard Linklater meanwhile, made movies like Slacker, Dazed and Confused, and Before Sunrise about clever, if somewhat aimless characters just trying to figure their way out in the world. Plot wasn’t even a concern in these cases. Kevin Smith’s Clerks followed suit. And in these movies and TV shows of the time, what emerged was a prevailing sense of disillusionment with the ways of old, a “whatever, man”, middle-finger approach to the world.
Some of that independent spirit can still be found in movies today, though it rarely makes the mainstream or a cultural footprint as it did back in the 90s. And where many 90s shows (e.g. Seinfeld) couldn’t have given a damn about pertaining a moral message, today we’re seeing politics enter the narrative of even Marvel TV shows. The politically incorrect, apolitical tone of the 90s (and 00s’ media) is no longer cute but irresponsible. Critics and social media hounds are always ready to pounce if something “problematic” should arise.
This kind of activism really divides the cultural outlook of today against the 90s. Between social media, regular media, and the arts, everything feels politically-driven today. It’s easy to decry this but within the vortex of political correctness and cancel culture, one could argue that we at least try to care a bit more. “Woke” culture may lead to some seriously cringe Twitter posts by “allies” but at its essence, it demonstrates an active effort to diversify and better the prospects of others. Such thinking wasn’t necessarily disparaged in the 90s but authenticity was key to credibility in such instances (i.e. they had much a more acute BS radar). To sell out and commercialise yourself (or play to the masses) was just about the worst thing you could do as an artist. (Nowadays, musicians make songs for food delivery services.) With that said, the 90s seemed to glorify dangerous trends such as the ultra-skinny heroin chic look which showed that maybe there was simply just another orthodoxy to follow (bringing into question the idea of authenticity).
In so far as a narrative is concerned, history will often find fashion trends fading and returning. This applies to cultural outlooks too, in broad strokes. Just as we look back on the 90s and early 00s with rose-tinted glasses, so too did people in the 90s look back on the 70s (Dazed and Confused), and people in the 70s looked back on the 50s (American Grafitti). The lesson here is similarly broad but pertinent, given the self-righteousness of some liberals today: you’re not necessarily right about everything. So as heroin chic was seen to be a psychologically damaging trend, maybe too will we see the current body-positivity movement to be fraught with complications, sidelining health issues. Maybe Clinton’s neo-liberalism set the Democrats back progressively but maybe today’s progressives are undermining the electoral credibility of their party? History has to move on and we should not be apathetic about our cultural values but we shouldn’t arrogantly assume that we’ve reached the nadir of enlightenment either. Every generation could be marked out for its mistakes and embarrassing philosophies. I’m sure ours will be just another one.