We’ve been living through a nostalgia for the 1990s that has lasted longer than the decade itself. That was back when music was cool, the only Batman movie wasn’t a fascistic fantasy of surveillance and control, and dresses over jeans looked good.
Podcasts and documentary series have really dug into the decade to reinvestigate and reappraise everything that went down in those ten years. I’ve listened to a podcast that takes the top hits of the decade one by one and defends each song, I’ve watched specials on why every maligned woman of the era (Lorena Bobbitt or Tonya Harding or Monica Lewinsky) was good actually and the only bad thing here is patriarchy actually. The 1990s cults, fashions, political maneuverings and wars have all been picked apart and scrutinized by a panel of experts (or often what sound like two seemingly high comedians). Surely there is nothing left but the dregs.
But with Operator, the new eight-part series from Wondery, I get to learn about a strange part of the 1990s I didn’t know I wanted to know about: the 900 numbers. It was big business in the era, and as long as you could keep someone hooked on the phone, either by giving them “therapy” or forecasting their future with astrology and psychic powers or by talking dirty, you could charge them by the minute and make a lot of money. The biggest draw was of course the sex lines — every technological advancement whether VHS or 900 numbers or the internet goes mainstream by first gaining acceptance by the perverts and the freaks. But this story is ultimately a story of big business, of who was allowed to profit, hugely, off people’s loneliness and misery and whose labour was exploited before they were abandoned by their employers.
Hosted by former sex worker and journalist Tina Horn, she lends a sympathetic ear to the workers of the 900 number revolution. Women were warehoused in offices, often dealing with surveillance or harassment by local police despite the legality of their work, and working long hours feigning arousal and listening to the problems of alienated men. It seems the first idea for a 900 number was actually therapy, but men didn’t want to talk to therapists. They wanted to be listened to, but by women. Men were still spilling their guts to their counsellors, but instead of professionals, the people hearing their confessions had no training in how to handle the difficulties they had to listen to. The end result for many was burnout and emotional overload.
And while it was technological advancement that created this boom industry, it was also a technological advancement that quickly washed it all away: the internet and cell phones created new forms of connection and destroyed most of what existed before. The end result was that a chosen few made out with a ton of cash and everyone else was forced to evolve or die.
Another lost art form I didn’t know I missed from the 1990s was the post-Cold War thriller. Between the fall of the Berlin Wall and the attack on September 11, America was going through an identity crisis. For decades, America had been defining itself through its enemies, the communists. It stood for everything communism wasn’t, and was dependent on that bogeyman figure to give its foreign exploits meaning. But with the fall of the Wall and the crumbling of the USSR, the country had a decade of wandering around through an identity crisis, and that anxiety came out in a lot of movies starring Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford.
Writers John Ganz and Jamelle Bouie are starting their new show Unclear and Present Danger with the Jack Ryan series of films, adapted from the various Tom Clancy intellectual properties that were so popular with the dads of the 1990s. And while, yes, there are jokes about the variety of Russian accents provided by the array of very non-Russian actors in The Hunt for Red October, the films are just a jumping-off point for discussions about the power struggle at the CIA, the search for a new war to give the country meaning, and how the American government was dealing with an increasingly unstable eastern Europe.
And with that we should be done, right? We now fully understand everything that happened in the 1990s. There is no more wisdom left to glean, no writer under-appreciated or film overlooked, no political act misunderstood or scandal that needs a new context. Can we now just let the decade die, please?
This article was originally published in The Spectator’s UK magazine. Subscribe to the World edition here.