The 1990s: The American Renaissance

Posted on February 12, 2010


I know what I am writing is going to make me sound like some old curmudgeon: Some 60-year old, telling you about “The Good Ole Days”. However, there is some truth to the fact that some times are much better than others. The days of The Holy Roman Empire, surely, must have been better than The Dark Ages which immediately followed it—On all fronts! There may have been a few fortunate souls who prospered during The Dark Ages, but such exceptions only prove the rule.

When the Renaissance bloomed, it was largely due to one person who wanted to return to the Grecian roots of Europe. Eventually artists followed suit and so birthed “The Renaissance”. Despite crippling wars and famine, the spirit of the culture was never more alive. So much so, that the term “Renaissance” now has been raped of all its meaning and appropriated into a marketing catch-phrase; usually to sell real-estate in bad neighborhoods. Even I am a bit reluctant to use it, but I think it fits the theme of this entry.

No period takes place inside a vacuum; as most historians would have you believe. Cultures and empires are not isolated little pieces of land—they are just written to be that way. It's easier for some Yale historian to talk about things in big sweeping strokes. Hence empires and people are oft isolated from the rest of the world. And what I mean by “easier”, is that it is easier to bullshit your peers and colleagues, news outlets, and laypeople into thinking you have something of value to contribute. Hell, if enough people bite, it's a great way to promote your new book! You're the “expert” in the field—you should be—you are the one who made it up! Also, as a professor at a university, you probably have a publishing quota.

The Faustian Man's Protip: Never listen to these assholes. I don't care how likable they seem.

Thus, we cannot trust any academic about the 1990s. Yet, we need to know the context at which this Renaissance took place. In short, we must think of a suitable frame for the painting so titled, “The Last decade of the 20th century”.

Well, the 1990s were foretold to be America's last stand. It was going to be the end of American culture and perhaps even the end of the republic. I actually remember being taught in school—another reason I hated school—that Hawai'i would undoubtedly be sold off to the Japanese. Yes…the Japanese.

America—Nay! The world was going to be “taken-over” by the Japanese. They had already begun to buy golf-courses and real estate in New York City—GASP!

This type of shit was filled into every American's head throughout the late 1980s and up to the late 1990s. Think-tanks and laymen alike were saying: The Japanese were going to win “the war” after all—the economic one. This was the type of shit that was pouring out of every media outlet, and every “expert” on foreign policy. It was a warped and fucked up time. And the scary part is, it was only 20 years ago. Don't believe me?

Hell, take a look at America's largest news magazine, TIME's covers:

It is no larger than a few grains of rice, but it was big enough to cause one of the most serious episodes between the U.S. and Japan since the end of World War II. It is the tiny microchip, a sophisticated bit of silicon that is the indispensable heart of the techtronic age, the raw material for everything from talking teddy bears to personal computers to intercontinental missiles. After the Reagan Administration imposed trade sanctions against Japan in an attempt to protect American makers of microchips, it suddenly looked last week as if the U.S. and Japan were headed for what could become a major trade row. In fact, Tokyo TV commentators described the event with the phrase Kaisen zen- ya (the eve of war), an expression used to describe the days before Pearl Harbor. In Washington, U.S. Trade Representative Clayton Yeutter, while insisting that a trade war was not at hand, nonetheless called the confrontation a "serious dispute." TIME

TIME magazine was preparing many literate, white-collar Americans for something akin to another Pearl Harbor. This was not a fringe magazine and/or something that pandered to xenophobic rednecks, but a (supposedly) “respectable” news source. Here is another one. Notice the Japanese in “military” fatigues in the upper right-hand corner?


The year is 1992. A local conflict has closed the Strait of Malacca, blocking Japanese tankers laden with Persian Gulf oil from entering the South China Sea. The Japanese Prime Minister places a call to the White House.

"Good evening, Mr. President," he says. "Would you consider sending the U.S. Navy to escort my ships through the strait?" Pause. The President is well aware that the request is coming from America's biggest creditor. "Why, yes, of course," he replies. The Prime Minister thanks him, adding, "I am certain that your help will reassure our private investors enough so that they will buy their usual share of Treasury bills at next Tuesday's auction."

Washington strategists have begun to envision that scenario when talk turns — as it increasingly does nowadays — to Japan's growing influence. The very prospect of such pressure, however remote, is part of a subtle change in the way Americans view the Japanese. No longer is Japan seen simply as a tireless competitor and an endless source of high-quality goods. Japan's successes have been so spectacular that they seem ready to burst beyond economic bounds.

At a time of constant warnings that the U.S. is in decline, Japan, above all other nations, is conspicuously on the rise. "There's no reason that Japan won't continue to grow," says Yale History Professor Paul Kennedy, author of The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. "Its economic drive is pushing it toward center stage." Most experts agree. "The American century is over," says Clyde Prestowitz, a former Deputy Assistant Secretary of Commerce in the Reagan Administration and author of Trading Places: How We Allowed Japan to Take the Lead. "The big development in the latter part of the century is the emergence of Japan as a major superpower."TIME

I am all for the first amendment, but there should be some accountability in writing this garbage. You know what, fuck it, I'll say it outright: This type of “news-reporting” should be illegal, the magazine headquarters should be burned to the ground, and everyone associated with this piece, including immediate family, should be lined up and shot in the streets. There. I wanted to make myself absolutely clear about how I feel about this and not to send any mixed messages.


Stabbing Westward – Save Yourself

Can you believe it, this band was thought to be too commercial and produced in the 1990s? However, I chose it because, there isn't much to interpret. Everything is said upfront and at face value. This is what people listened to to feel better in the 1990s. And I would still choose it over almost anything post 2001.

As you can see for yourself, nothing much was really expected from America. I mean besides fading into complete economic oblivion (unlike the 2000s, where America was supposed to have all this futuristic technology—and all we got were iPods and internet pornography—not that I have something against internet pornography).

The idea of “Japanese domination” so permeated American popular culture, that many American films produced in this time period incorporated it into wardrobe and scenic design—especially if said film was to take place in the future.

Japanese Kimonos and Architecture in the future of Los Angeles c.2032

You Cannot Sell Nihilism

It has been said: Art is a resistance. However, when there is relativity little to resist, you need an ethos that sets the tone for the generation. That ethos, which embodied the 90s, or lack of, could be surmised as: Nihilism.

I know what you are thinking, “What about Grunge?” Well, Grunge was something that was associated with specific musical acts and fashion. Whereby, I felt it did not cover a large portion of youth who did not:

1. Like Nirvana
2. Buy $80 flannels 
3. Buy designer ripped jeans 

4. Own Boss-OD 2 guitar pedals

Nihilism was brought to the forefront of American culture by a handful of individuals. It was raw, angry, aggressive, and self-destructive. It could not be sold and could not last. It was a wave, that had already crested and was beginning to shatter into pieces. It was unstable and threatened to rip anything apart that stood in its way. Such a band stood in the forefront and embraced being ripped to shreds: Nine Inch Nails.

Nine Inch Nails – March Of The Pigs

Playing live was, at the time, something bands had to do—and do well. Much of the computer technology music acts being used today was simply out of reach. Today's music (if I dare call it such a thing) utilizes computer programs like “Vocal Pitch” and overuse of “ProTools” to squeeze every bit of life from a performance, and make even the most horrendous of a singer sound frighteningly mediocre.

Whilst the limitations of the era made the use of the computer in music a bit exotic, it was more of an analogue to an instrument than something used to enhance talent, or lack thereof. Bands that relied heavily on computers and synthesizers, still had to be able to pull off a spectacular live show. In other words: They had to be competent musicians.

Pearl Jam – Animal Live 1993

The decade of the 1990s was the last time America crested into anything new or unique. Before it fell face down into boy-bands and teenage pop-stars and their entire catalogue of disposable music. It was a creative time that burned bright and hard. But like all things that do so, they never burn long—and that is a good thing.

Henry Rollins on rave and modern rock music

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