He coined the term “Generation X” and has become one of the world’s premiere cultural commentators. Author, visual artist and noted “futurist” Douglas Coupland looks backwards for a change, and gives HISTORY his take on the oft-maligned 1990s.
On August 11, 1992, I was in suburban Minneapolis for the opening of the Mall of America, the largest shopping mall on Earth. I was on a book tour and in the early afternoon I spent 60 minutes with the local AM radio station host, seated in chairs on a small plywood platform smelling of popcorn and apples, and where every 62 seconds a roller-coaster car shaped like the head of Snoopy roared just above our stand at 547 miles per hour. It’s amazing how quickly that sort of regularized intrusion becomes invisible. The entire set up was very old-school middle America in the most charming kind of way — all that was missing was a 4-H poultry competition or a barber shop quartet singing “The Michigan Rag.” The host of the local AM station had been the host of the local AM station for a long, long time, looked at me and assumed that I was probably some young smartass, and he looked at me (me in my olive green cargos shorts with an appliqué of Chairman Mao’s head on the front) and said, “I guess you must find it really stupid that everyone is here and having a good time and brainlessly shopping like capitalist robots.”
I looked at him with genuine sadness. “No. Not at all!”
“Why not then?”
“Because…” and I got to thinking about it. “I actually think that future generations are going to look at images of today here in Minnesota and see them as a sort of golden age of American culture. The peace. The calm. The abundance. The bottomless goodwill of everyone here. I’m unsure if it’s going to last much longer and I think we should appreciate it while it’s here.”
He glared at me, for somehow I’d screwed up his script, and (and I love saying this, so indulge me,) I WAS RIGHT.
The 1990s were a darned good decade, and everybody’s now coming to realize this, but people also need to know that when the 1990s began, it felt like anything but a decade with a unique tone and texture and attitude. It felt like nothing. It felt blank. In 1992, Francis Fukuyama declared the end of history and everyone believed it. The 80s, whatever they were, were over and we were collectively entering what felt like a blank sheet of white paper.
In 1990, I lived in the desert around Palm Springs, California, and spent hundreds of lost days driving through the town’s surrounding nothingness in my old VW, which had primitive AM radio that was only able to receive geriatric ice-rink music on the local stations. I’d drive through failed 1960s subdivisions surrounded by dead palm trees, their rat-infested fronds long-ago incinerated by bored skateboarders. I don’t know what a one-way trip to Mars must feel like, but maybe I do: it feels like living in the desert around Palm Springs, California, in 1990.
I was living in there because I’d been there once before and I thought it was a romantic place to write a novel — which it was. But when I moved there I was also the only human being under the age of 35 in the entire Coachella Valley — a region that spans from Palm Springs at the north, to Indio at the South. These days everyone knows the name Coachella — which is shocking to me, as I chose Palm Springs and the Coachella Valley to live in and write in specifically because it was the closest you could get to being in a non-place while still being on planet Earth. It was pre-gay, it was pre-mid century modern. It was pre-hip. It was this weird Californian chunk of asteroid real estate under a bell jar, inhabited by eightysomething film industry people who purchased their last decorator throw-cushion the day Richard Nixon resigned.
I finished writing my first novel, “Generation X,” in early April 1990. It was published in March 1991. Around this time Richard Linklater put out his seminal film, “Slacker,” and then there came Nirvana and Pearl Jam and Grunge and Microsoft. And then suddenly there was a decade. As a magazine friend told me near then end of the 90s, “Three of anything is a trend!”
What made the 1990s feel like the 1990s? It wasn’t just MTV’s all-weekend Madonnathons, grungewear and the theme song from “Friends.” At the very least, in North America and Europe, the 1990s possessed a sense of happiness that seems long vanished. Money still generated money. Computers were becoming fast easy and cheap, and with them came a sense equality for everyone. Things were palpably getting better everywhere. History was over and it felt great. I also remember working at Wired magazine, though, in 1993, and having a discussion about the internet with one of the editors, Kevin Kelly. The thrust was that there was an internet, sure, but there was nowhere to go. Kevin said, “Nonsense,” and took me to a website showing a slowly downloading weather map of Northern California and southern Oregon.
“Look at that! It refreshes every six hours!”
I instantly reached the conclusion that the 1990s needed a magic something called content.
Other 1990s moments…
I remember flying first class on Lufthansa and getting a dinner knife that was essentially a ten-point stag antler with a chainsaw blade. I thought to myself: Hmmm… this seems somehow unsustainable.
I remember visiting Microsoft’s campus in 1993. There was no security and we walked past Bill Gates’ office as if we were walking past the office of Gavin from HR.
I remember driving over the Hammersmith flyover while the radio announcer said it was the hottest day in English history.
I remember Nirvana Unplugged. I happened to be in MTV’s office’s on November 18, 1993, and Judy McGrath said, “Want to go see Nirvana tonight?” Drool. Fourth row, directly in front of Kurt. It was a Woodstock for a lost generation. I remember discussing Kurt with the two friends I brought (yes, that’s correct, I had three tickets.) We were wondering how long Kurt was going to last, and it wasn’t being done in a snarky or ironic way. There was a definite sense to us in the fourth row that all was not right for Kurt, and we resigned ourselves to the fact that nothing very, very good, and nothing very, very bad, ever lasts very, very long. By February 1994, Kurt was dead and the decade lost its innocence. It actually got noisier and more party-like, and then around 2000 I think most people began to feel about the 1990s the way I’d felt about Kurt, that it had to end pretty soon. And then it did.