In a previous post ("Growing Up Grunge, Pt. 1"), I reflected on what it means to have come of age not just in the 1990s, but with the 1990s -- turning 11 in 1990 and 20 in 1999. I've been doing some more thinking about this lately, in particular about why the explosion of grunge had such a huge impact on kids my age. I should specify that I'm referring to when grunge music hit the mainstream -- that generation-altering year of 1991. It had, of course, been around since the mid-1980s. But for many kids like myself - who didn't have bad-ass older siblings and grew up in a sleepy small town - grunge did not enter our vocabulary until Nevermind and Ten hit the charts. To be honest, I was still pretty clueless about Nirvana and Pearl Jam even then. They were just so far removed from the poppier than pop Top 40 music I'd been grooving to all through grade school. And it is to that music, and the pop culture in general of the fabulous twilight of the 1980s that I will now turn.
Earlier I made a cursory list of grunge era icons, eg. Doc Martens, thrift store shopping, mosh pits, greasy hair, flannel, heroin chic, rock star suicides, and so on and so forth. Keeping those in mind, I'm going to now conjure up a similar list reflecting pop life as I knew it from about 1989 to 1991:
(For the full flashback experience, I recommend cueing up Waiting For a Star to Fall by Boy Meets Girl. Hit play now...)
OK, so here goes: Madonna's Like a Prayer (first cassette I ever bought), Pretty Woman, Wilson Phillips, Beverly Hills, 90210, movies starring the Coreys (Haim and Feldman, of course), Cotton Ginny, New Kids on the Block, Paula Abdul, The Wonder Years, hair scrunchies, sticker collections, Amy Grant's Heart in Motion, Salt-N-Pepa, chintz leggings (hello first day of junior high), Uncle Buck, Home Alone, Taylor Dayne, Milli Vannilli, my parents' Chevrolet Caprice, Murphy Brown, Parker Lewis Can't Lose...
And, oh yeah, the Gulf War. And the recession. But we won't get into that. Actually, maybe I will, if only to note that it seems bizarr-o to me that pretty much all of the pop culture that I can recollect from the "turn of the '90s" is so insanely fluffy, when the news was so bleak. But then again, I was only ten years old, and my biggest concern was whether Jordan Knight would be willing to wait for me until I was legal to marry him.
Point being that you cannot find a pop culture experience farther removed from the grunge era than that which immediately preceded it -- especially as experienced as a kid. Then 1991 came along. Did everything seem different only because we became teenagers? Or was it a real watershed? All I know is, Bryan Adams' Waking Up the Neighbors and Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves were a friggin' far cry from Pearl Jam and Reservoir Dogs. But they existed in the same moment.
There has to be some lasting scars on my generation from being forced to sacrifice our love of smiley, squeaky-clean pop idols like New Kids on the Block and Paula Abdul in exchange for the angry, brooding and bedraggled likes of Kurt Cobain and Eddie Vedder. By late 1991, everything we loved as kids just was NOT cool anymore. There wasn't any time for sentimental good-byes. But maybe that's what becoming a teenager is all about -- leaving happy fuzzy childhood behind for a dark, uncertain, and possibly painful future. Interestingly enough, for kids of my generation, grunge took over the music scene at the exact moment we needed to articulate just how much it sucked to be a teenager. Therefore, I would argue, it's even more potent for us than for any other demographic in history. How's that for a sweeping statement? It feels right to me.