People think about 1994 now because Kurt Cobain died then, which causes one to squint through the year, misremembering the end of that era as encompassing all of it. It has always struck me that 1994 ought to be one of those years we commemorate, though there’s nothing so momentous as Cobain’s death to put a point on the thing that it was. I’m older now, which has let me look at the year as a body of work, as opposed to from within it, which was how I experienced it the first time around. At 11, 1994 was the first year I could be present in culture with any sophistication. Still naïve to the blunt devices at its foundation, I could begin to appreciate its finer-grained offerings beyond blue raspberry breakfast flakes and syndicated sitcoms. I was in sixth grade, allowed to come home by myself, and summarily inculcated into the (at the time) sunflower bedecked halls of MTV, which that year presented The Real World San Francisco and a universe of 20-somethings whose middle-diction presentations of melodramatic events perfectly matched in content, tone, and stakes, the body of MTV’s musical programming (Pearl Jam, “Better Man”; Lisa Loeb, “Stay (I Missed You)”). The symmetry there was not necessarily different from a present-day Real World hot tub molestation scored by Katy Perry, except for a reasonable-human-adult quality that you could get behind. The media’s soundtracks, myths and fabrics reinforced one another to such an extent that an interaction with any one of them secured an entry into the larger narrative. Pete and Pete’s house band and left of the dial guests populated the pantheon of its New Weird universe; the lyrical meanderings and persona of Gavin Rossdale were indistinct from Jordan Catalano’s illiterate subplot on My So-Called Life; Juliana Hatfield was an umbrella over everything, appearing spectrally on both shows to confer the ideal of early-nineties femininity through breathy mumblings and bunched up sweater sleeves.
The parents on My So-Called Life—remarkable among TV parents in being allowed to have inner lives—were banner members of the larger intergenerational love-fest of 1994. They made a second Woodstock in August of 1994, and seemed to be making a second Woodstock in general throughout the year. Shannon Hoon wandered the scene as if to prove it. Bellbottoms, John Lennon sunglasses and British rock were back, and consumer fashion tried to cut mod London looks of the late sixties into slippery rayon. Baby boomers by now had more than just a “Touch of Gray”; they had the Big Chill in its own anniversary editions. Boomers passed a baton to the youth with Woodstock ’94, sponsored by Pepsi, and they passed the great kidney stone of their midlife crises in Forrest Gump, also released that year. 1994 would be among the first system-wide swells of nostalgia we engaged in culturally, and by now we have reiterated this pattern for every discernable unit of thetwentieth century. The need to frantically recycle past decades became more and more piquant as the late 90s ushered out any semblance of temporal identity on a cloud of HTML code, but by ’94 the urge was already there. The alternative music peak of 1994 that brought Beck’s Mellow Gold and Weezer’s blue album also initiated the genre’s decline. Afterwards, white people would lose any market share they once held in the realm of articulating authenticity, parceling it out into smaller and smaller shares until the indie cred contingent of the early 00s studied its taxidermied remains like beleaguered academics.
As a sixth grader entering into the cultural landscape of 1994, the terrain ahead looked promising. The bratty chords that tumble into “When I Come Around” and the melancholic swell of “Found Out About You” defined the terms of the contract I thought I was making with music. I saw before me a landscape of teenagers in motley subcultures that could be decoded in a language of sneakers. Their Vedder-via-Beavis and Butthead ethos seemed awfully swell from within the first buds of my alienation, and I reasoned that “alternative” would offer a helpful canopy to park under, given the guaranteed shunting I would receive from the Mariah Carey set. Having no sturdy archive of the past, I wouldn’t have known to think of 1994 as a unique moment of cultural jibe: I welcomed the future, and felt confident that culture would sustain that year’s variegated and faintly delicious offerings for the long run.
You wouldn’t have noticed 1995-1996 as distinctly different from 1994, but as the years age, you can see evidence of the first stitchings-in of the following era. By the time Clueless came out in 1995, Paul Rudd’s socially conscious slacker already seemed anachronistic, and when Brittany Murphy shed her flannel in favor of the newly ubiquitous baby tee, girls all over America were inclined to take her cue. The apocalyptic horses that foretold the end of days for the mid-Nineties weren’t Trojan; Scary Spice plainly zigazigged alternative and its ilk right out of existence. But it wasn’t bubble gum that initiated the glum autumn of my relationship with culture; rather something in the eighth or ninth month of the “Mo Money, Mo Problems” juggernaut. By now I see the song’s message ironically embedded in the dot-com/credit nonsense banquet that laid the groundwork for the Reagan-Eighties Aughts, but something about that song’s chrome-smooth sheen and hybrid appeal seemed impenetrable and portentously pregnant even then. It was a watertight feat of industry cross-pollination to cast off all previous cultural amalgams as sheer juvenilia, to lend them an air of the naïve or ridiculous. It made it clear that nothing would be not-it ever again.
In conversations with people three or four years older or younger than me, it strikes me that those of us who were, say, ages 9–13 in 1994 remain on a little boat together, having glimpsed a period that pre-consciously knew itself to be the twentieth century’s wake. Maybe what sets us apart from those who came before and after is that we were partially but not fully formed before being passed through the analog-digital converter of 1997. Anyone who ever made a mix tape off the radio in the early Nineties, pirating in the vogue of the day, knows the sensation of clipping culture like coupons in the moment of pressing “stop” too late and catching an errant commercial or a DJ’s vociferous outro. If you listened to the tape enough, the ad or phrase could become so interlinked with the song that it would prompt it in any associated hearing. There is something of that temporality and physicality left in our non-generation, and it strikes me that that’s probably the place where we will be stored in the archives: not quite an entry on the mix tape of that century, but as a sticky remnant clipped into the end-static, our presence always a cue to rewind.