The 90s were a decade that introduced exciting new technology, some great music, movies, and television, as well as some truly unique fashion trends. While we don’t always realize how great a period of time is while we’re actually experiencing it, hindsight gives us the ability to look back at some of the things that we may have taken for granted. The 90s were a pivotal period of time in pop culture that we can all look back fondly on (well, for the most part). Here are 12 things that define the decade.
12. The Console Wars
Starting with the 16-bit battle between the Super Nintendo and Sega Genesis in the early 90s and the mid-90s three-way fight between the Sega Saturn, Nintendo 64, and the Sony PlayStation, the console wars were an integral part of the decade’s gaming culture. Video game consoles were expensive in the 1990s, and consumers often only had enough disposable income to justify the purchase of one gaming console at a time. This led to many gamers vehemently defending their purchase to the point where it caused many schoolyard arguments over which console was better.
As the 90s transitioned into the internet era, the console wars exploded into websites and forums where fanboys could have their arguments heard by a greater audience. While disputes over which console is the greatest are arguably bigger than ever, it was the 90s where the debates originated. The console wars were not just reserved for consumers, as game companies did their best to fuel the flames with campaigns such as Sega’s “Genesis does what Nintendon’t” series of ads. The end result of the console wars was an exciting period of time in which intense competition led to some huge leaps in gaming technology.
11. The Internet
The internet is an important tool that has revolutionized the computer and communications sectors like nothing before. Using the framework created by inventions such as the telegraph, the telephone, the radio, and the personal computer, the internet integrated their capabilities into what is now possibly the most important technological advancement of the twentieth century. Back in the infant days of this new and exciting technology, most of us were using the internet to download free music, TV shows, and pirated software.
Sites like Napster were fully populated with teens trying to get their hands on the latest Green Day single, a process that often took overnight to download over those slow dial-up networks. Chat clients such as ICQ, AOL, and MSN Messenger were where teens were doing most of their communicating and where we first saw the adaptation of “netspeak,” with phrases like “brb” (be right back), and “lol” (laugh out loud) becoming a part of our everyday lexicon. Accessing the internet was a much more tedious experience back in the 90s and usually involved alerting the whole family to avoid using the telephone in order to have an uninterrupted session on a dial-up connection.
10. WWF: The Attitude Era
Even the most casual wrestling fan had to take notice of the over-the-top muscle-bound soap opera that was the WWF’s Attitude Era. Led by wrestling icons such as “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, The Rock, and Shawn Michaels, the Attitude Era was full of exciting action and engaging storylines that had fans eagerly tuning in every Monday night. Tuesday morning conversations were full of questions like “did you see the Stone Cold match last night?” and “did you hear what The Rock said?” which usually involved “Shut Your Mouth.”
The Attitude Era was defined by a radical shift in programming content. In contrast to the more traditional, family-friendly characters and stories that were common throughout the 1980s, the Attitude Era sought to attract the young adult demographic by transforming the product into an edgier and more controversial form of entertainment. Traditionally heroic characters such as Hulk Hogan were replaced with anti-heroes like D-Generation X, and the vanilla storylines were replaced with controversial plots based on shock value.
9. The Chicago Bulls
The Chicago Bulls were hands down the most popular team in professional sports during the 1990s, so popular that the team transcended the sports world and crossed over into popular culture. Fueled by the superb play of several future Hall of Fame players, the Chicago Bulls were a dominant force that took the NBA by storm. Led by the greatest basketball player of all-time Michael Jordan, the Chicago Bulls won six NBA championships during the decade. On the court, Jordan’s teammates Scottie Pippen, Horace Grant, and Dennis Rodman became household names, and off the court, Bulls merchandise flew off store shelves.
Jordan’s star power was like nothing the sporting world had seen before, and for the first time, we had a player that was making more money off the court through endorsement deals than on the court. While Michael Jordan was undeniably the most famous player on the team, both Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman had more than their fair share of lucrative endorsements, which included signature shoe deals with Nike. In the case of Dennis Rodman – one of the greatest rebounders and defenders of all time – he became more well known for his behavior off the court than his play on the court. That being said, the extensive coverage of Rodman’s exploits just helped to heighten the visibility and popularity of the Chicago Bulls during the 1990s.
8. Boy Bands & Girl Groups
The 90s were a decade that produced some excellent music, which included the grunge scene and some of the greatest hip-hop ever produced. Unfortunately, we were also forced to endure the Boy Band and Girl Group craze. Manufactured groups of singers that often valued good looks ahead of talent were first popularized in the late 1980s with New Kids On The Block, and their 90s successors included groups like The Backstreet Boys, N’Sync, and The Spice Girls, who all dominated the Billboard charts and airwaves of pop music radio stations.
Manufactured pop groups are not all created equal, with a noticeable gap in quality that is evident between mega groups like N’Sync and Destiny’s child and likes of one-hit-wonder copycat acts such as O-Town, and All-Saints. Several of the members of these groups have gone on to have massive solo careers suggesting that often, most of the talent belonged with one of the group’s members, and the rest of the group was filled out with attractive background singers. The concept of a boy band or girl group has been around for decades prior to and after but has never been as popular as it was the 1990s, and for the most part, it’s a genre that should be left behind along with frosted tips and puka shell necklaces.
7. The Mullet
Still prevalent in some parts of the mid-west and south, the mullet is an iconic 90s hairstyle worn by men and women that featured a clean, trimmed look on the top and long flowing locks that cascade down the back of the neck like a waterfall of hair. In later years, the mullet has been appropriately referred to as “business in the front, party in the back.” Some of the most famous mullets of the 90s were worn by country star Billy Ray Cyrus, tennis star Andre Agassi, and TV star John Stamos.
The origins of the mullet go back as far as the sixth century, Byzantine scholar Procopius wrote that some factions of young males wore their hair long at the back and cut it short over the forehead. This hairdo was termed the ‘Hunnic’ look and quickly fell out of style in favor of a more traditional Roman style of cut. Variations of the mullet became popular throughout the 70s and 80s but reached their peak popularity in the 90s.
6. Saved By The Bell
The early 90s are perfectly summed up by the popular NBC television series Saved By The Bell, which started with Good Morning Miss Bliss in 1987 and followed the groups of teens through to 1994 with The College Years. The show’s central cast of Zack, AC Slater, Skreech, Kelly, Jessie, and Lisa showcased the early part of the decade’s popular culture, including the fashion, hairstyles, music, language, and themes that were common for the era.
Saved By The Bell was the type of show that featured characters that everyone could relate to, whether it was the cool and charming Zack Morris, the athlete A.C. Slater or the intelligent and quirky Samuel “Screech” Powers. While you may have been able to relate to the teens while it originally aired, you may find yourself with more in common with Mr. Belding these days. The show featured the right mix of comedic elements and more dramatic storylines. Most fans will remember the classic melodrama of episode #29 “Jessies’s Song,” in which Zack confronts Jessie about addiction to caffeine pills. Saved By The Bell is the 90s time capsule that keeps on giving, these days by watching old episodes online.
5. The East Coast vs. West Coast Rap Beef
The 90s were responsible for producing the most excellent hip hop of all time, hands down. Rappers like Tupac, The Notorious B.I.G, Nas, Jay-Z, and Snoop Dog, among others, all rose to stardom throughout the decade. One of the main reasons for rap’s crossover into mainstream pop culture was the rise in popularity of west coast gangster rap, which eventually led to a bi-coastal battle between rappers on the East and West Coast of the United States. The central characters in the feud were West Coast rapper Tupac Shakur and his Los Angeles-based label, Death Row Records, and East Coast rapper The Notorious B.I.G. and his New York-based label, Bad Boy Records.
Fueled by tracks like The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Who Shot Ya?” and Tupac’s “Hit ‘Em Up” that alluded to violence and often included outright threats aimed at the members of the opposite coast, tempers flared and often led to highly publicized acts of violence. Before you knew it, two of the greatest rappers of all time were dead before the age of 25; both killed in drive-by shootings that remain unsolved to this day. After Tupac and Biggie passed away within six months of each other, the tensions died down, and eventually, the beef was squashed at the sacrifice of two of the greatest artists of the twentieth century.
Inline skates or Rollerblades were wildly popular in the 1990s. The skates looked like neon-colored moon boots cand for a few years; they were everywhere. Before skateboarding took over as the extreme sport on wheels of choice among youth, in-line skating was right on its heels. Whether it was fitness enthusiasts, hockey jocks, or aggressive in-line skaters, rollerblading was a cultural phenomenon throughout the decade. At the height of their popularity, there was even a professional roller hockey league and an in-line skating dancing circuit that was mostly figure-skating on wheels.
In-line skates were the epitome of the 1990s extreme sports craze and reached an even bigger audience through its appearance in ESPN’s Extreme Games starting in 1995. The exposure provided by the X-Games sent teens flocking to local skateparks, and before you knew it, there were as many aggressive in-line skaters as traditional skateboarders. Throughout the decade, aggressive in-line skating was extremely popular with names like Chris Edwards and Arlo Eisenberg being almost as well known as Tony Hawk and Bucky Lasek. Today, rollerblades have plummeted into obscurity, as they are no longer a part of the X-Games and are now worn predominantly by fitness enthusiasts. In-line skates are now rarely seen outside of places like Venice Beach and have quickly become a relic of the 90s.
3. Pauly Shore
Actor Pauly Shore is the 90s personified and had a string of hit films and TV gigs throughout the decade. Shore first rose to stardom with his role as an on-air MTV VJ, a position he held from 1989 to 1994. At the height of his MTV fame, Shore hosted his own show, Totally Pauly, as well as MTV’s annual Spring Break parties, which were wildly popular. Shore’s character, “The Weasel,” was a privileged white stoner who was known for his nonsensical speech and flamboyant style.
In 1992, Shore made his film debut in Encino Man, which was a modest hit but found traction as a 90s cult favorite. To this day, hardly anyone in their mid-thirties can walk by a slushie machine without the phrase “Weezing the juice” coming to mind. The success of Encino Man allowed Pauly to star in several more vehicles centered around The Weasel persona, Son in Law (1993), In the Army Now (1994), Jury Duty (1995), and Bio-Dome (1996). Unfortunately, all of the films received mostly negative reviews, and each film was less successful than the one before. Despite the lack of box office success, Pauly Shore and his Weasel persona were no doubt synonymous with the 1990s and had everyone using the character’s lingo, buuuuudy.
The 90s grunge music scene was a counter to the 80s and its overproduced music defined by heavy use of synthesizers and digital production tools. Grunge music also represented a counter to 80s glam culture, which often involved hours of prep work, makeup, perms, and spandex. Music needed a reset, a return to a focus on instruments and musicians in their raw form without fancy technological enhancements. Grunge’s unique sound was characterized by “dirty” guitar, sharp riffs, and heavy drumming. The “dirty” sound featured by many bands of the era results primarily from the everyday use of heavy guitar distortion, fuzz, and feedback.
Seattle was a hotbed for grunge and is widely credited for producing some of the greatest bands of the era, including Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Soundgarden, and Alice In Chains. Grunge bands were trendy throughout the decade, and its culture and style permeated pop culture. The well-kempt, glam style of the 80s made way for the 90s counter-culture look that ditched brand names, logos, and any overt signs of wealth. While grunge’s wave of popularity did last through the early 90s, by the time the mid-90s were coming around, the movement declined. Many of the era’s most prominent acts broke up due to disputes between band members, drug addictions, and in the tragic case of Nirvana’s Kurt Cobain, suicide. Additionally, bands often became disgruntled at their sudden fame and started to resent it. Grunge did leave an impact and inspired other groups such as the Foo-Fighters and Green Day that saw success through the late 90s and 2000s.
1. The Simpsons
Since The Simpsons debut on December 17th, 1989, 635 episodes have been broadcast, making it the longest-running sitcom in American television history. The first ten seasons, which spanned the entire 90s decade, are considered the show’s “Golden Age” and received universal critical acclaim with Time Magazine naming it the 20th century’s best television series. Homer, Marge, Bart, Lisa, Maggie, and a massive roster of excellent supporting characters became household names among children, teens, and adults alike. One of the biggest testaments to the show is its ability to stay relevant and popular as its viewers get older. The Simpsons began with a focus on Bart as the central character, but as fans got older, the focus shifted to storylines that featured more of Homer’s hilarious exploits.
In the early 90s, The Simpsons were all over merchandise such as clothing, lunch boxes, video games, and toys. Most 30-somethings had at least one piece of merchandise that included early phrases like “Don’t have a cow man!” or “Eat my shorts.” The show features some fantastic characters, voice acting, and writing that has made it popular for decades, and while the franchise is far less popular than it was in the 90s, there are still some great episodes being produced to this day.