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)

Arts and Entertainment
Loaded weapon: drugs have surprise side effects for Scarlett Johansson in Luc Besson’s ‘Lucy’
film
Arts and Entertainment
Novelist Martin Amis at The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival

books
Arts and Entertainment
Alfred Molina, left, and John Lithgow in a scene from 'Love Is Strange'

After giving gay film R-rating despite no sex or violence

film
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Williams will be given a 'meaningful remembrance' at the Emmy Awards

film
Arts and Entertainment

tv
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
'The Great British Bake Off' showcases food at its most sumptuous
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Cliff Richard performs at the Ziggo Dome in Amsterdam on 17 May 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Educating the East End returns to Channel 4 this autumn

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch will voice Shere Khan in Andy Serkis' movie take on The Jungle Book

film
Arts and Entertainment
DJ Calvin Harris performs at the iHeartRadio Music Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush

music
Arts and Entertainment
From left to right: Mark Crown, DJ Locksmith and Amir Amor of Rudimental performing on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park, Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Capaldi and Chris Addison star in political comedy The Thick of IT

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Judy Murray said she

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Tim Vine has won the funniest joke award at the Edinburgh Festival 2014

edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Paxman has admitted he is a 'one-nation Tory' and complained that Newsnight is made by idealistic '13-year-olds' who foolishly think they can 'change the world'.

Edinburgh
Arts and Entertainment
Seoul singer G-Dragon could lead the invasion as South Korea has its sights set on Western markets
music
Arts and Entertainment
Gary Lineker at the UK Premiere of 'The Hunger Games: Catching Fire'
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Bale as Batman in a scene from
film
Arts and Entertainment
Johhny Cash in 1969
musicDyess Colony, where singer grew up in Depression-era Arkansas, opens to the public
Arts and Entertainment
Army dreamers: Randy Couture, Sylvester Stallone, Dolph Lundgren and Jason Statham
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Great British Bake Off 2014 contestants
tvReview: It's not going to set the comedy world alight but it's a gentle evening watch
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    Air strikes? Talk of God? Obama is following the jihadists’ script

    The President came the nearest he has come yet to rivalling George W Bush’s gormless reaction to 9/11 , says Robert Fisk
    Ebola outbreak: Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on the virus

    Billy Graham’s son declares righteous war on Ebola

    A Christian charity’s efforts to save missionaries trapped in Africa by the crisis have been justifiably praised. But doubts remain about its evangelical motives
    Jeremy Clarkson 'does not see a problem' with his racist language on Top Gear, says BBC

    Not even Jeremy Clarkson is bigger than the BBC, says TV boss

    Corporation’s head of television confirms ‘Top Gear’ host was warned about racist language
    Nick Clegg the movie: Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise

    Nick Clegg the movie

    Channel 4 to air Coalition drama showing Lib Dem leader's rise
    Philip Larkin: Misogynist, racist, miserable? Or caring, playful man who lived for others?

    Philip Larkin: What will survive of him?

    Larkin's reputation has taken a knocking. But a new book by James Booth argues that the poet was affectionate, witty, entertaining and kind, as hitherto unseen letters, sketches and 'selfies' reveal
    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?

    Waxing lyrical

    Madame Tussauds has shown off its Beyoncé waxwork in Regent's Park - but why is the tourist attraction still pulling in the crowds?
    Texas forensic astronomer finally pinpoints the exact birth of impressionism

    Revealed (to the minute)

    The precise time when impressionism was born
    From slow-roasted to sugar-cured: how to make the most of the British tomato season

    Make the most of British tomatoes

    The British crop is at its tastiest and most abundant. Sudi Pigott shares her favourite recipes
    10 best men's skincare products

    Face it: 10 best men's skincare products

    Oscar Quine cleanses, tones and moisturises to find skin-savers blokes will be proud to display on the bathroom shelf
    Malky Mackay allegations: Malky Mackay, Iain Moody and another grim day for English football

    Mackay, Moody and another grim day for English football

    The latest shocking claims do nothing to dispel the image that some in the game on these shores exist in a time warp, laments Sam Wallace
    La Liga analysis: Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Will Barcelona's hopes go out of the window?

    Pete Jenson starts his preview of the Spanish season, which begins on Saturday, by explaining how Fifa’s transfer ban will affect the Catalans
    Middle East crisis: We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    We know all too much about the cruelty of Isis – but all too little about who they are

    Now Obama has seen the next US reporter to be threatened with beheading, will he blink, asks Robert Fisk
    Neanderthals lived alongside humans for centuries, latest study shows

    Final resting place of our Neanderthal neighbours revealed

    Bones dated to 40,000 years ago show species may have died out in Belgium species co-existed
    Scottish independence: The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    The new Scots who hold fate of the UK in their hands

    Scotland’s immigrants are as passionate about the future of their adopted nation as anyone else
    Britain's ugliest buildings: Which monstrosities should be nominated for the Dead Prize?

    Blight club: Britain's ugliest buildings

    Following the architect Cameron Sinclair's introduction of the Dead Prize, an award for ugly buildings, John Rentoul reflects on some of the biggest blots on the UK landscape