Nineties nostalgia once over lightly


I did not have sexual relations with that woman. I didn’t inhale. Now, where did I put my cigar

The forgetful spirit of Bill Clinton hangs heavy over the 1990s, a decade celebrated this week in a six-hour “television event” called, naturally, The 90s, broadcast across four nights on the National Geographic Channel.

The 90s. I was there. So, I imagine, were you. How much of it do you remember Like Clinton, my own memory had faded on many key points, but I was sent through advance copies of these doco shows, and memories both delightful and gruesome came flooding right back.

Pulp Fiction. Baywatch. The LAPD beating of Rodney King. Grunge, rave and gangsta rap. The O J Simpson trial. Ellen DeGeneres coming out on live TV. Assorted outbreaks of “ethnic cleansing”. The disintegration of the Soviet Union. Pablo Escobar. Mike Tyson. The Spice Girls. The rise of new digital communication technology. Di’s death in a road tunnel in Paris.

Those mad months at the tailend of the decade where pre-millenial anxiety ran rampant, with many believing the Y2K bug might destroy civilisation as we know it, causing every computer network to crash on the stroke of midnight on January 1, 2000.

All these things are recapped across four loosely-themed nights this week at 7.30pm, with each show narrated by 80s brat-packer, Rob Lowe. On Wednesday, Great Expectations sets the scene with Nelson Mandela’s release, Clinton’s inauguration, a rash of 90s music both brilliant and ridiculous, and the rise of the Interwebs.

On Thursday, Friends And Enemies examines the changing media landscape, with era-defining sitcoms, the rise of reality TV, and the transformation of real-world dramas such as the O J Simpson case, the LA riots and the first Gulf War into lurid home entertainment for popcorn-chompers slumped on their living-room La-Z-Boys.

Friday night’s Politically Incorrect examines 90s scandals involving bombs, bugs and rather a lot of clandestine rooting. And next Sunday, a show snappily entitled Tragedies rounds out the series with a cheerful rollcall of natural disasters, terrorism, murder and fashion crimes.

Oh, the humanity! Six hours of rapid-fire film clips, and interviews with 120 key players from the decade. It will be more 90s nostalgia than some delicate souls can stand. Fortunately, I can confirm that the series is both deeply evocative and accidentally hilarious.

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Although claiming to be “the defining documentary of its generation”, what we really have here is a giant steaming bowl of pop-culture soup; as one American reviewer noted, this is a show that “purees the 90s and then pours Rob Lowe on top”. Each night is a riot of ADHD editing, facile interpretation and cheesy sentiment, with cultural footnotes such as Vanilla Ice afforded the same gravity as the genocide of 800,000 people in Rwanda.

Dozens of talking heads convene to consider the period between 1990 and 1999, though most of them say things that could be said of any decade: people wanted change; there was injustice, political turmoil and spiritual confusion; technology was developing rapidly; new musical forms were on the ascendant.

We are shown old footage of Kurt Cobain, blessedly undiminished by shotgun blast, informing us that “money can’t buy happiness”. Former US Secretary Of State Colin Powell is called up, not to discuss his role during Operation Desert Storm, but to share his views on short-lived 90s dance craze, the Macarena.

Reasoned analysis is thin on the ground; historical contextualisation, cursory at best. Clearly, both clips and interviewees were primarily selected for their ability to hit your nostalgia button with a sledgehammer. None of which makes the series any less fascinating.

Ghouls and heroes, lovers and haters, blockbuster sitcoms. Like rain-dodging animals ascending Noah’s gangplank, many 90s touchstones re-emerge from your memory banks two-by-two. Kurt and Courtney. Mulder and Scully. Friends and Seinfeld. Clinton and Lewinsky. Timothy McVeigh and Osama bin Laden. Here at home, we had Jason Gunn and Thingee. It was a decade of telling dualities, of strange yins and mad yangs, or so Rob Lowe would have us believe.

N’Synch v Backstreet Boys. Christina vBritney. Biggie v Tupac. Jerry Springer v Oprah. Grunge vBritpop. It was a decade of manufactured feuds, and real ones, too, as bodies piled high in Rwanda, Somalia, Iraq, the Balkans, Oklahoma and Columbine High School.

Back here at home, we witnessed a cultural flowering of sorts, with The Piano, Once Were Warriors, Heavenly Creatures, How Bizarre. Shortland Street was also launched and curses us still.

To be honest, I was oblivious to much of it, except as background noise to a life that was at that time turbulent and hedonistic. Throughout that decade, I struggled to settle on a stable career, working as a landscape gardener, a life-drawing model, a community worker, a writer, a dance party promoter, a DJ.

I was fatter, louder, more careless and, as befitted those “fashion backward” times, extremely poorly dressed. I took more risks and told more lies, and I most certainly did not have sexual relations with that woman. But like Clinton, I came out the other side of the 90s chastened but intact.

Incidentally, Clinton was impeached by Congress in 1998 over the Monica Lewinsky affair. His response, after a laughable aquittal, was the sort of ungrammatical shrug you might expect from an archetypal 90s’ slacker: “I may not have been the greatest president but I’ve had the most fun eight years.”

A few years later, as we all slid quietly into the next millennium without Y2K-induced Armageddon, a nationwide survey of American journalists ranked the Lewinsky sex scandal as the 53rd most significant story of the preceding century. Clinton was unimpressed. His response “What’s a man gotta do to get in the top 50”.

– Sunday Star Times