Farewell to the 90s

Lads and ladettes, YBAs, Eighties irony with extra computers - that was the decade, that was. By Michael Bracewell

Did we really have the 1990s, or did we just have the 1960s and the 1970s and the 1980s again, whizzed through the blender of information technology? Throughout the decade, the phenomenon of "BritCulture" has presented itself as an exercise in time travel, from Swinging London revisited to nostalgia for an imagined future. "It's my happening, baby, and it freaks me out!" as the great Austin Powers once pronounced. Who better to define British culture in the Nineties than such a quasi- ironic, post-modern assemblage of pop-cultural reference points?

The 1990s can be seen as a kind of recycling plant through which was passed the premediated experience of culture to emerge at the other end as a song by Pulp, a sketch by Eddie Izzard or an installation by a Young British Artist. And the most important cultural influence on the 1990s was most probably the Beatles, with Oasis being the most obvious example. And the decade progressed, seemingly seeking for a cultural language with which to question - or deny - the nature of reality in an age of accelerated technological expansion.

Decades are often remembered by the imagery and events of just a few core years, the span of which has a habit of ending in the early years of the decade that follows. Cultural trends have a habit of confounding the neatness of temporal boundaries. In 1996 Peter York pointed out that there had been precious little evidence over the first half of the 1990s to suggest that the 1980s were over. And, as the 1980s had seen the rise of port-modernism and cultural materialism in everything from architecture to advertising, how could the 1990s find an adequate response to so much apparent self-confidence?

The 1990s began by defining itself as the stroppy younger sibling of the previous decade, with a sniggering irreverence for the lingering values with which it was growing up. In addition, as the recession of the early 1990s brought with it a degree of anxiety, so the cultural response was to earth creative activity in a new engagement with realism.

The Three Ps of post-modernism - punning, parody and plagiarism - had defined a period in which the boundaries between areas of cultural practice could be blurred and rearranged. Eighties post-modernism was expressed in the witty design of the Alessi kettle; but the Laddism Nouveau of the early 1990s found its voice in an iconography of beer, babes and bacon sandwiches.

Laddism was a generational return to the gender stereotyping of the early 1970s (talk about "like punk never happened"!) and foregrounded a devout anti-intellectualism. It put forward a mixture of hedonism and nihilism which was essentially apolitical, but which thrived upon an infantilist nostalgia for adolescence. For women, the 1990s may have been a "time to get angry again", as Germaine Greer was to point out.

But this didn't stop the pantechnicon of gender stereotyping which would deliver such "ladettes" as TV's The Show and Bridget Jones's Diary as champions (or was it "championettes"?) for daughters of the bra-burning generation.

And there seemed to be little resistance to this new conformism. Had women really suffered hunger strikes for their sex to be born again as "babes"? The visceral art of Tracey Emin, however steeped in self-promotion, would become a major response to the conflation of sex and sexuality which had occurred throughout the decade.

As a cultural trend, the sensibility forged by Laddism would become pan- media, spreading out from the popular culture of magazines and TV situation comedy (Loaded, Men Behaving Badly) to entwine with new fiction, film- making and strands of Young British Art. At its best, it created a comedy of recognition which was built on self-mockery.

And in fiction, the phenomenal success of Nick Hornby's Fever Pitch as a founding Laddist text would be superseded by the transition of Irvine Welsh's dark, realist novel Trainspotting (1993) into a genuine cultural catalyst. The success of Trainspotting as a feature film would inaugurate a new phase of cultural cloning. Even the graphic style developed for the cinema poster of Trainspotting (the orange-and-white logo with the sans serif typeface and the nerdy black-and-white photographs) would become an instantly recognisable signifier.

By the mid-1990s, it was becoming fairly clear that the cultural inheritance of the Eighties - all that irony and blurring of media - had not been so much denounced by the new generation, as absorbed at such a deep level that they were hardly aware of it. Laddism, in fact, turned out to be the touchpaper which would ignite the triumphalist firework display of "BritCulture" (BritLit, BritPop, BritFlick and BritArt), as both a political tool for New Labour and as a reinvented artistic vocabulary. As a cultural export and national mascot, Young British Art brought together an eclectic generation of artists for whom the conceptual joke with the ironic punchline were the principal factors of their practice. But as the "Sensation" exhibition at the Royal Academy in 1997 served to prove, the impact of YBA was in fact a timely rediscovery of 19th-century fin-de-siecle decadence.

Steeped in disturbing iconography but presented with exquisite aesthetic style, the works gathered together by "Sensation" revived the Wildean debate about the relationship between morality and the senses. Here, despite its whacked-out, post-post-modern sloganeering, was an exercise in questioning - with dandyfied aplomb - the whole point and process of perception. Little wonder that the YBAs' successor would be known as New Neurotic Realism.

While younger novelists and artists were drawing their inspiration from the shared experience of popular culture, there was a sense in which the broader cultural movement had become fixated on the notion of authenticity; pursuit of real-life drama was the thing to get us through the tail-end of the decade. Coinciding with the funeral of Diana Spencer - a kind of international necrothon - whole slabs of British culture gave themselves over to public confession. Through docudrama, docusoap and a squad of broadsheet columnists, the Nineties impulse to soak up real responses to real situations became the dominating force.

Throughout the 1990s, the blurring of cultural boundaries authorised by the Eighties has come to alter the way in which culture is created and perceived. And inevitably, in such a climate, the loudest practitioners have tended to be the most successful. When Damien Hirst got together with some mates in 1996 to record "Vindaloo," his intentionally horrible knees-up record, was he making a definitive statement about the vacuity of cultural practice in the 1990s, or simply another pile of cash? And hadn't the Sex Pistols already done that, only much better, more than 20 years before? The only criteria on which to answer the question were your own sense of standards.

Michael Bracewell's latest book `England is Mine' is now in paperback (HarperCollins, pounds 9.99)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Mark, Katie and Sanjay in The Apprentice boardroom
TV
Arts and Entertainment

Film The critics but sneer but these unfashionable festive films are our favourites

Arts and Entertainment
Frances O'Connor and James Nesbitt in 'The Missing'

TV We're so close to knowing what happened to Oliver Hughes, but a last-minute bluff crushes expectations

Arts and Entertainment
Joey Essex will be hitting the slopes for series two of The Jump

TV

Who is taking the plunge?
Arts and Entertainment
Katy Perry as an Ancient Egyptian princess in her latest music video for 'Dark Horse'

music
Arts and Entertainment
Dame Judi Dench, as M in Skyfall

film
Arts and Entertainment
Morrissey, 1988

TV
Arts and Entertainment
William Pooley from Suffolk is flying out to Free Town, Sierra Leone, to continue working in health centres to fight Ebola after surviving the disease himself

music
Arts and Entertainment
The Newsroom creator Aaron Sorkin

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Matt Berry (centre), the star of Channel 4 sitcom 'Toast of London'

TVA disappointingly dull denouement
Arts and Entertainment
Tales from the cryptanalyst: Benedict Cumberbatch in 'The Imitation Game'

film
Arts and Entertainment
Pixie Lott has been voted off Strictly Come Dancing 2014

Strictly
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'You look for someone who's an inspiration and try to be like them'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Could cannabis oil reverse the effects of cancer?

    Could cannabis oil reverse effects of cancer?

    As a film following six patients receiving the controversial treatment is released, Kate Hilpern uncovers a very slippery issue
    The Interview movie review: You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here

    The Interview movie review

    You can't see Seth Rogen and James Franco's Kim Jong Un assassination film, but you can read about it here
    Serial mania has propelled podcasts into the cultural mainstream

    How podcasts became mainstream

    People have consumed gripping armchair investigation Serial with a relish typically reserved for box-set binges
    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up for hipster marketing companies

    Jesus Christ has become an unlikely pin-up

    Kevin Lee Light, aka "Jesus", is the newest client of creative agency Mother while rival agency Anomaly has launched Sexy Jesus, depicting the Messiah in a series of Athena-style poses
    Rosetta space mission voted most important scientific breakthrough of 2014

    A memorable year for science – if not for mice

    The most important scientific breakthroughs of 2014
    Christmas cocktails to make you merry: From eggnog to Brown Betty and Rum Bumpo

    Christmas cocktails to make you merry

    Mulled wine is an essential seasonal treat. But now drinkers are rediscovering other traditional festive tipples. Angela Clutton raises a glass to Christmas cocktails
    5 best activity trackers

    Fitness technology: 5 best activity trackers

    Up the ante in your regimen and change the habits of a lifetime with this wearable tech
    Paul Scholes column: It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves

    Paul Scholes column

    It's a little-known fact, but I have played one of the seven dwarves
    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Fifa's travelling circus once again steals limelight from real stars

    Club World Cup kicked into the long grass by the continued farce surrounding Blatter, Garcia, Russia and Qatar
    Frank Warren column: 2014 – boxing is back and winning new fans

    Frank Warren: Boxing is back and winning new fans

    2014 proves it's now one of sport's biggest hitters again
    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton: The power dynamics of the two first families

    Jeb Bush vs Hillary Clinton

    Karen Tumulty explores the power dynamics of the two first families
    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley with a hotbed of technology start-ups

    Stockholm is rivalling Silicon Valley

    The Swedish capital is home to two of the most popular video games in the world, as well as thousands of technology start-ups worth hundreds of millions of pounds – and it's all happened since 2009
    Did Japanese workers really get their symbols mixed up and display Santa on a crucifix?

    Crucified Santa: Urban myth refuses to die

    The story goes that Japanese store workers created a life-size effigy of a smiling "Father Kurisumasu" attached to a facsimile of Our Lord's final instrument of torture
    Jennifer Saunders and Kate Moss join David Walliams on set for TV adaptation of The Boy in the Dress

    The Boy in the Dress: On set with the stars

    Walliams' story about a boy who goes to school in a dress will be shown this Christmas