The last weird decade
We have lost the oddness of the 1990s
Wait long enough and any decade starts to look like a golden age. For most of the past 20 years, that decade was the 1980s. All those classic pop songs, all that shameless excess, all those Spielberg films, all that endlessly recyclable IP. But the zeitgeist tires of everything, even nostalgia. In recent years, we’ve moved on to a longing for the 1990s, largely driven by people too young to remember it. The impact of this new nostalgia can be felt in Radio 4’s 90s season running across the first two months of May.
Nostalgia is usually driven by a sense that something is missing. Often, it’s the lost innocence of childhood, all that lost potential which adulthood stubbornly refused to deliver on. That aside, much of the longing for the 80s — epitomised in the homage of Stranger Things — is for our pre-mobile phone age. A time when kids couldn’t be tracked by their phones and when real life wasn’t continuously being interrupted from a distance. A time when we were often, like it or not, alone.
The 90s might just have been the West’s last great decade
Much of Radio 4’s season is dedicated to revisiting the pop culture that has endured. We have new readings of Bridget Jones’s Diary for the ladies and Fever Pitch for the blokes. Jarvis Cocker reads from his memoir following the career of Britpop legends Pulp. Radiohead’s masterpiece OK Computer gets a one-hour prestige review, and a repeat season cherry picks highlights from the decade’s comedy. More revealingly, a documentary series examines the broader impact of crucial events, and another discusses how Russia fell apart — both making a convincing stab at linking the events of 30 years ago with fresh turmoil in 2022.
The overall sense — picked up on by the Telegraph — is that the 90s might just have been the West’s last great decade. On a simplistic level, it’s hard to disagree. Having won the Cold War, we were living (as Francis Fukuyama famously put it) in a post-history age. The wars that we fought were in distant places, with no immediate risk of coming back to harm us. Children of that decade were the first — and last — to grow up in a West where peace was the status quo. (If we’re happy to forget about Bosnia.)
It’s interesting that the effect of that stability was often expressed in a sometimes bleak, sometimes playful and inward-looking cynicism. We had the “I hate myself and I want to die” bedroom tantrums of grunge, while shows like The X-Files looked for enemies within the system.
And yet what now stands out about the 1990s (particularly in the UK) is its optimism. Anything felt possible. While American music mired itself in a grunge death spiral, the UK enjoyed its most significant cultural moment since the Swinging Sixties: Britpop. Damien Hirst. New Labour. Tracey Emin. Alan Partridge. Four Weddings and A Funeral. Cool Britannia.
Is it just the optimism that we miss? The sense that British culture might still have something to contribute to the world? The hangover, as far as Britpop was concerned, was swift. Likewise, the Blair sheen didn’t survive cheerleading for America’s latest war — one which had unexpectedly started on its own doorstep. Was everything a bit less fun, post September 11? Possibly. But the “return” of history didn’t stifle art. If the 90s really was the last great age of British culture, it has more to do with what happened to culture itself as the millennium turned.
In 1999, two American geeks launched a file-sharing service called Napster. Other services already existed for people to share music via the internet, but this new program made it possible for non-geeks to easily download their favourite music before it even reached the shops. By 2001, the service had more than 21 million registered users. Lawsuits followed and Napster was temporarily shut down, but the sharing genie was out of its bottle (and downloading into everyone else’s bottles). As broadband services exploded in the early 2000s, casual piracy became a generation’s favourite way to consume pop culture. Those who raised concerns were either dismissed as company stooges or reminded of those faded campaigns of decades past, claiming the arrival of home taping would kill the music industry. As if.
What has happened since 1999, is that it has become almost impossible to make a living from your art. Bands no longer make money from their albums, but from merch sales and endless, grinding tours. This is as true of established artists such as Iggy Pop (who now earns a living from teaching) as it is of more recent acts. Illicit peer-to-peer services such as Napster have been replaced by kosher streaming services such as Spotify, but the end result is the same — artists are making bugger all. The same has happened to independent or mid-budget cinema and is now happening to publishing. Culture is either free or too cheap to make it a worthwhile career choice for all but an extremely select few.
That isn’t to say that record companies, studios and publishers aren’t still making money. But a side effect of the internet’s laudable democratisation of culture is a scattering that rarely looks like the sort of movement British culture enjoyed in the 90s. Publishers and studios like a movement. It makes things predictable and encourages them to invest.
The bands that defined Britpop weren’t born in an instant
The bands that defined Britpop weren’t born in an instant. Pulp kept slogging away for 17 years before it broke through, one of many bands who used the dole to fund their musical apprenticeship. Suede had been kicking around since the late 80s. Blur had enjoyed early success before faltering. There was a long-held understanding in the music industry that good bands needed time and investment. That required a willingness to gamble large sums of dosh. Look at the deal Kate Bush was offered in the late-1970s: kept on the books for years until she was ready to record her debut. What record company today would attempt to justify such a gamble to its shareholders? Indeed, it’s increasingly common for artists to start their own record company and sell direct to a fanbase they hope will pay to come see them next time they’re in town.
A common argument in support of digital culture is that it allows for a plurality of voices. The gatekeepers are gone, allowing anyone to make and share their art, regardless of their identity or background. It’s a wonderful ideal, but what it demands of an artist is the ability to spend most of their time self-promoting. Some artists find it easy to engage with that level of shamelessness. It’s possible it has become instinctive for a generation of digital natives, but I suspect many have no wish to be publicists and would rather, you know, spend their time making art.
I’m also not convinced that the new gatekeepers, whose workings are even less transparent than the publishers and distributors of old, really are any more pluralistic or innovative. And, as I’ve written for The Critic, you can be extraordinarily successful online without leaving the merest imprint on mass culture.
Art might start on the fringes, but its impact is measured on what it does in the mainstream. It shouldn’t change itself to appeal to the masses, it should change what appeals to the masses. The 90s might not have been the last great wave of British art, but it feels like the last time the weirdos were able to enter the establishment. (Literally so, as Britpop luminaries mingled in Number 10.) Much of the nostalgia for past decades isn’t for the kind of art we remember, but for the way we all experienced it together.
Today, the music on the fringes has disappeared into a niche, along with indie cinema and publishing. Old things outsell new things, because it’s only the oldies who remember a time when art was something you bought, rather than stole or borrowed. Without proper funding — from either governments or companies — art risks becoming an elite pursuit, only made for and consumed by those who can afford it. All the rest of us will have left is nostalgia.
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