If you happen to be the kind of person who follows my writing here, I have – more than – once – mentioned that we are experiencing a 90’s renaissance. If not, well, I’m not the first one to make this observation (if so, hey, thanks for reading, sorry for all the sentences I ended in prepositions).
The decade took two years and a new president to really form itself. Prior to that, it was just fake-80s. But the moment Bill Clinton put his lips over a saxophone reed to the moment Monica…you can finish that joke, you filthy people – we entered the era of the cool president. The acid washed and the obscenely bright colours of 1990-1992 were slowly bleached out into a cultural mosaic rich in spirit, economy and creativity.
Sadly, however, it took some moments longer to die than others. And some of the new creative and cultural output is still best forgotten. However, people who write lists are archivists of shame, embarrassment, Zima and that one soda that had the weird gel bubbles in it. We’re the librarians of rubbernecking, the purveyors of the YouTube-ready gaffe. So it’s my responsibility and privilege to present to you, dear reader, the very worst moments of that decade we so fondly look upon. So smack your wrists with some slap bracelets, unscrew an ice-cold Orbitz and take yourself back to the days of Natalie Imbruglia, thinly-veiled racism and political sexual impropriety.
17. Game Gear (October 6th, 1990)
Milli Vanilli was a German R&B duo comprised of Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus that endeared itself in America with its debut album and hit, Girl You Know It’s True. The song was inescapable. Naturally, the Grammys deemed them worthy for a Best New Artist win. But something was amiss. In 1989, during a concert in Connecticut, a record skipped, playing the lyric “Girl, you know it’s…” over and over until the two ran off the stage. Their poor grasp of English was another indicator that, like Ashlee Simpson on Saturday Night Live, they weren’t singing at all.
While the fame was still in their heads, Pilatus gave an interview claiming to be the new Elvis, more talented than Bob Dylan, Paul McCartney and Mick Jagger. Such outrageous claims led to further skepticism. Eventually, the two admitted that they had not sung the songs on the album at all. Their only moment of gracious exit from the stage was the gesture of handing their Grammys to the actual singers, who released a second album under the name The Real Milli Vanilli.
A comeback was planned in 1997, however Pilatus had since turned to drugs and crime. He was tragically found dead of an overdose.
But the legacy of their scandal still endures today within the music industry, beyond the aforementioned Simpson incident. Every label needed their Milli Vanilli and, in a way, the group could be considered responsible for the rise of autotune – a more legitimate kind of lip syncing.
15. Vanilla Ice (“Ice Ice Baby” debuts July 2nd, 1990)
Montreal hip hop reporter Darcy MacDonald recently weighed in on the rise of Vanilla Ice. In a response, he wrote:
“Vanilla Ice hustled hard as an independent but it is a sad fact that rather than standing up to the hatred and trying to be the bigger person – or at least perhaps pay respect to the culture he borrowed from – he was a petulant, defensive baby. If he was destined to be anything other than a one-and-a-half hit wonder, he f!@#*! it up through arrogance and a poor grasp of what ‘being used’ means.”
Ice broke with “Ice Ice Baby,” a travesty of white appropriation. After the rise of NWA, labels were desperate to tap into the same energy. But, as old, white record producers are wont to do, they misunderstood just what made it work the first time around.
Ice’s popularity led to a starring role in a vehicle intended to turn him into the hip-hop James Dean, Cool as Ice. If you haven’t seen it, the film serves as a litmus test for just how bizarre 1991 could be, attempting to mix the standard melodrama with extended, unrelated break dance sequences.
Ice is where he belongs now, appearing alongside Adam Sandler in The Ridiculous 6, another work that offended an entire minority.
14. Baywatch Nights (First Episode air date: September 30th, 1995)
Baywatch may be nostalgic for some as something that awakened puberty in many an adolescent, but the shows quality isn’t exactly something that’s contested. The fondness for the show is proportional to the tightness of the buxom female actresses’ bathing suit. And the show never apologized for it. They capitalized on it, leading to several spinoffs. The oddest of which was Baywatch Nights.
Nights began as a detective drama in the spirit of 70s classics like The Rockford Files and Magnum P.I. But through the first season, the show struggled in the ratings.
In 1993, Chris Carter‘s The X-Files debuted on FOX, quickly growing from a cult favourite to appointment television. Naturally, Nights wanted some of that action.
So two years into Mulder and Scully’s investigations, Nights re-branded itself. And while the two agents did come closer and closer to their respective truths, no one could explain how a lifeguard drama decided it could also work as a supernatural monster-of-the-week show. The second season became sillier than some Roger Corman productions, at least one of which, Humanoids from the Deep (a film about rape-y man-fish), was a clear inspiration.
13. The Starr Report (Released September 11th, 1998)
Lawyer Ken Starr had been on a personal warpath for the Clinton family since before aide Vince Foster’s suicide. Recently brought up again by Donald Trump in the press, the conspiracy theory that the Clintons had Foster murdered and staged to look like a suicide started with Starr, who was the independent prosecutor investigating the incident. He also is the reason we know the names Paula Jones, Whitewater, and, yes, Monica Lewinsky. What otherwise would have been a footnote turned into an impeachment under the direction of Starr.
The problem with Bill Clinton was that there was something to find. And with Lewinsky, Starr smelled blood in the water. It was blatantly hypocritical, considering Starr’s later involvement in covering up a football sex scandal during his time as Chancellor at his alma mater, the private Baptist Baylor University.
The Starr Report is the reason we are aware of a sitting president’s sexual proclivities. In other words, it was the end of gentlemanly conduct in Washington (if there ever was such a thing), which has led today to a Republican presidential candidate which took several minutes to discuss who had the longest male appendage.
12. River Phoenix’s Death (October 31st, 1993)
Like Johnny Depp, River Phoenix was an outstanding young actor who struggled to escape the brand of teen heartthrob. And it doesn’t take long to realize the breathless, exhilarating talent and charisma of the young actor. One need only look at the opening scene of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, in which Phoenix plays a young Jones with a note-perfect imitation of Harrison Ford‘s facial tics and intonations while also making the role entirely his.
Phoenix was tragically lost to the world in the early morning hours of Halloween due to heart failure related to a drug overdose outside the Viper Room. He was 23. He had recently bonded with actor Dan Aykroyd on the set of Sneakers, an actor who also lost a friend (John Belushi) to a speedball of heroin and cocaine a decade earlier.
11. The Deaths of John Candy and Chris Farley (Candy dies March 4th, 1994; Farley December 18th 1997)
John Candy debuted as Second City performer in Toronto and later starred as a cast member of the Canadian sketch show SCTV alongside Eugene Levy, Rick Moranis and Catherine O’Hara. He quickly became an audience favourite and started making appearances in Chicago native (Second City’s other home) John Hughes films such as Uncle Buck and Planes, Trains and Automobiles. He also proved a capable dramatic actor in films like Only The Lonely and JFK.
Candy was reportedly as sweet as the characters he played. So it was a true loss when, after cooking a late-night lasagne for his assistants on the set of the Richard Lewis buddy comedy Wagons East, he retired for the evening, never to wake up again.
Three years later, a similarly beloved comic force, primed to take up the mantle of John Belushi on SNL, died of the very same drug that did in the former Blues Brother. Chris Farley was also the same age as Belushi when he uttered his last words – a plea to a prostitute not to leave him, for he was scared he wouldn’t survive the night.
Though head of SNL Lorne Michaels had banned the use of narcotics (a popular fixture at 30 Rockefeller Centre throughout the 70s), Farley’s abuse persisted.
10. Norm MacDonald is Fired From SNL (January 7th, 1998)
Chevy Chase, who pioneered Weekend Update on SNL in 1975, once said that Norm MacDonald was the only subsequent host to ever do it right. And his deadpan delivery and constant insistence on bringing up the fact that O.J. Simpson murdered his wife are some of the show’s most memorable moments. Unfortunately, NBC President Don Ohlmeyer didn’t find him that funny. Ohlmeyer was also a friend of Simpson and didn’t appreciate MacDonald’s constant haranguing of his golf buddy.
The night he was fired, friend David Letterman invited Norm on his show to explain his sudden departure. While Letterman took shots at Ohlmeyer for being “an idiot,” MacDonald was entirely gracious.
He went on to better things, continuing regular stand up, starring in his own short-lived sitcom and writing and starring in cult favourite Dirty Work. He also managed to repay Letterman by showing up to do one last stand up act on Letterman’s antepenultimate broadcast, during which the comedian choked back tears as he bid the host on his way.
9. Virtual Boy (July 21st, 1995)
Everyone excited for the release from the always-inventive Nintendo couldn’t have been more disappointed, nor could their necks have hurt worse than when Virtual Boy was unleashed upon the world. The ads boasted 3D immersion like the world has yet to offer.
Unfortunately, what you would up with was a headache-inducing monochrome display – often blurry, that you could only see if you uncomfortably craned your neck. The console, though highly anticipated by the youth of the decade, died a quick death. Only 14 games were ever released to the public, the oddest of which being based on another flop from the mid-90s: Waterworld.
8. Mark Fuhrman (Six days of March 1995)
O.J. Simpson brutally murdered his wife and Ron Goldman. Big shocker. Few people disagree except for O.J. and Don Ohlmeyer. He stabbed the hell out of them. And we should have been done with it then; however, the popular argument is that due to the Rodney King riots (and Simpson’s race, which has little to do with the fact that STABBED TWO PEOPLE TO DEATH) we gave him a get out of jail free card.
In a sense, we did. And we’re the worse for it. After all, Simpson was later proved himself a criminal – being arrested for trying to rob some of his memorabilia from a hotel room. The man needs to get out of America’s collective. As wonderful and insightful as The People Vs. O.J. Simpson was, we need to just shake our heads of this monster.
But it won’t go away, and we have – in part – Mark Fuhrman’s six day grilling on the stand in which he repeatedly perjured himself, claiming he didn’t have a racist bone in his body. Then the tapes came out, in which he used the N-word more times than I’ve said “O.J. totally murdered those people.” Which is often.
7. Woodstock ’99 (July 22nd-25th, 1999)
The original Woodstock concert – 3 days of love and music in upstate New York – is remembered in pop culture mostly through rose-coloured lenses. It’s where hippies and free-loving people gathered to celebrate peace and joy.
The reality, however, is that it was a giant cash grab whose performers only took to the stage for money. Food and water was depleted after the first day, people were sexually assaulted and three died.
Like any good sequel, Woodstock ’99 set out to be bigger, badder and louder. The oppressive summer heat was unbearable, the toilets were scarce. People were not allowed to bring food and water within the gates (there were gates this time, unlike the first go-around), and the prices for such luxuries were higher than Disneyland.
Even Fred Durst thought the violence was too much, pleading with the audience to help one another and maybe even stop all the sexual assaults. Later, Durst went right back to Dursthood, encouraging the crowd to get angry. Candlelights and lighters went up in the air. Lighters lit bonfires. Bonfires turned to real fires.
6. Jay Leno Usurps David Letterman (July 10th, 1995)
Jay Leno sucks. His attempts at coming across as a nice guy are overshadowed by true accounts of back-handed compliments, a ruthless manager and an almost obsessive-compulsive drive to perform every night. There’s no question the man works hard. Throughout his tenure on The Tonight Show, he still did weekend stand up at clubs all over America.
The whole sordid, messy story of how Leno took wrested control of The Tonight Show from both Johnny Carson and David Letterman is graphically detailed in journalist Bill Carter’s book (and subsequent TV Movie) The Late Shift. It isn’t a pretty story, but Leno talks about his actions today with something like pride, claiming they were shrewd business decisions.
When Letterman decided to leave NBC for his own 11:30 show on CBS in 1992, much of The Tonight Show‘s audience followed. He managed to stay on top of the ratings for two years, simply based on talent alone.
Then it happened. In 1995, Hugh Grant was arrested with a prostitute while being romantically involved with Elizabeth Hurley. Grant appeared on Leno thirteen days later, which led to the only time the host ever asked a question of any merit. The “What the hell were you thinking?” moment on Leno’s show caused the ratings to shift entirely, keeping Leno on top until he finally, ungraciously left the stage in 2014.
5. Phil Hartman Is Shot to Death (May 28th, 1998)
He first came to attention as a new SNL cast member during an awkward transitional season in 1986 and, by the time he left in 1995, had performed over 70 characters. His most memorable are his constantly-eating Bill Clinton (“There’s a lot of things we won’t be telling Hillary”), Unfrozen Caveman Lawyer, Frankenstein (“Fire BAD!”), Ross Perot’s vice presidential candidate Admiral Stockdale, and that’s barely scratching the surface.
Backstage, the cast referred to him as the glue, an affable friend to all who managed to hold the show together at its most chaotic. Beyond SNL, you may remember him as Troy McClure from such episodes of The Simpsons as “A Fish Called Selma” and “Bart Gets Hit By a Car.” He also starred as the uptight news anchor at a WNYX on Newsradio.
It’s so much fun just writing about the absolute joy Phil Hartman managed to bring to audiences in just about every medium – I haven’t even mentioned the fact that, before all this, he designed album covers for over 40 bands as well as the logo for Crosby, Stills and Nash. To this day, the following was difficult to write.
Hartman’s wife, Brynn, suffered a cocaine relapse (in addition to mental health issues) that tragic night in May when, after an argument, Phil went to bed only to have her shoot him three times hours later. Allegedly, it was Andy Dick who re-introduced the drug into Brynn’s life, something friend Jon Lovitz believes to the extent that he slammed Dick’s head against a bar repeatedly. Which is, quite honestly, something we’ve all wanted to do at one point or another.
4. Columbine (April 20th, 1999)
No child of the 90s doesn’t know where they were on Hitler’s birthday – or international marijuana appreciation day, as it would otherwise be known – in 1999. They remember the day, but also the supreme paranoia suffered by every parent, student and teacher that loomed over the rest of the school year and into the next one. Growing up in Tucson, just one state over diagonally from where the violence hit, my middle school effectively banned the backpack and kept a close eye on the more troublesome students.
This resulted as it did all over the nation. When you’re a jaded 13-year-old with no prior personal experience with acts of terror, the premise sounds much like an action film. So students would often talk about how they’d react as shooter or potential victim. This led to many superfluous arrests, including three at my school. Simply for drawing out routes on a map in the daily planner. It was a harmless hypothetical, curious young squiggles on a crudely drawn school layout. The panic was widespread, and anyone arrested had their lives at the very least set back due to a fear-induced overreaction.
3. Napster (Launches June 1st, 1999)
Who remembers the old days when pixels took hours to download for the scantest glimpse of nudity online, transferring HD video was unthinkable and we’d all wait hours for a lousy 128 bit version of our favourite albums? Sean Parker and Shawn Fanning transformed both the music industry and our practices regarding pop culture consumption in the last summer of the 90s.
The success of Napster was ultimately its undoing. Musical artists – namely professional douchebag/Metallica member Lars Ulrich – saw it as the ultimate threat to his bank account. Of course, there’s an argument to be made for copyright infringement. Record companies have been screwing over recording artists anyway they could since before the Tinpan Alley days.
Napster officially shut down in 2001 under injunction from Ulrich, Dr. Dre and several other very rich people. Immediately after came imitators like Morpheus and today’s Limewire. But the first time the light was quashed from a P2P torrent service cuts the deepest.
2. Republican Shutdowns of the Federal Government (November 1995 – January 1996, a total of 27 days)
For this generation, 2013 was the first time anyone had heard of a government shutdown. The right blamed the left, the left blamed the right and the American public learned what a shutdown meant. Attack ads were run on both sides, filled with pictures of tourists refused entrance to zoos, national monuments and Congress. Oh, the humanity.
There was no question who was responsible for the shutdowns in the mid-90s. House Speaker Newt Gingrich first capriciously shut down Congress to squelch President Clinton’s proposed budget which he considered went against GOP plans to cut spending.
A shutdown is much like a filibuster – in that it involves grown men and women stamping their feet like children, folding their arms and shouting, “No!” And there are much more serious consequences than a national park being closed. Consequences like all toxic waste clean-up halted, the CDC ceasing to monitor infectious disease (imagine a Zika outbreak during a shutdown), and health and welfare services for veterans stopping.
1. Rodney King Verdict (April 29th, 1992)
Though numerous moments on this list could easily take the number one spot, nothing is more timely and long-lasting as the verdict in the trial of a black man senselessly beaten by a group of hardened police officers and subsequent riots.
King was pulled over after a high speed chase on March 3rd, 1991. And make no mistake, King was a criminal. But he was an unarmed criminal, who was brutally beaten with batons along with his two passengers.
Four officers were charged and found not guilty, much to the outrage of the African American community in Los Angeles (not to mention the parts of America with common sense).
For the next six days, L.A. burned.
The lasting effects of the verdict and riots echo through the streets of America today, from Florida to Ferguson. And it could be argued that those six days in 1992, much as the Watts Riots did for Nixon in 1965, emboldened the right to further follow the silent majority down the rabbit hole that made Trump come out the other side.
Sources: Vanity Fair, Decider, Cult Montreal