Sentimental Journey

The 90's are over - edginess is out, earnestness is in


| May/June 2001


It's happened to us all at some point, although we are usually ashamed to admit it. Survivor's "The Search Is Over" comes on the
Discuss schmaltz at the Culture conference.
café.utne.com
car radio and, only after making absolutely certain no one in a neighboring car can hear, you sing along. Or you start crying while you're watching a late-night rerun of Who's the Boss on Fox Family, but you tell yourself the tears are a by-product of work-related stress. You purchase Journey's album Escape at a used-CD store because you really like the song "Don't Stop Believin'," but you tell the 19-year-old clerk with the tongue piercing that you're just buying it as "a gag gift."

These are prime examples of what I call "sneaking the schmaltz"—appreciating the over-the-top sentimentality expressed in pop culture, but keeping it secret out of fear of utter humiliation. Though it's not a new phenomenon, schmaltz-sneaking became even more necessary in the 1990s, when sarcasm and irony permeated almost every aspect of American culture. With TV shows like Seinfeld, movies like Pulp Fiction, and the rise of grunge rock leading the way, sincerity was no longer prized; what mattered was flash and, the most ubiquitous of all '90s adjectives, edginess.

Many of us, particularly my Gen X peers, are now embarrassed to admit that we like certain elements of our culture. We live in fear of being viewed as "uncool" and have nightmares involving a roomful of partygoers who cackle as we accidentally admit that we genuinely enjoy the antics of The Family Circus comic strip. But this is starting to change. After the jaded self-awareness of the 1990s, we've reached a turning point: We realize the importance of being earnest once again.

The late 1970s and 1980s were a heydey for sentimentality. Passionate arena rockers like Styx and Journey (and, later, the more credible U2) were immensely popular. The weeper E.T. became the highest-grossing film of all time. And on television, lesson-teaching family sitcoms reigned. Then everything began to change. The transformation started with Roseanne, which was wildly heralded as the first sitcom to present the American family as it is—fat, fights, and all. Shortly thereafter came Nirvana, David Lynch and The Simpsons. The era of edginess really got rolling in the the mid-'90s, when we grew infatuated with the postmodern violence of Pulp Fiction director Quentin Tarantino. We then spent Thursday nights watching Jerry Seinfeld and friends obsess about nothing. Beck sang "I'm a loser baby, so why don't you kill me," and we cheered a new folk hero.

Initially, this shake-up in pop culture was a welcome change; new voices were being heard, alternative music was booming , and well-crafted indie films finally made a dent at the box office. By the end of the decade, however, the need to keep pushing the envelope on irreverence, irony, and edginess resulted in hollow imitations and, ultimately, the disappearance of substance. Now, as the tides of pop culture change around us, the words simplicity, sentimentality, and sincerity are becoming respectable again.Consider the following: In the past three years, two of the highest-grossing films were Titanic, a classic love story, and The Sixth Sense, a carefully crafted tale that blended mystery with first-rate storytelling. The most well received new television programs last fall season were Ed, a charming show about a lawyer who moves back to his hometown to win the heart of his high school sweetheart and manage a bowling alley, and The West Wing, which dares to sentimentalize the arena about which Americans are probably most cynical: politics.

Does all this mean that irony and biting wit are out of fashion? Absolutely not. But it might mean that instead of sneaking the schmaltz, we can rent tearjerkers at the video store in the light of day and sing-along with sentimental songs without looking over our shoulders.

From the Gen-X geared site www.poppolitics.com

Discuss schmaltz at the Culture conference in cafe.utne.com