Where were you in the ’90s?
Growing up during that decade, few things brought my sister and me as much joy as The Mall. It wasn’t the amusement park feel of the place (though we did run wild, scheme with other untethered kids, and sometimes—often—got lost). No, like other expats in Saudi Arabia, we were voracious consumers of American culture. The enormous satellite in our backyard zapped MTV’s TRL and VH1 into our Toshiba TV, and, just like that, we became obsessive devotees. The Mall was where, amid the designer abaya shops and oud perfumeries, we could buy American music.
Our parents fed our consumptive desires with regular pilgrimages. There was one store we always went back to. Virgin, I think? Anyway: it’s the cassettes I remember—there were so many of them. Back then you couldn’t test them before buying and you couldn’t buy a single you thought (that week) was the greatest song of all time. You had to commit to the whole album. My sister preferred Hanson and *NSYNC and I made fun of her for it. My tastes leaned more toward the Backstreet Boys and I regret that confession. We both loved Mariah Carey (“Fiiiiine, I’ll share that one!”). By the time tapes were released in Riyadh we knew all the hits by heart but wanted to own the cassettes anyway. We felt very cool carrying our haul in the shop’s tiny plastic bags.
Back in the car, we knew our mother had first dibs on the tape deck. She’d play Warda or Ehab Tawfiq or Cheb Khaled, or maybe Umm Kulthum or Sabah. We slid our tapes out of their bags, peeled away the wrapping, cracked open the cases, and removed the jackets hoping—hoping!—the singers had written special messages for us, their doting fans. When the store stopped selling tapes and switched to CDs, our ritual continued. We swapped our Walkmans for Discmans.
* * *
I thank Nancy Levene for prompting me to think of the ’90s again. And not in the way that everyone is thinking of the ’90s again—as a trend. But maybe in the way that millennials are. Maybe I’m one of those nostalgic millennials? In her introduction to this forum, Levene, revisiting the lyrics of the 1992 hit remake of “I Will Always Love You,” observes, “no one seems to have always loved Whitney Houston.” Yet, as she notes, the song features on one of the bestselling albums of all time. What to make of the disconcerting lyrics, the chart-busting popularity. “Such lines could hardly serve as the measure of Houston’s soaring performance. Or could they?”
This is important: Could they? To be sure, countless songs of questionable lyrical quality become and remain popular over time. The puzzle is more about a genre of song, of narrative, that promises what it cannot deliver and whether this register has anything at all to do with the social and the political. If we are reliving the ’90s, if the ’90s are now, how might we understand this as a puzzle for today? Or, as Levene puts it, “[h]ow might we understand an oath, and how might it understand us? What more is there to say?”
It turns out Houston wasn’t the only one making promises she couldn’t keep. In a decade of lyrical travesty, known for the rise of “boy bands” and “girl groups” and crooning R&B singles we should forget, Houston was in good company. There were many other hits—a startling number, in fact—promising, tragically, to be there at 4 pm.
As preteens we found in these songs the cures for all the maladies we didn’t (yet) have, circumstances we didn’t (yet) face. We learned from Mariah Carey how to cope with a failed romance. Denial! If you’re determined to leave boy, I will not stand in your way. But inevitably, you’ll be back again. ’Cause you know in your heart babe, our love will never end. The Spice Girls explained what to do with you know who, who wants you know what (again): Friendzone! Now you tell me that you’ve fallen in love. Well I never, ever thought that would be. This time, you gotta take it easy. Throwing far too much emotions at me. And if we actually fell for someone, we expected “moons” and “stars” and “skies” to suddenly puncture our language. When this happened, we had two options. Talk about forever without promising forever, à la Savage Garden. I’ll be your dream, I’ll be your wish, I’ll be your fantasy. I’ll be your hope, I’ll be your love, be everything that you need. Or, lie elaborately. I Swear: For better or worse, till death do us part. I’ll love you with every single beat of my heart. (That’s three billion beats per human lifetime, on average.) If we found ourselves in the depths of heartbreak, we’d start Back At One or . . . call in Toni Braxton. Her remedy? Time travel! Un-break my heart. Say you’ll love me again. Undo this hurt you caused, when you walked out the door, and walked out of my life. Un-cry these tears. Another option was to flip the script. Pfft, what hurt? I Want It That Way! And if all else fails, refuse to talk about it. No Doubt was on to something: Don’t speak. I know just what you’re saying. So please stop explaining. Don’t tell me ’cause it hurts.
“What truths do these claims contain?” asks Tiffany Hale. We loved these songs. We loved them for the promises they promised us we could make. But even more, for me and my sister as we clutched our bags of tapes while our mother played Warda, they made us feel American. They did so in a way that, looking back now, our citizenship, education, bilingualism, mobility—our deep and cultivated privilege—did not.
How strange and yet entirely appropriate in a decade bookended by the First Gulf War and the Monica Lewinsky scandal. Two American presidents. Two American lies. George H. W. Bush, January 1989: “Great nations like great men must keep their word.” Another, just as the decade neared its end—Bill Clinton, January 1998: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” “The prettier the oath,” Julia Lupton writes, “the more shit will be broken: laws, promises, hearts, trust.” And broken they were. All of them. But this is not surprising. Bush Sr.’s involvement in Reagan-era covert intelligence operations and the indiscriminate killing of civilians in Panama did not keep him from insisting, on Iraq, that he was “doing the right thing.” And by the time Clinton perjured himself, he was augmenting the well-established repertoire of lying presidents, or Men That Did Not Keep Their Word. Presidents were breaking promises, oaths, and taking numbers. The puzzle lies elsewhere: Could these famous words be the measure of their soaring performance? Yes. In 2014, Americans rated Bush Sr. and Clinton the most favorable of any living presidents.
As American statesmen and a US Supreme Court Justice in the ’90s were figuring out what to do with their words, music chart-toppers narrated the present in registers of uncompromising faith and temporal excess. The effusively committal and utterly unbelievable. Except that we believed them. Un-break my heart. Say you’ll love me again. The ’90s is a soundtrack of “the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves,” Diane Shane Fruchtman might say, “or . . . the narrativization of experience that gets us through our days.” I’ll be your dream, I’ll be your wish, I’ll be your fantasy.
Where are we now? Adam Stern suggests that “For better or worse . . . the oath seems to have become a punchline, a laughable anachronism, whose persistence and apparent efficacy in the present only belies its substantive vacuity, fundamental frailty, and diminished consequence.” I’m not so sure. If we understand the oath—promise-making, vow-taking—as one moment in a story not bound to the time or place of an initial telling, we might think less about the oath’s failure than the desire it habitually fulfills. This is what Levene means, I think, when she says “the oath is a disaster” and yet promises, oaths “are that great human wager of desire + time = history.” The promise of the promise, the hope of what it will fulfill at that time and over time, tells us about our time—even later.
Maybe you think we’ve left the ’90s behind. But aren’t we singing the same songs? The costs of war mount long after military engagement concludes. Judges, juries, publics still deliberate whether to believe women. If you were with me and my kindred singing the songs of ’90s hunger, none of this is surprising. So long as terrorism tops American fear. And feminist futures are attenuated by proximity to the promise-breakers.
“But now, we’re going ’round in circles
Tell me will this déjà vu never end, oh”
That’s the thing.