The Earnest 90s

A cultural decade after my own schmoopy heart

First and foremost, I need to apologize for the unexpected hiatus. My plan was to write even more often in July, but instead, after turning in my line-edited book, my brain oozed out my ears, and I sent exactly zero newsletters. But now I’ve returned, and we will proceed without further delays. Thank you for bearing with me: writing a book and all the attendant anxieties, not to mention the project’s inextricability from the loss of my mother, has been an emotionally complex—albeit deeply rewarding—process.

For several months now, I’ve been thinking about the way we characterize the 90s in terms of its cultural and emotive legacies. I’m especially mulling over this now because I’m working on a piece about 90s erotic thrillers. Films like Basic Instinct and The Last Seduction—in which a woman with no interest in genuine, emotional ties exploits a bumbling man for money, sex, or both—seem to support a prevailing theory that this was a decade marked by cynicism. Certainly, there were plenty of reasons to be disillusioned: Reagan’s “trickle down” economics, Desert Storm, and the AIDS crisis, which was all but ignored by the aforementioned president and ravaged communities across the country. And we can point to all sorts of artifacts that seem to exemplify atmospheric cynicism. There’s the slew of erotic thrillers which seem to articulate a widespread moral vacancy. There’s the grunge movement. There’s “Daria” and “My So-Called Life” (goddess bless Daria and Angela Chase).

And there’s the film “Reality Bites,” which is often treated as 90s representation par excellence because the four characters at the core of it, particularly Winona Ryder’s Lelaina Pierce and Ethan Hawke’s Troy Dyer, are altogether uninspired by the workaday world beckoning to them, regarding their options as uninspired and precarious, thanks to an economy shattered by the previous generation. Troy opts out altogether. Instead, he justifies his slacker tendencies by mansplaining continental philosophy to everyone within earshot (Troy is terrible). Lelaina fears that she can’t trust capitalist America with her art (and probably, she can’t—no ethical consumption, etc, etc).

But cynicism is never what comes to mind when I think of the 90s—on the contrary, earnestness is. Some time ago, I referenced to Paul the “trademark earnestness of the 90s,” and he returned that, in fact, it was a little odd to characterize the decade this way when it’s typically described in such opposite terms. He’s right, too. I’ve been drawing conclusions based on my engagement with 90s popular culture and assuming they are widely shared. Because I was young in the 90s, I was less attuned to the larger milieu than to the scraps available to me, and while I’ve since encountered plenty of commentary that draws on this perception of a cynical 90s, I’ve nodded along without entirely feeling the truth of it. Yes, the 90s in many ways ushered in a specific variety of cynicism. But I would argue that 90s earnestness was far more present, far more structural in terms of its influence on popular culture, then we acknowledge.

And truly, would a sap like me love the 90s as much as I do if the decade didn’t supply so much heart-on-sleeve material?

Of course, there’s no either/or here; there never is. Earnestness begets cynicism in its way: we expect the world to be better than it is, and then when we’re disappointed, we retreat as a means of self-preservation. But that retreat—that malaise in the face of broken, crooked institutions—signifies a desire for something better suppressed by the fear of a broken heart. In the 90s, my friends and I thought Bush was relatively hardcore, though their most famous song, arguably, is literally entitled “Glycerine”—that is, sweetness at its most fundamental.

The music video makes some attempt at being artsy and weird, but it more or less amounts to compilation of footage in which Gavin Rossdale turns his melancholy puppy dog eyes towards, and then away from the camera, as he strums out—with profoundest drama—his romantic yearning on the guitar. “I needed you more / You wanted us less / I could not kiss, just regress” — this is the stuff of a heartsick, wannabe bad boy brimful of feelings, and to this day, I love it. You might say it “has a beautiful taste.”

This is the same era that gave us the women of Lilith Fair, musicians who understood irony—they were, after all, staring back at an entrenched, messy history of men convinced they knew better—and who were largely take-no-shit, but earnestness is not the enemy of resistance. The Indigo Girls’ cover of Dire Straits’ “Romeo and Juliet” is probably one of the sexiest pieces of music in existence. Sarah McLachlan all but convinced us that a subterranean temple was the ideal place to lose one’s virginity, such was profundity of the experience (of course, the Pure Moods compilation had a hand in that—you’ve listened to Enigma’s “Sadeness,” right?). Tori Amos and Ani DiFranco were idiosyncratic, but the feelings were always big—sweeping—fully transporting. K-Ci and JoJo wrote the soundtrack to our most consequential slow dances. In 1996, Baz Luhrmann gave us a gritty adaptation of “Romeo and Juliet,” but what could be more earnest than two stupid teenagers willing to die for one another? And while Garbage’s repertoire errs on the side of bored disaffection, “#1 Crush”—featured on the movie’s soundtrack—renders perfectly the wallop of attraction.

Even “Reality Bites” is deluded when it comes to its own pessimism. In spite of everything, Lelaina and awful Troy can’t relinquish the hope that love will provide some kind of salvation, and we’re meant to believe it does. And, for that matter, consider the song Lisa Loeb recorded for the film:

Oh, my fellow spectacled queen.

Likely enough it seems as if I’m splashing around in a bunch of lightly-considered evidence, but I don’t want to tarry much further because, well, I believe in this idea, and I’d like to see what possibilities there may be for it. But I created this newsletter on the deeply personal understanding that the 90s are a cultural vessel for Big Feelings, and I think that’s all the more evident when they unite with Victoriana where earnestness is tenderly embraced (we’ve already talked about Alfonso Cuarón’s “Great Expectations” and Jane Campion’s “The Piano”)—until, that is, Oscar Wilde came along and aptly and appropriately eviscerated everybody.

These days, when public displays of earnestness seem to demand a warning (i.e. “earnest tweet”), I cling to it like a dummy. Or rather, I cling to it like somebody who cannot be another way, only like this: bald-faced and daydreamy and saturated with every feeling. Sometimes I wonder if it’s naive, wrecked as our world is. But if we are wandering in a wasteland, an earnest hope that we’ll meander towards something better is really all we’ve got.