The 80s had been one big exuberant party. So wealthy, stylish, and brand-conscious were we that we felt it would go on endlessly like one big mall shopping trip and all we had to do was follow the smell of cinnamon buns. But then it didn’t. At the end of the 80s the financial luck ran out and we ended up in recession. Real grown ups knew how to handle it, and probably cut back a little. But for us 20 year-olds who had just graduated and didn’t understand about financial cycles, it was devastating.
We were convinced we would never get jobs, would never get health insurance, and would always be “losers” and possibly homeless. So we traded in shiny spandex pants and pink pumps and big bright earrings for ripped baggy jeans and doc martens and long flowered depression-era dresses, and some of us got into worse stuff like heroin. But most just drank a lot of beer and smoked cigarettes. We read Douglas Copeland who put a name on us, Generation X, over-educated and underemployed. We were martyrs to the corporate phonies and sell-outs who caused this mess. We were angry and disenfranchised and irony dripped from our mouths.
We were angry, but not angry enough to go and protest. We had our MTV, CD’s and cable. Just angry enough to start writing. So we perfected this great new form called irony. Everything was ironic from Reality Bites (1997) when Winona Ryder is asked to “define irony” and can’t:
to Juno (2007) where irony is teen mother Ellen Page’s primary form of communication. And the most popular music was totally ironic too:
I’m a loser baby/so why don’t you kill me
Do it and do it again
Rape me, my friend
You float like a feather
In a beautiful world
And I wish I was special
You’re so fuckin’ special
Hard to believe in this post-millennial era of hyper-productive foodies who never stop working, but the 90s was an era, not too long ago, when the “loser” was glorified. It was ok to be depressed, jobless, damaged. But the cycles of productivity come and go. Take the 60s hippie vs 80s yuppie; both have their pros and cons. And the despair of the 90s did have a payoff. After we finally broke through the high expectations of 80s consumerism, we got off our asses and developed a culture of our own. We started record labels (Sub-Pop), local bands in rock and hip-hop flavors, clothing labels, coffee companies (Starbucks), fanzines such as URB or Ben is Dead, and finally, when the technology got even better, websites and startups. I remember having my first great job as an HTML programmer in San Rafael and us all calling ourselves “web monkeys” as if we were blue collar auto-mechanics – just imagine the smugness of our irony!
Thanks to the 90s, now there are as many “indie” and “micro” brands as there are people. Why even have brands anymore? We should just put things into categories of stuff like “eyeliner” or “coffee” or “pads” and sell them without branding, like 80s style generic items. Nobody has time to read package labels anymore.. We are all looking down at our phones. I wonder if anyone would even notice or mind?
I will leave you to ponder the meaning of life with this song by punk band Flipper, who were from the 80s but sounded like they could have been 90s