If you live through this with me, I swear that I would die for you
— Hole, “Asking for It” (1994)
The 1990s was a curious decade – post-1980s excess and the Black Monday correction, we limped into the last decade of the 20th century with a whimper, not a bang. The baby boomers were in ascendency, shaking off the detritus of a century of extremes behind closed doors.
It’s easy now to think that the disaffection manifesting in Generation X and in particular in the grunge music scene was a put on, an act. But in most big game cultures the emerging generation was caught between old school regimes that refused to recognise very obvious failures and what appeared to be distant, no access futures. This point has been compellingly made by Mark Davis, the author of one of the essays in this 'nineties' issue of M/C Journal.
The editors of this issue came of age in 1990s Australia. Or, to paraphrase grunge act Hole, we lived through this. And what a time to be alive! How appropriate to revisit the twentieth century’s swansong as the second decade of the twenty-first century nears its own denouement.
When we sat down to work on this issue, one clear question arose: How to explain this 1990s nostalgia? Commentators have proffered a slew of explanations. These have ranged from the “20 year cycles” for nostalgia in popular culture (Tucker) to a desire for an apparently simpler, more trouble-free and, well, less connected time. As Atkinson wryly observes: “While we had the internet in the grunge era, it didn't necessarily dominate your life at that point. Your existence was probably a bunch more focused on IRL than URLs.”
Some contributors invoke 1990s nostalgia. Paul Stafford provides a reverential and autoethnographic account of his experiences as a fan of grunge music during that genre’s early 1990s heyday. Renee Middlemost describes the excoriating response from fans to The Simpsons’ episode “That 90s Show”. Middlemost’s essay reminds us of the program’s brilliance prior to “jumping the shark” in the 2000s.
Yes, the 1990s hosted transgressive, test of time-standing examples of popular culture. This includes the ‘grunge’ music genre that arose in the US circa the early 1990s, in the work of bands such as Hole, Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden (see Stafford’s essay). Grunge music and its associated sub-cultural markers went on to flourish globally in countries such as Poland, as Marek Jezinski and Lukasz Wojtkowski describe in their contribution.
The 1990s also saw lesser known, but no less significant, pop cultural phenomena. Julian Novitz revisits the Doctor Who novels published between 1991 and 1997. These novels are particularly significant given that the 1990s have commonly been regarded as the “wilderness years” for that franchise.
The 1990s saw an increased feminist visibility in popular culture. This visibility is suggested in Jessica Ford’s essay on Roseanne/Roseanne Barr’s feminism, Claire Knowles’s reading of Agent Scully (of X Files fame) as feminist icon, and Justine Ettler’s reflection on her meeting with US “post-punk-feminist” Kathy Acker. Ettler is the author of the breakout Australian novel The River Ophelia (1995), which was influenced by Acker’s oeuvre, and of which Acker was evidently a fan.
Yet, 1990s feminisms had their limitations. They lacked, for example, the focus of intersectionality that was conceptualised by African-American legal scholar Kimberle Crenshaw during the late 1980s, and that is only now (in the 21st century) really starting to take shape, albeit not without a struggle. Ford makes this point when analysing the “whiteness” of Roseanne/Roseanne’s gender politics in the 90s and 2018.
In other areas, too, the 90s were not “all good”. There was no such thing as regional arts development funds. There was no reconciliation or Beyond Blue. No #MeToo or #TimesUp. No kombucha or viral campaigns or shops open after five. No royal commissions into child abuse. Australia was yet to have a female prime minister or governor general. Mentioning global warming meant you were a crackpot. Gender reassignment was something your nanna and your neighbour had never heard about.
Put simply, then, the 1990s cannot be described in entirely affirmative or negative terms. The 1990s (as with any decade, really) is too complex for such summations.
In some ways the 1990s was about what was started (internet insurgence), what was set on fire (Die Yuppy Die), and what came after the ashes drifted. Many of our writers have taken this comparative view, exploring the then(s) and now(s) and the enormous gaps between that don’t just register in years. Mark Davis, for example, argues the Alt Right is far more nightmarish in the new millennium than even he could have imagined.
Some contributors have explored the merger of old and new, past and future in creative and idiosyncratic ways. Chris Campanioni theorises “the cover and the glitch, two performative and technological enactments that fomented the collapse between author-reader and user-machine.” Campanioni’s exploration focuses, in particular, on the Y2K bug and David Lynch’s cult series Twin Peaks (1990-91), and the much hyped reboot in 2017.
In his feature essay contribution, Mitch Goodwin reminds us that 1999 — and its anticipation of technological dystopia (Y2K anxieties ahoy!) — “could not have happened” without 1995. Goodwin teases out this point via readings of two futuristic thrillers Johnny Mnemonic and Strange Days.
As Goodwin puts it:
It might seem strange now but tapping into the contents of Keanu Reeve’s brain was a utopian data moment in 1995. This was still the digital frontier when the network was as yet not fully colonised by corporate America. The Lo-Teks effectively delivering a global moment of healing via satellite. These were the dreams we had in the nineties.
While no single collection could hope to encapsulate the complexity of the period spanning 1990 to 1999. The contributors to the ‘Nineties’ issue of M/C Journal have given this one helluva go.
Bernstein, Sara. “Why Gen X Isn’t Psyched for the ‘90s Revival.” Vox. 13 Mar. 2018. <https://www.vox.com/2018/3/13/17064842/gen-x-90s-revival>.
Crenshaw, Kimberle. “Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics.” University of Chicago Legal Forum 1 (1989): 139-167.
Davis, Mark. Gangland: Cultural Elites and the New Generationalism. St Leonards, NSW: Allen & Unwin, 1997.
Hole. “Asking for It.” Live through This. Georgia, US: City Slang, 1994.