Saturday, August 20, 2011


I've been putting a tape (yes, a tape!) together for a friend, and most of the tracks on it are from the 90s. What do we even think of this decade? Britpop and Nirvana, Friends and Alan Partridge, leaving the ERM and New Labour? Whereas the 80s seems to have an identity now, a polarised one, with the glam of the New Romantics alongside the strife of the Miners Strike, the 90s could well be characterised as the boring decade, at least in the UK.

Prosperity didn't come till late - the mediocre John Major government dominated the decade, but has left no legacy memories (but a privatised rail service), whilst New Labour's late century ascendancy has its awkward moments: Cool Britannia and Millennium Dome. Blair is remembered now for his Iraq misadventure not the slightly uneasy triumph of his 1997 landslide.

Musically, as books like Seven Years of Plenty have tried to show, it was a vivid time, but in retrospect surely "grunge" and "Britpop" were weak constructs that merely saw alternative and indie music making a final surge into the mainstream, with a few great bands at the heart of each. The 90s was a catholic period, with illegal raves having turned into lucrative festivals and franchises. Going back through old 7" and 12" vinyl I was struck not by how dated the music was - much of it stands up - but how, outside of the Blurs and Oasis's, we hardly hear any of the second division acts today, and how late 80s records (such as "The Stone Roses")seem to speak for the decade in the way that the Clash's "London Calling" seemed to herald the 80s.

Personally it felt like a failed decade - certainly my generation bore the scars of Thatcher, and we seemed to work hard for little gain. Friends married later or not at all, opportunities seemed scarce, and hard-earned. There was none of the insouciance of a generation that came after, with Easyjet and Ryanair flights taken as granted, a booming job market (at least until the last couple of years), and the wonders of the iPod and internet. In the 90s, I felt we all tread water, waiting for the future we'd been promised the decade before. Our favourite shows were Friends, This Life and Cold Feet, comfortable fantasies about people like us who were prettier and richer, but with all the same problems. Its easy to forget there was a house price boom in 1986-8, before things went sour again; the house I struggled to buy in 1989 in York would have been half the cost eighteen months earlier.

Yet, coinciding with my twenties, the 90s felt like a period when I was in a rush. I wrote 5 novels, none of which got published, but 2 got shortlisted for prizes, and I dedicated myself to studying full time, had 5 jobs in three different cities, changed career, bought and sold a house (at a loss!), rented nearly a dozen rooms and flats; recorded at least 7 "albums" (on cassette naturally - CD-R's were another bit of that delayed future!); bought my first (and 2nd) PC; went onClub 18-30 and Amsterdam trips. Looking back I bought CDs and vinyl - the latter were usually half the price of the former (and nowadays its the opposite, go figure!) - and lost a bit of my interest in literature only for it to come back towards the end of the decade. I was in a hurry to become an adult, at the same time, the world was welcoming the extended adolescence. Prosperity is part of it, of course - without it, you do live for the day.

Alternative comedy and music had stopped being political - the entertainment age was beginning; repackage, repackage as Morrissey prophecied on "Strangeways, Here We Come"... CDs were joined by (just about) affordable PCs and the internet felt like a private club with its own rules and etiquettes, rather than for everyone, and for everything. That said, I was on email by the middle of the decade (several years before Tony Blair ever sent one), and you knew you would never go back.

The 90s - not easy to love, but even harder to hate - a bedding in of 80s modernity, a last gasp for the Baby Boomer generation (Clinton, Blair), a consumer age, but without the money (and cheap credit) to do much about it.

1 comment:

Jenny Wren said...

I love your thoughts on this decade. I read this post when you first published it and have been thinking about it ever since - and I conclude: you're right. (!) Perhaps you have opened the floodgates for a swell of nineties nostalgia ...