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Best Of ’90’s: Well, Hello to ’90s Humility

6 minute read
Richard Stengel

Reassuring things, lists. They affirm that the buzzing, blooming confusion of the universe can be reduced to a tidy vertical column. But wait, there’s a better way to do this. Herewith the Top Four Reasons Why People Love Lists:

1. Lists are fun.

2. Lists are quick.

3. Lists help us remember things.

4. Lists give us something to argue about.

Lists have been around forever. Noah undoubtedly used one to check off the lucky couples on his boat. Moses went up a mountain and came down with one. Man is an inveterate listmaker. I list, therefore I am. To define is to list. A Partial List of Lists (and the list is endless):

1. Grocery lists

2. The Sears Catalog

3. The Bill of Rights

4. Nixon’s enemies list

5. The 1990 Census

The end of the year has become the traditional time of listmaking. (First Forgettable List of the Year: New Year’s resolutions.) Lists may express people’s instinct for order and compulsion to sum things up, but year-end lists also signify the American obsession with who’s numero uno.

The idea of bestness, however, like a list itself, is an illusion. There is no “best.” Bestness is a way of making something subjective appear objective. And best lists are a collection of the biases, or at least the interests, of those who make them. These lists incite a certain introspection too. For example, some of the Values That Made a Resurgence This Year:

1. Moderation

2. Sobriety

3. Restraint

The ostentation of the 1980s vanished; hello, ’90s humility. Good intentions became fashionable once more — even marketable. Ben & Jerry’s Rainforest Crunch ice cream was a best seller.

During the year, the symbolic targets of the ’80s were shot down one by one: Donald Trump, Leona Helmsley, Imelda Marcos, Manuel Noriega, Michael Milken. Each comeuppance inspired an uneasy mix of glee and fear — uneasy because we had so lately embraced the values of those whose falls we were cheering.

So 1990 was the start of a new decade, a new climate, a new mood. And it had barely begun before pundits were scrambling to label it. Some of the First Desperate Efforts to Name the ’90s:

1. The Default Decade

2. The Nurturing ’90s

3. The Gray ’90s

4. The Nervous ’90s

The last is probably best, but it can only be temporary. Decades don’t really become themselves until about their middle. The ’50s died with J.F.K.’s assassination in 1963; the Woodstock Generation did not flower until 1969; Tom Wolfe dubbed the ’70s the Me decade in 1976.

The ’90s will be nervous until they find their identity, but there is still another reason to be worried. Consider this: We’re on the home stretch to the millennium.The end of a century, let alone a millennium, tends to bring forth bursts of energy and confusion. Even in 1990, as the Hubble space telescope peers deeply (sometimes fuzzily) into the cosmos, sliding toward the 20th century’s close feels a little like sailing off the edge of the world. No one knows what is beyond.

As befits the onset of the century’s finale, a mixture of earnestness and irony — a kind of American yin and yang — characterized the year. The Northwest hamlet of Twin Peaks became the moody, ironic capital of the American landscape. Madonna, the queen of camp, literally and cheekily wrapped herself in the Stars and Stripes in a larky get-out-the-vote video. Even George Bush got into the irony act when he told America that since he is President, he no longer has to eat his broccoli.

Family values were smirkily skewered on the small screen, as Father No Longer Knew Best. Dysfunctional families were the rule, and the home was no longer a haven in a heartless world. In a Thursday-night video showdown, it was irony (The Simpsons) vs. earnestness (The Cosby Show), and irony took a bite out of earnestness.

But earnestness was much in evidence in 1990, with the return of the spirit of do-goodism. The environment became the last best cause, the ultimate guilt- free issue. In 1990 it seemed that everything had to be either biodegradable or cholesterol free. The return, once again, of ’60s fashions on Seventh Avenue and ’60s rhetoric on college campuses betokened a revival of activism.

Sincerity and the classic notion of dulces et utiles (to instruct while delighting) were evident in unlikely places. For five nights, Americans were riveted to a spare, elegiac documentary about the Civil War. Its popularity denoted a certain retrospective spirit. Rap hip-hopped from violent rhetoric ) into its own didactic mode, rhythmically urging kids to study, pray and love themselves.

Wherever there is sincerity, though, hypocrisy generally tags along. For a warmup, a brief list of the Year’s Best Euphemisms for Recession:

1. Economic lull

2. Meaningful downturn

3. Gradual decline

Lip-synching is another form of hypocrisy, and the revelations about the pop group Milli Vanilli seemed to be merely part of a trend. Lip-synching, in fact, is a new American art form. Herewith, the Leading Lip Synchers of 1990:

1. Marion Barry. He lip-synched his condemnations of drugs.

2. George Bush. He admitted that he had lip-synched “no new taxes.”

3. S&L officers. They lip-synched their claims to solvency.

4. Ronald Reagan. He lip-synched his autobiography.

Truth often begins as a form of blasphemy: the revelation of deception is a kind of honesty. The year witnessed a variety of examples of candor and a sense of coming to terms with reality. The wishful notion that we were embarking on a kinder, gentler year went out the window with the invasion of Kuwait. Facing facts was evident in everything from the distribution of condoms in public schools to the release of Nelson Mandela, to the movement for congressional-term limits, to William Bennett saying he wanted to leave politics to make money, to Marla Maples (allegedly) saying Best Sex I Ever Had.

In that spirit of candor, the Four Best Things About 1990 Being Over:

1. We will no longer have to guess whether the Trumps will divorce. (They did.)

2. We will no longer have to wonder who killed Laura Palmer. (Her father did.)

3. We will no longer have to read about Millie, the White House dog. (The book can’t be on the best-seller lists much longer.)

4. We will never again have to list the best things about 1990 being over.

Remember, it’s not the end of a year — it’s the beginning of a new list.

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