The 1990s seem so far away now, don't they? When I think of that decade in the United States I immediately recall all the people I used to know who worked in funky record shops (we used to have lots of those) and cat filled independent bookstores (ditto).
I remember quirky little coffee shops where super friendly people with neon pink hair and cargo pants listened to Bjork and didn't look terribly concerned about the future. Whatever was the decade’s watchword and its mantra.
Jobs were plentiful. The largest economic expansion in American history was still underway. It was many things, the ‘90s, but it was not an anxious age for most people.
Club nights were raucous and usually well attended back then. There was a bit of cash in people's pockets and it really showed. The decade had begun in both the U.S. and Europe with Doc Marten-wearing ravers in bright baggy t-shirts throwing weekend long dances, often tripping out of their minds to the new sounds.
There was, I recall, a very palpable shift that happened in the straight and gay clubs between the late ‘80s and early ‘90s that I witnessed first hand. It was the result of drugs, at least at first. Ecstasy, the new drug of choice in club scene, produced a blessed-out effect in the taker that was changing the atmosphere from Berlin to Buncrana.
All the coiled aggression and tension I had grown used to was vanishing overnight, and in its place came a new horde of grinning ravers who wanted to dance all night or throw their arms around you and talk nonsense for hours while flashing the biggest grins you had ever seen.
It was stupid, in other words. It was as though the hippies had finally returned from the Summer of Love, but this time without any of their guiding philosophies or political aims, with no aim at all really except as the band Primal Scream put it, to get loaded and have a good time.
I started to get a little nostalgic for all the aggro. Oh, I certainly appreciated no longer having to worry about being glassed by some overcompensating halfwit out to impress his girlfriend. That part I could support.
But the drugged-out eye rolls and the silly drug-inspired dancing and the godawful mediocrity of so much house and techno music really could not compete with the earlier drama of new wave or the complete transcendence of disco.
Only for a moment did the ‘90s really look like they would amount to something culturally with the unexpected arrival of Nirvana and Radiohead. Their music was dark and enraged but also, the longer you listened, overly melancholy and weirdly inert. Uncertain of where they stood or what they stood for, it quickly became apparent they were never going to lead a revolution.
So there was no next big thing. Even ‘90s fashion failed to find a proper form. Mostly it just reworked the greatest hits of the ‘80s and earlier eras and took its time finding new frontiers. Complacency had become so widespread that people decided they could take their time.
It feels as lost to me as Atlantis now, the ‘90s. Receiving an email was still a novelty, pulling out a cell phone was still an event.
But alongside all the laughably uninspired fashion and clunky emerging technology, the groundwork for our own bitterly faithless age was quietly being set too.
Something about the ‘90s used to bug me. I had a persistent feeling that the gap between how things looked and how they really were was an untenable and unsustainable lie.
It occurred to me that culture was being balkanized, clubs were being balkanized, our political parties were becoming increasingly balkanized too. All the hardline and dysfunctional ruptures that we now see everywhere around us in 2016 really started ripping apart in the ‘90s.
What had at first looked like an era of quiet progress was actually turning out to be a lie. The bitter feud about who would guide the direction of the country, who would decide its culture, who would police its expression, and who would be asked to sit down and shut up – that age old and never ending feud - was finally starting to burst right out into the open.
The fight we are seeing now on our presidential debate stages was decades in the making. Even the Clintons have returned for another round.