90s nostalgia: are we ignoring the present?

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

Everything '90s is currently enjoying a renaissance - and I'm not just talking about the clothes. It's been a few months now since I started coming across discussions on 90s culture on Tumblr and on the blogs I read.

We have 90sWoman, the blog where Kara Jesella and Ada Calhoun discuss being female in the 90s and just how awesome it was. A new generation of viewers is enjoying My So-Called Life and Daria. 14-year-old fashionista Tavi Gevinson, is longing for a teen magazine just like the now-legendary Sassy, which folded before she was born. And you can’t escape blog posts which discuss the female musicians of the decade in awed tones.

It's so easy to get completely immersed in waxing lyrical about just how amazing things were back then. I mean, we're talking about the decade of riot grrrl and DIY. The decade when feminism was right-on, men were progressive and geeks, outcasts and the alternative crowd bonded over zines and the first wave of personal websites, right?

Over a decade on, it becomes easy to romanticise 90s culture and look at it through rose-tinted spectacles, especially when you consider how things have changed. I’ve seen a lot of young women writing online recently about how they feel their generation has no real ‘underground’ or ‘subversive’ scene. The accessibility of the internet has meant that everything remotely alternative becomes ‘trendy’ and ‘overdone’ – look at Myspace and the young people whose internet use it has shaped.

Being a ‘geek’ has been ‘cool’ for a good few years now, but as Tavi pointed out, we now live in a world where Disney markets manufactured ‘alternative’ teen starlets and rebelling against the mainstream IS the mainstream.

Her posts about Sassy magazine elicited a huge response from women and girls – the women fondly remembering 90s culture and the girls wishing they could buy magazines which cover serious issues, reject a narrow definition of femininity and cover subjects beyond those old advertising-industry approved favourites: fashion and diets.

However, at the same time as idolising the 90s I think it’s important that we shouldn’t write off the current decade and all the opportunities it offers us. We can cringe at the way the internet has made counterculture accessible to all, but we shouldn’t forget that the opportunities for learning, communication and self-discovery it has brought have changed so many lives.

This is particularly pertinent when it comes to music. In recent months I’ve seen numerous pieces on women is the industry, contrasting women in the punk and riot grrrl movements with today’s pop starlets and bemoaning how things have turned out (it was all downhill from the Spice Girls onwards, don’t you know).

We can look up to the heroines of the past but it’s also important that we move on and celebrate the present. Instead of longing for a return to the so-called golden age of talented female musicians with a whole lot to say for themselves, we shouldn’t forget that there are so many talented women out there today with much to contribute.

As Jessica Hopper, music critic and author of The Girl’s Guide to Rocking, wrote in a blog post last month:

“Feminism has to move on, salute new icons, be excited by the varieties of archetypes of women in music, be they Gaga or Nite Jewel, that are self-directed, self-produced, not operating under the shadow of a Svengali hand.”

She’s spot on, of course – and her words can be applied not just to the music scene but to the majority of popular culture.

Let’s be nostalgic for the 90s, because let’s face it, so much great stuff came out of that decade. But at the same time, let's not ignore the talent, drive, ambition and achievements of women from the Noughties and beyond - women who are challenging the status quo and doing things their way with amazing success.

This piece originally appeared at BitchBuzz. Image via richkidsunite's Flickr.


katy said...

yessss. I mean, I loved the 90s. I was a mini-baby Riot Grrrl in suburban American. I learned all of my feminist values and jargon from the movement, which have become invaluable today. But we CAN NOT forget that even though people like Kathleen Hannah were shouting loud & proud about being a woman, it was still a time when Bikini Kill were pelted with drinks JUST FOR BEING WOMEN ON STAGE. That seems absolutely archaic today, but it happened time and time again just 15 or so years ago. Yes it was a time of feminist awakening for many many young girls and women, but it wasn't exactly the "best time" to be a woman.

Excellent article Hannah, as always!! <3

Anonymous said...

This is not directed at you, Hannah, because I know you get this. And this post of yours is definitely right on, as usual. (: But I am getting so sick and tired of the myopia of these nostalgia parties over things like the Riot Grrrl movement. I often find them to be very exclusionary and alienating.

To quote a comment by Celestia from this Riot Grrrl/90s nostalgia party:

"...I would have no problem with articles like this if the authors took ownership of the fact that the Riot-grrl movement was largely a movement by middle class white women for middle class white girls, instead of pretending that it was the universal and inclusive voice of a generation when it obviously wasn't.

And to those who would argue that it doesn't matter, since [presumably] white feminists like the authors don't see color, I'd say that they just doesn't see colored PEOPLE, which severely limits and diminishes any feminist critique about pop culture that they may have to offer."

In the 90s, I was a working class black girl living and going to school in a predominantly white, middle- and upper-middle class suburban area. I don't remember ever hearing the word feminism and I had no idea the Riot Grrrl movement was even going on. I didn't really get into rock or alternative music until the mid/late 90s. But in the meantime, I was listening to women artists like Queen Latifah, Salt 'N Pepa, TLC, and Janet Jackson, all of whom I found to be very empowering and pro-woman. These women were probably the catalyst for what would later become my feminism and perhaps a lot of other girls' and women's who may or may not describe their ideals and outlook as "feminist." Whenever these discussions about how wonderful the 90s were for women in music, I never hear about songs like TLC's "Baby Baby Baby," Queen Latifah's "U.N.I.T.Y." or Janet's "Rhythm Nation." And I think that's very telling.

Stepping away from that aspect of the conversation, asserting that there are no woman artists out there right now who have anything worthwhile to say, or who care and are vocal about women's issues, or who are as amazing/cool/revolutionary/bad ass as those from the 90s is ridiculous. I agree with Jessica Hopper when she says that if that's what you think, you're not looking hard enough. There are plenty of amazing women making music these days, some of whom are vocal about their feminism and/or women's issues, and some of whom just want to make music. These women's strength, talent, worth, and level of bad-assery is not diminished by her choosing not to take patriarchy to task every chance they get.

And so that I don't clog up your comments box any more than I already have, I'm going to take this discussion over to my LJ because I have so much more to say about this.

Hannah Mudge said...

Good point Katy, i think it's so easy to forget that the 90s weren't a feminist paradise (not that this is something i can comment on - i was sadly not particularly aware of feminism as a part of my rural, small-town 90s teenhood!). Thank you for linking me in your post about it too <3

Jenn, i totally agree with you! As you say, there is a great deal of invisibility of artists like the ones you loved when it comes to discussion about women in 90s music. I have to say, as a teen who was into a) Britpop and b) Classic rock, the 90s love-ins never really speak to me about music in that way either! I think it's part of the wider problem where the experiences and contributions of white, middle class women are always brought to the fore at the expense of everything else - often being seen as the 'default' experience. I'm looking forward to reading what you have to say over at LJ :)

Zoë said...

this was great hannah, i've been thrawling through all those blogs you linked to and stumbling upon more and more gems that have really expanded my horizons.

"I’ve seen a lot of young women writing online recently about how they feel their generation has no real ‘underground’ or ‘subversive’ scene. The accessibility of the internet has meant that everything remotely alternative becomes ‘trendy’ and ‘overdone’"

I can sympathize with this. Blogs have opened up whole new horizons and possibilities, like tavi's for example. We need more blogs like yours (as an example) that show a wider participation with issues like this, outside of thrifted oxfords and denim shorts.

I don't know if i'm making sense, I'm tired. What I'm trying to say is that I agree, and with all your commenters and it has certainly opened my eyes and given me something to mull over.

Hannah Mudge said...

Glad you liked the post and all the links Zoe :) I think it's even worse for your age group (ie people just a few years younger than me) because your age group is definitely the one where absolutely all 'trends' and subcultures started to become 'overdone' due to the internet. For most of my teenage years, certainly, this wasn't the case. Before social networking and blogging really took off it was really different.

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