Happy Warrior

The ’90s in Reverse

The Backstreet Boys arrive in Buenos Aires, September 17, 1998. (Rickey Rogers/Reuters)

‘History was over and it felt great.” That’s Douglas Coupland, author of the bestselling novel Generation X, praising the decade in which I came of age. That great-feeling decade, of course, would be the 1990s.

In a 2017 essay for the History Channel, Coupland recalled a gut feeling he developed while sitting in the heart of the brand-spanking-new Mall of America — at the time, the largest mall on the planet — as it opened with great fanfare in 1992. Was he cynical, a local radio host inquired, about that gigantic, quasi-midwestern eruption of giddy American consumerism?

Heck, no. “I actually think that future generations are going to look at images of today here in Minnesota and see them as a sort of golden age of American culture,” Coupland said. “The peace. The calm. The abundance. The bottomless goodwill of everyone here. I’m unsure if it’s going to last much longer and I think we should appreciate it while it’s here.”

Decades later, Coupland had this to say about his prediction: “I WAS RIGHT.” Perhaps he was. Let’s face it, folks: In America, the 1990s were kind of glorious — and while that grunge-tinged decade may have gone largely unappreciated during its day, it’s nearing white-hot status right about now.

You know the drill: Collective cultural yearnings for a certain slice of yesteryear tend to run, at least we are told, in 20- or 30-year cycles. When I was a kid in the 1980s, the ’50s were all the rage, so let’s go with the 30-year rule. Batten down the hatches, math geniuses, for you know what that means: We’re on the verge of a veritable and potentially insufferable ’90s-nostalgia extravaganza.

Kurt Anderson, another novelist, shares Coupland’s soft spot for that storied ten years between the launch of the Hubble telescope and the minor bout of ennui surrounding the supposed perils of Y2K. “It was simply the happiest decade of our American lifetimes,” Anderson declared in a 2015 New York Times essay titled “The Best Decade Ever? The 1990s, Obviously.” Yes! Obviously!

As a person who still occasionally gets carded — and who still gets fairly excited when that happens — I am loath to dissolve any age-related mystique I may have drummed up over the years as an opinion columnist. On the other hand, what the heck: Both my high-school years and my college years were firmly sandwiched within the 1990s, so you can do the math. In fact, I could go ahead and have a rip-roaring midlife crisis right at this very moment, and it would actually count! In short, with apologies to Hank Williams Jr., all my rowdy friends have not settled down. All my rowdy friends are getting Botox.

“Wait, wait,” some of you might be shouting right now, scrunching your non-Botoxed foreheads, shaking your fists in the air. “Wait and stop, ridiculous members of the tail end of Generation X! Stop before you begin to resemble that infamous plastic-surgery-addicted New York rich lady who now looks almost exactly like a human cat!” All right, all right, don’t worry: I’m just kidding about the Botox. Sort of. Not really. Also, this is all rather beside the point, as you might have already guessed.

I actually have an important argument to make, and it has nothing to do with wrinkle relaxers or cat ladies or the roller coaster in the Mall of America that I may or may not have ridden three times in a row in the not-so-distant past. My point has to do with the single most important lesson of the 1990s, one that often gets lost in the nostalgia for boy bands and the good, clean, family-friendly presidency of William Jefferson Clinton.

This central ’90s lesson is wildly uncomfortable for some, but regardless, here it is: No one — no one! — really has any idea what is going to happen in the near future, even if he pretends to.

Let’s head back to Douglas Coupland. “The 1990s were a darned good decade,” he wrote. “And everybody’s now coming to realize this, but people also need to know that when the 1990s began, it felt like anything but a decade with a unique tone and texture and attitude. It felt like nothing. It felt blank. In 1992, Francis Fukuyama declared the end of history and everyone believed it.” Moreover, “we were collectively entering what felt like a blank sheet of white paper.”

That blank sheet of white paper could, it often seemed, very well unspool forever, transforming the relative peace and prosperity of the ’90s into a sort of new normal — a normal that would flow right into the future, placid and unhindered, with no detours in sight.

Well, we all saw how that worked out.

And yet what if, oddly enough, the current era is just like the ’90s, but inverted? Where there was complacency, after all, there now is frequent dread; where there was a soothing illusion of extended “normalcy,” we now see countless dramatic predictions of doom. Here, for instance, is an actual headline that I read the other day: “South Korean University Is Secretly Developing Killer AI Robot Army That Could Destroy Humanity, Scientists Fear.” I mean, sheesh, man. There’s not much anybody can do about that.

But if history truly does repeat itself, perhaps we can be encouraged by our decade’s endless cascade of angst. After all, in the 1990s, people brushed away dozens of problems, simply pretending they didn’t exist, and look what happened next! What if — and I know this sounds crazy — we’re so fixated on disaster, we’re about to be shocked with a bout of normalcy?

Laugh if you will, but stranger things have happened. Whatever you do, though, don’t ask me for my own personal prediction. Having fully experienced the ’90s, I certainly know better than to take that bait.

Heather Wilhelm is a columnist for National Review. Her work has also appeared in the Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, RealClearPolitics, the Washington Examiner, Commentary magazine, the Dallas Morning News, the Miami Herald, and the Kansas City Star


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