“There are many ways of agglomerating past events,” Louis Menand wrote, a few years ago, in a piece about the year 1995. We talk about historical periods, centuries, eras, and generations. We also “find it natural to imagine that life assumes a completely new character every ten years”—probably “because we have ten fingers.”
It’s true that there’s something arbitrary about the unit of the decade. Moreover, each person’s decade is different: for some, the nineteen-nineties evoke afternoons spent following news reports of the O. J. Simpson trial; for others, they bring to mind cherished cinematic experiences—a highly anticipated matinée of “Rushmore” or the Parker Posey cult hit “Party Girl.” In this week’s newsletter, we’re bringing you profiles and essays about some of the many people and art works that shaped culture during the nineties. Jay McInerney introduces the decade’s preëminent It Girl, Chloe Sevigny; Hilton Als profiles the hip-hop trailblazer Missy Elliott; and Alex Ross reflects on the music of Kurt Cobain and Nirvana. Susan Orlean watches Julian Schnabel direct Jeffrey Wright and David Bowie in “Basquiat”; and Pauline Kael and Anthony Lane review “GoodFellas” and “Pulp Fiction,” respectively. John Seabrook reports from the headquarters of MTV, where the most powerful staffers are “in the demo” (that is, eighteen to twenty-four years old); Malcolm Gladwell follows two “coolhunters” as they search for trend-setting teens; and Janet Malcolm finds a postmodernist way to profile the postmodern artist David Salle. The character of a decade will always be elusive, because culture never stands still—but we hope these pieces capture some of what made the nineties so unique.
“It’s probably Chloe Sevigny’s spacey air of mystery and reserve as well as the street chic that keep causing people to ask, ‘Who is that girl?’ ” Read more.
“The New Negro”
“Missy (Misdemeanor) Elliott, the twenty-five-year-old hip-hop performer who is energetically redefining the boundaries of rap music, is a singer, a songwriter, an arranger, a producer, and a talent scout.” Read more.
“From the outset of his career, the desperately individualistic Kurt Cobain was caught in a great media babble about grunge style and twentysomething discontent. His intensely personal songs became exhibits in the nation’s ongoing symposium on generational identity.”
“The Big Picture”
“The painter Julian Schnabel says he’s not particularly afraid of failure. It bores him to think about doing something just because you know you can do it, he says, and he’s not worried about making a movie for the first time.” Read more.
“Sometime in the past few decades things got turned over, and fashion became trickle-up. It’s now about chase and flight—designers and retailers and the mass consumer giving chase to the elusive prey of street cool—and the rise of coolhunting as a profession shows how serious the chase has become.” Read more.
“Tumescence as Style”
“Is Martin Scorsese’s ‘GoodFellas’ a great movie? I don’t think so. But it’s a triumphant piece of filmmaking—journalism presented with the brio of drama.” Read more.
“Rocking in Shangri-La”
“Magazines tell you what it is like to be young, but watching MTV actually makes you feel young, even if you are not; the promise woven into many of MTV’s image promos is that you can stay young by watching it.” Read more.
“Forty-one False Starts”
“The artist David Salle has given so many interviews, has been the subject of so many articles, has become so widely inscribed as an emblematic figure of the eighties art world that it is no longer possible to do a portrait of him simply from life.” Read more.
“Degrees of Cool”
“That is what makes ‘Pulp Fiction’ such an intriguing spectacle: not the acrylic brightness of its design, or even the funny filth of its patter, but the tension between the manic skills of its inventor and the refusal of his subjects to be treated like cartoons.” Read more.