The Happy Superficiality of Plastic Pop, Friends and Tamagotchis. Have We Moved Far Beyond?

“April 6, James Cameron’s Titanic in cinemas.” “S Club 7 tours the UK.” “’Five’ star Sean Conlon live on stage on BBC.”  Is this …? This is 2012, dearies, not 1997!

 What might read like a newspaper from back in the 1990s is actually part of the latest news of 2012. So with the products of casting shows and TV series and James Cameron’s Titanic of the 1990s being in the spotlight again, it should be worth having a look back.

The 1990s, that is foremost a decade of drastic contrasts: The Cold War finally comes to an end with  Germany’s reunion in 1990 and the end of the  USSR the following year. Namibia as the last former colony to finally become independent and Nelson Mandela’s freedom mark the decade’s move towards liberty and democracy. At the same time, the bombing of the World Trade Center in 1993 and pro-Western Saudi-Arabia not allowing their ordinary citizens access to the internet cause quite the opposite, and again split the world into East and West.

But when leaving the socio-political sphere behind, what does remain of the 1990s? Approaching the decade way less sophisticated and eventually entering the realm of popular culture, an image of shiny happy people finds its way into our mind. What started off as a decade of a politicial and sociological paradigm shift, from a cultural point of view leaves quite a different impression. The 1990s, that is the birth of the new “information highway”. It is the decade of girlies and plastic pop, of casting shows and sitcoms and, to cut a long story short, a decade of happy superficiality and materialism.

Gameboys and Nintendo 64 come into existence and find their way into people’s living-rooms, along with The Lion King,Mrs. Doubtfire and Sponge Bob Square Pants. Meanwhile, Tamagotchis find their way into children’s pocket and are carefully being looked after if not having to compete with  their all-but-Gremlin friend called Furby. Toys come to life while Super Mario loses one of his multiple ones. If not in Beverly Hills 90210, Dawson’s Creek or with their Friends to enjoy Rachel’s pseudo-epic on-and-off relationship with Ross, people spend their time Clueless. Watching the boobs’ of Pamela Anderson and their never-ending try to make it to someone’s rescue on time should turn out to become a very materialistic expression of a superficial (manly) desire.

“Boom boom boom, dee dee na na na, da ba dee da ba daa, mmm bob ba duba dop, zigazig ah and the rhythm of the night” – what reads like a post-modern dadaistic attempt to write poetry, turns out to be the sad linguistic-onomatopoeic truth of lyrics by Whigfield, the Vengaboys or the Hansons revealed by the newly-invented discman. No surprise that people eventually internalise Aqua’s fantastic plastic “Barbie Girl approach to life” and start browsing the next flea market on their rollerskates. After the internet and its virtual shopping centres have come on stage at the end of the decade, people can even increase the materialistic happiness felt when buying the latest flannel shirt or the literally plastic patifier bracelet needed to complete the fashionable grunge style or to become a look-a-like of Baby Spice.

In 2012, with its indie music, vintage fashion, the web 2.0 including its more than 200 well-known social networks  as well as Steve Job’s heritage, we should have left the happy, materialistic superficiality of the 1990s behind to enter a far more complex way of life. But have we really moved beyond? It might be true, considering that the revenues for music in all formats dropped about 25% percent between 1999 and 2008. But only to be replaced by 3 million iTunes and 31 million app downloads in the apple store per day – not to mention the kindle industry. Yes, we have moved beyond – along side our music and books, we have just digitised our materialism into obsessive shopping on iTunes and Co.

We have not only digitised our materialism, but on the same way, we started to more than enjoy exhibiting our constructed virtual identity on Marc Zuckerberg’s empire.  This is  about to gain user number 1,000,000,000 in July 2012 and already claims the number one spot in the social network ranking in 127 out of 136 countries. There is probably no need to mention the side effect of all those killed local social networks which Zuckerberg’s virtual crusade is leaving behind. With every second user logging on to Facebook on a daily basis and spending three times as much time there as on google, being asked whether one wants to share one’s latest buy of a solar-powered mobile phone charger on amazon should no cause raised eyebrows.

And what would our life in 2012 be without an iPhone? 33 Million iPhones have been sold worldwide as well as almost 4 million iMacs in 2011 only. My iPhone, my mac book, my blog, my facebook account and all my photos on instagram?  That seems to have become our globe-spanning collective identity in 2012’s digitised cyberworld. Chosing one of our multiple virtual identities, we doodle, google, facebook, flickr, tweet, tumblr, LinkedIn, pinterest and youtube our life way (but at least the internet will never forget about it!) while happily buying what the individually generated advertisment in our little browser window suggests (at least there is some individualism left here!).

And if we manage to leave the virtual world for a while, we still Escape to the Country, help to get B-list celebreties out of the jungle or join The Biggest Loser in their struggle for the win. Sometimes we dedicate our time to the latest invention on the the casting show marekt and watch TV shows which only exploite the private life of young musicians, but at least pretend to no longer care about their looks.

Looking back to the pre-Zuckerberg era in the 1990s and the happy (and physical!) materialism almost causes a feeling of nostalgia nowadays. So why not, while procrastinating in the iTunes store the next time, just leave our virtual world of 2012 behind and get some fresh air. Let’s just pay a place called HMV a visit and browse for a while. Eventually, we might find a CD to accompany us for a few weeks of our life. Listening to it again in a few years time, it will, maybe, just mabye, trigger some deep and definitely non-virtual memories of life in the 2010s. Who knows.

-Evelyn Schwenner