The 1990’s: they look so old, but feel like yesterday

“It [ ] can’t be old can it? surely?” – nearly everybody


Due to the family home, a home that used to feel like the eternal return-to-base (for good and for worse), no longer being so, I have stumbled upon old photographs from the 1990’s. They are old. They’re as old as photographs of the previous generation of family members enjoying the then-blossoming popular culture of the mid 20th century looked when the 1990’s felt all new and shiny.

The 1990’s still feel new and shiny, but they aren’t. The VHS’s and TV in this photograph look archaic – they look as close to the 70’s as they were. Yet the 70’s do feel old, the 90’s don’t. 1990’s shopping centres, like the nearby Meadowhall shopping complex, still seem like intrusions of a new brash consumerism onto UK shores, but they look as knackered as cheaply-veneered 25 year old buildings should do.

I’d feel less certain that there wasn’t something unique at play here, if it was just my own attachment to that age, due to feeling like I lost an important part of myself in the last year of that decade that prevents me from developing as an adult. But even people born in the 1990’s keep on looking at me gobsmacked when I put a date on a well-known film like Jurassic Park [1993].

This photograph was taken in January 1995; 4 years before the hyperbole of the 90’s seemed to simmer into millennial malaise, a slow let down by the smoke and mirrors of Britpop, New Labour and ‘end of history’ jubilance. Two technological shifts (I think it’s disputable to see them as advances) seem to have made time feel so out of joint, not merely for their existence, but due to their creeping dominance. Digitalisation of sound and vision, and the Broadband takeover of communication.

Digitalisation seemed to creep in around 1999, to the extent that when I am subjected to music videos from that point through the ever-same visual of contemporary television [She’s The One, Robbie Williams – an unfortunate subjection to say the least) it looks like it was made yesterday. Television, before this point, seems far easier to date; it seems like there’s a difference to image quality from 1998 to 1992 for example. But thereon after it gets harder and harder to spot the difference.

I noticed the impact of Broadband in late 2004 (which seems symonious with the rise and rise of addicting social media sites). As every year passed, especially after the financial crash, social life seemed more and more orientated (and bogged-down) in cyberspace. It makes the ‘telepresent’ of the media-penetration of our lives in the late 20th century seem blissfully un-interfering.

Time no longer seems to move forward. And this is evident in our culture; nothing truly new seems imaginable and what stands as culture has become even more commercialised, consumerist in response to former counter cultural styles that no longer put up any opposition to commercial forces increasingly pulping them into a ‘shop-a-day’ reality. The market-driven imperative on ‘the new’ in a time where nothing is given enough breathing-space to create it means that we’re left scraping the barrel for novelty, dis-invested and in disbelief. Would space technologies really be harnessed merely to make the first sexual encounter in space happen for a porn movie in any other period than this one?

Time seems in a loop. For many older than I am, it seems like the 1990’s already felt like the ‘end of the future’. But growing up then, it didn’t feel that way, certainly in light what it has felt like for the last decade and half [my final true futuristic vision that springs to mind was conjured listening to ‘climatize’ by the Prodigy, from one of the last true popular-yet-landmark albums ‘The Fat of The Land’, whilst driving past the outer-high-rises of Birmingham on the Motorway in the family car in summer 1997) To quote a friend (who I’m working on projects with) the experience of Now is akin to a Tyre spinning furiously in mud, but getting nowhere. It seems likely that this experience has obliterated continuity in the past decade or so, and so the 1990’s remain as yesterday. Even as the smoke and mirrors of that naively optimist age are proven to be what they are, they remain seductive (I still smile and sing a long to moronic Britpop when drunk). I feel this ‘yesterday’ will seem more and more appealing until some sort of closure is sought on the ‘stuck record’ experience of contemporary life. Fundamentally, it requires an unanimous acceptance that the elephant smashing up the room we’re in is capitalism. I can’t see away around this elephant. We need to agree on this point before anything else.

2 responses to “The 1990’s: they look so old, but feel like yesterday”

  1. Humans in Cages says :

    Thanks, and sorry for late response. I really need to reconnect with Jameson’s ideas. My academic understanding of cultural studies was cut short due to hitting a wall 1/3 through a MA at Goldsmiths, from which I dumped most my own books in the library and legged it (a idiotic thing to do, but yet also entirely pragmatic given my state of mind at that point). But I do instead to buy the Late Capitalism, or the cultural logic… sometime soon again. I definitely agree with you on the sensation regarding the 60’s; in fact I find the seemingly eternal replaying of 60s memorabilia programs one of the hardest televised things to cope with for someone born into a generation growing up into this ‘slow cancellation of the future’ whilst still being expected to interested in ‘new’ cultural produce. From my impression of a past I never experienced first hand, to the ‘slowing down’ newness of the time I have lived in, for me post-modernity seems like it must have come about in the 70’s. I was debating with a friend however, whether it was the ‘no alternative’ agenda of Thatcher/Reagan that truly activated the postmodernising affect. Despite being born in 84, the 1979-81 period seems so pivotal to me in many ways regarding the world we now have. Do you still live in Yorkshire? It’d be good if we (my partners in crime so-to-speak) could meet you. Especially has so much of what you have to say seems (?) to use the West Riding Landscape as a platform. cheers: John

  2. Mere Pseud says :

    Fredric Jameson has a lot of interesting things to say about this idea of being stuck in an eternal present; he connects it, of course, to the onset of postmodernism sometime (depending on whose view you take) between 1945 and 1973. The 1960s seemed further away when I was 18 than they do now, which is part of the same phenomenon you’re alluding to here. And it’s connected too, in ways with which I’m still grappling, to the dematerialisation of *everything* (jobs, bodies, affect etc) in the digital spaces of late capitalism.

    On a (perhaps) related note, I love the glimpse of the house across the street in your header photo. So ordinary, yet lit with a strange, haunting light, as if we’re getting a glimpse of something we not meant to see.

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