This series looks back at the 1990s and its influence on the generation of people who came of age during the decade.
"The kids of today should defend themselves against the '70s."
Fewer lyrics better encapsulate growing up in the '90s than those in Mike Watt's "Against the '70s" (shrewdly sung by Eddie Vedder). We teens and young adults of the decade were often subconsciously measuring ourselves against the mustard-yellow, shag-carpeted "Me Decade." We expended an awful lot of energy raging against and fetishizing the 1970s.
The '70s provided several underpinnings of the '90s, including of course the notion of authenticity. In the '90s it was enormously important that we be, above all else, authentic. As authentic as Bowie or Springsteen or Scorsese were in their '70s work that we idolized. We were utterly obsessive about not selling out, about keeping it real. Maybe it's because so many Gen Xers were born in the '70s that we looked to that decade to make sense of our own.
What we and our Gen X heroes of the '90s found in the '70s were like-minded spirits whose art imparted on us that, yes, we could make something out of this mess we called life. We collected influences from the decade that birthed us—Hunter Thompson, Debbie Harry, Jim Carroll, Marvin Gaye—because they brought us back to our roots. When you're born into such a politically and culturally tumultuous, yet also creatively fruitful decade—the gas shortage, the hostage crisis, Watergate, Andy Kaufman, punk rock, Vietnam, Death Wish, the birth of hip hop, Summer of Sam—you can't help but be branded by it all. We '90s kids were our influences.
While we reveled in '70s nostalgia, we also challenged it in order to cut our own paths. When we heard Vedder sing, "It's not reality, just someone else's sentimentality, it won't work for you" in "Against the '70s," we nodded in agreement: the Boomer ethos sure as hell wasn't going to work for us, not by a mile. We were looking for more, or less, or maybe something in between. We'd know it when we found it, just check back with us later.
Today when we see the video for Smashing Pumpkins' "1979" we're nostalgic for both our '70s zipper blues and our '90s loser spirit because the two share a lot in common. Along with other '90s work like Dazed and Confused and The Ice Storm (both the book and film), "1979" uncannily captures a certain type of growing up that many (but certainly nowhere near all) of us experienced from the '70s through the '90s. Restless, in the land of a thousand guilts in post-'60s America, we meandered aimlessly through suburbs and cities, "forgotten and absorbed into the earth below."
We were born of the wood-paneled basements and burgeoning mall culture of the 1970s. Those years were just another part of our DNA. In the '90s we became more aware of our past and we held those memories closer—some recalled from our own experiences and others we couldn't possibly remember but had absorbed through popular culture. The '70s' influence on the '90s showed us a way through adolescence and young adulthood. It also gave us something to push back against. We positioned ourselves both with and against the '70s in order to discover who we were and what we might become.