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12 Reasons Why the ‘90s Were the Greatest Decade to Grow Up In

An image of the author's notebook from her childhood in the '90s. It's covered in cut-outs of models and celebrities from teen magazines.
Image Source: Leah Groth

Like every kid who’s in the midst of their coming-of-age years, I truly believed that the decade I was growing up in — which happened to be the ’90s — sucked in comparison to those that came before. I glorified the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s, and even the ’80s, because the clothes, the music, the movies, and the lifestyle were just way more radical.

And therefore, they seemed way more cool.

Image Source: Leah Groth
Image Source: Leah Groth

Though we spent a good part of the era thinking it was our last, because Y2K was definitely maybe going to wipe the world out, I, along with all of the other folks who sort of fell between Gen-Xers and Millennials, didn’t realize how truly blessed we were to experience life before technology exploded, music got way too auto-tuned, and terrorism scared us out of hitting the local mall or nightclub without thinking twice.

The author's scrapbook page, showing celebs like Madonna, Claudia Schiffer, and more.
Image Source: Leah Groth

I miss the good ol’ days of old-fashioned fun, when people actually used to interact with each other in the flesh. When we hung out and actually paid attention to each other — without a device coming in between us. There was no texting, emailing, Facebooking, or tweeting. Nobody was looking up useless facts on their smartphone. Everything was so much more real.

Don’t get me wrong; I appreciate that technology has made our lives better in so many ways. But, for whatever reason, I can’t help but wish my children could experience their childhood and youth without it.

The ’90s were just … awesome.

Music was just better back then …

A photo of the author as a teenager, holding up a Boyz II Men album.
Image Source: Leah Groth

We grunged, raved, and hip-hopped through the decade, embracing pretty much everything that had a music video worth watching on MTV. We went to concerts, held up lighters, and moshed in mosh pits. We listened to entire albums in one sitting, start to finish, which we purchased by physically walking into music stores or by filling out that card we got in the mail that advertised 12 CDs for the price of one. Then, we either paid a massive amount for the remaining disks or ignored the bills altogether.

We made mix tapes for people we loved, and grumbled when we had to fast-forward through a song we didn’t like …

Sometimes, we would sit by the radio with our tape recorders and wait for a song to come on, press record, and make our own bootlegs. CDs were the preferred high-tech way of listening to tunes, and the total jam were those stereo systems with a double tape deck for recording and multi-disc changer for shuffling. Mine was an Aiwa. It was rad.

We lived at Blockbuster on the weekends …

On the weekends or school holidays, we went to the mall, where we managed to suffer through two-hour-long movies in theaters that weren’t made to be the size of sports stadiums. The screens were normal-sized (though minuscule compared to today’s), and the seats weren’t made like plush leather recliners (you were lucky if they even had a drink holder).

If you weren’t headed out to the movies, you made it a Blockbuster night. It was always fun, browsing through the many aisles of VHS tapes and turning over the cases to read what each film was about. The local video store also was sort of a gathering place on Friday nights — you never knew who you might bump into from school, picking out a flick. Sometimes, we forgot to rewind our video and got charged a fee, and other times, we stuck a tape in the VCR and realized someone else forgot to. Either way, it sucked.

Friday nights were all about Family Matters, Step by Step, and the rest of ABC’s TGIF lineup …

If you had to miss an episode of your favorite show, you had to buy a blank tape and set a recording on your VCR (which often went awry) or just wait until the network hopefully ran a marathon. Schedules were important back then, because there was no such thing as “On Demand.” This meant we only really watched shows that were epically awesome and were willing to pretty much revolve our social lives around.

Summer afternoons were spent poring over the latest YM and Teen Beat magazines …

We read books and magazines on paper, which we purchased at actual bookstores or subscribed to by sending back those little postcard ads in the mail. I remember waiting patiently by the mailbox for my magazines to come. After all, they were my lifeline to the glamorous city life I so desperately pined for while living in a small Pacific Northwest town.

We longed to be coupled up like Dylan McKay and Brenda Walsh, Johnny Depp and Kate Moss, Posh and Becks …

Victoria Beckham (AKA Posh Spice) Poses with husband David Beckham in the late '90s.
Image Source: Getty Images

And we were forced to date people we actually knew or met through friends. Some people found romance in AOL chat rooms, but lets be honest, that was just weird. Most of us relied on good ol’ human interaction for love connections. There was no text flirting or sexting or sending each other photos by phone. If you weren’t brave enough to say or do something in person, then you just didn’t do it at all.

That’s why relationships usually took longer to cultivate and bloom. We were actually forced to spend time getting to know someone. (Imagine that!)

Getting free America Online hours in the mail was like Christmas …

Technology was available and a pretty great resource (hello, Encarta ’98); but it didn’t rule us. When we used computers, it was mostly at school and sometimes at home, but never really for fun. Many of us typed our papers and college applications up on typewriters, and often had to use whiteout to correct any typos we made.

We explored the World Wide Web and chatted a little on AOL, but we still lived in the real world. Dial-up Internet was a little too slow-paced for us ’90s teens. We diligently started checking our Hotmail accounts (once a week at least, ha!) and chatted to our friends with all of our free America Online hours, courtesy of the disk that arrived in the mail.

We had cellphones and pagers, but we weren’t glued to their screens …

We took photos with actual cameras and had to wait until the film was developed to relive our memories. And if a photo wasn’t flattering? We just lived with it. (Gasp!)

We had cell phones (and even pagers!) in case of an emergency, but they weren’t our lifelines. They took calls and dialed them out — without even saving a number. They were a means, not an end, mostly used to meet up with friends or in case of an emergency.

We actually memorized our friends’ phone numbers …

That’s because old-fashioned telephones were our main means of staying in touch with friends and family. When call waiting, caller ID, and three-way calling were introduced, it made our social lives all the better. We also mastered the art of letter writing and sent cards by mail. Having pen pals in other parts of the country and world was really cool.

The word “organic” was foreign to us …

I don’t remember obsessing over diets like people do now, or worrying about eating organic. It was more about “fat grams” and less about “calories” or “carbs” in those days, and we truly believed clear beverages were better for us than those with color. (Remember Crystal Pepsi, Clearly Canadian, and Zima?)

The world seemed way less scary …

The author poses on a sidewalk with her friend in the '90s.
Image Source: Leah Groth

We came of age after the tensions of the Cold War had been put to rest, and before the horror of foreign and domestic terrorism became a daily reality. We had no idea how good we had it.

We never worried about other kids bringing guns to school or the mall, violence at movie theaters, flying on an airplane, or terrorism in general. We had no idea that the places we went would one day be the scenes of mass murders so horrific that we would start living in fear of going to those places we once considered safe.

Our parents told us never to talk to strangers, and thankfully, most of us were lucky enough not to know anyone who had encountered a really bad one. That’s what made the murders of JonBenet Ramsey and Polly Klaas all the more shocking.

We all remember where we were when the OJ verdict came in, and followed the Menendez brothers trial with worry and fascination.

And when Columbine stunned the country at the tail end of our decade, we were naïve enough to believe that it was a lone occurrence. We had no idea that it was just the beginning.

Our biggest fears were getting busted by our parents for sneaking out, drinking alcohol, or smoking cigarettes …

The author poses with her friends in the late '90s, all are wearing halter tops and bearing their midriffs.
Image Source: Leah Groth

Oh, and being totally misunderstood. Everyone had a friend who had a brother who had a friend who made fake IDs with a laminating machine. This was before driver’s licenses were bar-coded, watermarked, and digitized.

Though we wasted years worrying about Y2K, at the end, we partied to Prince’s 1999 without any technological glitches. We made it, we thought, and 2000 was the promised land. Things were just going to keep getting better.

But I don’t really think they did.

The author stands in front of her parent's living room TV int he early '90s.
Image Source: Leah Groth

My husband and I were in the car the other day when we saw a group of children walking home from the local swimming pool. Covered up in flimsy tank tops and cutoffs, two of the little girls were blessed with the sun hitting them just so, their smiles shining brilliantly on the hot and humid afternoon. But the boys they were with didn’t even notice, because all four of them were lost in their smartphones, furiously typing away.

We both stared, feeling the nostalgia of our own summers past as well as a bit of sadness, because they appeared to be missing the moment and all of its beauty.

Time doesn’t move backwards, only forward; but I can only hope to raise my kids with a bit of the spirit gleaned from my own youth. I think they’ll be the better for it.

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