Hanneke du Toit

Check, leathers, gun-toting and roses: the revenge of the 90s

The 80's steadily digressed from gilt to guilt, and the after party in the 90's was nursing the hang-over. Queue grunge, and it's translucent, waif-like sister, heroine chic. Everybody looked like they hadn't slept or showered in months.

A nod to the nineties cult film: stylised violence set in bland suburban landscape – the short film promo for the new album by The Dead Weather.

BLAME IT ON THE ANTI-BOOGIE Dust off your docs, ditch the shampoo and wipe that smile from your face – the 90s are back.

Out dancing with friends a week-end ago, we were served a selection of alternative 90s chart toppers to groove to. The dance floor erupted in spontaneous ensemble-karaoke at the chorus of every “invigorating power ballad”. But something was missing: beats – about 55 of them, every minute. Half way into every song, the predictable, mid-paced tempo became boring. All you could do was to pull harder at your beer and wait for the next track.

A few die-hards always head-bang, but head-banging – that extreme form of nodding in agreement – does not by itself qualify as dancing, at least not in my deeply un-cool opinion. While you might well be able to come as you are, you can’t dance to the 90’s.

THE STAGE PROPS The nineties started in a financial recession and counted down to the end of the century, a period historically characterized by world-weariness, cynicism and feelings of uncertainty.

Big historical moments followed in quick succession. The end of the Cold War was followed directly by the Gulf war. Germany re-united over the Berlin wall, Mandela was released. AIDS became a big issue.

Cell phones and the internet became available to the average Joe. Over-excitement surrounding new technologies lead to the dot.com boom and subsequent bust, and everyone was freaked out by the cloning of Dolly the Sheep.

Amid shifts and changes however, pop culture was on a jaded and disinterested “been there done that” track, and embodied a morbidly cool decadence in its very own, sullen way.

FIRE THE HAIR-AND-MAKE-UP DEPARTMENT The 80s steadily digressed from gilt to guilt, and the after party in the 90s was nursing the hang-over. Queue grunge, and it’s translucent, waif-like sister, heroine chic. Everybody looked like they hadn’t slept or showered in months. Wasted silhouettes, knotted hair, clammy skin and black circled eyes constituted the “used-up, worn-out look”, or  “junkie sweats”, as dubbed by William Mullen, creative director of Details magazine at the time.

According to Tom Ford, the creative director for Gucci around 1996,

“Fashion has always perceived boredom as cool. The goal is to look like you’ve seen everything, done everything, been everywhere. It’s an intimidating look, and the drug thing is a continuation of all that. If you look like you’ve been out all night, it conjures up all these images in your head.”

Mullen had a similar fashion-conscious, fence-riding view on the the drug issue:

“It’s wrong to say drugs are good. What … these images [refer to] is all the other stuff: the glamour, the free sexuality, that whole nocturnal thing that only drugs can truly give you. Only people on drugs stay up all night, but that doesn’t mean you can’t appreciate the look of someone who stays up all night.”

Jack White from The White Stripes, and Alison Mosshart from The Kills pelting each other with bullets in Treat me like your mother by The Dead Weather.

Jack White from The White Stripes, and Alison Mosshart from The Kills pelting each other with bullets in "Treat me like your mother" by The Dead Weather.

THE BEAT The 90s saw the rise of alternative rock. Grunge culture established itself in the coffee shops in Seattle and turned its flannel-clad back on the high-gloss excesses of the 80’s. It was angst-ridden, cynical, self-deprecating and, well, generally stoned. Grunge, in short, hated itself and wanted to die, as was so eloquently expressed by Nirvana in “I hate myself and I want to Die”.

Despite this wish, Grunge, and post-grunge (’94 onwards) kept on growing to become the defining genre of the decade. Lyrics echoed the sentiments of GenX: bottled frustration, a loss of purpose and meaning, social alienation, apathy, confinement.

Unless you were a very early adopter already swinging glow sticks at illegal raves in 1990 (the so-called “Summer of Love”), you were most likely still about to be weighed down by your first pair of Doc Martins, a shoulder length mop of hair (for guys), and the revival of oh-so-hard-done-by third wave of feminism (for girls – think Tori/Sheryl/Sinead/Alanis).

Grunge reached commercial success in the early 90s after Nirvana released Nevermind and Pearl Jam released Ten. Many grunge bands were uncomfortable with this popularity.

The reluctant messiah’s of the movement lived the grunge brand, and many passed away before the age of 30. Kurt Cobain, Nirvana (suicide); Layne Staley, Alice In Chains (OD); Shannon Hoon, Blind Melon (OD); Doug Hopkins, Gin Blossoms (suicide); Michael Hutchence, INXS (accidental death, drug related).

BORED BUT NOT BITTER The Brits were slightly less intense, and Britpop gave us gems like “I was looking for excitement, but all I found was cigarettes and alcohol” by Oasis, and Pulp famously crooned “[we] dance, and drink, and screw. Because there’s nothing else to do

In a sense Britpop was an answer to the US dominated grunge scene, and reactionary to the self-loathing, self-annihilating aspects of the trend. In a 1993 interview with NME, Damon Albarn of Blur called them an “anti-grunge band” while Noel Gallagher of Oasis, was slightly more outspoken on the matter when referring to their 1994 single “Live Forever”:

” [Live Forever] was written in the middle of grunge and all that, and I remember Nirvana had a tune called ‘I Hate Myself and I Want to Die,’ and I was like . . . ‘Well, I’m not f*cking having that.’ As much as I f*cking like him [Cobain] and all that sh*t, I’m not having that. I can’t have people like that coming over here, on smack, f*cking saying that they hate themselves and they wanna die. That’s f*cking rubbish.”

Um, you tell ’em, Noel.

THE NEXT TRACK Film as a genre captured the spirit of the era and voiced a measure of latent frustration. A certain set of 90s films that can be summed thus: disenchanted youth in transit through some dour landscape end up in a shower of bullets, followed by scenes of explicit and sometimes gratuitous violence and/or sex.

Natural Born Killers, Love and A45, The Professional (or Leon), Thelma and Louise, Fargo, Pulp fiction, The Big Lebowski, even Kids and Fight Club, all adhere to some of the distinctly 90s preoccupations with angst, frustration, sex, drugs and rock & roll.

An now the retro 90s are upon us, one check shirt and deep rock anthem at a time. We are yet again at the end of a decade, and from an economic and environmental perspective, the future is unclear. Record levels of graduates are struggling to find jobs, and we have lost faith in some of our main governing systems and financial institutions. We are on uncertain footing, the angst is there – it sure smells like the 90s.

Recently, The Dead Weather staged a Mickey and Malorie-esque shoot-out in suburbia as a “short film” for the release of their first album. A collaborative project between Jack White (The White Stripes), and Alison Mosshart (The Kills), The Dead Weather released Horehound in July to a fair amount of hype. It was directed by Jonathan Glazer, award-winning music video director for Radiohead.

The Creative Review write-up was cautious:

“The film shows White sizing up to The Kills’ Alison Mosshart in a duel, with both protagonists touting machine guns. Both White and Mosshart show that they can wear a leather jacket very well indeed, but is that enough to justify all the fuss?”

In the name of that distanced, retro 90s cool, wearing your leather jacket very well is probably the entire point. It doesn’t just smell funny, grunge is dead. Long live grunge.

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One Response

  1. Will North says:

    Damn, should’ve held off on the haircut and hung onto my Nirvana t-shirts. Reckon with nineties geeks now representing a chunk of what spending power remains, Smells Like Teen Spirit might soon be playing at an ad near you. Blister in the Sun did wonders for Wendy’s.

    Good read, thanks.

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