Ah, the 1990s. For today’s generation of youngsters, it’s probably an era akin to the digital Stone Age. Internet was dial-up, cell phones were attached to bulky bags in our cars and Google was some search engine weird people used (all the cool kids in computer lab were on Yahoo! or Netscape).
For those of us who grew up in this decade, though, it brings up a whirlwind of nostalgia. Like the primitive cell phones attached to those big, black bags, the 90s were gigantic, brash and over-the-top, yet at the time and even today, we still view them as being cool. The American exceptionalism that returned in the 1980s kicked into full blast in the 90s, as the U.S. set global trends for the emerging presence of online and, of course, our number one export: entertainment.
Movies, music, TV and other mediums saw radical departures from prior decades. The mainstream altered into one of non-conformity, fueled by an anxious consumer base that kept giving up more cash as entertainers pushed the social boundaries of language, sexuality, violence and more. Today, these things seem commonplace, but during the 90s, they were groundbreaking.
And so let us celebrate the decade that was. It was extremely difficult to produce a list of just nine things, and I’m sure everyone reading this will have their own thoughts on what should and shouldn’t have been included. Ultimately, this list is intended to provide those reading a time capsule of what it meant to live in this great time.
9. The ‘Jurassic Park’ Franchise (1993-1997)
There were many culturally defining films of the 1990s, from ‘Titanic’ to ‘Forest Gump.’ So many, in fact, if I started to rank them, they’d make up a list of more than nine alone. When thinking back to films that really impacted the entire decade, nothing comes to mind more quickly than ‘Jurassic Park.’
Steven Spielberg’s 1993 masterpiece was revolutionary for its use of computer-generated effects, which are now used in pretty much all films and TV series out of Hollywood.
It wasn’t just the imagery, though; the ‘Jurassic Park’ films fueled the culture’s fascination with developments in science and technology. Innovations were being announced on what felt like a daily basis, and these films played into the idea that perhaps man could even resurrect the dinosaurs.
I remember when ‘Jurassic Park’ came out, I went to see it three times. Keep in mind, I was five-years-old at the time. I have no idea what my parents were thinking. I couldn’t get enough of that big T-Rex or the creepy scene with the raptors attacking the children in the cafeteria. My head ducked below my seat for that one. The 1997 follow-up, ‘The Lost World’ is a decent successor, but the franchise as a whole was really what opened the imaginations of many filmmakers and young people alike.
8. ‘Jagged Little Pill,’ Alanis Morissette (1995)
Was it the album of the decade? I certainly could make the case for it. Regardless of where it measures among the musical works of the 90s, ‘Jagged Little Pill’ was undoubtedly one of the most influential albums of modern times. The angry young woman who spewed contempt for her past boyfriends, adolescence and even her very own existence was just like a massive bomb being dropped on American culture.
By the end of the decade, it moved over 30 million copies, more than any other in the same time period. Fans will lovingly remember ‘Ironic’ and ‘You Oughta Know,’ but sleeper hits like ‘Hand in My Pocket’ and ‘You Learn’ shouldn’t be forgotten either.
Alanis’ stringy dark hair, large, dark clothing and screw-you attitude embodied the anxious youth movement of the generation. More importantly, the album really paved the way for the female artists of today, who are mixing crude lyrics with the latest tunes in pop.
7. WCW vs. WWE – The Monday Night Wars (1995-1999)
For the first half of the 1900s, professional wrestling was primarily viewed as an actual sport among most Americans. Well, that was until they discovered the matches were pre-determined and most of the action was composed of fake punches. Since then, the business rightfully took its place as entertainment.
In the 1990s, that business really rose to prominence when Ted Turner’s World Championship Wrestling opted to produce a Monday night show called ‘Nitro’ that would go head-to-head with Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Entertainment and its flagship program, ‘RAW,’ which aired on the same night.
The decisions was seen early on as loony by some industry insiders, but would go on to produce the most viewed era in the history of professional wrestling. Week-after-week, over 10 million viewers would tune in to watch both programs. Fans would eagerly await each week to see ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin get the best of his boss Mr. McMahon or Goldberg extend his winning streak.
The revenue generated by the rivalry would be so great, by the year 2000, WWE became a billion-dollar publicly traded company and a cornerstone of cable television. WCW, on the other hand, would go out of business due to declining ratings and tickets sales in 2001. Fans of the business still look back on the time as a shining moment that personified the ‘Attitude Era’ of the 1990s.
6. The Work of Tupac Shakur (1990-1996)
Nothing else could better sum up the 1990s rap scene than one name: 2Pac. 2Pac defined the genre throughout the 1990s, with his electric lyrics and controversial statements on inner-city life. The artist was at the middle of many dilemmas between the east and west hip-hop cultures. And of course, he famously became the first man to have a number one album – ‘Me Against the World’ – while serving out a prison sentence.
Then, in the 1996, it all tragically ended. While some elitist music critics will undoubtedly snub my very suggestion, I think the shooting of 2pac left just as big a dent on the world of music as John Lennon’s assassination did. He was a god of the rap culture that embodied the violence and hardship of life for many during the era.
His legacy was amazing, with over 75 million albums sold in his short career. However, the more telling impact is how much he is still referred to by today’s artists. Hell, he’s even being hologramed in.
5. The SEGA/Nintendo Rivalry (1992-1999)
“Which one do you like more – Genesis or Super Nintendo?” That was question is engrained in the minds of many young men from the early 1990s. It was also a sign of the booming video game business, which was getting just as important in the culture as movies and music.
Gaming initially rose in the 1980s, thanks to the Nintendo Entertainment System, but by the early 90s, those gamers were getting older. SEGA capitalized on this with aggressive marketing, including their BLAST processing and “SEGA does what Nintendon’t.”
And it actually worked for a while. The Genesis outsold the SNES in the U.S. early on. The fortunes would eventually change, though. Nintendo would continue to innovate and move with the times and is still in business till this very day.
In contrast, SEGA would have a string of console failures before leaving the gaming hardware business for good in 2001. Fans look back on this time as a golden one for gaming’s birth, and calls from some for SEGA to get back in the hardware business show the lasting impact the two companies left on consumers during the decade.
4. Seinfeld (1990-1998)
No TV series left more of a lasting impact on the culture of the 1990s than ‘Seinfeld.’ Its footprint was so large that it still continues to air in syndication on a nightly basis in most regular markets. The ‘show about nothing’ that revolved around four friends trying to make it socially and professionally in New York captured the evolving idea of everyday life as being the primary source of humor.
‘Seinfeld’ was more often than not the highest rated comedy series on television until its end in 1998. The decision was made for the show to go out on top as opposed to lingering around, and it was a wise one. Fans clamoring for a reunion have had their hopes dashed many times, but were given a glimpse into the idea on a recent season of ‘Curb Your Enthusiasm,’ starring ‘Seinfeld’ creator Larry David.
As for the stars of the show, they became iconic. So much so most of the leading cast members had a hard time anchoring other TV series after the show ended because of how identified they were with their ‘Seinfeld’ characters. Who can blame viewers though? This remains perhaps the greatest series in TV history and has produced enough one-liners to fill daily desk calendars for years to come.
3. ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit,’ Nirvana (1991)
If you wanted a summary of 1990s music, really all you would need to do is make someone listen to this killer 1991 track that brilliantly kicked off the alternative rock culture of the 1990s. And that culture spilled into every other aspect of entertainment, lavishly coating the era with an aggressive attitude wildly different from past decades.
The single was revered as an ‘anthem for apathetic kids,’ but it became so much more. It shaped the the perception of anxious youth in the 90s, a bunch of angry young men and women who were ready to see the boundaries set up by the parents torn down. It was, in a sense, culture shock, wrapped up in a sweet, little song.
‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ would launch Nirvana into superstardom, something they were not crazy about. Within a few short years, lead singer Kurt Cobain would be dead, and the band’s legacy would be seen as all-too brief. You would think this would cause their work to be forgotten, but it was quite the opposite. The single is still seen by many music critics as one of the best rock songs of all time and deservedly so.
2. The Disney Renaissance (1990-1999)
It must seem odd to go from aggressive youth to the very opposite of such, but the switch had to be made. We can discuss many things from entertainment for the 90s, but undeniably the works that will be most remembered from the time years from now will be the productions to come out of the Disney Studios.
It’s not just because of Disney’s annoying video vault, either. This decade saw unprecedented success for Disney animation, as the company produced hit after hit that were individually some of the biggest films of their respective years.
From the Oscar-nominated ‘Beauty and the Beast’ to the highly acclaimed ‘The Lion King,’ the films shaped trends in music, movies, gaming, clothing and even food we bought at the supermarket (don’t tell me I was the only one who bought ‘Lion King’ Klondike bars).
‘Aladdin,’ ‘Pocahontas,’ ‘Tarzan’….the list goes on and on. No studio, with the possible exception of Disney’s own Pixar in the last decade, has seen such a strong period of sustained excellence. The effects of the films are still being seen in Broadway musicals, theme park rides and more.
They’ll continue to be, too. While many entertainment items from the 90s will go unappreciated by future generations, it gives me a good feeling knowing kids in the years to come will get the same initial enjoyment I got out of these films years ago.
1. Saturday Night Live (1990 – 1999)
It’s so difficult to pick a top spot for anything. You have to be sure that what you’re awarding is worthy of the position. I don’t have any fears ‘Saturday Night Live’ deserves the title I’m bestowing.
In the 1990s, no one thing more thoroughly or entertainingly showed off our bombastic culture more than ‘Saturday Night Live.’ On a weekly basis, it ripped the latest music trends, the big, ugly clothes we thought looked good and the politicians who either couldn’t get a sentence straight or stay faithful to their wives.
If you wanted a microcosm of 90s culture, this show had it. Dana Carvey’s political impersonations of President Bush and would-be President Ross Perot were top-notch. Adam Sandler made us roll in the floor with his tunes on the Lunch Lady and Hanukkah. Oh, and we haven’t even gotten to Chris Farley. Or David Spade. Or Chris Rock. Or Phil Hartman. Get the picture?
In fact, the show was so hot, other celebrities were dying to get on the action. And this made headlines. Remember when Sinead O’Conner ripped up a picture of the Pope live? What about when Madonna rolled around in bed with Wayne and Garth? Oh, and you didn’t forget when Chris Farley applied to be a Chippendale’s dancer with Patrick Swayze, did you?
The show took on a life of its own and to know the culture, you had to know the show. I think that’s about the highest compliment anyone can pay a work of entertainment. ‘Saturday Night Live’ has declined radically in value over the last decade, but the reason why it’s still so revered is because of this decade. It’s what made the 1990s, more than anything else in entertainment, great.
For more posts by Alex Beene check out his Awards Addict website!