Guys, we need to talk about the 90s.
I mean, of course we all want to constantly be reminded of all the great stuff we had in the 90s! What right-thinking person doesn’t like to casually reminisce about “Daria” or baby-doll dresses or Ecto-Cooler as a way to deal with the subtle but persistent horror of our present-day adult lives? But it’s easy to harvest a decade for only its most flattering and fun parts. It’s harder to make sense of the less appealing bits. What about troll dolls, or those chokers that were supposed to look like tribal tattoos, or Blues Traveler, or enormous shiny pants with tons of cords dangling off them everywhere? What do they have to teach us? How will we ever fully understand the 90s, absorb its most important lessons, and move onward into the glorious future, if we don’t fully engage with all elements of this confusing era?
It takes a special person to take the Real True Ultimate ‘90s Retro Nostalgia Challenge–to embrace the decade for its Big Johnson t-shirts and-centered-parted “butt” hair as much as its grunge music and leather Lenny Kravitz pants–and come out the wiser and stronger for it. Are you that somebody? Let’s find out.
A lot of 90s environmental activism was notably naïve–instead of pointing our fingers at the companies that were polluting the shit out of everything or the government that let it happen, we were reading books like 50 Simple Things Kids Can Do to Save the Earth, which implied that we could end all environmental devastation if we would just stop taking such long fucking showers.
Nothing epitomizes this trend better than manatees. These precious, enormous corgis of the sea were the perfect poster babes for 90s environmentalism, which was all about saving nature because it is adorable (FERNGULLY!!), and not because we need it in order to, you know, not die. We all spent a ton of time raising money for the manatees, talking about the manatees, and thinking about manatees, which convinced us that we had actually saved the manatees. This also fit in perfectly with the era’s trends towards deluding yourself about how much power you had in the world, and how much of an impact you could make with your low-flow toilet. And then we all got distracted by, I don’t know, O.J. probably, and forgot all about the manatees. But they’re probably doing fine now, right?
Retro Challenge: Express concern about manatees and their overall well-being to another person for a minimum of 90 consecutive seconds. Do not allow the conversation to be shifted to any topic besides the majestic sea cow.
Bonus Round: Wear an ill-fitting crew neck t-shirt with a manatee drawn on it, ideally one purchased from a store that promises to “donate a portion of our profits to environmental charities.”
If you’ve spent even 20 minutes this year trying to figure out why Harmony Korine is a thing, please turn your attention to this 1995 Korine-penned film. Kids was a media sensation when it was first released, and truly set the standard for bullshit “arty” movies that are applauded for their visionary pairing of after school special-level moral messages and hot chicks in butt-shorts doing drugs (cough cough Spring Breakers, cough).
Kids has largely been forgotten (you can’t even get it on Netflix), which is funny, because it is probably the most quintessentially ‘90s piece of cinema I can think of—and not just because it gave the world Our Lady of the 90s, Chloe Sevigny. Kids is accidentally a perfect historical document of the frequent hollowness of smart-seeming ‘90s alt-culture—the style swapped out for substance, the Che Guevara baby tee slapped in place of actual original thinking, and the boring end result marketed as edgy, dangerous, and challenging. Oh, and don’t forget the irrational and dehumanizing HIV panics! Ugh.
Retro Challenge: Watch Kids all the way through. Seriously, can you believe this shit? It’s like it was written and directed by somebody whose complete knowledge of the world came from reading the lyric booklet for “Licensed to Ill.”
Bonus Round: Watch Sofia Coppola’s profoundly unwatchable 1994 Comedy Central series Hi Octane. I feel guilty for even bringing Sofia into this, because she grew up into a very talented artist, but seriously, this show is probably the best example you’ll ever find of lazy, slap-dash, meaning-free 90s cultural production.
Those of us who came of age in the 90s were probably the last generation to waste vast chunks of our youth watching TV shows that we didn’t even like, just because there was literally nothing else to do. When you were sick of all the books and CDs and VHS tapes and family members that you already had, all you could do was watch whatever was on TV, for as long as it took for them to put something better on TV. Sometimes it took hours! Sometimes you watched the Meatloaf “I Would Do Anything for Love” video every single day after school, even though you hated it, because it was better than your other options, like acknowledging the reality of your troubled home life, or watching a Cheers re-run.
Though there is no way to truly recreate this particular wind-blown mental landscape of boredom and claustrophobia and isolation and Alf, you can try to approximate it, by forcing yourself to watch an awful old Nickelodeon show like Fifteen. This prissy, G-rated soap opera, which co-starred a pre-teen Ryan Reynolds, was significantly worse than MTV’s Undressed, and has not made it onto the Nickelodeon nostalgia bandwagon. Fifteen is, to me, a classic example of the terrible writing, stilted acting, and complete lack of self-awareness that were only possible back when people could only watch 12 different things in any given moment, and most of them were local news broadcasts or Family Feud re-runs.
Retro Challenge: Watch a whole episode of Fifteen (almost all of them are up on YouTube) and try to focus enough on it to give a clear and concise summary of the episode to a third party.
Bonus Round: In order to really, truly capture the experience of watching literally whatever was on TV–just to, say, keep your awkward, negligent mom from trying to have the ‘sex talk’ with you–watch The Munsters Today or Homeboys in Outer Space.
Why aliens? Was it Y2K? Was it that we had too much economic prosperity, and needed something to fixate on in order to explain the fact that despite our financial security, we were all still as full of dark, terrible feelings as ever before? Was it so we would have an opening line in case we ever got the chance to talk to David Duchovny at a party?
I have no clue, and I say that as someone who actually attended the Roswell UFO Festival in the late 90s (there was an alien-themed parade in front of the Wendy’s, and then we went to a museum downtown where rubber alien dolls lay half-crumpled on tables and chairs, all of them looking very terribly hungover). The alien thing started with the The X-Files, of course, but by the decade’s end, they were everywhere from the ending of Can’t Hardly Wait to these weird stickers, and I never quite figured out what exactly we all wanted from these spindly gray dudes.
Then—just like “hacking into the mainframe,” or putting your bangs into a bunch of teeny-tiny braids–this trend also just wandered off into the night, never to be heard from again. Though maybe we’ve filled this void with all those reality shows about trying to videotape ghosts?
Retro Challenge: Watch at least 3 complete alien-focused episodes of The X-Files, even though they are super-boring and make no sense and you would rather watch the vampire episode with Luke Wilson.
Bonus Round: Put on some of these bad boys while you watch. Also, look to the cosmos for world peace, or perfect wisdom, or a larger allowance, or whatever the hell we were looking for back then.