aphex twin

Finding Weird in the 90s

aphex twin

A typical summer night in the 90s

I love weird pop culture. I’m not talking about “so bad it’s funny/good” weird, but genuinely bizarre stuff that belongs in its own, special, thoroughly un-ironic corner of human artistic expression. It’s valuable both as a consumer and critic of pop culture to have a background in the weird stuff because it puts more mainstream content in perspective. For example, the mind-bending perceptual experimentation of Inception doesn’t look so bizarre or off-putting when you’ve spent a night watching a movie from mainland China in the 1980′s about a child who has vaguely Buddhist mystical powers and a sidekick who is basically a stranger he met on a train who may or may not have microwaved and ate shit early in the film’s proceedings.

How I experienced such oddities is as important as the specifics of the oddities themselves. See, I had the good fortune to grow up in the glorious cultural window of the 1990s. Let me elaborate:

By the 1990s, cable was firmly established but the concept of a 24-hour, consistent programming schedule hadn’t yet been implemented. The Internet was around but it didn’t really carry much video and the little video it had was brief and low-quality. The result was a cable television landscape that essentially transformed into the weirdest place in reality after midnight, catering to the insomniacs, stoners and weirdos who would eventually migrate to the infinite supply of entertainment of high-speed Internet the next decade. In the 90s it seemed like every TV network gave late night programming responsibilities to a creepy, bug-eyed guy who worked in a closet at the corporate HQ. Basic cable would trot out its collection of old, forgettable pulp films, premium stations filled the waves with softcore porn, obscure horror and foreign detritus, even the music stations trotted out a mix of emergent electronic music and deep cuts from alternative rock bands.

I’ve always been a night person. As I write this, it’s nearly 3:30 AM Pacific and I’m bright-eyed. I was like this as a kid, too. So, come school break, I turned nocturnal and immersed myself in the wanton weirdness of late night TV. It was a grab bag that I couldn’t control or predict. Titles meant nothing and the late hour meant I was completely unsupervised. Thus, bizarre movies from mainland China, various iterations of Emmanuel and purposely off-putting music videos from the likes of Rammstein, Aphex Twin and Dirty Vegas. I never would have found this stuff on my own, not even in the stacks of a scuzzy video store. TV had to give it to me in the wee hours.

By the 00s the weirdness of late night TV basically disappeared. Cable had accrued enough original programming to fill 24 hours with middling crime procedurals, MTV and VH1 jumped on the reality TV bandwagon and premium stations adopted an all-reruns, all-the-time policy that persists into the modern day. TV isn’t where to go for weird anymore.

Thankfully, the Internet is a vast and stormy sea of weird. Clicking around Wikis, aggregators and forums is the equivalent of channel surfing, only with a higher degree of personal agency. Programs like Net Nanny curtail the degree of weirdness a kid can find, or at least until the kid learns how to circumvent the censorship. I admit I’m nostalgic for the days of TV’s unbidden bizarreness, but I know each generation has its own thing. Indie theaters, cavernous book stores, random pamphlets, underground newspapers– They’re all sources of weird throughout the history of pop culture. One way or another, a kid needs to have that strange fruit to fuel creativity and open-mindedness.




  • Leroy Grey

    I got to agree, dude.  Cable and late-night TV introduced me to the Church of the Sub-Genius, to mashups, eurodance, and heavy metal; to Svankmeijer and Quay Brothers and John Waters; I miss the subversive bursts of expression, and discovering it…

    So, are you just ranting, or are you introducing a new column?

  • MichaelSarko

    Hm. I hadn’t thought of turning this into a running thing, as I’m not sure how I would do it. What do you, reader, want to see?

  • Leroy Grey

    You watched Liquid Television, right?  How about Night Flight?  Those were the first programs that came to mind from your column:  television harbouring the esoteric… stuff like ‘The Idiot Box’, ‘Aeon Fluxx’, ‘Dynamen’, ‘Fantastic Planet’, ‘Love That Bob’, Bill Plympton, Julie Brown, AMP and Sifl and Olly…  I’d love to reminisce about the weirdness of the formative years

  • MichaelSarko

    Check out my new running column “Shameless Nostalgia”. It focuses on significant 90s pop culture and I’ll definitely be doing a piece about Aeon Flux soon.