By: Adam McGovern
December 31, 2023

Off-Topic brings you over-the-transom, on-tangent essays, dialogues and subjective scholarship on an occasional, impulsive basis. One last time in our fifth year of doing this, an arrant answer-single to a brilliant colleague’s recent flashback, and a cork popped into the coming, eventful abyss…


The ’90s couldn’t wait to happen, but I’m not sure they ever came. Even at the time there was a sense of evanescence, of welcome but willed mirage, a respite that felt anomalous and was hard to trust, so better left unquestioned. With the medieval millennium that would start on Sept. 11, 2001, the ’90s would come to seem like some stray piece of the promised 21st century that had accidentally floated downstream in time; I’m still waiting for the real thing to begin.

The Pleasantville simulation of Reaganism had started disintegrating with the Iran-Contra revelations of 1986-7 and the ascendancy of revolutionary rap; the cold war evaporated and was swapped out for culture wars; we didn’t know what decade we were in but the ’80s were over three years ahead of time. Or that is, the ’90s didn’t know they were here until they found their embodying figures, mayoral-timber technocrats like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, running countries like consultancies. Whose promise was don’t ask, don’t tell; we won’t tell you how to live your life as long as you don’t ask too many questions about what sausage is being made. And admittedly, the plural identities, dissident worldview and indie culture that has clawed a place for itself in the decades since was given just enough precipice and atmosphere to take hold in the deceptively benign Nineties; I too was displaced in time, having checked out of much of the culturally arid, politically acrid 1980s in a fog of clinical and contextual depression; the relaxed boundaries (for some) made this new decade feel like a good time to wake back up in, have my delayed coming-of-age and, like many others, imagine it was innocent.

These were years of shared wealth on a scale not seen in a generation, while century-long compacts were broken. Personal prosperity for “working families” and young professionals while millions of kids were thrown off of “welfare as we know it” and into poverty and hunger; an industrial rebound fired by classifying house-sized, low-mileage, fossil-guzzling vanity vehicles as cars rather than trucks; the neo-feudal largesse of new tech industries incapable of foreseeing their own crash. An anesthetic age, chilled out on the fiscal club-drug of the global north, dipping the wand round our neck to blow just one more bubble we dare not move and pop.

That metaphor’s a decoy; in drum ’n’ bass dives and video-splice basements and hip-hop chambers the future was being created for safekeeping, but the top of corporate pop charts is always what tells the scarier truth of where you’ve already gotten. “Closing Time,” “I Don’t Want to Wait,” all those songs about sublime interludes that were ending as they began. “Free trade” was the slogan of neoliberalism, and NAFTA was its first and greatest hit; free from regulation, labor equity, environmental concerns. The ’90s’ leaders made this the least morally and mentally demanding of decades, and we sensed it would be our last free tradeoff.

False plebiscites became the people’s choice. This was the decade of desktop stock market gambling, the dream of working from home as semiretirement (shortly before the imposed mass exodus into “contract” work and full-time freelancing); pulling strings from the comfort of your screen. 24/7 spectatorship as civic participation had set into the popular imagination with the ascent of round-the-clock “news” channels; we were no longer watching, we were monitoring. Relaxed stock laws let us talk back to that screen, though most of those who did figured out it still wasn’t listening; the fad of Wall St. as occupation faded with nonmaterializing wealth. The house would always win, except maybe the one it was up to us to fill; our obsession with financial ups and downturns devolved to box-office statistics, our tastes in passive entertainment mapped beforehand with ratings and grosses; primed for the era when data would drive everything, and assess nothing. We still craved to be part of the equation; our belief in putting things to a “vote” had been pandered to with the full-Congress “debate” on Gulf War I at the minute our troops and tanks were finished amassing at the border, but now we required interactivity; hence the roadshow of Contract With America Republicans holding town halls across the country to gather ideas for their preset agenda, and Clinton’s dispatching of his National Security Advisor, State and Defense secretaries to sell renewed bombing of Iraq on a college campus in a nationally televised forum (the re-invasion was nominally delayed; the roadshow was not renewed).

In late 2000 the 20th century made it clear it wasn’t letting go of us; no third-party populist uprising, no contest of ideas between up-the-ranks “mavericks,” just two dynastic figureheads from the previous two administrations in a zero-sum, zero-value election that literally nobody won. 24 years later we have more imagination, and mediums for it, than ever; we also have more to contend with that we never imagined could happen, with fewer than ever restraints. Every minute the future is over, so save your nostalgia for right now.


MORE POSTS by ADAM McGOVERN: OFF-TOPIC (2019–2024 monthly) | textshow (2018 quarterly) | PANEL ZERO (comics-related Q&As, 2018 monthly) | THIS: (2016–2017 weekly) | PEOPLE YOU MEET IN HELL, a 5-part series about characters in McGovern’s and Paolo Leandri’s comic Nightworld | Two IDORU JONES comics by McGovern and Paolo Leandri | BOWIEOLOGY: Celebrating 50 years of Bowie | ODD ABSURDUM: How Felix invented the 21st century self | KOJAK YOUR ENTHUSIASM: FAWLTY TOWERS | KICK YOUR ENTHUSIASM: JACKIE McGEE | NERD YOUR ENTHUSIASM: JOAN SEMMEL | SWERVE YOUR ENTHUSIASM: INTRO and THE LEON SUITES | FIVE-O YOUR ENTHUSIASM: JULIA | FERB YOUR ENTHUSIASM: KIMBA THE WHITE LION | CARBONA YOUR ENTHUSIASM: WASHINGTON BULLETS | KLAATU YOU: SILENT RUNNING | CONVOY YOUR ENTHUSIASM: QUINTET | TUBE YOUR ENTHUSIASM: HIGHWAY PATROL | #SQUADGOALS: KAMANDI’S FAMILY | QUIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM: LUCKY NUMBER | CROM YOUR ENTHUSIASM: JIREL OF JOIRY | KERN YOUR ENTHUSIASM: Data 70 | HERC YOUR ENTHUSIASM: “Freedom” | KIRK YOUR ENTHUSIASM: Captain Camelot | KIRB YOUR ENTHUSIASM: Full Fathom Five | A 5-part series on Jack Kirby’s Fourth World mythos | Reviews of Annie Nocenti’s comics Katana, Catwoman, Klarion, and Green Arrow | The curated series FANCHILD | To see all of Adam’s posts, including HiLo Hero items on Lilli Carré, Judy Garland, Wally Wood, and others: CLICK HERE