Thursday, 7 January 2010

The 1990s – will we ever see another decade like it?

For many the 1990s began not on January 1st, but on November 9th the previous year, a day on which the overriding symbol of the Cold War was destroyed. For twenty eight years the Berlin Wall had represented impending nuclear annihilation, imprisonment, injustice, tension and the division between two different worlds. Put together with the collapse of the Iron Curtain, victory for Solidarity in Poland and Gorbachev relinquishing the Brezhnev Doctrine in favour of allowing the Eastern European satellites to ‘go their own way’, it signalled a tumultuous end to a conflict that had lasted for nearly forty-five years. In this atmosphere of freedom, belief, humanity, reconciliation and peace what I consider to be one of the greatest decades of all began. The Red Army, the world’s largest fighting force, was withdrawing its tanks and divisions from Europe, which had remained there since the end of the Second World War, and millions of Europeans were able to reject Communist rule and choose their own political destinies. By no means did injustice simply disappear on a worldwide scale; the Tiananmen Square demonstrations proved that without a genuine will for change amongst the political elite, mass protests are relatively ineffective. However, sandwiched between the Cold War (1945-1989), and September 11th 2001, the deadliest terrorist attack in human history, the world appeared for a time to be an altogether safer place. This is not to say that war simply stopped; indeed those affected by the conflicts resulting from the break-up of Yugoslavia, the Rwandan Genocide and the Gulf War would undoubtedly consider such an assertion extremely offensive. Despite such incidences the 1990s as a decade was almost an anomaly, in which hedonism and experimentation replaced fear and anxiety.

Nowhere was this change more apparent than in the musical arena. People often decry 1990s music as cheesy and irrelevant, and it is certainly true that it ranged at times from the sublime to the downright ridiculous. However it was still likeable enough to be appreciated for what it was. Perhaps it’s just me but it just doesn’t seem that songs like N-Trance’s “Set You Free”, Love Inc.’s “You’re A Superstar” or Eiffel 65’s “Blue (Da Ba Dee)" are made anymore. Now I’m not suggesting for one moment that any of these songs would win awards. Indeed I imagine the musical establishment wouldn’t recognise them as anything other than valueless pop fodder. Yet these are just a few of the great songs made in the 1990s, which unlike nowadays weren’t released by manufactured ‘groups’ or ‘artists’ off the X-Factor, made up of former shop assistants and hairdressers. Simon Cowell, media mogul and purveyor of repetitive, sing-along songs for the masses, is just one example of how music has lost its way. Before artists rose to the top of the charts because they deserved to be there, and had created some form of ‘art’. In the last ten years the charts have become a farce, with the latest release from Chipmunk or another equally-uninspiring rapper ‘with a tough upbringing’ guaranteed top spot. The UK charts haven’t yet ignited the same excitement amongst the population as they did in August 1995 with the ‘Battle of Britpop’, in which Oasis’ Roll With It went head-to-head with Blur’s Country House, and lost. Britpop, although a phrase coined by the media, was arguably the greatest musical ‘revolution’ in British history since the 1960s, where ‘British invasion’ bands such as the Beatles, Who, Rolling Stones and Kinks came to prominence in the United States as well as the United Kingdom.

The Britpop scene was just a part, albeit a significant one, of the ‘Cool Britannia’ movement that swept across the British Isles throughout the 1990s. Margaret Thatcher’s eleven year premiership came to a dramatic end on November 22nd 1990, ushering in a new era in British politics. Whilst the 1980s had been one of the most ideological political decades, in which the ‘consensus’ between the two main parties was triumphantly broken, it returned in the 1990s, albeit with a different face. Throughout her time in office, Thatcher had been a Marmite-type figure to most Britons, who either loved the ‘Iron Lady’ or hated her, but Tony Blair appeared to enjoy almost universal popularity at the time of his landslide victory in the 1997 general election. The emergence of ‘New Labour’ in the early 1990s saw the Conservatives destined for a long spell in the political wilderness, having dominated for more than a decade, and instead of taking a ‘tough line’ with the trade unions and ordering the sinking of the Belgrano, thanks to the changed decade he was in, Tony Blair spent his time meeting with Noel Gallagher and gaining the support of billionaire Rupert Murdoch. Whilst many historians and statisticians will point out that the 1990s had more war casualties than the decade that succeeded it, in the world’s most powerful nation, politics took a turn for the better. In stark contrast to Ronald Reagan’s huge defence spending and willingness to involve the United States in almost any conflict, no matter how small or seemingly insignificant, Bill Clinton’s administration was able to present a budget surplus of $559 billion by the 2001 election. His ‘Third Way’ philosophy of governance ensured Clinton huge popularity and an approval rating of 66% upon leaving office, the highest of any American President since Dwight Eisenhower.

Whilst I’m sure that a number of people may take issue with the following analysis, the state of English football improved immeasurably during the 1990s, a time in which the necessary groundwork was laid for the popularity and appeal the Premier League currently enjoys. Following the horrific events of April 15th 1989, when a deadly human crush at Sheffield Wednesday’s Hillsborough stadium during an FA Cup semi-final tie between Liverpool and Nottingham Forest resulted in the deaths of 96 fans of Liverpool FC, English football was deeply scarred. The 1980s had been blighted by such disasters; including the deaths of 39 Juventus fans at Heysel Stadium in Belgium in 1985, which resulted in the banning of English clubs from all European competitions, the Bradford Stadium Fire of the same year, in which 56 people perished, and the Luzhniki Disaster of 1982. Following Hillsborough the blame was wrongly pinned on the Liverpool supporters for causing the crush, but the Taylor Report later concluded that the official cause of the disaster was the failure of police control. The Report also stipulated that all fences at football grounds, originally put up in order to prevent hooliganism in English football, which had been rife during the 1970s, should be taken down and all-seater stadia introduced as soon as possible. It is deeply saddening that it required the deaths of so many people in order to achieve safety in football grounds; however since Hillsborough such incidents have never been repeated.

The break-away of the Premier League from the rest of the Football League has resulted in immeasurably higher wages, transfer fees, ticket costs and a drastically improved standard of live football coverage. Many fans, including myself would argue that TV money has probably had a slightly detrimental effect on the game, widening the gulf between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’, but the calibre of players in the top division has almost certainly improved, and the 1990s saw the Premier League becoming a truly worldwide spectacle. The high point of the decade's football was undoubtedly Euro 96, held in England at the high point of ‘Cool Britannia’, in which the national team reached the semi-finals before agonisingly losing out to Germany in a penalty shoot-out. Not for a number of years had English football been in such an optimistic state; the run to the semi-finals captured the imagination of the whole country, stadiums were safe, television coverage was far improved and hooliganism had been as near as makes no difference eradicated. Manchester United’s 1999 treble-winning triumph was the spectacular culmination of one of the brightest decades for English football for a long while, and a truly magnificent spectacle no matter one’s football allegiance.

As a decade the 1990s is difficult to sum up as it witnessed huge technological, political, social, economic and cultural change. Perhaps the best way of doing so is to say that the 1990s was the decade in which the world moved on. The bi-polar decades of fear, uncertainty, huge defence expenditure and the ever-present threat of nuclear holocaust were swept away by a tide of optimism, freedom, reconciliation and relative peace. The 1990s was in many ways the calm after and before two very different storms; the end of the Cold War, and the beginning of the war on terror, one which will likely last at least as long and perhaps never be won. The rise of the internet, arguably the most spectacular technological development in human history, sets the 1990s apart from its predecessors, but the innocence of the decade sets it apart from the world we live in now. With the Cold War having ended nobody knew where the next battle would be fought, and whom it would be fought against, until 9/11. The 1990s is therefore a decade to be cherished and celebrated, for its relative peace and prosperity if nothing else.

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