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Some useful notes regarding the Real Life 1990s, from tropers who remember them.

Daily Life:

  • For the first time in U.S. history, more Americans lived in affluent suburban neighborhoods rather than in cities or towns or on farms. Fueled by this millions-strong middle class, the American "consumer culture" that had been burgeoning since The Fifties reached its apotheosis. There were more creature comforts and general amusements than ever before (including some that were relatively new for the decade, such as cellular phones and hand-held videogame consoles), as well as more people to enjoy them and more dollars with which to buy them. The factor most responsible for setting the stage for this fabulous prosperity remains controversial among social scientists and political pundits, but the general consensus is that the country was reaping a generation's worth of benefits from a dramatic economic shift (dubbed the "New Economy") that had phased out the old industrial labor market (which, frankly speaking, had subordinated the material interests of laborers to those of management) and reoriented American workers toward businesses that capitalized more on individual ingenuity and creativity (such as computer technology).
  • The 1990s were the point at which drug awareness reached the point of Narm. Anti-drug commercials were sprinkled in between shows aimed at eight-year-olds, most of whom weren't exactly being offered to begin with. [1] Programs like DARE were at their most aggressive (and least effective), and Rachael Leigh Cook was tearing up her kitchen for unclear reasons. Amongst adults, employee drug tests were ubiquitous no matter your line of work.
  • Professional Basketball exploded in popularity, thanks in no small part to Michael Jordan, the man often called basketball's version of Babe Ruth or Pele. It's no coincidence that the most watched basketball game of all time was in 1998.
  • Moral Guardians were at their most hot-and-bothered since The Fifties, as a result of shows like Beavis and Butthead and The Simpsons, violent video games (more on that below) and musicians like Marilyn Manson and most Gangsta Rap artists. The guardianship was thought to have jumped the shark in 1994 when a Jerry Falwell-produced video claimed that President Bill Clinton was a Serial Killer who had ordered hits on political enemies, but it came back with a vengeance after Columbine provided them with a holy grail of things to panic about -- two teenagers who played Doom and listened to "violent" rock music shooting up their school while dressed in black.
  • Product synergy reached its weirdness apex in the '90s when Disney partnered with Nestle to create the Wonder Ball, a ball of hollow chocolate with character-shaped candy inside, and a hell of a lot of packaging.
  • In the mid 90s advertisements for pretty much anything attempting to market to Gen-Xers became in your face and EXTREME!!! Usually came in one of two flavors. Don't Just (verb), (verb) TO THE EXTREME!!! or This isn't your grandma's(noun).
  • Partisan politics were extremely volatile, though nowhere near as much as today. Until the 1990s, right-wing media was more or less restricted to print, but new elements like The Rush Limbaugh Show (est. 1988) and Fox News Channel (est. 1996) helped bring political arguments into every day life. Left-wing media still had a few years to catch up.
  • Though they'd made an attempt on the World Trade Center in 1993 and were certainly on the public's radar, radical Muslim terrorists weren't the hot-button terrorist threat du jour. That was mostly homegrown militia groups, religious cults, and other nutballs. The Unabomber, Oklahoma City, and the Atlanta Olympic Games are the most famous, but there were many others, including a pair of high-profile abortion clinic bombings, and many feared an attack where they lived. Though domestic terrorism certainly didn't end, the media focus turned to Islamic extremism late in the decade.
    • In the UK, the IRA continued to be a threat, albeit a diminishing one, until quite late in the decade, thanks to some political wheeling and dealing that required one of the Ulster Loyalist parties propping up John Major's government, and the continued financial support of the IRA from Noraid in the US.
  • Starting in the '90s, a lot of the stigma surrounding such things as cohabitation and single-parent homes started to slowly fade away. (Murphy Brown's single motherhood -- a fact of life that seems ridiculously banal today -- was actually an issue in the 1992 Presidential election.) As opposed to the earlier decades when people kept problems to themselves, the mental focus of the '90s was all about being open with one's life issues. Gay rights were just starting to be a topic of conversation, though cultural mores generally kept gay relationships in subtext rather than text.


  • School busing had become very unwieldy in some parts of the country, with very few kids going to their local school unless they had no other choice.
  • So how did kids get to school? More often than not, your parents drove you. Unlike in The Fifties, there was no stigma against it -- it was just how you got there. Since this was the era of "Stranger Danger", it would only be under the rarest circumstances that a kid would walk to school -- usually, only if you could see the school from your front yard, and maybe not even then. If you couldn't walk, and your parents couldn't drive you, only then did you take the bus.
    • This varied from town to town. In some cities, taking the school bus was normal. In others, walking was normal.
  • People began to realize that the school day ended a couple of hours before the workday (typically a school day is 8:00 to 3:00, while a workday is from 9:00 to 5:00), which meant we had kids with some free time on their hands with no supervision. Obviously, we couldn't have that, so schools began investing in after-school programs to keep kids away from gangs, rap music, violent video games, and afternoon TV. Of course, these were optional, so many kids went home after the school day anyway -- and which activities were offered, if any were offered at all, depended on the school.
  • Also, people began taking note of the fact that few people went to their local school, so they began lobbying for a way to not pay taxes to a school they weren't even using. For a few months, a hot topic of debate in some parts of the country was the creation of "school vouchers", which allowed residents to apply their school taxes to a school of their choosing. A lot of private schools really liked this idea for obvious reasons, but it didn't gain enough traction to be successful. Part of the problem that many liberals had with it was that it would not only drain the public school system of money, but that said money would be put into religious schools -- and in America, any proposal that would likely lead to government funding of religious institutions is a huge no-no in many quarters.
  • Another hot-button issue surrounding education was the fact that some school districts had much less than other school districts, meaning they didn't even have the costs to cover anything but the most basic education. A "Robin Hood" legislation was proposed, where the richer districts would share their wealth with the poorer ones. Given what that proposal sounds like to most Americans, it went over about as well as a lead balloon.
  • And a third hot-button issue surrounding education, particularly in affluent areas of the Northeast section of the United States, was the cousin of school vouchers (which were mainly utilized by various Catholic schools, not public ones), the "desegregation" program. There was a lot of backpedaling by officials to note that it did not refer to race, it referred to mixing "underprivileged" students in with affluent ones. Call it what you like, it didn't go over well either.
  • Unlike in, say, The Fifties, there was a huge stigma around dropping out of school. Not having a high school diploma essentially doomed one to a life of flipping burgers, pushing shopping carts and other menial, low-paying jobs with few prospects. Skipping class was also a no-no and carried some heavy penalties. Going to college was more or less expected and was considered the rule, not the exception. While not going to college wasn't terrible for you, if you didn't instead get a good job or enter the military right out of high school you were seen as slacking off. This may have had something to do with a lot of fathers in the era being Vietnam veterans, whose schooling was either interrupted or impossible due to being drafted. They wanted their children to have the education they never got.
  • Columbine changed the game at school, if only for a brief time. Towards the end of the '90s, most schools started really ramping-up security measures in fears that they would be the next target of a shooting. There would also usually be a seminar about being tolerant of other viewpoints and so on.


  • As for the Networks, NBC was pretty much king of the roost thanks to its lineup of sitcoms. Fox had The Simpsons, The X-Files and its massive sports contract to fall back on, and CBS and ABC were pretty much neck-and-neck at the bottom. ABC did have a success story with TGIF, though. 1995 saw the birth of The WB and UPN, and while neither would reach the mass appeal of the Big Four, they would ultimately be successful within their own niches (teenagers and young adults for the WB, and African-Americans for UPN). Cable was still largely a wasteland of reruns, syndication, cooking shows and movies, with the few channels that did become popular (MTV, ESPN, HBO, Cartoon Network, Nickelodeon) doing so by carving out their own niches instead of trying to compete with broadcast television. The common joke about cable was that it was "57 channels and nothin' on." It was only at the end of the decade when HBO started debuting shows like The Sopranos and Sex and the City and proving that cable was a viable outlet for popular original programming.
  • The '90s was more or less the decade of the Sitcom, with Seinfeld and Cheers leading the way, followed by Friends and Frasier.
    • This was actually more complicated. The worst sitcoms today would seem positively mediocre compared to some of the things that aired back then. For example, Charlie Hoover.
  • Western Animation started coming into its own after decades of stagnation.
  • Animal Planet launched in 1996 as a spin-off of the Discovery Channel, focusing on nature and wildlife-centric programming. the network is still running strong decades later.
  • The 24-hour cable news network really got its motor running in the '90s, starting with CNN's famous coverage of the Gulf War. With national stories coming to a head (Bill Clinton's involvement with Monica Lewinsky; JonBenet Ramsey; Columbine; OJ Simpson), a combination of the networks and the Internet made reporting what it is today (same info repeated ad nauseum, new info as needed). Sadly, this also started the trend of news networks latching onto and subsequently overreporting whatever they deemed to be the "next big thing".
  • Anime was just starting to gain a following in the United States. Girls had Sailor Moon and the boys had Dragon Ball Z, and... that was about it unless you wanted to really do some hardcore searching. Of course, these anime were Bowdlerised out the wazoo, but most kids didn't know, as they had nothing to compare it to. The only way to acquire Manga was through specialty stores and importers, and it was expensive and often poorly translated (if at all). In 1998, Pokémon showed up and really kick-started the anime boom, allowing it to really take root and become the industry it is today.
    • In other Japanese media news, the live-action Super Sentai franchise was also redone as an American production in 1993 and took hold as Mighty Morphin Power Rangers. In the wake of it becoming a hit, there were a bunch of low-budget live-action superhero shows square in the middle of the decade; some adapted from other Japanese series and some made from whole cloth - a number of them were even by Rangers producers Saban Entertainment, trying to replicate its success. By the time Pokémon arrived, only Power Rangers remained, having begun to Grow the Beard.
    • Meanwhile, the liberation of air broadcasting in several Latinamerican countries on the early to mid nineties led to the need of fill endless hours of broadcast on the early morning and the after-school-pre-primetime slots. With what they filled it, you ask? With several hundreds hours of dubbed anime (mostly licensed Toei fare), that's what. Even if most of them were fairly unknown series even today, this still meant that series like Ranma ½, Saint Seiya, Dragon Ball (the full series, not just the Z season), Slam Dunk and Captain Tsubasa, among dozens of others, who in USA were known mostly by Japanimation aficionados, were fairly mainstream shows down the border.
  • In the world of film, James Cameron gained, or rather secured, his Auteur License by directing Titanic, which would displace Star Wars from the seat of highest-grossing film of all time (Avatar has since passed it) and become the first movie in history to make a billion dollars. That movie pulled down $600 million domestically.
  • Mel Gibson and Tom Cruise were among the biggest stars in Hollywood. While Mel had made some inflammatory remarks in some magazine interviews, and Cruise was suffering from media oversaturation with his then-wife Nicole Kidman, they were still beloved by moviegoers.
  • Viewership of a show lived and died on the TV ratings. If, say, the network scheduled your favorite show out of order or preempted it with sports, the best you could hope for was to write a letter and hope they read it. There were no DVDs for repeated watching of a show so Keep Circulating the Tapes applied to absolutely everything. Online communities (to get the word out about the mistreatment of a show) were still embryonic -- it was only late in the decade that networks began caring (slightly) about a show's online "buzz," as this meant that the show was reaching a wealthy and educated audience.
  • Reality TV was getting its start with MTV's The Real World, but the genre didn't seriously pick up until the 2000s.
  • Professional Wrestling entered a boom period in the mid-'90s when the WWF and WCW, in an attempt to cash in on the trend started by small independent promotion ECW, went in a Darker and Edgier direction, pushing adult themes and anti-heroic wrestlers and stables like The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, the nWo and Degeneration X. WWF would later come to call this time in their history the Attitude Era. This type of programming led to the Monday Night Wars, a time in the late-'90s in which the two promotions were at each other's throats for dominance of the wrestling landscape, and millions THE MILLIONS! were tuning in to watch. Like any form of "edgy" media that entered the mainstream American consciousness in this decade, pro wrestling soon came under fire from Moral Guardians who were upset about all the violence, cursing and sex that was being broadcast, as well as the tendency of fans to try and imitate what they had seen (often to disastrous results).
  • Pogs! Anyone Remember Pogs? Originally the bottle caps from bottles of pineapple-orange-guava juice, they quickly became little decorated cardboard disks that were used to play some kind of game. For about six months in 1993, they were bloody ubiquitous.
  • The Star Trek franchise was at its zenith with three almost concurrent series in that decade, not to mention the feature films. However, viable TV competitors to Trek's Space Opera monopoly finally arose with the ambitious Babylon 5 and the amazingly enduring Stargate SG-1.
  • This is the decade where international interest in telenovelas truly exploded, expanding even further that it was in the previous decade. The decade was practically dominated by Mexican shows, with Venezuelan ones following its steps, at least during the first half. Thalia became a household name within three continents, thanks to the three "María" soaps she starred, up to including Maria La Del Barrio. On the latter half, interest for productions from Brazil and Colombia's soaps increased, due to the comparatively "grittier" and "realistic" feeling they had compared with the most classical Mexican exports, without putting the romance on the backsear. Among the Brazilian soaps, series like Pantanal and Xica da Silva generated intercontinental interest, while Colombia grabbed some on its own with Café con aroma de mujer, Las Aguas Mansas, and Yo Soy Betty, la Fea.


  • Nowadays, '90s fashion is often shown as indistinguishable from the Turn of the Millennium. While there were some stylistic similarities due to proximity of time (urban wear in particular has seen little change since the days of N.W.A.), in some respects the styles were vastly different.
    • That is, if you're thinking of late '90s fashion. Mid-'90s fashion had a definite "grunge" look to it, and early '90s fashion included many features held over from the late '80s. Bright "pop" colors were very much au courant, with aquamarine sported by many boys and hot pink a favorite of girls (and, to a lesser degree, boys too).
  • Leather pants were popular, for men and women, especially in the club scene in the mid-90's and everywhere else in the late 90's. Buffy, boy bands, and Ricky Martin were some of the biggest reasons. Black was the most common color, but brown, red and other colors weren't unheard of.
  • Stores like the Gap and Old Navy cornered the clothing market. The Gap especially hit a chord with their ad campaign, which was mostly good-looking people wearing their clothes while singing pop songs and looking bored out of their minds. Towards the end of the decade, they began losing their momentum in the youth market to Abercrombie and Fitch, Aeropostale, and Banana Republic.
  • In the early part of the decade, unless you were a child, your shirt was always tucked in, regardless of your gender or how formally you were dressed.
  • For women and girls, overalls were extremely popular (starting about 1993), and high-cut jeans were the rule until the later years of the decade. (Just how much later depended on your location.) Unless you were in High School, skirts were practically non-existent. Acid-washed jeans held on for a while from the '80s, but spandex was verboten.
  • Frizzy and/or voluminous hair also briefly remained as an '80s holdover, although flatter hair pushed it out early in the decade. The women's hairstyle most associated with the decade is the "Rachel" cut, worn by Jennifer Aniston in the early seasons of Friends -- flat, straight, and square layered. Large, chunky blonde highlights, also known as "streaking" (no, not that kind), became popular around the same time as the "Rachel" cut, also popularized by Jennifer Aniston. Men's hairstyles, meanwhile, changed drastically throughout the decade, from shaggy in 1994, to a parted bowl-cut in 1997, to Bart Simpson spikes in 1999. Younger men and teenagers with brown hair cut into the bowl-cut sometimes bleached the longer hair of the "bowl" blonde and, if it was long enough, tied it in a ponytail.
  • Impractically small backpacks were in vogue.
  • Cargo shorts were very popular for men, though they seldom went below the knee.
  • Men's business attire was particularly distinctive. Pastel-colored shirts and wide, colorful ties were the norm (this was a throwback to the "bold look" of the late 1940s). This is one fashion trend that seems to have survived well past the '90s, to the point that a man can come off as stodgy if he insists on wearing a plain white shirt with his tie.
    • Double-breasted suits with low buttons and bold colors became the norm very suddenly around 1990, coming out of the great swing revival (see below). They disappeared just as suddenly at the end of the decade.
  • Both plaid and neon were extremely popular designs for clothing. Neon more so, but everybody remembers plaid more.
  • In glaring contrast to the arch accessorizing by young middle-class fashion plates in The Eighties, kids in this decade (or at least during the early and middle parts of it) seemed to scorn looking like your clothes had actually been ironed. Fashions for young men became rumpled and rather clownish, with unbuttoned pendleton shirts, baggy shorts or jeans with ridiculously wide legs, and sloppy caps sported atop mops of unkempt, occasionally dangling strands of hair. Not all boys dressed like this of course, but the ridiculously casual aesthetic caught on to some degree everywhere. And if we are to believe Cher in Clueless, girls did not find this look attractive at all.
  • From approximately the middle of the decade onward there was a revival of '60s and '70s Hippie-style clothes and jewelry -- the Peace symbol, Yin-Yang, and Smiley Face in particular -- and then Rave culture surfaced, which had an "infantilizing" effect (girls dressed as fairies and Muppets, guys looking like Dr. Seuss characters with giant hats, and neon pony beads EVERYWHERE).
  • Hip-hop fashion, with its ridiculously baggy clothes, caught on amongst men (and a few women) in the middle part of the decade, especially in black communities (white people who wore it were often dismissed as posers). One of the most popular theories for the origin of this fashion style is that it developed in prison, where convicts couldn't get prison uniforms in the right size, and that they took this fashion with them when they were released.
  • Clothing labels became a status symbol. Many articles of clothing had their brand name as the primary design element, letting the wearer proudly say "Yeah, I can afford this." Those who couldn't afford expensive sneakers were ridiculed, while those who did were occasionally murdered and robbed.
  • Toward the later half of the decade, possibly because of the Anime boom, there was a rise in the popularity of East Asian culture. Eastern symbols (mostly kanji) were popular on t-shirts, jewelry, and especially tattoos... even if most people displaying them couldn't actually read them.
  • Tube tops made a brief reappearance in 1996/1997, but the fad didn't last long.
  • Cut-off jean shorts were still acceptable for younger people in the beginning of the decade, but by the end they became, in many places, associated with the redneck stereotype.

Food and Drink:

  • Fast food was a traditional alternative to cooking a meal, and usually relatively cheap. The menus weren't as diverse as they are now (a lot of them were changed to cash in on the low-carb craze), but they still had some decent stuff on there.
  • Regarding dining out, it was usually a weekly thing for most of the middle class. Other days, you'd get fast food or cook at home.
  • Shopping was a baffling ordeal; everything had a low-fat, low-sodium, fat-free, low-sugar, no-sugar, and (later on) low-carb version of itself on the store shelf. Organic food wasn't as popular as it is today, but it was still starting to appear on some store shelves.
  • The '90s saw the rise and subsequent fall of Olestra products. Olestra was a fat-free food additive that made it taste really good, but made the snacks it was applied to have no fat content. If it sounds too good to be true, that's because it is: Olestra made the entire world head to the toilet with intense regularity. Olestra snacks sold like hotcakes in their first couple of years, then subsequently failed.
    • Four Words: "May cause anal leakage." As Ray Romano put it, "That's the only warning that the tobacco companies could look at and say, 'Well, at least we're not that.'"
  • It seemed like there was a new fad diet every other week. Among the diets to last throughout this time period were the Atkins diet, the Zone diet, and the South Beach diet. The Atkins was probably the most famous: it was the brainchild of a Dr. Richard Atkins, and the basic point of the diet was to watch the carbohydrates one was taking in. The cultural impact was huge, and many donut shops and ice cream parlors lost business because their customers started switching to Atkins.
  • The drink synonymous with the '90s was coffee. Whereas in the past, coffee was what mom and dad drank in the mornings while reading the newspaper, in the '90s coffee became a trendy, must-have beverage, often ordered with a ton of modifiers (tall half-caf, no sugar, whipped cream, two shots of espresso, et cetera). This was the point where Starbucks began (and continues) to pick up in popularity. The fact that coffee was associated with the "hip" cultural center of Seattle was probably not a coincidence.
  • The Drink Order trope started weakening, as not every person always ordered the same thing. Still, some drinks had certain images attached to them:
    • Beer was still very much a working-class beverage - however, some "local" beers and microbrews had more of a classy connotation. Toward the end of the decade, foreign brews such as Ireland's Guinness Draft Stout acquired a surprisingly upscale image in the United States, with the British/Irish pub subculture beginning to gain popularity on the other side of the Atlantic.
    • Wine was the drink of the middle-aged suburbanite wife who was waiting for the kids to get home.
    • Margaritas were seen as a very "fun" drink and were popular with women.
  • Mid-decade saw a brief, inexplicable fad for "crystal clear" versions of sodas, which tasted like Coke, Pepsi, root beer, etc., but didn't have the food coloring, so they looked clear. You'd pick up what you thought was a lemon-lime soda, but it would taste like a cola!!! Yeah... the novelty wore off pretty quickly.


The Home:

  • Home size in the 1990s continued to increase while lot size decreased, resulting in the modern McMansion. In addition, many housing developments were isolated and rural, increasing commute times and decreasing worker productivity. This, despite the fact that the average family size was decreasing.
  • Many homeowners in the '90s went to great lengths to update their (often old) homes with the latest in decor, which mostly meant investing in a lot of glass and granite. Mean property values in the United States skyrocketed.
  • Family size started getting smaller; whereas back in the day, six- and seven-child families were not unheard of, in the '90s it was very uncommon for a family to have more than three kids, and it was next-to-impossible to find a family with more than five kids. The exceptions were families that objected to contraceptives and families that couldn't afford it in the first place.
  • While seemingly everything else was getting smaller, the family car was getting bigger...and bigger...and so on. Sport Utility Vehicles (SUVs) were really popular in the '90s with families. Whereas in the past the SUV was the car a rugged camper or backpacker would buy to lug around all his stuff and was a two-door model often with a detatchable fiberglass roof and a 20-year design cycle, the '90s saw the cars firmly associated with the soccer mom shuffling her kids to and from practice. The mantra was that they were safer (unless you were making a sharp turn...) No one thought about gas mileage (gas was very cheap, even adjusted for inflation) or a carbon footprint. Among passenger cars, 4-door sedans commanded an ever-larger market share with each new model year bringing fewer wagons, sporty coupes and small cars than the one before, and hatchbacks practically disappearing from the North American market towards the end of the decade.

Local Issues:

  • Rudy Giuliani became mayor of New York City, thus ending the grimy "classic" New York of yesteryear. He was helped greatly by Disney. Disney wanted to adapt Beauty and The Beast into a Broadway play, but Broadway and Times Square were pretty rough at the time. Giuliani knew the amount of revenue that it would bring, so he assured those at Disney that it would be cleaned up by the time they were ready.
  • A particular unit of Los Angeles' police department underwent a decade of corruption and mafia-style activity in what became known as the Rampart Scandal, later inspiring the television series The Shield.
  • The greater Los Angeles area began work rebuilding its massive rapid transit system, which is still 11-29 years from completion. Despite this, the system would not appear in popular media until 24.
  • Seattle became a major cultural center for the country during the early '90s, as the home of Grunge, Frasier and Microsoft.
  • The Denver suburb of Littleton, Colorado was shocked in the late '90s when Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, two outcast students, gunned down several of their peers at Columbine High School in what was one of the heaviest-reported school shootings of all time. After the shooting, everything from Doom to Marilyn Manson was blamed.
  • Also in the late '90s, America was shocked as a young beauty pageant performer named JonBenet Ramsey was killed. News coverage of the search for her killer(s) dominated the airwaves for quite a while -- to this day, it remains unsolved. It also had the effect of changing the opinion of child beauty pageants and the Stage Mom, since both were intensely dissected in the aftermath. Opinion changed from "Oh, she's adorable!" to "This is a little creepy."
  • In California, former NFL running back Orenthal James "O.J." Simpson was allegedly involved in the murder of his ex-wife and a close friend of hers. While celebrity trials had gotten press before, this one (and the low-speed car chase along LA freeways that preceded it) absolutely dominated national headlines through 1995. The outcome of the trial (found not guilty) caused a great deal of arguing, particularly along racial lines. This trial also featured the first highly-publicized usage of DNA as evidence.
  • Las Vegas, after spending The Eighties in rundown shape, was gradually transformed into a luxury casino resort hotbed in the wake of the 1989 opening of Steve Wynn's Mirage Hotel and Casino. The city also tried to cultivate a "family-friendly" image in order to attract more affluent Baby Boomers and their tweener children, but this policy seems to have fallen by the wayside now.
  • In the United Kingdom it was all change for no change as the Right-Wing eighties conservative government hung on, generating sex-scandal, after sex-scandal, after corruption-scandal until 1997 and Tony Blair took power. The attempts by the Conservatives to hang onto power is generally considered to have delayed the Northern Ireland peace process for at least 3 years.
    • Also in the UK, Glasgow began to throw off its Violent Glaswegian heritage and modernise the city centre. This had the side effect of causing a musical and artistic explosion in the late '90s that bore serious fruit in the following decade.
  • The biggest celebrity of The Eighties, Michael Jackson, started the decade off well with the album Dangerous, but 1993 accusations of child molestation and his choice to settle out of court with the alleged victim's family started an It Got Worse downhill trajectory for his career (particularly in the U.S.), which ended with his death in 2009.
  • Russia saw little of the stuff described above. The still-smoking ruins of the Soviet Union were a place of suffering, rampant poverty, rise of The Mafiya, unrestrained corporate greed, a never-ending counter-terrorist war in Chechnya...
  • After spending the 80's in the economic doldrums Ireland began to grow much more prosperous in this decade, leading the boom years of The Celtic Tiger from 1994 onwards. As well as becoming richer the decade also saw a boom in interest in Irish culture overseas, shaped by the likes of Riverdance.
  • In Japan, the economic bubble of the 1980s burst in 1991, leading to a decade-long recession that's now referred to as "The Lost Decade". Japan has yet to fully recover, because while Japanese companies were languishing in the 90s, rival companies in South Korea and Taiwan picked up steam, making it a lot harder for Japanese companies to start growing again after the Turn of the Millennium.


  • Musical tastes in the 1990s varied drastically among different age groups and localities.
  • To listen to Top 40 radio in the 1990s would mean being buried under endless waves of Sixpence, Suzanne Vega, and tons of more mellow vocal artists. In the late '90s, boy bands and pop princesses became extremely popular and started blanketing the airwaves.
  • What was rock music like in the '90s? Well, Hair Metal hung on for the first couple of years in bold defiance of good taste, but was soon acid-washed from history by Grunge. Grunge, in turn, suffered a backlash as Kurt Cobain killed himself and increasingly derivative bands partook in a lyrical style that Nathan Rabin dubbed "Hunger-Dunger-Dang." However, even though grunge itself was out, the musical style influenced many bands in what is now known as "Post-Grunge", which became prevalent late in the decade and remains to this day. Nu-metal arose and peaked around the same time as post-grunge, and Emo was first starting to get mainstream attention thanks to Weezer.
    • Alternative Rock had finally escaped the college radio ghetto and saw the rise of bands like REM, Primus, They Might Be Giants, and Soul Asylum.
    • Meanwhile, on the other side of The Pond, Britpop emerged as a backlash against the dourness of grunge, and became the dominant form of music in Britain. However, the only Britpop band to gain real traction in America was Oasis, with the rest becoming one hit wonders at best.
    • Many college students across America followed Lo-Fi, the Los Angeles/Chicago-based indie rock genre spearheaded by Pavement, Neutral Milk Hotel, and Beck.
    • Indie rock itself begins to make a name for itself after being an incredibly obscure genre for the last half of the 80's. Pavement especially become the most well known of the 90's indie bands to the MTV-watching public.
  • The '90s were the decade in which hip-hop/rap first began to receive widespread attention from white listeners, and began to expand beyond its New York base. The Beastie Boys, Run DMC, MC Hammer, Cypress Hill, House of Pain and Vanilla Ice helped bring it to mainstream attention early in the decade (and late in the preceding one), but the defining trend in '90s rap music was undoubtedly Gangsta Rap. The influence of gangsta rap was such that, to this day, many people (particularly those who didn't grow up with hip-hop) associate all rap music with the thug life stories popularized by N.W.A., Snoop Dogg, 2pac and Biggie. These thug life stories were also the cause of a another major moral panic, with cultural critics on both sides deriding the music for its perceived violence, obscenity, misogyny, homophobia and black militancy. Gangsta rap peaked in the mid-'90s with the East Coast/West Coast rap rivalry, and while it declined in influence from there, it had given rap music enough cultural clout to survive on its own. For much of the '90s, white kids who listened to rap music were considered Acceptable Targets, and were frequently hit with Totally Radical jokes.
  • The mid-1990s also heralded the "rebirth" of Rhythm & Blues, though the result was much mellower and slower than the R&B of The Sixties and The Seventies with artists like Babyface, R. Kelly, Gerald Levert, Boys II Men and En Vogue.
    • There was also "New Jack Swing," a melding of R&B and hip-hop created by Teddy Riley that, for better or worse, paved the way for Hip Hop/Soul.
  • The "'90s singer-songwriter" was practically a trope in and of itself. Mention the names Liz Phair, Alanis Morissette, Jewel, Sheryl Crow or Sarah McLachlan to any woman in her 30s or late-20s, and she will most likely regale you with tales of the great music festival that was Lilith Fair (whether or not she actually went there; there's a good chance she got her stories from people who did). The '90s were the first decade in which women in general (not just individual musicians or bands) were taken seriously as rockers, and the female rock stars produced by the decade became known for their raw, angsty lyrics (in true '90s grunge fashion). At the same time, the riot grrrls, while never enjoying the mainstream success of their male counterparts, also left their mark on the underground with their staunchly feminist brand of Punk Rock.
  • Combining the above two points, the pop princesses of the 90's were mostly R&B artists. Mariah Carey, TLC, Brandy (whose tv show Moesha was the show for teen girls), Monica, and so on. The Spice Girls are the exception (Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera didn't get big until '99 and are thus better associated with the 2000's).
  • Patti Smith, the archetypal punk rock goddess, took a nice comeback in the late 1990s after the death of her husband Fred "Sonic" Smith.
  • The biggest one-hit wonder of the '90s was "The Macarena" by Los Del Rio. It stayed atop the charts for 60 whole weeks, which was a record at the time, and might still be. That song popularized, or at least revived the trend of a song coming with its own dance -- while everyone in the '90s strongly denied knowing how to do the Macarena, they were probably lying.
  • With the advent of the internet, some music fans begin to start their own websites devoted to music, and begin the earliest blogs. Pitchfork Media, begun by a college dropout in 1997, would become a major player in music criticism in the next decade (after years of featuring hammy, poorly written reviews which often gave low scores to beloved records just because).
  • The mid-90s also saw the rebirth of swing music/dance, as well as some clothing styles (mostly bowling shirts) from The Fifties. Within a few years, the fad had faded, but the music, dance, and to a lesser degree the clothing, was at a higher baseline than before the boom. This is probably best showcased in the movie Swingers.
  • For a small, brief moment, sometime around 1990-93, groups looking for a looser, more organic break from The Eighties who did not want to join Grungemania donned bellbottoms, lacy (or striped) shirts, Dr. Seuss hats, platform shoes and vintage music gear (Wurlitzer electric pianos to the fore!), played 1970's -inspired rock, Power Pop and funk and formed the "retro" movement. Lenny Kravitz, Spin Doctors, Blind Melon and The Black Crowes were the most famous artists from this movement, although it also provided its share of One-Hit Wonder alternative radio-to-pop radio crossover bands like 4 Non Blondes and School of Fish.
    • Running alongside this trend (and indeed pre-dating it by several years) was Phish, a Vermont alternative rock band that became a touring juggernaut completely under the nose of mainstream music outlets. Just like their primary influence the Grateful Dead did in the late 60's and early 70's.
  • If you ask an european what music was like in the '90s, chances are he'll talk to you about eurodance, a genre of electronic dance music that was extremely popular throughout The Nineties and the early oughts, in pretty much the whole western world except the United States. Some of the most recognized bands of the genre include artists such as the Dutch-Belgian/Dutch group 2 Unlimited, Italian group Eiffel 65, Danish group Aqua and group Modjo.
  • The Beatles saw a nice revival in popularity, beginning in the mid '90s with Anthology and spilling over into the early oughts with the release of Beatles 1, as a new generation discovered the band (and the original fans introduced the music to their children).

Social Concerns:

  • As stated above, The Nineties was the era in which the Moral Guardians were always in a tizzy. While it was brewing in the '80s and early '90s (Dan Quayle's complaints about Murphy Brown, the moral panics over heavy metal and Satanic cults), the presence of conservative Presidents Ronald Reagan and George HW Bush meant that the Christian Right felt itself to have a friend in the White House (regardless of how Reagan and Bush felt), and never felt truly pressured. However, the rise of Bill Clinton (the sax-playing, MTV-loving horndog who "smoked but didn't inhale") in 1992 and the high profile of his wife Hillary (who, during the election, gave off the image of a textbook Straw Feminist thanks to her snarky quotes about baking cookies and "standing by my man like Tammy Wynette") set off many religious conservatives. The first real shot was fired by Patrick Buchanan in his infamous "culture war" speech at the 1992 Republican National Convention, which became a rallying point for millions on the Christian Right who made "public morality" a major issue throughout the '90s.
  • The first big controversy was centered around Beavis and Butthead, which was never a favorite of those who made the rules. A young boy supposedly lit his trailer home on fire because he wanted to imitate the main characters' pyromaniacal tendencies. The resulting outcry led MTV to move the show to a later timeslot, causing a decrease in ratings. Oh, and that boy who lit his trailer home on fire? They didn't have cable.
  • Violence in the media was another hot-button issue. In the early '90s, Power Rangers had the Moral Guardians having panic-induced heart attacks at the thought of young children imitating their martial-arts style violence. As has been repeatedly stated before, Doom was the next big whipping boy, entering the public consciousness after the Columbine massacre, as was Professional Wrestling.
  • Sexuality in the media was another big sticking point. NYPD Blue had an episode where Dennis Franz' naked ass was shown, creating a great deal of controversy. It also became something of a Never Live It Down moment for Franz.
    • In the UK it was 1994 before a Lesbian Kiss could be shown in a primetime, non-titillating, sympathetic, manner. It would be another four years before a transsexual woman could be shown in the same way.
  • Even with all the Moral Guardians running around, the '90s saw something of a reversal of opinion on homosexuality, and the rebirth of the gay rights movement. While acceptance of gay people was a ways behind what it is today, and gay marriage was never on the table, views of homosexuality were still miles ahead of the blatant homophobia that ran in The Eighties. This was helped, in part, by an increasingly large number of celebrities coming out as gay, some less than willingly. In the '90s, there was something of a drive by various media outlets to "out" as many people as they could.
  • Another, and possibly greater, factor in the rise of gay rights was the breaking of the taboo surrounding AIDS. Throughout The Eighties, AIDS was perceived as "God's punishment against gays and junkies", which killed cruelly and almost immediately, and was transmitted through means not yet entirely clear. [2] But a couple of high-profile deaths changed the public's opinion:
    • Ryan White, a hemophiliac teenager who got infected through contaminated blood transfusions and died of a respiratory infection in 1990 at the age of 18. His story changed public perception from AIDS from a disease that affected only "those people" to something that affected everyone.
    • There was also Kimberly Bergalis, a straight woman who was infected (possibly deliberately) with AIDS by her dentist.
    • Pedro Zamora, an audience favorite character in The Real World: San Francisco, died of AIDS just after that season had aired. Pedro's sympathetic portrayal helped change people's minds about what gay and HIV+ people were like.
    • Finally, there was the public health nightmare that AIDS caused in sub-Saharan Africa. When a disease becomes The Plague for an entire continent full of people (who hadn't committed the perceived sins that the disease was being attributed to), it's rather difficult to claim that it's some sort of divine punishment.
  • One of the key figures of '90s controversy was Joycelyn Elders, the Surgeon General under Bill Clinton. Pretty much everything out of her mouth pissed off her opponents: from the suggestion that schools distribute contraceptives and teach a more comprehensive sexual education program to the idea that drugs should be legalized. However, the one concept that will always follow her around was the suggestion that young people should masturbate instead of engaging in potentially risky sexual activity. This was the final nail in her coffin, and she was out after that.
  • People started paying attention to the growing obesity issue in the late '90s. It seemed like every other report was about childhood obesity for a while.
    • Or anorexia. Towards the late 90s, there was a big focus on shutting down pro-ana websites, and for a little while it seemed like the obesity rhetoric was toned down in favor or preventing eating disorders.
    • It's noteworthy, however, that in the late nineties obesity started to be looked upon more as an actual disease than just a person who eats a lot. The term "eating disorders" eventually became a blanket for everything from anorexia to obesity.
  • The hidden problem of sexual harassment and other indignities women had to face in the workplace was finally exposed to the world in the US Senate hearing of potential US Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas when his former co-worker, Anita Hill, came forward to claim that Thomas made her life hell with his sleazy treatment of her.


  • From our perch in The New Tens, the '90s can seem hopelessly primitive. In fact, dramatic change was the norm throughout the decade: it began with a handful of people on Usenet or text-only BBSes[3], and ended with everyone and their dog having web pages and sharing music on Napster. We even had viral videos -- "Troops" came out in 1997. (You had to download it in pieces, because it was too large to be downloaded all at once.)
  • For most of the Nineties, though, personal computers were a minor luxury. Like televisions in the '50s, most homes had only one computer for the whole family to use. The age of the model and operating system varied, but Windows 95 became the standard after, well, '95. Most printers were of the dot matrix variety, and laptops were rare, bulky luxuries. For many young people, the only time when they had access to a reasonably modern computer was in school, and then, it was usually only in the computer lab (if the school even had one).
  • Most of what we now know as the Internet (and the word was always capitalized then) did not exist. Here is a look at how crude the internet was as recently as 1995. No friending networks, very primitive search engines, no streaming video, and use of the words "Blog" or "wiki" in casual conversation would earn you blank stares. Message boards only came into their own late in the decade -- before that, there was UseNet, a huge collection of discussion groups for every topic in the universe. The only three browsers were Netscape (and its precursor, Mosaic), Internet Explorer, and America Online. Yes, AOL, or as many people came to call it, AOHell. Millions got suckered into AOL's crappy business policy and spyware-ridden software thanks to its mass mailing of CDs and its ads proclaiming that it was "so easy to use, no wonder it's #1!". AOL was instrumental in kick-starting the Eternal September, which is when public interest in the internet first began to surge.
  • Having an internet connection wasn't a given. Many people didn't have a computer to begin with. Many computers were too old to connect to the internet. Even new computers with the latest operating systems didn't always support Internet connectivity out of the box -- Windows didn't until the second half of the decade. Many people who had modern computers simply didn't pay for service because it was too expensive for what was still a novelty then, and most people who did have it wouldn't go on for more than an hour at a time because doing so would tie up the phone line. Being able to afford a second phone line for the internet was a big luxury.

    And it was always the phone line -- broadband was an option only found in a few areas and at a very high price, which meant that its use was reserved for the rich and for specialized fields (research, programming). This sound came on every time you turned on your dial-up modem to hook up to the internet. If you wanted to, say, look for sexy pictures online, you would have to wait at least a minute for a grainy, 360x240 image of Cindy Margolis (one of the first sex symbols to become famous primarily through the internet) to slowly load on your screen. Basically, unless you had used the internet, you probably didn't even know it existed, especially early in the decade.

    In addition, you were constantly getting kicked off the 'net for little reason, especially if you had AOL. At one point, AOL aired a commercial promising that they had hired a hundred thousand new workers for the sole purpose of making sure that this didn't happen so much. There was absolutely no noticeable change in the rate of sudden instant connection death whatsoever. And if you weren't blown offline, other internet users would do you the favor of showing you the door. AOL users were extremely unwelcome on the existing internet, particularly on UseNet. It was presumed that all AOL users (or AO Losers) were either immature twits or simply had no idea how to use a computer. An AOL email address was a sure way to get flamed.
  • The late '90s saw the growth of the "dot-com" bubble, which is when everybody and their dog decided that they were an "e-ntrepreneur" and started up a website offering them some kind of service in the "new economy" that would be created by the internet. As it turned out, claims about the "new economy" were about ten years premature -- the spectacular burst of the dot-com bubble put a lot of people out of work, killed most of the start-ups that proliferated, and hammered the economy of Silicon Valley. Still, the dot-com bubble was, in hindsight, the clearest turning point in public acceptance of the internet as a necessity of everyday life, as proven by the fact that its bust had such a large impact on the economy. Afterwards, the "old internet" (or "web 1.0"), reserved primarily for computer geeks and first adopters, was replaced with the multi-billion-dollar networks we have today.
  • Cell phones were in the transition period between the giant bricks of the '80s and the smaller, sleeker, multimedia-enabled devices of today. While prices were coming down, they were still most definitely a luxury item, even more so than a home computer, and were predominantly the domain of businessmen and people who worked on the go. For the rest of us, there were pagers. (Remember Buffy the Vampire Slayer saying "If the Apocalypse comes, beep me"? That's a pager she's talking about.) Cell phones started becoming smaller, cheaper and more common late in the decade, but even then, anything beyond the basics (sending and receiving calls and text messages) was reserved only for the most high-end models. Service was found only in more urban areas, and was still rather spotty. Text messaging was a lot more expensive than it is today, and was practically unheard of. It wasn't for nothing that most people still relied on land lines during this period, and things like pay phones and the Yellow Pages (massive Doorstopper books that listed all phone numbers in a given area) were commonplace.
  • Video gaming really started taking off amongst kids. The early '90s saw the Super Nintendo and the Sega Genesis, which is seen by some as the last great Console Wars -- to this day, it's truly difficult to tell who was the clear-cut winner. Gaming started improving from a technolgical standpoint, and by the late '90s we had both a 64-bit system and the birth of the compact disc as a gaming medium. Nintendo owned the market after the Genesis fell off, but Sony would take over until the Wii came along in the mid '00s.

    A number of noteworthy trends took place in early-mid '90s gaming. Sega's Sonic the Hedgehog pioneered the Mascot with Attitude in 1991, bringing a Totally Radical flair into gaming and spawning a legion of copycats who would often take digs at Mario and Sonic. This trend went out of fashion in the end of the decade, as the Sonic franchise went through its Saturn-era Dork Age and many of its copycats ran head-first into the Polygon Ceiling, with 2001's Conkers Bad Fur Day, a South Park-esque parody of the genre, providing the denouement. Full Motion Video and virtual reality were also hyped up, with many people predicting that the future of gaming was in interactive movies and the ability to actually be in the game, man. After a few years of grainy, sub-VHS-quality video with production values to match, eye strain, and bombs like the Virtual Boy and Night Trap, gamers realized that, no, this was not the future.

    The later part of the decade, meanwhile, saw the appearance of numerous games that would go on to influence the industry for the next decade. This includes Half-Life, Deus Ex, the first three Resident Evil games, Final Fantasy VII, both System Shock games, the first two installments in the Grand Theft Auto franchise, and Silent Hill 1, among many others. 1998 in particular may go down as the single "best" year in gaming history, much like how 1939 is remembered by film buffs as the high point of the Golden Age of Hollywood.

    Of course, accompanying the growth of gaming was the genesis of the anti-gaming movement, which managed to bring about a Senate hearing over the violence in Mortal Kombat and Night Trap. This prompted the creation of the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) to pre-empt government censorship. Near the end of the decade, Columbine managed to cause a second moral panic over video game violence, this time targeted at the burgeoning First-Person Shooter genre. Video games were still viewed very much as a children's activity, and anybody over the age of 16 who still played games was viewed as either a shut-in nerd or an Eric Harris-in-waiting.

    Outside the PC and console arenas, arcades were still popular in the first half of the '90s. Many big restaurants and other establishments had at least one or two machines, and many department stores of the day had a section (usually at the entrance) where the arcade games could be found. At the start of the decade, these machines only needed one quarter to play, just like in the '80s. Then Mortal Kombat and other games came out which needed two quarters to play, and the prices would only go up from there. Around the mid '90s, arcades began a long decline in popularity, as home consoles started catching up to what the dedicated hardware of an arcade cabinet was capable of. While they were still somewhat popular by 2000, by then the writing was on the wall.
  • In June 1999, a young man named Shawn Fanning (not Sean Parker, despite what The Social Network would have you believe) launched a website named Napster, which allowed people to download music for free and share it with each other. It was the center of a ton of controversy, like everything else in the '90s. While it lasted only two years before it was shut down, its legacy proved impossible to erase. It was one of the first beacons of the death of not only the compact disc, but the whole concept of music needing a physical copy -- in 2003, just two years after Napster was shut down, the record companies would rally behind iTunes in order to undercut the explosion of file-sharing websites that emerged to fill the void Napster left.


  1. Though the young actresses involved helped usher millions of boys into adolescence.
  2. Scientists suspected from fairly early on that AIDS was spread through bodily fluids only, but the public took some convincing. There was an idea going around in the Eighties that you could catch it from toilet seats.
  3. Bulletin Board Systems, tiny message boards usually run by someone out of his basement and/or bedroom, to which you dialed in directly (as in "Come check out my kewl BBS! 555-1212, 8 bits, parity, no stop bit.")
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