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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)