1. Liking a band was a serious social issue, worthy of tiny civil wars.
In my middle school, whether you aligned with the cults of NSYNC, 98 Degrees, Backstreet Boys or (later) O-Town and BBMak was a matter of serious importance and liking the wrong band was social suicide. I grew up in Cincinnati, so our school was zoned (probably legally) as a 98 Degrees school and dissenting could have major consequences. NSYNC was allowed because of Justin, but God forbid you like any other band. I was Team BBMak AND Team Mandy Moore — so I lived in a code of silence, afraid someone would discover my terrible secret — but one girl was out and proud for Backstreet and got harassed for her foreign, vaguely European tastes. She was known as “the BSB girl,” and people would whisper about it, as if it made her a terrorist. Fact: She actually did move to Europe later, I assume to wear Keffiyehs and organize militias with all the other BSB fans. (They’re taking our children!)
I miss the days when people cared so much about something as technically silly as boy bands that they were willing to form tiny, prepubescent gangs around them. It wasn’t that they thought that Backstreet’s music was bad, but BSB didn’t matter the way that 98 Degrees mattered. BSB just wasn’t us. This is only time in history that tribalistic tensions and semi-violent nationalism were kind of adorable.
Also, remember when you didn’t have to justify your taste in music by saying you heard about it on Pitchfork or NME and could enjoy not-great music without having to like it “ironically”? And people could go to a Hanson concert or see Kazaam without shame? That was a good time.
2. Angsty girls on the radio weren’t Taylor Swift.
This isn’t a diss against Ms. Swift necessarily (cough), but I miss the days when angry breakup songs had a little more fire and brimstone to them, when breaking up with your ex meant you went all out, balls-to-the-walls bonkers all over the nation’s airwaves, rather than just going dubstep. I miss Alanis Morissette reminding me of the mess I left when I went away and interrupting my dinners. I didn’t plan on finishing that anyway.
I miss the variety of angst options available, the veritable smorgasbord of melodic misery around me. I want Natalie Imbruglia telling me that the sky is torn, Jewel telling me that I can’t break her hands, Courtney Love being the girl with the most cake, Liz Phair stealing my lighter and losing the map, Lisa Loeb alleging that I only hear what I want to, and Meredith Brooks informing me that she’s a bitch, lover, child and mother and isn’t ashamed about it. She shouldn’t be. I’m still not sure what’s going on with 4 Non Blondes or what they were even saying, but I’ll figure it out someday.
3. Daria was like Jesus.
For disaffected girls of all ages, sizes and genders, we had a lot of role models to look up to in the 90s: Winona Ryder in Reality Bites, Judy in Doug, Claire Danes on My So-Called Life and Kim Kelly, may God watch over her always. But no one taught me more about what it was like to look into the future and shrug than Daria, who was everything I wanted to be when I got to high school. Like Patrick and Sam in The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Daria and her cohorts were a beacon of hope for the future freaks and outcasts of the bleachers, who showed you didn’t have to fit in to be cool. Besides, when you could sit with Daria and Jane, who wants to hang out with the popular kids anyway?
4. Lunchables were considered a viable meal option.
Today when I eat lunch, I have to worry about my carb count, whether this thing I’m eating has GMO or gluten in it, if I’m getting enough electrolytes in my diet and whatever other things the health food industry things I need this week. Fish is good for you. Wait, fish is bad for you. No, we need fish because it’s part of the Mediterranean diet and Mediterraneans live longer. Fish has too much mercury. Fish has Omega-3s, which are good this week, I think? Fish are friends, not food. Wait, now there’s a salmonella outbreak, and all our kids are dead, like on the Oregon Trail. WHICH ONE IS IT, SCIENCE? I wish Bill Nye and Clarissa were around to just explain it all to me.
But the 90s were a golden time when people didn’t even know what gluten was and my major food groups consisted of Spaghetti-Os, PB&J, Push Pops, Capri-Sun and Oscar Meyer’s Weiners — because you never forget your first time. All of the cool kids were the ones who packed, the exalted few who didn’t have to abide by whatever mystery meat the lunch ladies were dolling out. You pulled out your circular crackers, perfectly sliced turkey and cheese and you self-assembled it like a baller. And with your side of Oreos, you feasted like a champion. You were Gods. You didn’t need no food pyramid.
Then metabolisms happened and ruined everything.
Like Beanie Babies, Furbys were kind of annoying as actual objects, these glorified toys filled with beans and microchips that vast hordes of middle-aged women would gather around flea market tables to speculate about as if they were trading on the New York Stock Exchange. But something about the slavish devotion to the cult of Furby was also weirdly endearing, especially peoples’ insistence that they could teach their Furby to talk. My grandmother would sit around for hours like Ann Sullivan in The Miracle Worker, trying to make contact with her Furby.
For confidentiality’s sake, we’ll call him Himmler. My grandmother would read Himmler books, talk to it as if she were in an Edward Albee play, put it near the television and do anything else she could think of to get the Furby to say something human. Anything. And out of guilt or Stockholm Syndrome, we all bought into the myth that the Furby had learned people speak (“Mein Fuhrer, I can talk!”), rather than the few pre-programmed statements it was designed to say. We adopted it as a member of the family and even brought it into table dinner discussions. “Great point, Himmler!” “Oh, Himmler, you’re such a card!”
But it all ended when my grandmother became convinced that Himmler had developed a “potty mouth” and blamed all of us for being a bad influence. “He didn’t learn those words on his own!” Things were never the same again when the “c-word” came into his creepy gremlin vernacular. After that, Himmler went to join the My Buddy and Teddy Ruxpin dolls in discarded toy heaven. May they all rest in peace.
Note: Furbys are allegedly back, but I have yet to see anyone actually own one. Can you call it a comeback if no one knows about it? I thought not.
6. Neve Campbell and Sarah Michelle Gellar had careers.
Like many children who grew up in the 90s, Scream was my first horror movie. In a lot of ways, it was the movie that got me into movies, one more about our experiences with the cinema than anything else. As an artifact of 90s Tarantino culture, Scream was about the ways in which cinema interacts with culture and changes us, and nothing quite changed me more than my total obsession with all things Neve Campbell.
My love for Neve Campbell opened me up to an entire world of women in peril running slowly away from masked men who were always running slightly slower than they were, and feminist-lite badasses who kicked butt while also looking fabulous. Although Neve’s Sidney was wide-eyed and innocent in the first film, she turned into a full-blown superhero over the course of the next three movies, and Buffy’s awesomeness is a column unto itself. Buffy was an entire universe and a life model to me, and she taught me everything I needed to know about juggling boys and makeup application with my night job staking vampires. Pertinent information, guys.
But neither Neve nor SMG ever found much of a career outside of the 90s, unless you count The Grudge as being a thing. You don’t. No one counts The Grudge as a thing.
7. Trading cards with homicidal Japanese cartoons on them and playing with tiny paper discs counted as serious pastimes.
The day that pogs reached my block was a big deal, and we obsessed about them as if they were Pippi Longstocking’s gold coins. Because we hadn’t read Freud or Jane Goodall, we were particularly obsessed with “slammers” and who had the biggest one—to assert your dominance over the sport of pog and your social group. And having a giant slammer paid off, because it meant that you got to hoard everyone else’s pogs for your own, like an evil prospector or Donald Trump. This is how the 90s introduced capitalism, gambling and bankruptcy to seven-year-olds.
The great thing about pogs and my later obsessions, Pokemon and Magic the Gathering, was the simplicity of the game. Although those card games often involved getting into the universe of Pokemon and understanding the difference between a Charmander, Charmeleon and Charizard, Pokemon was simply meant to teach us about hierarchies and the social ladder, which could occasionally be overcome. Your card could be the Becky Sharp that breaks through. For total newbies, Pokemon was Mean Girls with anthropomorphic Japanese animals. Charizard was Regina George, the powerful one (who did car commercials in Japan and met John Stamos on a plane); Pikachu was Gretchen Weiners, the ingratiating one who just wanted to be liked; Jigglypuff was Karen Smith, because his breasts could always tell when it was raining; and Mewtwo was Cady Heron, the usurper. I don’t know who Slowpoke was. Maybe that girl who made out with the hot dog.
8. It was a lot harder to break plans with someone.
Remember the days when communicating with someone was difficult and you had to plan elaborate schemes to pass your note to your best friend during class? One friend and I had a ritual of passing Joycean length notes each day, ones that we would spend hours composing. We even went so far as to fill in all the margins with footnotes like we were David Foster Wallaces of the epistolary form. Besides, who needs to pay attention during American History anyway? You learned the same shit every year.
And when communication took so much effort, you really meant it. Plans with friends on the weekends were etched in stone, as if handed down on two tablets unto Mt. Sinai, and if you ever broke them, sin would rain upon your house and you’d wake up to find a horse head in your bed. Some nights, you would wait by the phone for your friend to call because SHE SAID SHE MIGHT CALL and if that phone rang for you, it didn’t matter who it was from. Having someone waiting for you on the other end was like being summoned to the mothership. You had been chosen. It was time to make contact.
9. Friends still felt like a viable way that my adult life could play out.
I feel duped by a lot the programs I looked up to for guidance — because 90s TV was just a big cauldron of lies. When you stalked a guy all the way to New York City like in Felicity, he doesn’t eventually forget about it, fall in love with you and then engage in a romantic pentagon with you. He puts a restraining order on you. And when the new kid with a trench coat follows you around school, he doesn’t pick up your books, get your Roman Polanski references and actually like Liz Phair, he turns out to be a flasher, a serial rapist or Drew Peterson. Rory Gilmore, why else do you think they even make trench coats if not for full-on freeballing? Get it together, gurl.
But nothing lied to me more than Friends, which was one giant carrot and stick filled with deceit. When you go to the airport as an adult, your long-standing crush doesn’t chase after you and try and proclaim their feelings in front of God and the studio audience, they let you go because they’re too lazy to brave Homeland Security. And when you’re intermittently employed and living in an expensive, cosmopolitan city, you don’t get to have expansive apartments with Barca-Loungers, foosball tables and ducks. You can’t even afford furniture, let alone adorable poultry. That duck would be fried up and served as dinner and that foosball table would be your couch, dining room table and your bed. If you live in New York or Paris, you might not have room for anything else in your apartment.
10. Kel Mitchell was still a thing.
I’ll never forget the answer to who loves orange soda. Never forget.