The good thing about pop culture trends is that most of them, while shitty, go away eventually. But some of them, like that nasty case of herpes you picked up your freshman year in college, never really vanish for good. They either hang around undiluted or just morph into something slightly different. Here are nine such pop culture legacies from a decade that couldn’t end quickly enough if you ask me: the ’90s.
Note for the nitpickers: While some of these things did not necessarily begin in the 1990s, they came to prominence then. So there.
If you’re reading this and are currently sporting a goatee, do the rest of us a favor and shave that shit off. Right now. What the pornstache was to the ’70s or the mullet was to the ’80s, the goatee was to the ’90s — a grooming relic best left to those painfully unfunny VH1 retrospective clip shows. The only people who can still get away with that look are actors, athletes, and Evil Spock. So either be a man and commit to the full beard like the rest of us or be done with it.
To be fair, Beanie Babies weren’t the first useless item people lost their collective shit over; nor will they be the last. But with most hot toys, the secondary market explodes because the manufacturer can’t keep up with demand. What made Beanie Babies especially annoying (and therefore worthy of this list) was that Ty Inc. artificially kept the supply of individual animals low by “retiring” them. Because God forbid they produce a few thousand more stuffed ducks to prevent a bunch of bored housewives from rioting. This kind of bullshit marketing ploy is now commonplace, to the point where every piece of junk companies pump out is instantly labeled a collector’s item.
The absolute nadir of the Beanie Baby craze came in 1996, the first year of the McDonald’s Teenie Beanie Apocalypse. People waited on line for hours and even got into fights, all for the privilege of owning a smaller version of an already useless stuffed toy.
But this story does have a happy ending. All those little sacks of stuffing that were treated like gold back then are now no more valuable than most other toys from the era. A recent eBay auction for 65 Teenie Beanies sold for a whopping $23.01. Even that’s a ripoff if you ask me.
It’s not that I think Adam Sandler lacks talent. He was pretty funny on Saturday Night Live, and I never pass up an opportunity to watch The Wedding Singer on cable. But if there’s an entertainer from the ’90s who has squeezed more out of his blatantly limited range of ability, I can’t think of one. My brain cannot process the fact that the guy who I first saw as a funny but fairly forgettable bit player on the old Remote Control game show was given money by Hollywood to release a hateful piece of shit like Jack and Jill a few decades later. It’s like his level of success is inversely proportional to how insultingly stupid his projects are.
Worst of all, Adam Sandler is the sole reason Rob Schneider isn’t giving handies for meth money in some dank Hollywood alley. I will never forgive him for that.
I’ll admit that I was never a huge country fan to begin with, but I can at least respect the old school. Johnny Cash, Hank Williams, Willie Nelson, and Waylon Jennings — this to me is what country music is all about. Not the homogenized, twangy pop pabulum that’s come to represent the genre over the last 20-plus years. Sure, there’s been a huge strain of pop music intertwined with country going all the way back to the days of Countrypolitan in the ’50s and ’60s. But Shania Twain, Billy Ray Cyrus, Carrie Underwood, and Taylor Swift? Are you sure Hank done it this way?
This crap may not have started in the comic book industry, but it sure took hold in a big way there. Publishers realized that they had a hot thing on their hands and, as executives are wont to do, got greedy. Want to move a lot of product but can’t be bothered with writing more stories? Just publish the same damn issue multiple times and slap a different cover on each one. Genius!
But it doesn’t stop there, and it hasn’t stopped yet. While a case could possibly be made for wanting multiple comic book covers, I can think of no good excuse for the same from esteemed publications like TV Guide or Cosmopolitan. And yet here we are.
The Death of Mass Cultural Experiences
This one may be a bit of a reach, but work with me. Depending on your viewpoint, the explosion of cable television, the internet, and musical choices in the ’90s was a double-edged sword. On the one hand, people had more choices than ever before for entertainment. But the downside, as far as I’m concerned anyway, is that the age of the shared cultural experience died for good.
Take music as an example, think about it — what bands have come along since the ’90s that have effectively taken over our mass consciousness, even if for a little while? I would argue that since Michael Jackson’s heyday, or perhaps even Prince or Bruce Springsteen, you don’t get acts that sell a shit ton of albums and are also impossible to ignore.
These days — and I’m veering dangerously close to Bob Lefsetz territory, admittedly — the music market is so fragmented that very few top-selling acts actually seep into the brains of non-fans. The same goes for TV. The final episode of M*A*S*H aired in 1983 and drew 125+ million viewers, or seventy-seven percent of all American TV viewers. The only series finale from the last decade to crack the top 10 of that list was for Friends, which drew less than half the viewers and just over half the market share. And I’d wager that more people remember watching the M*A*S*H finale.
That’s not to say that we don’t still have extremely popular media. But more and more, the people who enjoy a band or a book or a show are all already fans, and they’re all high-fiving each other in the same little silo. I think the Harry Potter franchise did achieve that breakthrough, so perhaps I’m being premature here.
OK, back to the snark.
Cash Cow Band Reunions
The next time you purchase (or try to) a ticket for a so-called legacy act and then realize that you’d need to sell a few pints of blood just to cover the convenience charge, thank these douchebags:
By the time the Eagles hit the road for their Hell Freezes Over tour in 1994, they turned out to be the beneficiaries of a unique convergence between music and demographics. Their core fanbase, the Baby Boomers, were cruising into middle age and their prime earning years, and were more than willing to spend triple figures to relive their youth. Which would be all well and good, but it turned out that Messrs. Henley and friends had little interest in recording new music. In fact it would be 13 years before the reformed band released a proper studio album. In the meantime they went on two more massive, highly lucrative tours.
Other bands followed suit in the following years, such as Kiss, the Who, and even the Police. Of course I’m a willing accomplice to an extent, having seen Kiss twice in ’96 and the Police in 2007, but I can tell you neither was cheap.
Collecting As a Business Instead of a Hobby
I remember the day I realized that comic books had stopped being fun, and it had nothing to do with finally kissing a girl. I was in one of those permanent flea markets, looking for an old issue of The Avengers or Archie or something like that. I walked toward the counter and saw a kid, who couldn’t have been more than 8 or 9 years old, haggling with the store owner over a comic like he was trying to broker a peace deal at Camp David. I put my stuff back, walked out, and never came back.
By the 1990s, comic books and sports cards had stopped being pieces of colorful paper for kids and adult fans to accrue and enjoy. They became commodities to be hoarded, speculated on, and dealt like shares of stock or bars of gold. You didn’t dare handle one too much for fear of losing value. This is partly to blame for what turned into the comic book bubble of the early ’90s. (For more on that, read any of the great and insightful essays by Mile High Comics founder Chuck Rozanski.)
Likewise, baseball cards underwent a similar boom period, only to crash in the ’90s. It’s why cards that you spent a few dozen dollars on then can be had for a fraction of that now on eBay. And while that’s probably as it should be, it just sucks that what was supposed to be a fun hobby turned countless kids into little Gordon Gekkos* in the process.
*I’m old and out of touch. Can someone give me a more current reference point for greed than Gordon Gekko?
EXTREME (not the band)
I get it. Attitude sells. It’s been the case for decades. My main issue with the still-quite-pervasive trend of marketing things as “extreme” is that most of them just aren’t. It’s really just a cynical attempt by corporate executives to dupe people into believing that they have have had instant coolness imbued upon them just by consuming one mass-marketed product over another.
Take, for example, one of the prime offenders in the realm of EXTREME marketing — Mountain Dew. Oh sorry, I meant Mtn. Dew. Here’s one of their decidedly un-extreme TV spots from the mid ’80s.
Not very in your face, is it? But add some screaming guitars, extreme cross-training (another fucking term I can’t get enough of), and a de-mulleted tennis star, and you’re ready to ditch those rednecks and DO THE DEW.
While Agassi may be gone, the extreme-ness remains. And since the ’90s it has spread like a damn virus to just about every consumer product imaginable — from jeans to snack chips to baby carrots. Yes, not even baby carrots are immune to the X-Games-ification of American culture.