I’m 45 years old, but I’ve never thought of my own youth as a subject of nostalgia – it’s just there in the rear-view mirror, distant but still plainly visible. Chalk it up to Peter Pan Syndrome if you like. But VICE’s new series, Dark Side of the 90s, puts my misspent younger years in the appropriate context: waaaaaaaay back in the distant past.
It is, I assure you, a very weird feeling. We grow and change and age gradually, for the most part, and so does the broader culture, and so it sometimes takes something like this series to come along and remind you that the flower of your youth shrivelled on the vine quite a while back. Moreover, it grew in the soil of a foreign country, to paraphrase L.P. Hartley.
Still, you can see connections, and map the way our current culture has grown out of some of the topics Dark Side of the 90s tackles. The first episode, ‘Trash TV: Dirty and Deadly Talk’, digs into the sensationalist talk show boom of the decade, where pundits like Geraldo Rivera, Phil Donahue and Sally Jessy Raphael trawled America for the most outré and outrageous guests and encouraged them to debase themselves for the amusement of the audience. Jerry Springer was the king of the castle, his show including topics as edifying as “I Married a Horse”. After the inevitable backlash the last host standing was Oprah Winfrey, who pivoted from hyperbolic scandal to being the Mother of All Media we know today.
And yet, is there that much distance between what guests on these shows would do for attention and validation on today’s social media or reality TV, where the slim but real opportunity to go viral seems worth any amount of shameless posturing, posing and self-debasement?
The Geraldos and Jerrys of the world set a stage where fame and attention were the only real currency, and a lot of people are still dancing on it. Indeed, the roots of influencer culture can be seen in episode 9, ‘Secrets of the Runway’ which focuses on the supermodels of the ’90s and the massive sway they, and the fashion houses who clothed them, wielded over high culture.