Guys, I’m eating junk and watching rubbish! You better come out and stop me! – Kevin McCallister
The 90s were a great time to be alive. Techno, for one (don’t even pretend you weren’t into Haddaway, and Mr Vain, Scatman’s World and The Sign—I won’t believe you!). Nirvana, Roxette, Bryan Adams, Bon Jovi, (and later Korn and Limp Bizkit)—come on! Even the metalhead working in Musica at Eastgate wearing a White Zombie shirt (you know who you are), pointing clueless teens looking for the cool shit to the rave shelf with excruciating diplomacy, had Born Slippy and definitely Poison stashed in between Manson and Metallica in his car.
The hours we spent at Bruma Flea Market looking for crochet tops and ribbon laces for our takkies that we wished were L.A. Gear but weren’t even close—I mean, we have to pay homage.
So, pour whatever you were drinking in 1995—a cherry slushie for me. Hit some ‘best of 90s’ on Spotify. Put on the oversized tee that you wore for the duration of 1996 and kept because it was your favourite but didn’t tell anyone because it is kinda gross and weird (and you’re in your late thirties now so it doesn’t really fit anymore but that’s OK, you can snuggle it). Got it? Good. Let’s bounce…
Bomber Jackets. The millennial faux pas is acknowledged but curb the panic, these babies are nothing to do with Isis. They were black and orange and super poofy. THE deal. And if you had had L.A. Gear (preferably L.A. Lights) to go along with your Bomber Jacket (Michael Hutchinson, Remy Cano and Nicky Teale) the girls would wanna grab you and would maybe even slow dance to “I swear” with you, as long as you didn’t go and do anything blind.
*POINT OF INFORMATION: In 1994 ‘grab’ (or ‘graunch’) was a kiss in which saliva was most definitely, and most vigorously, exchanged. If something was “so blind” it was, like, so embarrassing, and “I Swear” (…by the moon and the stars in the sky) by All-4-One was the boy-girl song of the year.
Michael Jordan. That’s all.
L.A. Lights. Launched in 1992 these high-top sports shoes (that weren’t really sports shoe) were the business. They had a mod look, laced up with ribbons (the girls’ ones) and lit up on the heel when you walked. Straight out of America. The shoe was a pop culture tribute to supreme American athleticism. Basketball, especially the NBA, was at an all-time high in the 90s: Charles Barkley, Patrick Ewing, Magic Johnson, Karl Malone, Chris Mullin, Scottie Pippen, Dennis Rodman, Clyde Drexler, Reggie Miller and Michael Jordan (duh) were the dream team of the decade. Kids wore high tops, Air Jordans, basketball vests and basketball themed ‘baseball caps’ in honour of their favourite heroes and teams. Chicago Bulls was a particular favourite. There is nothing more American than Basketball and through fashion, the slam dunks of the USA ruled the 90s—even in li’l old suburban South Africa. I’ve often thought it quite funny – as in a happy “screw you” to colonialism – that Americana seems to have had more of a pop culture influence in South Africa than Queenie and her crew of usurpers. We spell like Oxford and speak like Hollywood. Dude.
Kids TV in the ‘90s—Marshall Bravestar, Cities of Gold, Teddy Ruxpin, Hero Turtles (people complained about the “Ninja” in Turtles being too violent so the name was changed—IN.SOUTH.AFRICA…land of peace and tranquillity) and some of us even sat through shows dubbed into Afrikaans (if you were lucky, you could tune in on the radio for the English version) like Dawie en Die Kaboters, Alf and Heidi. I loved Swart Kat (an actual Afrikaans show) although I am pretty sure I had absolutely no idea what was going on most of the time— Swart Kat was a superhero cat (or kat) that put on a black costume and mask, and rode around solving mysteries. Not bad, considering ek was nie so goed om die taal te praat nie. In one of my Afrikaans exams I spent two sentences (and way too much time) trying to describe the world “lettuce” because I couldn’t remember what it was called in Afrikaans—die groen ding wat jy eet en wat het blare en grooi in die grond; dit is goed vir jou and jy kan dit in a slaai hê. And this was in high school. Although kudos (to me) for remembering that salad is “slaai”— (it is right?)
And then Gummi Bears…Cubbi, Sunni, Gruffi, Zummi, Tummi, Grammi—they were dashing and daring, courageous and caring, faithful and friendly, they marched through the forest, sang out in chorus and had stories to share. What’s not to love? The show had me and my pals wishing that Gummiberry juice was real and hoping that cute little bears lived in the trees populating our parks and gardens. A secret world of spells, trolls and crazy dukes.
Speaking of trolls…
We were obsessed, in general.
But with trolls, too.
Back in the 90s, some marketing genius managed to sell the idea to tweens that trolls weren’t ugly, hairy, warty dudes-with-height-problems that hid under bridges and ate goats. In fact, Trolls were cute little plastic guys with pointy hair that came in a flood of fruity smells. They were excellent for impaling on pencils, liked to hang out with Barbie and made pretty cool dressing table decorations. I had a drummer Troll with orange hair and a green drum kit, a tutti-frutti Troll with strawberry smelling pink hair and I also had a little Troll with blue hair that adorned the rear of my HB pencil and lived in my red and blue glitter space case, making a great I’m-bored-in-maths distraction (I went through school tallying anti-maths tactics—you may have noticed).
When I say had, I actually mean have.
There were also diaper babies, stickers and swaps (invitation/‘thank you’ paper that we kept in albums and took to school to exchange) and dummies—hard plastic dummies that we used to wear on necklaces, assuredly inspired by the rampant Rave culture of the time although the ones we wore were not laced with narcotics. Glitter dummies were especially sought after. A couple of years ago there was this mega craze that hit schools in the UK; fidget spinners; this funny little gadget consisting of a ball bearing in the centre of a multi-lobed flat structure made from metal or plastic designed to spin along its axis with little effort. Make sense? Don’t worry—I only believed it when I saw it. Anyway, all you need to know is that kids were mad for fidget spinners for a short but intense week. Amelia got one in a party pack at a friend’s birthday; kids were smuggling them into school, and Layla was absolutely desperate for one. The hunt for the elusive glitter dummy in 199-whatever loomed before my eyes and enraptured in the spirit of my own childhood, I hauled the kids onto the High Street one morning before school (note: before school—I have five children) and found Layla a fidget spinner. The hysteria was over before it started but I am glad that Layla had her gadget in time to be part of the fad.
Much like tradition, there’s something about pop culture phenomena that helps locate us along the great timeline of life and as an adult I love wondering back to the old days and remembering all the funny little bits and pieces that made the 90s...the 90s. The ‘great fidget spinner adventure’ wasn’t to keep my kid on trend, it was for the sake of a memory, now happily stored in Layla’s bank until she needs it, or more likely stumbles upon it at an unexpected moment.
Dancing with Bev. Lycra monkey-suits and leg warmers. We danced ‘freestyle’ to all the coolest techno. Our dance (me, Winsome, Claire, Karyn and the others) was the cheer-leader one; we had pink and green pom-poms that hit the groove to No Limit by 2 Unlimited. We bossed that song.
Scrunchies and Shuffle Socks.
Mike’s Kitchen. In Kensington: where Queen Street intersects with Langerman Drive, opposite the Shell Garage, was Mike’s Kitchen. Mike – presumably the guy who owned the kitchen – had a hit restaurant in the 90s. It came to pass that at one time or another each and every middle-class suburban white kid would have a birthday party at Mike’s Kitchen. There were burgers and chips, the staff came and sang happy birthday to the birthday boy/girl with ice cream and sparkler but the most exciting part of going to Mike’s Kitchen was the birthday badge. Every kid was given a Mike’s Kitchen badge at these parties but the birthday badge, well, it was like the Springbok tazzo, glitter dummy or the fidget spinner. I had such a badge—only one (I don’t think I had an actual party there; my dad took us out for my birthday one year). It was golden and perfect. A prized treasure amongst the mass of badges I’d collected (being the hoarder that I am) over the many parties I’d been to at MK. Good thing because Mike’s Kitchen closed one day. In fact, the site of the restaurant (which looked like it had been a house once upon a time and had later been converted into business premises) struggled to maintain a long-term lease. Mike’s Kitchen was there for a while but the restaurants/bars that came after couldn’t cut it. Rumour had it that the house was haunted. Years after I’d misplaced my MK badges...aaah wait—cultural appropriation alert! I swear; I am not trying to be black or freedom fighter-ish by claiming association to or with uMkhonto weSizwe (MK to locals). The whole “Spear of the Nation” thing is not really my vibe. Too young. Too 90s. The armed wing of the African National Congress (ANC) founded in the wake of the Sharpeville massacre with the aim to bring down the government was more Mandela/Sisulu. Got it? Good. As I was saying…years after I’d misplaced my
MK Mike’s Kitchen badges I went back to the house opposite the Shell Garage, which had been turned into a bar/club sort of thing, for the Class of ‘99 Matric Dance after party—sparklers and ice cream replaced with guys, graunching and gossiping. Weirdness deluxe.
Ice skating at Carlton Centre —50 stories high, located in “downtown Johannesburg” (whatever that means); we went there for fun until the building became derelict and Joburg dangerous. It was the place where I first put on ice skates, and clung to the sides in fear of falling and having my fingers chopped off by some jock speed skater dominating the rink. After a couple of laps I was braving the middle, falling (always with hands in fists—thanks to the urban legend about the kid who lost a hand and bled all over the ice and could never walk again and may have died or did die, depending who was telling the story) and laughing with my friends—and leaving with the worst blisters I have ever had in my life. Best.Fun.Ever
Milky Lane in Eastgate. On Friday nights, neon-red lit up the faces of 12-year-olds gathered in groups for chocolate swirl ice cream sundaes, shared between crushes and galpals, before hitting Ster Kinekor for a fliek and Steers for chips (you know the ones) after. The dazzling garishness of the ice cream bar was eclipsed by the warm light of Saturday morning, the rays hitting the counters like a beam from heaven, enticing families and morning shoppers in for waffles and vanilla soft serve that was ready to be pimped with every single sauce on the table (especially strawberry and maple). On Sundays, chocolate, caramel and the more alternative options of strawberry, banana or bubble–gum draped their sweetness over cones as families popped into for a post-church/lunch afternoon treat. Oh, friend of many faces, how I miss you.
“Don’t step on the crack or you’ll fall and break your back.” —Walking through Joburg CBD, or anywhere in life.
Christmas in Joburg. Once upon a time we drove (by choice, not gunpoint) into Johannesburg city central; to watch my mom, killer soprano and member of the SABC choir, sing in a televised Christmas concert conducted by Richard Cock. Strung Christmas lights lit up the streets—sparkling and beautiful; distracting us from the lurking squalor and crime. The Town Hall was grand. The concert was all-consuming. And Bruce bought us those cool punching balloons with rice inside as we exited the arena. I’ve never outgrown my love of carols; the traditional kind—not those dumbass ‘save the world/white Christmas’ cringe fests. Gimme a choir and some candlelight, and my soul is at one with the season. Not even ‘Christmas carol by rote’ under the dictatorship of Mrs Swart in the Jeppe days, with her bulbous crystal ball eyeglasses sensing any girl not singing (and woe to that girl) in practice for Jeppe’s renowned Carol Service, killed the joy of God Rest ye Merry Gentlemen by choir. I’ll sing it fifty times, Mrs Swart!
PJ Powers. But let me explain. Number one: she sang “World in Union” in ’95 (along with Ladysmith Black Mambazo)—the Rugby World Cup theme song, and performed it live at the opening ceremony. Major kudos. Number two: one of the gigs my mom rocked (I use the term loosely here) as a member of the SABC choir was the ‘Johannesburg Pops’—an annual concert that featured a host of popular South African singers backed by the choir. It was hosted in a big field somewhere on the Highveld. One year, Winsome and I got to go. I remember Vicky Sampson singing and someone called Trevor. Could’ve been Trevor Sampson, actually. And PJ Powers. I have no idea what she sang but she was the only singer Winsome and I knew and, sitting right at the front, we had prime view. Caught up in the joy of festival we screamed her name and pretend-sang words. It was a jol.
Afterwards, we were roaming around behind the stage looking for my mom and who should we stumble upon?—None other than PJ Powers. She stopped and looked at us and said, “You were the two girls who kept screaming my name.” It was so blind. We nodded and smiled and pretended to saunter away all cool and pre-teen (rather than the shrieking banshees we’d been not half an hour ago). PJ’s a cool lady and, as it turns out, a die-hard Joburger. She once said about the city:
Living in Joburg is like being part of the world, in comparison to a city like Cape Town, which doesn’t have enough Africa in it. Durban is too parochial, Capetonians are too full of themselves, whereas Joburgers are incredibly friendly and cosmopolitan. We don’t have a mountain or the sea but we have so much more. Being in the city gives one a sense of living and being together. Joburgers are self-sufficient. Anyway, the sea is just a short journey away.
I’ll just let that sit with you…
Hang man and black and green computers. One of the most exciting additions to the curriculum at Leicester Road was the computer room, which was built by dads at father’s work parties (headed by Mr Johnston) that happened at weekends for the purpose of renovating and enriching the school. How cool that this forge ahead into technology was enabled by the community! Computer lessons consisted of learning to type—asdfg (left hand), lkjh (right hand). I wasn’t a fan, and was even writing out University assignments in my first year (2000) until typed assignments (12-size font, New Times Roman, 1.5 line spacing) were mandatory. Typing was always a bore but playing hang man on the black and green screens; now that I could dig.
Jurassic Park. 1993. We’ve got to dish this baby some respect. I was in Standard 4 when Spielberg’s masterpiece hit cinemas. Authored by Michael Crichton and directed by Steven Spielberg Jurassic Park is a cautionary tale exposing the dangers of biological tinkering; when human knowledge is combined with greed and complacency, and is untempered by wisdom, ethics or the oversight of a responsible organisation, the results are calamitous. And what better metaphor for unbridled destruction than the fearsome force of nature also known as Tyrannosaurus Rex—additionally operating under the pseudonym ‘Tyrant Lizard’ and better known by its peers as ‘KING badass Tyrant Lizard.’ The film’s pesky little Velociraptors almost got the better of the mighty Tyrannosaurus Rex...almost. Spielberg allows the tenacious T-Rex to show us who’s boss by pulverising a Raptor; grabbing said Raptor in its gargantuan jaws and crushing it with unyielding might. Plus, he ate that guy whilst he was taking a dump—no mercy. Badassness deluxe.
The hype was exponential and my friends and I rode the wave like Kelly Slater wannabes. Check it: as part of an effort to teach us a bit about business/money management, Leicester Road decided to hold a Flea Market; a project for our year group. All the Standard 4s would run stalls. Entrepreneurs for a day! We were allowed to choose our own groups and then we had to draft a business plan explaining the details of our stall; what we would be selling/offering and the costs involved. Each child was given R50 by the school (which we were required to pay back) and we were allowed to borrow money from our parents but we had to pay that money back, too. Part of the project was keeping a log of expenditure so that after the event, we could pay our debts and divide the profits between members of the group. We felt like proper grown-ups—doing business and managing money. It was cool.
Winsome and I worked in a group (there might have been another kid involved—Nicola or Ashleigh; neither Winsome nor I can remember). We sold fudge and bacon rolls as well as T-shirts that we designed ourselves using this pointillist-type technique and special fabric paint (Winsome and I spent ages making these shirts in our dining room at Somerset Road) but the money-maker was the Jurassic Park bottles. Cinemas were doing this deal: popcorn and a drink but the drink came in Jurassic Park themed drinking bottles with straws. Somehow, we got hold of maybe 100 of these bottles (could’ve been more or less). We sold out in minutes. One kid bought a bottle, then another…and another; and then we were stormed—sort of like coronavirus only not…and no one died. The bacon rolls did well (bacon—hello!) and even our shirts and fudge sold out. Our group made the most money on this day (just shy of R500) but not the most profit (although word had it that Sean Blomkamp didn’t pay his parents back for the money he’d borrowed) so in honour of our booty: hail mighty T Rex, monster of all-consuming magnificence – hail!
Dawson’s Creek. We’re meandering into the 90s of my teen years here but Dawson and his crotch must have mention. Created by screenwriter Kevin Williamson, best known for Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer, Dawson’s Creek was a semi-autobiographical tale set in a small coastal community. Williamson was the model for the title character, Dawson Leery, a hopeless romantic obsessed with movies. Joey Potter, the platonic girl-next-door, was based on a real-life friend of Williamson’s when he was young. Sadly, Williamson left Dawson’s Creek at the end of season 2 and the show’s watchability was knocked down a peg. But we didn’t care. Who would Joey Potter choose? The question was something that formed the crux of six embellished seasons of ‘The Crotch’—and no matter how lame the show got, we needed an answer (Oh! The allure of the indefatigable love-triangle). And the answer was Pacey, thank goodness! Dawson was Joey’s soul-mate but Pacey was ‘who she was meant to be with’—translation: Pacey was hotter.
In 1998, the year Dawson’s Creek launched, I was 15 going on 16—as were the characters in a show (although most were played by a gang of twenty-somethings) and we wallowed in the marvellous melodrama of torturous but tantalising teen angst; the pretentious (and totally unrealistic) dialogue, the indulgent self-awareness, the analytic introspection, the irony…we were all addicts. The show disbanded in 2003 and has since become a pop-culture phenomenon. Those who missed the 90s have most likely watched Van der Beek and co ‘figure it out’ on reruns—good thing, seeing as the only ‘Crotch’ star who managed to make a career worth speaking of is Michelle Williams. Somehow, the show transcends decades. There’s this great episode of House M.D (One Day, One Room) – well, they’re all great aren’t they – that proves the cultural significance of ‘The Crotch’ (because Gregory House for president and all that):
House: How old are you?
House: And you’ve never seen an afterschool special, Dawson’s Creek? How do you get to 30 and not know about condoms?
Patient: Oh, God, I have an STD.
House: You’re lying.
Patient: But that’s not the point.
House: You’ve never seen Dawson’s Creek? And you’ve never seen an afterschool special?
If Doctors are quoting Dawson’s Creek as a resource for sex education, then you know…
And while we’re talking teen melodrama. Party of Five. Remember that? My So Called Life—Jordan Catalano (oh baby!) and Claire Danes’ cry face, which never goes away in life. Ever. Hashtag Romeo and Juliet. Hashtag Homeland. (God help us.) The anticipation of waiting to discuss the previous night’s episode at school the next day – arguments over what should have happened with our favourite characters (but didn’t) or even better, when stuff went down as it should (Jordan & Angela) or shouldn’t (Jordan & Rayanne—kills us now) – conversations lasted days, and days…and days. Still. Even now. The stuff of Memberberries.
Also, slasher flicks. So many. The best? Scream. Duh. More than twenty years ago Casey Becker answered the phone and the world was never the same—Casey’s world (dying sucks balls, especially at the blade of psychotic serial slasher) but also the world at large. In 1996, as Santa was readying his sleigh and giving Rudolph a pep talk, Scream was spicing up Yuletide with a pinch of terror and a cup of fear. And audiences Ate.It.Up! Wes Craven’s horror satire expanded the blueprint of the genre, with its oxymoronic critique of convention—venerating preceding horror behemoths with an insolent insight that skilfully fortified horror as a poignant reflection of society and culture in the world of cinematic art. “But that’s just film”—right? Surely it takes more than one slasher flick to change the world? Surely? Uh nope—that’s all it took. And also Johnny Depp. (To change the world.)
All my galpals had their favourite 90s crush: Brad Pitt (Legends of the Fall – hello!), Keanu Reeves, Leonardo di Caprio, Christian Slater…you know. Mine: JD. On the cover of one of my files in Standard 6 was this picture of JD holding a bunch of yellow roses; with his Benny & Joon hair, blue jeans and a white tee tucked in, with a bigger also-white button-up thrown over in a carefully styled mess, somehow turning JD’s grunge vibe into more of a quintessential 90s hottie – but whatever; it’s the expression on his face – a sort of begrudging half smile that makes the picture. Hot guys invaded High School conversations and school bags—eliciting dreamy smiles and providing a necessary distraction from boring lessons and friendship squabbles. Sometimes, keeping it real is overrated.
RnB – nah. TLC – hell to the YES! As a girl growing up in the 90s, there was little chance that the gritty realism of Waterfalls and in particular, Unpretty and No Scrubs could escape consciousness without leaving some kind of imprint, no matter the type of music you were into. T-Boz, Left Eye and Chilli were not like other lame-ass girl groups of the same era; there was a rawness to TLC—something neither contrived nor manipulated. They dissed deadbeats and told girls to get a grip; to take charge of their ideals and identity:
A scrub is a guy that think he’s fine and is
Also known as a buster (buster, buster)
Always talkin’ about what he wants
And just sits on his broke ass
No, I don’t want no scrub.
Don’t settle. You can buy hair if it won’t grow, you can buy MAC and fix your nose if he says so but:
Why do I look to all these things
To keep you happy
Maybe get rid of you
And then I’ll get back to me (hey)
TLC’s tunes became anthems of female empowerment and the group looked what they sang—like they had been through some stuff, learnt some things and lived to tell the tale. A few years later I would use these songs to teach poetry to kids who’d been through worse.
5FM, Radio Cassettes and Mix Tapes. In my room, listening to 5FM (Barney Simon as I got older) with my finger hovering above the record button so that when my favourite song came on I wouldn’t miss a second – waiting and recording, waiting and recording…song after song, and ending up with the best tape of music in the world. Boom.
And now we will pause. Take a breath. For awesomeness is a second away from memory.
Alanis Morissette’s piece de resistance took a big fat, meaty bite out of this crazy-cruel world by confronting its undeniable brutality with a hefty dose of realism. It oozed a caustic melancholia that, through the angry, angsty whine of its songstress, managed to empower women rather than martyr them into defeatism. It tapped into a female consciousness that was itching to make its mind known; to admit that sometimes life is shit…love hurts, relationships are hard, guys are dicks and it might rain on your wedding day.
Or a black fly will land in your Chardonnay.
Or you’ll pay for a stupid ride only to find out it’s free.
Alanis was only 19 when she recorded ‘Jagged’ and her album exudes the irritability of youth. Void of the philosophical tolerance that life metes out as age and experience transpire, her songs were anthems of justifiable defiance to every girl growing up in the 90s—who revelled in a voice that didn’t mollycoddle or manipulate. And now, those kids − all grown up, some with their own kids – (i.e. ME) will get to relive Jagged Little Pill, in all its badass-ery, with our own angsty teens.
Also, she said Fuck.
Which is what the distressed damsels in Bold & Beautiful and Days of our Lives (aka ‘Bold’ or ‘Days’) should have been saying in 1996. American Soaps. We watched this shit and loved it. I have no idea why—the distraction, the drama, the love triangles (this again)? Sigh. It was all so unlike reality—school, maths, career choices…crime and politics. Bold was my favourite and I was team Brooke. Nobody liked Brooke. But I liked her. There’s no way that Taylor deserved to be with Ridge. Biyatch. No matter what team you were on there’s no doubt that these women needed some Alanis in their lives…but I was also quite happy to watch them not have her.