Everybody loves ’80s music, and I do, too. But as much as I appreciate the pop culture of the Ronald Reagan decade, personally, those were hardly the best years of my life. I was too busy trying to make sense of who I was, struggling to fit my square self into a round hole, to really seize the days and enjoy them. In some ways, the ’90s was the decade in which I was truly born.
An ex-boyfriend (see No. 2 below) once told me that the thing he admired most about me was the way I completely invented myself. I took it as a compliment, but he was off by about 12 years. Necessity was the mother of my invention (I needed to perfect a presentable, acceptable image if I was going to survive on the playground), but that was back when I was trying to be someone I wasn’t, from around ages 10 to 22. By the time he and I met, I had stopped inventing and reinventing myself — I was finally just being myself. Despite some terrible outfits and questionable hairstyles, the ’90s were best for me because it was my era of self-discovery.
One of the other interesting distinctions between the ’80s and ’90s is how differently I remember the two decades. I can assign exact years to ’80s albums, singles, movies and events more or less from memory, but for the most part, with the ’90s, specific years are less clear — perhaps because, for the first time, I didn’t have school years with which to associate them. Everything in the ’90s tends to fall into three categories: the early ’90s, the mid ’90s and the late ’90s. Thankfully, in the 2010s, we have Wikipedia to provide dates, when needed.
Lisa, my former high-school classmate and current Facebook friend who calls the ’90s her “religious cult years” because she knows so little about them, suggested that I document and celebrate my second favorite decade (nothing compares to the ’70s) with an official list. What a great idea. So here are 90 reasons why the ’90s were, to quote a Styx song from the early ’80s, the best of times.
1. Coming out and coming into my own.
2. My first love (and my second and third ones, too)
3. Kir royales: Was I drunk on love, or was it just the champagne?
4. New York City’s East Village, circa October 1992 to October 1995, and my first bachelor pad there
5. Sex and the city: Not the show, my life!
6. The summer of ’95: My best one ever, and the last hurrah of kick-ass NYC.
7. The summer of ’96: New York to London to Prague to Budapest to Vienna to Prague to London to New York.
8. My milestone birthday party at Cheetah: 30 was the new 20 (now it’s 40)!
9. My mom’s surprise 55th birthday party in Atlanta five days earlier
10. Never letting a birthday sneak by without a decadent birthday dinner.
11. Monday nights at Sugar Babies
12. Tuesday nights underground at Jackie 60
13. Wednesday nights upstairs at Flamingo East
14. Thursday nights at Bowery Bar
15. Friday nights at Sound Factory Bar
16. Saturday nights at the Roxy
17. The blizzard of 1996
18. Mardi Gras (1990-1991)
19. Gainesville, Florida
20. Driving solo from Los Angeles to San Francisco over Christmas break 1994
21. My first trans-Atlantic crossing (Can you believe they ever permitted smoking in-flight?)
22. European vacations
23. Museo del Prado en Madrid
24. My favorite London spaces: Soho Square, Kensington High Street, Camden Town, King’s Road, Earls Court, Notting Hill Gate, Portobello Road Market, Hyper Hyper and Neal Street/Covent Garden
25. Shaftesbury Avenue, West End theatre and discovering Julie Christie for the first time in a revival of Pinter’s Old Times
26. Jigsaw menswear
27. Top Shop before it was everywhere
28. Wednesday nights at Heaven
29. Mondays and Thursdays at G.A.Y.
30. Sundays at DTPM
31. That comically unflattering photo of Monica Lewinsky that seemed to accompany every story about her. Say what you will about ML, but thanks, in part, to her, Bill Clinton’s U.S. Presidency was the only one of my lifetime that I actually enjoyed.
32. Great Britpop bands with one-word, one-syllable names
33. The sounds of the time: Britpop, Madchester, dream pop, grunge, trip hop and drum ‘n’ bass
34. Interviewing David Bowie — twice!
35. The last golden age of the soul diva: Toni Braxton, Mary J. Blige, Faith Evans, Kelly Price, and ’80s holdovers Regina Belle, Miki Howard and Angela Winbush
36. Annie Lennox’s Diva: It lived up to its title and then some.
37. Babyface’s For the Cool in You: This was just one reason why the ’80s super-producer was still relevant in the ’90s. La Face Records and Toni Braxton’s debut album were two others.
38. Kate Bush’s The Red Shoes: In one fell swoop, Bush delivered her strangest and most accessible album, a hard act that it took her 12 years to follow.
39. k.d. lang’s Ingenue: Here’s one of those rare instances where an artist’s great commercial triumph was exactly what it should have been.
40. Joni Mitchell’s Turbulent Indigo: A mid-decade surprise that was right up there with her ’70s classics.
41. Linda Perry’s In Flight: “She didn’t need any help,” Pink once told me when I thanked her for helping Perry get the recognition she deserved (via her Perry-written and produced 2001 single “Get The Party Started,” which I actually hated). If only that had been true.
42. Maria McKee’s You Gotta Sin to Get Saved: I once saw McKee in concert at Irving Plaza, and I couldn’t believe the things she could do with so many instruments.
43. Morrissey’s Vauxhall and I: A brilliant album, Morrissey’s best (and if you listen closely, his coming-out album, too), with not a weak link in earshot. “Speedway,” one of the best album closers in the history of albums, still makes my jaw drop.
44. Neil Young’s Harvest Moon: This was the one that turned me on to the legend, belatedly.
45. Neneh Cherry’s Homebrew: Speaking of great album closers, “Red Paint” used to leave me nearly in tears because it hit so close to my New York City home.
46. R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People: Volume two of R.E.M.’s spectacular run of ’90s greatness (from 1991’s Out of Time to 1996’s New Adventures in Hi-Fi) and the best of the four-set series.
47. Radiohead’s The Bends: More than any other musical opus, this and No. 46 are the ones that define the entire decade for me.
48. George Michael’s “Too Funky” video: The visual and aural embodiment of the supermodel era.
49. Roxette’s “Spending My Time” video: It must have been some love.
50. Bjork’s “All Is Full of Love” video: The ultimate space-age love song.
51. Depeche Mode’s “Barrel of a Gun” video: I prefer my DM pitch black and extremely twisted.
52. The KLF featuring Tammy Wynette: Justified but so not ancient!
53. Elvis Costello and Burt Bacharach: Painted from Memory and the Sessions at West 54th episode that celebrated it remain essential listening/viewing 14 years on.
54. Kylie Minogue and Nick Cave: “Where the Wild Roses Grow” was the highlight of “Indie Kylie”-era Minogue. As much as I love pretty much everything she does, I wish she’d push her boundaries — or let someone do it for her — like she did in the mid to late ’90s again.
55. Texas: Not the place — the band, massive everywhere but in the country of its namesake state.
56. Jamiroquai’s near-U.S. breakthrough: But I never really got all the hoopla over “Virtual Insanity,” the song or the video.
57. Shara Nelson‘s stunning double play: What Silence Knows and Friendly Fire
58. Canadian queens: Shanie Twain, Celine Dion and Sarah McLachlan
59. Fierce ruling dance divas: Billie Ray Martin, Kristine W., Ultra Nate, Joi Cardwell, Sandy B, et al.
60. Girl power, riot grrrls and Lilith Fair
61. Teen pop for twentysomethings: Thank you, Brandy, Monica, Aaliyah and Robyn. Oh, and the boy was mine!
62. TLC and En Vogue: The best girl groups ever!
63. The Trainspotting soundtrack: No, the movie didn’t make me want to go out and get high, because the music took me there.
64. The Until the End of the World soundtrack: Featuring fantastic music by Neneh Cherry, Depeche Mode, U2, Elvis Costello and especially Lou Reed that ranks right up there with their best work of the decade — or of any decade.
65. Red Hot + Blue, a various artists tribute to Cole Porter to benefit AIDS research and relief (more Neney Cherry!) that gave me a whole new appreciation for the Great American Songbook. De-lovely!
66. PJ Harvey’s To Bring You My Love tour: Seductive and kind of scary, two qualities that shouldn’t go together that Harvey wore better than anyone since Siouxsie Sioux in the previous decade.
67. Saint Etienne, Grant Lee Buffalo and American Music Club at Manhattan Ballroom on September 23, 1994. Damn, my allergies that night!
68. Kings of remix: Junior Vasquez, Danny Tenaglia and Armand Van Helden
69. Single white males who rocked my world: Matthew Sweet, Michael Penn and Joe Henry
70. Annie Lennox, Simply Red and Gwyneth Paltrow (the latter in a sighting, not in concert) in Central Park
71. Four years without a TV (1991 to 1995)
72. Small-screen comedy queens: Fran Drescher, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, Lisa Kudrow, Carrie, Miranda and Samantha (but not Charlotte) on Sex and the City, and, of course, Karen and Jack on Will & Grace
73. Samuel L. Jackson in Jungle Fever
74. Miranda Richardson in Damage, The Crying Game and Enchanted April — all in one year (1992)!
77. Fernanda Montenegro in Central Station: I’ve never really forgiven the Academy for giving the 1998 Best Actress Oscar to Gwyneth Paltrow instead.
78. Julianne Moore when she was almost famous (in The Hand That Rocks the Cradle, Short Cuts and Safe)
79. Emma Thompson 1993-1995 (minus Junior)
80. Dramatic sibling rivalry between Jennifer Jason Leigh and Mare Winningham in Georgia and Emily Watson and Rachel Griffiths in Hillary and Jackie. “You don’t sing. You can’t sing.” Ouch! (I just can’t get enough of dueling sisters — see my 2011 love of Melancholia and Martha Marcy May Marlene.)
81. Jennifer Jason Leigh, never Oscar-nominated, unlike every other ’90s film star mentioned above
82. Reality Bites: It spoke to me, in 1994, like The Breakfast Club did to my peers in the ’80s.” Melrose Place is a really good show.” I re-enacted that Winona Ryder-Janeane Garofalo scene shortly after meeting my second boyfriend, the Friday it hit theaters, a few days after I saw the movie at an NYC screening. He laughed — and then he asked me out. By the way, he loved Jennifer Jason Leigh. Brownie points!
83. Beautiful Thing: My favorite gay-themed film until A Single Man came along.
84. Reading Entertainment Weekly cover to cover in bed every weekend
85. Hard copy: Not the TV show (1989-1999)! Magazines, newspapers, books and letters — Remember them?
86. The blinking light on answering machines
87. The Mysteries of Pittsburgh: One of the few fiction novels published in the ’90s that I read in the ’90s and loved in the ’90s.
89. Life before Atenolol
90. MTV’s The Real World, back when reality TV was still a novelty. The Truman Show, back when a movie about a TV program about a man’s everyday life was actually an original concept. Oh, how I miss the ’90s!