Cultural narratives of the 1990s

This post is the third in a series of six blogs which will document and critically engage with a workshop series hosted by Dr. David Geiringer (QMUL) and Dr. Helen McCarthy (Cambridge) under the title ‘Rethinking Britain in the 1990s: Towards a new research agenda’. Running between January and March 2021, the series brings together contemporary historians from a range of career stages to map existing work and stimulate new thinking on a decade which, from the perspective of our present times, looks very unfamiliar indeed.

by Jessica White (University of Manchester)

Ask someone to recall a cultural history of Britain in the nineties, and, depending on who you are talking to, they would probably reference Harry Potter, Live & Kicking, Oasis or Tracey Emin. Or, they might choose to talk about Goosebumps, SMTV, Blur or Damien Hirst. To an even greater degree than on previous panels, the personal infused the third, ‘cultural narratives’, session of the Rethinking Britain in the Nineties series, so much so that it came to resemble, in Kennetta Hammond Perry’s words, ‘a witness seminar’.

And yet in his provocation paper, Sam Wetherell searched for a theme that could neatly tie together the various strands and experiences of ‘culture’ during the decade. In his words, nineties culture could be described as constantly looking backwards, imbued with a sense of nostalgia, demonstrated in the popularity of Only Fools and Horses re-runs on television or the wave of novels that were set in or looked back to the past. The idea that culture in the nineties was ‘pickled in formaldehyde’ drew debate from other panel members, as well as participants. In her response, Lucy Robinson drew attention to the importance of ‘the sample’ in allowing us to think about the battle between different cultures of the nineties. She described an Inspector Morse episode centred on a rave, in which Morse is affronted by a DJ’s sample of one of his favourite classical songs. The episode, Robinson suggested, was a way to think about generational divides, the rise of ecstasy, as well as ‘Just Say No’ anti-drugs campaigns. Drawing on her own experience, Robinson also noted that she and other members of the rave scene in Oxford were bussed in as extras for the rave scenes in the Morse episode. She now teaches the same episode of Morse in the ‘Folk Devils and Moral Panics’ session of her module, Post-Rave Britain, once again bringing back the significance of positionality and the self in the historical study of the decade.

The Beatles Experience, Liverpool, part of the localised development of the ‘culture economy’, photograph courtesy of Ank Kumar, via Wikimedia Commons

In his opening paper, Wetherell also asked the question: what was cultural work for in the nineties? He suggested creative output was turned into an industry, used to mitigate the ‘economic, environmental and social consequences of an increasingly post-industrial Britain’. In the 1980s, creative industries were local, with different urban conglomerations investing in ‘creative institutions’, such as the Tate or the Beatles Experience in Liverpool, to boost local economies following deindustrialisation. The arrival of the Labour government in 1997 was a turning point which transformed these local cultural initiatives into a national project, symbolised by the creation of a Department for Culture, Media and Sport. Reading culture from this approach, Wetherell argued, offered a useful way to situate the reframing of culture under conditions of post-industrial capitalism. 

In her response, Kennetta Hammond Perry also focused on the ‘function’ of culture in the nineties, but within academia itself. She drew attention to the work of cultural theorist Paul Gilroy and his reference to the Black British duo Soul II Soul in the introduction to his study Black Atlantic (1995). Soul II Soul were children of Caribbean settlers whose song, Back 2 Life, scored them international success throughout the nineties. The hit sampled music from the United States but was itself sampled in later years by musicians from the black diaspora. The role of ‘the sample’ in Gilroy’s case study raised an important question of how the analysis of cultural forms served as a methodological tool to think about the construction of history. Perry suggested that Gilroy’s engagement with culture opened new ways of thinking about the national boundaries of writing British history, bringing ‘diasporic intimacy’ and transnationalism into the discipline. 

In his opening provocation, Wetherell also drew upon personal experience. Not having grown up in Britain in the nineties, he felt that his understanding of British culture in the decade was from an outsider’s perspective. Jon Lawrence agreed in his response, noting how he too ‘missed’ the early nineties, which were marked by his entry into parenthood. Instead of drawing on personal experience, Lawrence asked participants to ponder the extent to which the nineties became a terrain for leftist battles. He suggested that the erasure of the language of class opened up a gap into which flooded cultural representation of the ‘demonisation of the working class’. The loss of Labour’s industrial base and the party’s prioritisation of the affluent middle class in the south led to a shift in the left’s treatment of popular culture, no longer believing in its radical potential to engage the working masses. This, in Lawrence’s terms, is ‘the single largest factor shaping the failures of the political left today’. 

In the final response to Wetherell’s paper, Alwyn Turner challenged the idea that the nineties were marked by nostalgia and historicity. He drew attention to the biggest selling novels of the period, Bridget Jones’s Diary (1996) and High Fidelity (1995), both of which were contemporary novels, as well as the appearance of transgender characters in the soap opera Coronation Street. Turner also emphasised the significance of the Internet, the genesis of which transformed culture entirely, opening alternative shopping choices and new ways of consuming culture, such as illegal porn. The internet also created, in his words, ‘the best library in the history of humanity’, with Amazon, Google, and Wikipedia all arriving on the scene. While the impact of these sources would not reach their zenith of influence until the noughties, there was always an awareness that the Internet was going to be transformative.

IKEA in Wembley, photograph courtesy of Nigel Mykura via Wikimedia Commons

Responding to Perry’s reference to the Black Atlantic, as well as to Turner’s reference to the Internet, Wetherell asked whether British culture in the 1990s was in fact global in nature. Lucy Delap suggested we could look to material culture, noting the significance of the Scandinavian brand IKEA, which opened it’s first UK outlet in 1987 but took off in the 1990s. Not only did the DIY furniture brand tie in with the demise of cities by sucking shoppers away from the high street, but it also led to the democratisation of design. IKEA and flatpack culture in general, Delap argued, was part of a broader story of democratisation and commodification, linking back the rise of the ‘creative industries. 

Bringing together the personal and the political, the local and the global, the past and the future, the panel raised important methodological and analytical questions regarding the study of culture in the nineties. Often appearing so coherent from a personal perspective but so incoherent to the historian, the nineties were a web of different cultural narratives, which is perhaps why the decade has remained so salient in popular memory and in the discipline.

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