I’m 45 years old, but I’ve never thought of my own youth as a subject of nostalgia – it’s just there in the rear-view mirror, distant but still plainly visible. Chalk it up to Peter Pan Syndrome if you like. But VICE’s new series, Dark Side of the 90s, puts my misspent younger years in the appropriate context: waaaaaaaay back in the distant past.
It is, I assure you, a very weird feeling. We grow and change and age gradually, for the most part, and so does the broader culture, and so it sometimes takes something like this series to come along and remind you that the flower of your youth shrivelled on the vine quite a while back. Moreover, it grew in the soil of a foreign country, to paraphrase L.P. Hartley.
Still, you can see connections, and map the way our current culture has grown out of some of the topics Dark Side of the 90s tackles. The first episode, ‘Trash TV: Dirty and Deadly Talk’, digs into the sensationalist talk show boom of the decade, where pundits like Geraldo Rivera, Phil Donahue and Sally Jessy Raphael trawled America for the most outré and outrageous guests and encouraged them to debase themselves for the amusement of the audience. Jerry Springer was the king of the castle, his show including topics as edifying as “I Married a Horse”. After the inevitable backlash the last host standing was Oprah Winfrey, who pivoted from hyperbolic scandal to being the Mother of All Media we know today.
And yet, is there that much distance between what guests on these shows would do for attention and validation on today's social media or reality TV, where the slim but real opportunity to go viral seems worth any amount of shameless posturing, posing and self-debasement?
The Geraldos and Jerrys of the world set a stage where fame and attention were the only real currency, and a lot of people are still dancing on it. Indeed, the roots of influencer culture can be seen in episode 9, ‘Secrets of the Runway’ which focuses on the supermodels of the ’90s and the massive sway they, and the fashion houses who clothed them, wielded over high culture.
Closer to home for me – and to ground level – we get ‘Grunge and the Seattle Sound’, a look at, well, exactly what it says, in particular the saga of Seattle’s Sub Pop recording label, who gave us Nirvana, Soundgarden, Mudhoney, and, as an eventual side effect, a rush on flannel shirts and Chuck Taylors.
They gave that to MTV too, and while the lurid details of Kurt Cobain’s suicide might be the obvious draw for this one, to me what’s more interesting is the way the mainstream drags fringe culture to the centre for fun and profit, taking the weird and wonderful and commodifying it. We’ve seen it over the past decade or so with comic book movies and superheroes, but the way grunge went from a local phenomenon to a global genre is a perfect example.
That seems to happen much faster these days thanks to the rise of the World Wide Web, as no one calls it these days. Dark Side of the 90s would be remiss if it didn’t offer up a take on the nascent internet of the time, when dial-up modems meant the landline (remember landlines?) was out of commission if you wanted to hang out in an IRC chatroom, and the dot com bubble got impossibly big before the inevitable burst.
The final episode, ‘Internet 1.0: Don’t Believe the Hype’, maps out this corner of the period, when countless companies and start-ups pivoted to an online business model without really understanding what that meant, or the risks involved.
The early days of the World Wide Web were really the Wild Wild West, with all the massive risk and rewards that implies. Still, as Dark Side of the 90s shows, it was a time before Facebook, Twitter and all their attendant woes, so maybe that part of the decade is worth viewing through rose-tinted glasses.
Ten-part series Dark Side of the 90s starts at 8.30pm on Monday 8 November on SBS VICELAND. Episodes air weekly, or stream the full series at SBS On Demand from 8.30pm on 8 November.