The period of my adolescence through my high school graduation tidily spanned the decade known as ‘the 1990s’, and being a ‘90s teen was pretty chill. The 80s embraced post-war decadence, totally ‘partying out’ via drugs, excess, things made of neon and rampant, obsessive consumerism, as if its citizens were trying to claw its way out of the horrors of the 60s and 70s, pretend they’d never happened, try to keep them from happening again.
The 90s are a little bit special, then. They might have been the only 20th-century generation to have the luxury of quiet identity crisis in the cultural fallow that followed social compensation for trauma. Prior generations had a 1980s-like period of virulent, driven self-indulgence that followed eras of great stress such as the Great Depression and the second world war – but the next disruption in the American fabric would always arrive before anyone had enough time to reflect.
Our music was terrible, our fashion was terrible, our movies were corny as fuck and no meaningful growth took place. Except the internet’s rapid adolescence. We had the privilege of enjoying our adolescence alongside it – privilege, because it seemed to reach maturation all of a sudden, like a clear sharp crack dividing 1999 from 2000, stranding those in their late twenties and early thirties on the far side of an impassable chasm between themselves and those in their late teens and early twenties.
[As an aside, those in their mid-twenties largely fell into that chasm, which is why so many 25 year-olds grope to find their career path, to reconcile what their four years in school have been for, and why mainstream publications write articles about ‘what is wrong with twenty-somethings.’]
Anyway, 1990s teenagers had no leisure to appreciate the luxury they were given; they were preoccupied with inflating minor existential crises, fixating on dark, romantic love-suicide imagery, and glamorizing drugs and mental illness. In short, we spent all our time being very emotional. After all, we had little else to do. Whereas our parents accepted the common ‘go to school and get a job’ maxim unquestioningly, we had the space to nurture the vague flicker of an idea that we might want some kind of creative employment, some ‘alternative’ to the manic march of the 1980s. Our mothers madly climbed gym equipment to nowhere; we decided we maybe just didn’t have the energy for goals we didn’t personally elect.
I mean, maybe. We weren’t sure. We didn’t really have much to go on. We were quite enamored of the idea that we were different than everyone who came before us and spent a lot of time wondering ‘who we were’ and lamenting that our parents didn’t ‘get’ us as if no one had ever done that before. Because while we knew we wanted to reject the status quo, we hadn’t really decided on what our generation’s ideas of ‘rebellion’ looked like. Even ‘rock n’ roll’, the old standard, felt kind of dated. We wanted ‘stuff of our own’, but we couldn’t choose. We wanted to Do Something Important, but we didn’t really know what. So chose lassitude. We chose nothing. The only thing we were really interested in was ourselves.
And so our counterculture was created and marketed to us carefully. MTV, the suburban mall, Hollywood and record labels saw us, interested in little but ourselves, our existential crises, our stringy-haired torment and black nail-biting, our sloppy flannel. So they sold us grunge music. They made ‘My So Called Life’ and ‘Reality Bites’ for us; they sold us ‘The Crow’ merchandise. They sold us an idea of ourselves as mallrats, as phone prankers, skateboarders, slackers, and it was agreeable to us. According to the older media, young adults in the 1990s were ‘slackers’, a word that at the time carried the same sort of complex and partially-misinformed shank as the word ‘hipster’ does today.
We weren’t actually as apathetic as we fronted. We cared a lot. We were really emotional. We knew that even our ‘counterculture’ was consumerist. It was distasteful even as we consumed it. We loved bands who boycotted awards shows thrown by the sparkly Big Corporates who had made them famous. Our milling about malls while buying nothing was a good representation of the way we were inert in a strange zone between embracing and rejecting capitalism. Nirvana sold millions of records containing songs about hating being famous. The dichotomy probably is what killed Kurt Cobain; the defining event for ‘millennials’ is probably 9-11. The defining event of my youth was nothing but the suicide of a rockstar, and it still feels like blasphemy to type ‘nothing’.
We wanted to suffer in that same zone of indecision, of ambivalence. The 1990s glamorized ‘heroin chic’ and anorexia; the ‘80s fantasy of madness was some kind of glam bacchanal; ours was dark and dramatic, and perfectly prescribed for us. Heroin and anorexia are both diseases that happen when a person says ‘the reality I am being given isn’t good enough, and so I will implode.’ That’s how we felt; we listened to songs called ‘Low’;’Sober’; ‘Loser’, ‘Clumsy’, ‘Far Behind’, by bands with names referencing addiction, chains, garbage and rage. The name of Nirvana almost seems like prescient irony by contrast.
It sounds horrible. But we were lucky; with no sense of relationship to where we came from or what lay ahead of us, we lived entirely in the now. Even the manufactured moments sold to us by television shows – the troubled girl has a drug overdose, the gay boy finds acceptance among the freaks, the aloof rockstar pauses to give you the time of day – we sought to capture them in our own lives, we played the movie soundtracks of the era, we understood ourselves as very much ‘of the moment’ creatures. The life of a 1990s teen was not about anything especially big, but of heartbreaking constellations of little things, explosions of stars for which we reached as if they’d help us find ourselves. You can laugh at us or feel sorry for us.
In the 1990s I remember that I wanted to ‘be 70s.’ I had a friend named Kaye who wore plaid pants and wallet chains and dyed her hair black and took T-shirts from the free box for homeless people. We would ask her Dad to drive us to the strip mall and we would ride bikes around the inside of the big box discount retailer, talking into toy voice recorders that were popularly sold at the time. We were like 15. I wore a dog chain as a necklace. We made duct tape wallets.
For some reason we thought Prince was hilarious. We didn’t understand that Prince is like a major dude with talent that some music people think is unparalleled. All we knew was Prince’s purple clothing and his sharp-ass collars. We wanted velvet pants suits. We bought ‘Pure Funk’ compilation CDs. Then we got into disco. Our big fantasy was to go to a massive vintage outlet closer to the city and buy all polyester. One day I wore a 70s polyester dress to high school and couldn’t endure the reaction of mainstreamers long enough to make it through the day without changing.
I asked my mom how to be ‘70s. She didn’t really remember, she knew more about being late 60s, since that was when she was in high school I think. I wish someone had been able to tell Kaye and I how to be 70s. Because it was important, what we were doing. We were mining the cultural artifacts that had helped create the environment in which we were coming of age.
It has been 20 years since 1990 (when I totally wasn’t in high school yet, but a few years later when I was, I consumed media about people who had been). People who are teenagers today, if they are smart, are becoming interested in the 90s. When I wore a polyester dress to school I wasn’t trying to be ironic. Teenagers who are wearing flannel and side ponytails today are not being ironic. They are trying on the uniform of their cultural predecessors. It’s an important thing to do. They want to know how we dealt with our times and they also want to know about the advantages they now have that we do not.
So, this is how to be 1990s: Yeah, you wear flannel. You wear black Converse, and fortunately modern alts can get away with doing this anyway. Same with black nail polish, but if you are trying to be 1990s, wear black nail polish even if you are male. Wear a wallet chain. Actually, don’t. You’re trying to be 90s, not ugly.
Don’t move out of your parents’ house; don’t worry about moving out of your parents’ house. Don’t talk to them much; they don’t understand you. Figure you will probably go to college but be plagued by the nagging sensation that it won’t be your choice. Listen to the radio; try to find a station run by some 28-35 year old trapped in the ‘90s hipster who will play grunge music. Wait, that probably doesn’t exist, because that would be a terribly embarrassing thing for them to do. Can you do me a favor and be currently a teenager and start a grunge music internet radio show because you can get away with it by being gleeful and ‘ironic’ about it? Thanks.
Oh, yeah. Ride a skateboard, but not in an ‘xtreme sports bro’ way (can you take the skateboarding thing back from the xtreme sports bros for me, please? Thanks). Ride it listlessly in the back parking lot of a suburban someplace. Do this for hours with your friends; go get pizza, and then one of you should go into the strip mall’s small town barber shop and get your hair cut just because. Everyone should think this is very funny.
Don’t cut your hair too much, though. Just kind of let it do what it wants unless you’re going to shave it underneath, because that will make it better. Put it in your eyes so you never have to make contact with anyone, especially someone of the opposite sex. Chew your hair.
Buy music magazines at the drugstore and cut out the pictures of your favorite musicians. Do this even if the pictures are unremarkable or small. Put them on your walls; put them on your walls until there is no more wall to be seen. Put the pictures of the attractive people closer to the head of your bed so you can look at them before you go to sleep.
Forget about vinyl. Forget about MP3s. Tape-record music from the radio. Buy CDs at the mall. You will go to the mall every day. This is your religion. You should steal some jewelry from ‘Claire’s’ or a place like it. You should do this even if you’re a boy, because then people will think you’re funny for wearing a heart charm, or smooth if you give it to a girl later. Don’t say anything, just kind of drop it in her hand or in her lap, wrapped in a piece of notebook paper haphazardly. She will never, never forget the moment in which you did that, because your lives are made of strings of moments.
Go to the roof of the mall. Try to smoke cigarettes. Try to smoke weed. Panic that you will be smelled. Always panic that you will be smelled. Carry drugstore perfume. Chew gum, crunch mints. If you are a girl every boy you ever kiss will smell and taste like smoke and mints. You will remember each one. You will remember your first everything.
Listen to songs on repeat until you cry and you’re not sure why. Feel very disturbed and be unsure why. Mouth off; talk back. They don’t understand you, no one understands you. No one ever will. Think about suicide while being quite sure you’re not actually suicidal. Kind of wish you were. Read about depression and practice its mannerisms. Have sudden fits, slam things, be defiant while all the while a little voice inside you knows you’re just being dramatic. Apologize later, preferably while running through the rain to the offended person’s house. Hug in the street.
Hear music playing in your head. Throughout your time as a 1990s teenager there will always be music playing in your head, as if your life had a screen-ready radio-friendly soundtrack just like you. When you grow up you’ll hear ‘Bittersweet Symphony’ and no matter how cliché you know it is – everyone had the same soundtrack, stupid – the hair on your arms will still stand up. Every time.