1995: The year the future began
In ways metaphoric and real, the 1990s linger, offering reference points and context for contemporary events and personalities.
A telling example came at Times Square on New Year’s Eve, when the ’90s pop diva, Mariah Carey, botched a lip-synching performance on live TV.
Carey was a headline act on ABC’s “Dick Clark’s New Year’s Rockin’ Eve With Ryan Seacrest” show. Midnight was approaching when Carey began singing her 1991 hit, “Emotions.” But she promptly cut away, saying technical flaws prevented her from hearing the backing track.
Whatever happened, it was cringe-inducing — a performance train wreck on live television.
Why, the New York Times wondered in a review, “would anyone chance it? It’s cold in Times Square; it’s loud and crowded. It’s an outdoor stage in the middle of a city; it’s one segment of a long show, not a concert production controlled by the star.”
The Times also noted: “On her best nights, a performer like Ms. Carey, whose voice has dropped and coarsened since her first hits in 1990, is not going to match her stratospheric early hits.”
That Carey was on live TV from Times Square tells us something not only about the continuing appeal of her work and persona, but also about how figures prominent in the 1990s still command attention, still make news. Carey’s performance train wreck was one of several recent reminders of the decade’s multidimensional pull.
Consider a couple of recent commentaries about President-elect Donald Trump: One argued that Bill and Hillary Clinton, defining political forces of the 1990s, effectively opened the way for Trump’s improbable rise to prominence; another commentary called earnest attention to Trump’s parallels to O.J. Simpson, a pariah of the ’90s. (It also has been argued that the ’90s became Trump’s “personal crucible,” when he forged the characteristics that became familiar in his run for president.)
The Clintons-gave-rise-to-Trump argument was offered by John Kass, a thoughtful columnist for the Chicago Tribune. A few weeks before Trump’s stunning electoral victory over Hillary Clinton, Kass wrote that the Clintons during their White House years debased standards and expectations to the point where a vulgarian and wealthy political neophyte like Trump could burst through.
“If it weren’t for Bill and Hillary Clinton and their awe-inspiring schemes and carnal vulgarities in the Clinton White House,” Kass wrote, “would there ever be a candidate Donald Trump?
“Trump wouldn’t, couldn’t have been a candidate for the presidency if it hadn’t been for Bill and Hillary.
“They prepared the way. You might even say that Bill and Hillary gave birth to the Donald.”
Kass reasoned that the vulgarity of the Clintons during their scandal-ridden White House years, from 1993-2001, “helped lower the standard for the presidency. It wasn’t about Bill being asked about boxers or briefs or playing the saxophone on a talk show.
“It was about defending what he did in the Oval Office, and trying to sear it into the American mind that [his intermittent affair with former White House intern Monica Lewinsky] was just about sex, and sex is a private matter, and America had no business in the Clinton marriage.
“Of course it wasn’t private,” Kass wrote. “It wasn’t about a marriage. It was about politicians destroying a public standard, and replacing it with something that suited the Clinton ambitions.
“And that eventually allowed a Trump candidacy to be born and grow strong enough to threaten to devour them.”
Trump did devour them, if just barely, in November’s election. Trump’s surprise victory foreclosed what was widely thought inevitable — a Clinton restoration, with Hillary taking her turn as president.
A Pop Matters essay posted late last month offered a convoluted argument that O.J. Simpson — a former professional football star tried and acquitted in 1995 in the vicious slaying of his wife and her friend — helps explain Trump’s rise.
The essay was strained, meandering, and far from persuasive. But in places, it was intriguing.
“Granted,” the essay said, “there are several major differences between a murder, arrest, and trial, and a successful run for presidency — yet in this case, there are a great many parallels, as well. These similarities between O.J. Simpson and Donald Trump provide insight into how American celebrity works.”
The essay (which appeared beneath the headline “Was O.J. Simpson Donald Trump’s predecessor?”) further noted that the men “share a genius for banality.
“Simpson’s first introduction to everyone in America other than football fans was in a series of commercials for Hertz Rent-a-Car. The series began with him running through an airport, bag in hand, hurdling and spinning his way through obstacles. … Throughout the ’90s Trump would try to stay in the spotlight through appearances on shows like Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, or appearing on the Howard Stern Radio Show. For the great majority of his life, he was a minor curiosity. He was a kind of predecessor to Kim Kardashian — famous mainly for being famous.”
Interesting point. Simpson and Trump are crass narcissists, too.
But differences between them are far more striking and important than parallels.
Simpson these days is in federal prison in Nevada, having been convicted in 2008 on kidnapping and armed robbery charges. That he would be offered as a point of comparison to Trump probably says more about the unending popular fascination with Simpson’s double-murder case, and enduring suspicions he was guilty all along.
Simpson’s persona and his 1995 murder trial inspired two of last year’s most critically acclaimed television programs. The television critic for the Washington Post, Hank Stuever, rated the two shows — an ESPN documentary, “O.J.: Made in America,” and a FX cable miniseries, “The People v. O.J. Simpson” — among the year’s five best.
Stuever marveled about the long reach of the Simpson case, writing, “Who would’ve believed a year ago that two of the best TV shows of 2016 would have been about the … O.J. Simpson trial? Not me.”
It is remarkable that a murder case more than 20-years-old made such an absorbing return to the small screen. Especially so because the two programs were seriously flawed, hardly worthy of best-of-the-year acclaim.
The ESPN documentary, I wrote last year, was “often short on nuance and explanatory detail” and was “far less extraordinary than the cascade of advance rave reviews had promised.”
I added: “The life and misdeeds of O.J. Simpson — a onetime football star, rental-car pitchman, so-so movie actor, and convicted wife-beater who is in prison in Nevada for armed robbery, kidnapping, and other thuggish crimes committed in 2007 — hardly merited the extensive treatment they received in ‘O.J.: Made in America.'”
The documentary never adequately explained why contemporary audiences should care about Simpson, more than 35 years after he retired from pro football and more than 20 years after he was tried in Los Angeles for the savage slayings of his former wife, Nicole Brown Simpson, and her friend, Ronald L. Goldman. (I devoted a chapter to the Simpson trial in my 2015 book, 1995: The Year the Future Began.)
The FX miniseries, which aired over 10 weeks in early 2016, was diminished by several excessively dramatized and made-up scenes, including a speech Simpson never gave.
The miniseries finale depicted Simpson as giving the speech at a lavish party where he celebrated his acquittal. The seriously miscast Simpson character, Cuba Gooding Jr., hushed the revelry to read a statement vowing to “pursue as my primary goal in life the killer or killers who slaughtered Nicole and Mr. Goldman. They are out there somewhere.”
The statement was accurate.
But Simpson never spoke the words, and never interrupted the party to say anything of the sort.
The vow to find the killer or killers was part of a statement read by Simpson’s eldest son, Jason, at a news conference in the courtroom shortly after the verdicts were announced on October 3, 1995.
Misportrayals for dramatic effect were threads of the miniseries.
So what pulls together Mariah Carey’s botched performance at Times Square, the speculative commentaries about Donald Trump, the popular television presentations about O.J. Simpson?
The resonance of the 1990s.
On many fronts and in many ways, American culture is still working through and coming to terms with the 1990s.
The decade is with us still.
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