In The American Conservative’s 15th anniversary issue published earlier this year, managing editor Matt Purple wrote in a piece explaining the Millennial turn against hawkishness: “Most Millennials grew up during or at least with a faint memory of the 1990s, that pacific confettiscape of a decade with its consumerist it-goods and post-Cold War American dominance, its Nerf gun commercials blaring out of the TV, and little green stock market arrows beckoning ever upwards. Then came 9/11.”
His point was simple but illuminating. Millennials (full disclosure: this includes me) spent their formative years in an end-of-history mirage, Sublime’s “What I Got” wafting like “Brigadoon” mysteriously down from the Highlands. And with the Big Questions finally answered, our attention naturally turned towards products: Surge, Earthworm Jim, and the Aggro Crag. The terrorist attacks on 9/11, occurring during the beginning of my senior year of high school, felt like both a rude reintroduction to the horrors of history and my generation’s initiation into adulthood, all in the chaos of a single morning. We found ourselves as skeptical of the insular decade just passed, so comfortable in its own narcissistic myopia, as of the flamboyant missteps that followed.
And now, nearly 20 years later, we find ourselves in a moment of trying to remember the ’90s for what they were. Just as the Baby Boomers before us spent the proceeding decades dissecting and reverse-engineering the failed dreams of the ’50s and ’60s, mostly through film and song, today we find ourselves doing the same thing and through the same mediums. Now is the time of ’90s nostalgia. Of course, there was Hillary Clinton’s failed presidential run. But there was also a new season of Twin Peaks and The X-Files. Eminem’s latest album Kamikaze even finds him back in his late ’90s form. And along with these familiar figures have come the retrospectives. FX’s The People v. O.J. Simpson: American Crime Story is a well-acted and occasionally moving reenactment of the first media saga that I personally have memory of, from Bronco chase beginning to explosive trial verdict ending. And Slate’s podcast Slow Burn is spending this season excavating a thorough, albeit partisan, rehash of the Clinton/Lewinsky saga, what amounted to my generation’s Watergate.
Where else could this nostalgia for the ’90s play out than through the media itself, which was of course the lifeblood of the decade—both in how it came to define itself and as the lens through which it saw itself? Telly Davidson’s Culture War: How the 90’s Made Us Who We Are Today (Whether We Like It or Not), although published in 2016, is probably one of the most notable artifacts of this ongoing ’90s retrospective. Davidson, not a historian but cultural critic and television writer, might seem at first glance like he isn’t the best man for the job. But as he says in the book:
It would be possible, if not exactly complete, to write a “serious” or academic study of most other periods and their behind-the-scenes palace intrigues and politics, while just glossing over what we would call pop culture—the pop songs, movies and TV shows, books, and so on that were current at the time. It would be utterly impossible to do that about the O.J. Simpson-Monica Lewinsky-Bush vs. Gore 1990s…. As important as the [leading personalities] were, none of them were the truly central figure of the 1990s decade. That honor would go to the mass media itself (including a rising Internet) that interpreted, filtered, parsed, distributed, and largely created the feelings and perceptions that Americans had of the times in which they were living—a media that went from merely covering the parade to making itself the unquestioned star of it….
Davidson’s point about mass media is well taken, but it’s ancillary to his actual thesis: far from being a placid fin de siècle decade abruptly destroyed by hijackers, the ’90s were really the wellspring of our current times. They were a precursor sharing more in common with the present than we care to admit. They were a cultural toxic dump with a half-life that still radiates invisible energy into the present. And generally speaking, it’s difficult to deny that claim, especially with regard to politics. Davidson notes that the ’90s were the beginning of “red and blue politics” as we know them today, along with the attendant partisan entrenchment into different media realities. They saw the rise of “liberal elite” Ivy League journos who took the reins from their humbler predecessors at outlets like The New Republic and Washington Monthly. They saw the rise of PC culture and Fox News. They brought us the outsized Supreme Court battles we’ve almost come to expect. And, of course, our economy hasn’t changed all that much since then, even with the 2008 recession.
As Davidson writes, we’d weathered recessions before, but always with the expectation that we would bounce back and that our jobs would eventually return. These would be, as he says:
The SAME KIND OF JOBS, for the most part. But as we’ve seen already, the early 90s recession was different. Big time. Now, people were being fired en masse, hundreds and thousands at a time. And for many of them, especially these blue-collar and low-level white collar workers, the heartbeat of the working middle class, their job weren’t coming back. Ever. They might get another job—but it wouldn’t be the same job, or perhaps even for the same company. Or, if they simply wanted to keep their current job or transition to a department within their corporation that was still hiring—then they’d better “retrain” and “re-educate” themselves, and up their game in a hurry! Once again, just being good enough wasn’t. And this created a sort of trickle-down version of “moral hazard”—one that would debilitate the economic discourse and dialogue from Bill Clinton and George W. Bush right on through to Barack Obama and the Tea Party.
It’s easy to get swept up in the energetic narrative thrust of the book. Channeling the spirit of the decade it examines, Culture War feels frantic, breathless almost. Perhaps the most successful way in which Davidson exemplifies that spirit is by using films as cultural palimpsests through which we see various forces, some even contradictory, simultaneously at play. He begins with the 1993 Michael Douglas film Falling Down, which perfectly illustrated the desperate rage and racial animus haunting an early ’90s Southern California whose defense economy was drying up. He writes that the film “was above all, a story about a man who’d played by the rules, who’d stayed in school, probably served in Vietnam, didn’t openly abuse alcohol or drugs, someone who’d married and had a daughter, paid his bills and taxes on time, and cared for his dotty mother. In short, he was someone who’d done everything he was ‘supposed’ to do as a good citizen up to that point—and he’d ended up being punished for it.” The line connecting Douglas’s character and the angry Rust Belt voters of recent years is so obvious that it almost looks like a trap.
As invigorating as all this might be, Culture Wars’ restlessness is also its greatest weakness. It perhaps channels the spirit of the decade too well. You can’t see the viscera of a thing from the inside out; as Hugh Kenner wrote, you need instead “an X-ray moving picture of how our epoch was created.” And so while Davidson’s account is a welcome reminder of just how perverted, for lack of a better word (and as someone who as a child first heard the phrase “ass to mouth” in the context of President Bill Clinton, I’m speaking a bit from my own experience here), the ’90s were, it tends to illustrate more by example than cold analysis.
For instance, Davidson uses Terri Schiavo as a tasteless metaphor describing an early ’90s Democratic Party whose “outer shell stubbornly [clung] to life….” Of course, that’s granular. But in a larger sense, one ends up wondering if perhaps all of our clichéd presuppositions about the ’90s are actually being reinforced in the process of Davidson proving his thesis. The more expertly he raises the dead, the more frantically he breathes life back into the decade in order to connect the dots between it and our own, the more oddly alien it feels. And so he works at cross purposes with his goals. And just as the meta-irony of Pulp Fiction can’t really, truly stand in place of actual film analysis, the ’90s themselves can’t be understood from the inside out—only from a heightened critical perspective.
Regardless, Davidson’s main argument seems at least partially true. There are a lot of things about our culture and economy that came into their own in the ’90s and haven’t changed much since. Perhaps that’s because so many of the problems we faced during that decade, novel at the time, remain unsolved and even compounded. But Matt Purple’s point, and my own experiences, also have some relationship to a larger truth. The jouissance of the decade, as violent and slacker-pessimistic as it might have been, has also been undeniably destroyed. The stakes have been ratcheted up. The humor has calcified and cracked. Instead of watching banal nihilism play out on primetime, we participate in it hourly on Twitter. Instead of sexual psychodramas engulfing the White House, pornography addiction rewires our brains.
The differences seem just as much ones of order as they do of magnitude. And though the ’90s might have made us who we are, our flourishing depends on understanding how we and our world have changed since then.
Scott Beauchamp’s work has appeared in the Paris Review, Bookforum, and Public Discourse, among other places. His book Did You Kill Anyone? is forthcoming from Zero Books. He lives in Maine.