The first essay I ever wrote that was intended for a public audience was around 1983, when I was an undergraduate, and it was an analysis of 1970s nostalgia for 'the Fifties' (obviously that began with American Graffiti, set in 1961, but a major premise of that movie was that 'the Fifties' wouldn't end for a few more years). I doubt that essay was very good. But ever since then I've been reasonably alert for the cultural markers of that rolling wave of nostalgia--for the 60s, the 70s (! for anyone who actually lived through them), the 80s (comparatively brief and feeble, for reasons that could bear more study); and now certainly for the 90s.

I agree with most of what you've said here, notably two main points. First, that decadal periods are defined by significant cultural-historical moments which rarely line up with the calendar years (though 1980 featured a whole series of epoch-changing events, and I would also argue that the disputed 2000 election was a very significant and epoch-changing trauma that we'd likely remember as such had it not been shortly overshadowed by 9/11). Second, it is indeed very difficult for us (or anyone) to disentangle their own generational perspective from what might be a more objective periodization--say, something that cultural historians might agree on in a hundred years, assuming there are any around.

But I don't think the latter task is impossible, even while we're still living our lives. I'm a 20th-century Americanist, by research specialty, so maybe I have to believe this. But I actually think one reason that 'the 90s' doesn't seem really discontinuous from the present, for you, is that epoch-changing events were actually comparatively fewer, and lower intensity, in that decade, than in pretty much any other we've lived through, at least from the perspective of white middle-class Americans. The overwhelming majority of Americans believed that 'the Sixties' were a convulsive, revolutionary time, for better or for worse. They believed that during the 60s, and ever since. Dynamics from the 60s AND reactions against these built through the 70s, and very clearly came to a head by the early 80s. I don't think any sentient American in 1984, of any generation beyond (maybe) the very oldest, thought they were living in essentially the same world as 1964.

But the 90s...eh. Obviously the internet, in retrospect, but almost nobody experienced that as a sudden trauma (or revolution) -- that was a classic frog-boiling-in-the-pan thing. The essence of the Clinton presidency was a kind of centrist normalcy, and as you say, the 'scandals' and sensations of the day--Tanya Harding, Bobbit, even Monica--were pretty weak sauce. Clinton's whole second term was a triumph of Nothing Happening. I mean I guess Kurt Cobain became The Voice of His Generation and then blew his brains out, but seriously. I have no idea what historians will write about the 90s.

All that said, I love this essay and I would also love to see what other people wrote in response to this prompt.

Expand full comment

Great point about the 90s being relatively "event-free" -- I do think that's a big part of the current nostalgia for the 80s-90s; it seems like halcyon days by comparison to the 21st century. At any rate, thanks very much for the kind words!

Expand full comment