Ingenious bubble wrap. The 1990s revelled in decadence and imposture. Sadly, this clever cultural history is as superficial as the era it recalls, writes Will Self
The Nineties: when surface was depth
Michael Bracewell Flamingo, 373pp, £12.99
Now - in 2002 - comes a cultural history of the 1990s. Quite rightly, it is written by Michael Bracewell, whose tensely minatory excursions into the brightly lit labyrinth of the decade were so much a feature of the era, if, like the characters in Private Eye's "It's Grim Up North London", you had a pubic goatee, a faceful of metal and a mouthful of chevre. This outrageous stereotyping would be to do Bracewell and his book a grave disservice, were it not that his own subtitle invites such a drive to reduce the decade (like some stock of time itself, stirred by Old Father Gary Rhodes) to so much less than the sum of its parts.
That Bracewell, with a characteristically straight face (this is, after all, a writer who expertly anatomised depression in his novel Saint Rachel), has dared to publish on the Nineties in the early Noughties is in itself proof of the contention that, in so far as this decade had any character at all, it was the merest trace of maquillage, dabbed across the awful, ravaged face of decadence. As Bracewell himself would acknowledge, the 1970s didn't get under way culturally until at least 1974, and then it was only to set up the anti-style theses of On the Buses and butterfly collars and David Essex, ready to be annihilated by the postmodern Antichrists of the King's Road. When we consider the 1980s, we find that although the decade commenced with the ceremonial Banging of the Royal Brood Mare, and exploding of Molotov cocktails on the streets of Brixton, the true cultural markers of the era - big hair, big money, matt black - belong to its latter half.
But as Bracewell amply demonstrates, both in the form of this book and its content, the 1990s were the decade where recency itself became a slippery commodity. (On the overheating of a fervid stock exchange, in the middle years of the decade, it should have been possible to buy options on the present.) He prefaces The Nineties with a quote from an academic called Greg Dening: "Try writing what you have written in the past tense in the present tense and you will see what I mean." Then he goes on, deadpan, to present us with a compendious selection of his cultural journalism from the period (what the late, great Elizabeth Young termed "ingenious bubble wrap"), gussied up by the device of interposing a series of reflective scenes, set in 1988 in an ultra-hip penthouse, tenanted by a couple of "culture-vulturing City Slickers", whose anticipatory take on the coming age becomes the focus for the author's own more discursive musings.
It's a dangerous tactic, one that gives us a decade defined not from the perspective of rigid chronology - whether public or private - but in terms of a series of passing preoccupations. One has a sense, reading The Nineties, of Bracewell as a kind of Middle-aged Mariner, at the helm of a ghost ship bumping its way between chilly floes of cultural cool: Oops! There's Nan Goldin . . . and over there it's Tracey Emin . . . Whoa! Watch out for that Alexander McQueen . . . and try to avoid the serrated cliffs of Leigh Bowery looming in the near distance. It's no wonder, given the ruckled, maritime topography of this text, that Bracewell favours tropes of the form "this was the point where Naturalism met Marketing - on an island off the coast of Camp". And then reprises them: "If he [Alexander McQueen] were an island, he'd be off the coast of George Michael owned by Sony."
The discrete cultural bergs each have their own, abrasive contemporaneity, and they all rub up against each other. This produces uneasy shifts in tense which at first seem to be the result of sloppy editing, until, that is, you begin to get the hang of Bracewell's shtick: it is exactly this sense of Ballardian time-slip, of a culture lost in a hopeless fugue, that will come to be seen as the defining characteristic of the 1990s. It is an arresting idea, one that he glosses in the section entitled "Retro: running out of past", but whether or not it can really justify long critical essays on subjects as diverse as Bridget Riley, Duran Duran, Hanson (remember them?!), Michael Caine, Ulrika Jonsson, Malcolm McDowell, the Carpenters and Yoko Ono, I have my doubts. I mean to say, actors? There are limits to the validity of any cultural discourse, and these pieces are wilful transgressions. (Unless it can be argued that, in a further permutation of be-here-nowness, Caine et al are so well known that they are, in fact, actors playing actors.)
But these jostling platelets extending to the event horizon do at least short-circuit that tedious old question: Yes, but will it last? In a decade where, to quote Bracewell, "the slipstream of the zeitgeist was pretty much dominated by a steady cross-cultural cloning of the two principal Attitudes: Irony and Authenticity, conflating mid-decade to breed the cult of Confession and the mediation of the formerly private and personal as mass public spectacle", posterity itself can be exposed as a drug-induced delusion ("I've just been to a high cultural rave, man, we all got fried on posterity . . ." and so on). All things being equal, it makes as much sense to write about Yazz (remember her?) as Yahweh (aka the Ancient of Days). While the indisputable facts about the decade - such as the personal autogeddon of Diana Spencer - become, on closer examination, merely aspects of the "necrothon" that her death provoked: a 24/7 celebration of sexuality and death enjoyed by young and old and infants alike, all of them clad by Gap.
None of this do I disagree with, and although he downplays it, Bracewell does "get" the - to my mind - essential character of a decade that revelled in imposture; namely, that the 1990s existed in dyadic relationships with two other decades, the 1980s - for which they were a rerun with knobs on, sort of: "1980s (R)" - and the 1890s. Bracewell writes perceptively and wittily on Wilde: "If you think about it, a Wildean maxim such as 'Cultivated leisure is the aim of man' . . . would be the perfect slogan for Saab, Ford, or Hilton", but he does not press home his advantages as a writer, his extreme cleverness, his encyclopaedic knowledge. There was a thesis on decadence pure and simple to be developed in The Nineties, but Bracewell, I feel, has suckled too long at the tricksy teats of postmodernism, slurping down the infantilising formula of relativism, to be the one to write it.
Questions about the nature of kidult culture and the pre-teen focus of the contemporary pop charts bother him, but he dare not go beyond the signs themselves to see what they signify, namely a real decline in the birth rate, and a genuine shift in the demography of western society (complete with attendant cultural changes). In my view, this is why the 1990s will come to be seen as the Gotterdammerung of periodicity itself. With the current of cultural transmission reversed - "Hey, son, why not listen to a few of these Bob Dylan albums? They'll blow your mind." "Gee, thanks, Daddio!" - never again will the brute fact of what year it is matter so much in cultural terms.