Everything I Do, pt 9: Did we dream the 90s? [September 1, 1991]
Plus: Marky Mark, Dire Straits, and Flowered Up are Album of the Week
This week’s Number 1 :
‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’ — Bryan Adams
Back in the 90s, everyone was terrified that they would end up trapped in a big house with a great job.
Maybe this wasn’t a new concern. David Byrne sang about bourgeois stagnation in 1980 and those of us who grew up with Talking Heads were wary of getting into situations where we might ask ourselves, “well, how did I get here?”
By the end of the 90s, this feeling had ballooned into full-blown cultural anxiety, as all-consuming back then as today’s fears about climate change neo-fascism. Just think about all the films about an unhappy white office worker who lashes out against the system:
Eyes Wide Shut
Being John Malkovich
All of these films came out within a few months of each other in 1999, each offering a different spin on the same existential fear, the fear that the world was entering a comfortable middle age that would stifle and smother us. That we would lose our vitality because we were too rich and our lives were too stable.
Lol. How did that work out for you, 90s kids?
Thing is, the 90s actually were quite comfortable. Possibly more comfortable than any other point in human history.
The biggest event of the 90s was the fall of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War. In September of 1991, Gorbachev had just survived a last-ditch communist coup, and Ukraine and Belarus had declared their independence.
The USSR would be gone by Christmas. Communism had outlasted the reign of ‘(Everything I Do) I Do It For You’ at Number One, but only by a few weeks.
Around this time, Francis Fukuyama wrote his hugely influential book, The End of History and The Last Man. This book argues that we had achieved the final form of human civilization: liberal democracy with an open economy. Our whole history had been a journey towards this point, said Fukuyama, and all that was left for us to do was to spread this system to every corner of the planet.
The human race was finally thinking about settling down.
Events in the 90s did little to contradict Fukuyama. Russia’s transition to democracy happened without much fuss. There was shocking genocide in Rwanda, Somalia and the Balkan states, but those felt like isolated, contained incidents. They all responded well to Western intervention.
Here in Ireland, the big story of the decade was the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement. It was brilliant and moving, but like the fall of Communism and Mandela’s release from jail, it felt not so much like something happening as like something ending. The end of history.
So, what actually happened in the 90s?
Honestly, not much. Apart from the above, the main events I remember are:
The OJ Trial
Bill Clinton and Monica Lewinsky
Death of Princess Diana
Pulp Fiction, Romeo + Juliet, Trainspotting
The Pulp Fiction soundtrack, the Romeo + Juliet soundtrack, the Trainspotting soundtrack
The summer of Britpop
Using the ugly-ass Web 1.0 to make a Geocities page
Italia 90, USA 94, Euro 96, and France 98
The launch of the Playstation
Bryan Adams being Number One for 16 weeks
All of these are either pop culture events, or events that were packaged and consumed like pop culture. We talked about Clinton getting a blowie for months because there was nothing else to distract us.
Truly, it was a Golden Age.
Except of course it wasn’t, not really. History was still happening all around the world. Everything that makes us anxious in the 2020s was brewing in the background of the 90s. Osama bin Laden and/or George W Bush were plotting 9/11. Scientists were amassing incontrovertible evidence of a growing climate crisis. An increasingly unregulated economy was driving a wedge between rich and poor.
I’ve started another rewatch of Friends recently. Each time, it gets harder to ignore the misogyny, the homophobia and trans panic, the conspicuous lack of non-white actors.
Why didn’t we see these issue in the 90s? For the same reason that a fish doesn’t notice water. It was everywhere.
The 90s monoculture was a cozy womb that protected us from everything bad. If you were a straight, white man back then, you got the elite VIP service, and the monoculture constantly reassured you that you were special and everything was going to be fine.
Maybe this is what really inspires those Man Against The System movies of the late 90s. It’s not really a fear of being tamed, but a subconscious understanding that none of this was real. The 90s were a sweet daydream from which we would eventually have to wake up.
Elsewhere in the charts
Number 8 (↑ from 11): ‘Insanity’ — Oceanic
Not gonna lie, a lot of these early 90s dance anthems blur into one for me. This is the one that goes:
It’s good fun, without having anything that makes it stand it out. Extremely “Track 7 on that 90s Flashback Party!!! CD you bought for three quid in a petrol station in 2009” vibes.
Number 16 (↑ from 29): ‘Good Vibrations’ — Marky Mark and the Funky Bunch
There’s actually nothing remarkable about this song either, except for the person singing it. That’s right - it’s Donnie from NKOTB’s little brother!
Marky Mark had something of a bad boy image back then, thanks to his hip-hop sound and a Calvin Klein ad campaign that featured him in his underwear. Also, there was his history of racist violence that almost ended in murder.
This is what happens when you don’t have cancel culture.
Ironically, Mark Wahlberg these days is one of the most reliable presences in our culture. He’s the guy you call when you don’t have the budget for Matt Damon. Nobody has ever said, “we must see this film, it’s got Mark Wahlberg” but nobody has ever avoided a Mark Wahlberg movie either. He’s just kind of there.
Number 25 (New Entry): ‘Hearthammer’ — Runrig
I think this inspired Bo Burnham’s song ‘Problematic’ from his new Netflix comedy special.
Number 28 (↓ from 21): ‘Calling Elvis’ — Dire Straits
I never really understood the appeal of Dire Straits. ‘Romeo and Juliet’ is a great song but after that it all gets so dreary. If Dire Straits were a building, they would be an industrial estate; if they were weather, they would be drizzle; if they were a day of the week, they’d be a Tuesday afternoon.
But people seem quite passionate about them, so I guess there’s something there that I’m missing.
Number 37 (New Entry): ‘Can’t Give You More’ — Status Quo
One of my earliest memories is seeing Status Quo on TV talking about their farewell tour. It wasn’t their first farewell tour, and there would be many more farewell tours in the years after.
The end of Status Quo was kind of a running joke in the 80s. They were always talking about calling it a day, but then another single would inevitably appear. Status Quo were the DFS Sale of their time, forever on the brink of ending.
And they’re still not gone. Despite the death of Rick Parfitt in 2016, the band went on to record their 33rd album in 2019, and they plan to tour again in 2022.
Album of the Week
A Life With Brian — Flowered Up
When Flowered Up are remembered at all, which they rarely are, they’re remembered as Madchester also-rans.
Which is kind of understandable. Liam Maher’s vocal style borrows some techniques from Shaun Ryder, plus they have a Bez-style figure whose role in the band is simply “vibes”. Flowered Up’s version of Bez was an interior decorator named Barry who danced on stage in a spandex leotard and a rubber flower that he wore like an Elizabethan ruff.
Barry kept up his decorating career during his time in the band. One of his clients was a London billionaire, who made the terrible mistake of trusting Barry with the keys to an opulent mansion that needed a new coat of paint.
As soon as the mansion’s owner was gone on holiday, Barry contacted the rest of the band to tell them he’d found a venue for the A Life With Brian launch party. The result was one of the most legendary housewreckers in the history of free gaffs.
Flowered Up had a reputation as the biggest caners on the British music scene, and they proved it with some Herculean drug consumption over the following week. Everyone who was anyone dropped by that party, including the novelist Hanif Kureshi, who wrote a whole chapter about it in his second book, The Black Album.
Unfortunately, the album was less popular than the party to launch it, and A Life With Brian failed to find either critical or commercial success. People who had seen the band on stage (not me, I was 13) said that the record didn’t capture any of the frenetic energy of their live shows, and instead it sounded like…. well, like a bunch of Madchester also-rans.
Listening back now, i’s not that bad. The lead single “It’s On” is pretty fun. They soon found some success with their Weekender EP, the title track being a 15-minute opus with an extremely controversial video.
Liam Maher died of a heroin overdose in 2009, and his brother went the same way a few years later. Food for thought, perhaps, about how we normalised and even idealised self-destructive behaviour back in the 90s.
Into the tenth week of the Adams saga. Can you believe it?