I graduated from high school in 1998, which means I am about the same age as Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears. And that also means when they were putting out hot new VH1 videos at age 17, I was . . . around 17, folding notes into origami triangles to pass during study hall and talking on the house phone to my girlfriends for hours at night, all the while gazing at my Leonardo DiCaprio poster over my bed (damn you, Rose! He could have fit on that wooden plank, too!).
While 80s teens ruled the world with giant teased hair and a love for The Breakfast Club, we gathered with our girlfriends to watch My So Called Life and The Real World. Some of us rebelled against cheesy teenage pop culture, turned “goth” and listened to Nine Inch Nails to terrify our parents, while others pinned Nick Lachey posters to our walls and over-highlighted our hair.
The 90s girl didn’t know what a selfie was, but she sure knew the allure of dark brown lip-liner, and banana clip, and a good choker necklace as she tried to get the attention of that boy from homeroom in JNCO jeans. On Saturdays we donned our overalls and combat boots (or maybe a plaid mini-skirt as you tried to channel your inner Cher from Clueless) and hung out at the mall for hours. Hot spots included the Gap or Abercrombie and Fitch if you had money (I did not) as well as our parents’ nightmare—Spencer Gifts.
Being a teenager during the 90s meant navigating your awkward hormonal years during an oddly juxtaposed decade that started off grunge and ended with a genie in a bottle. The years that saw reality TV consume American television and take over where family sitcoms used to reign supreme.
We were the last kids of the 20th century—literally, and proverbially—but we had no idea what was in store for us as we hit the technological world that would be our adulthood.
The 90s were a turning point. We were aware that a new century was coming, but what did that mean? Being consumed by the death of Kurt Cobain and our obsession with Pacey Witter, we didn’t realize that our world was drastically changing. We didn’t realize that we were the generation of the lasts.
We were the last group of kids without instant access to everything immediately. Our parents’ generation had to wait until their favorite songs came on the radio, and buy records or 8-tracks; we blasted our stereos and recorded “Smells Like Teen Spirit” on cassettes and CDs. We still ordered from catalogs that came in the mail and learned about the American Revolution from books we found using the Dewey Decimal System.
Nineties kids were the last who had to memorize phone numbers. And remember directions. Or learn to use maps. Nineties teens were the last teens to hear their parents say, “Bring a quarter!” in case we had to call home.
We were the last teenagers who could mess up and not have it be online or texted school-wide within minutes. Or seconds. We were the last group of kids who only had to face one type of bullying.
But we were lucky enough to also be the generation of firsts. Nineties teens were the guinea pigs—the kids 21st century technology was initially exposed to. I spent my high school years visiting the computer lab once a week to type papers, but by the end of my freshman year in college, had my own desktop in my dorm room, my first email address, and a newfound love for instant messenger.
A 90s kid got to see the progression from rotary phone to phone with buttons to cordless phone. She can probably remember the day she first got caller ID or “total phone” and could “click over” to answer the other call. Eighties teens could prank call each other, but we could press *69 to see who the culprit was.
A few of us were fortunate enough to have super awesome parents willing to pay for AOL dial-up, but that monopolized the only phone line and took a good nine minutes of mind-numbing screeching to get connected. And then we often didn’t know what to do once we got to the other side, because what even was this internet thing anyway?
The 90s teen had seen new technology blip across her radar, but she still had to call her friends from home in order to coordinate a trip to the movies. (If you were on the upper echelon of the cool scale, you may have had a beeper.) I was lucky enough to have a phone in my bedroom (the see-through plastic one, obvs), but it was still my parents’ line, and had to be shared contentiously with my teenage sister. My friends and I did our best to make plans, but once we left our houses, we usually had to end up driving around town, hoping to run into the boys we had crushes on at the gas station or corner store.
We lived vicariously through Brenda and Kelly, Brandon and Dylan. Friendships were born while others ended. Boyfriends came and went. We went to prom, learned to drive, and got our first jobs.
We didn’t know how fast the world was spinning beneath our feet, and maybe that’s a good thing. Looking back, I wouldn’t trade those years—my years when the world was still simple and slow and pure and authentic—for anything.
The 90s meant the end of a century, the end of a millennium, but to us, it was the decade we fell in love for the first time, grew into young adults, and figured out who we wanted to be.
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