Waiting for an NFL-delayed episode of Saturday Night Live on the weekend, the Lady and I stumbled on a broadcast of the 2005 theatrical version of the musical Rent. I had a passing familiarity with the show, the major musical numbers, some of the original cast, everyone having AIDS, etc, but didn’t really know the plot in any detail. After catching those last 40 minutes, as the credits rolled, I was left with a discomforting thought that I just couldn’t shake.
The nineties sucked. A lot.
To say this discovery unnerved me would be grossly understating it. I’ve spent gallons of digital ink celebrating the wonders of the twentieth century’s coda on at least three different blogs, in that way that only people who are teenagers during a certain time can. And my biggest bullet point is the very thing that Rent soured in my mouth: the feeling of infinite possibility.
In short: when Nirvana broke and people of my generation became conscious of the DiY aesthetic, the curtain came down on them mysteries of production. By ’94 Cobain might have been in the ground, but I was in my first band playing shows and filling journal after journal with bad poetry. Labels started popping up all over and for a couple of wonderful summers, it really felt like anyone could pull it off.
Of course, we were doomed to fail. And failure lead to compromise, and compromise lead to cynicism. The cozy culture that had nurtured our creativity ended up choking us into submission. It would over five years for me and the rise of the alleged “Web 2.0” that I felt part of a culture again, that I felt inspired.
The one song in Rent that crystallized all of this for me was “What You Own,” the duet where Mark and Roger figure out what they want out of life. “Why does the scarf guy look so angry?” I asked the Lady, as she was familiar with the show.
“Because he thinks he sold out. He’s working for like a tabloid TV show.”
“Well I understand that. Fuck the man, man. What did the man ever do for you besides, umm, give you health benefits?”
It is a very small percentage of people who do not sell out. About the only choice you have in the matter is how you do it. No landlord will offer to waive your rent, no ATM will spit out money when you type in a dead tranny’s name. And sadly, you will likely not finish that novel or documentary or album. If you do, it probably won’t make you famous. You’re not special.
Sour grapes of a failed man, you say? Not necessarily. Remember where I’m coming from on this. We were sold a dream, we were told we could be superstars. It’s the dream Rent is still trying to sell, and it’s false. That’s why the nineties sucked. Whereas in the sixties, people thought they were all in something together, in the nineties it was everyone for themselves. By being bohemian or alternative or what have you, you not only had to differentiate yourself from the culture at large, but also the culture you were trying to be a part of. It was a cult of individuality. And as you get older, you realize what Tyler Durden already knew: You are not a unique snowflake.
The nineties ended with fire and rape at Woodstock ’99, Fred Durst urging us to Break Stuff, Y2K doomsday paranoia and George W. Bush’s election. A fitting end for ten years of delusion. We were so fascinated with ourselves, at most with our small circle of contemporaries, we never noticed the entire thing was getting pulled out from under us.