With hindsight, the 1990s’ great theme was refusal; the decade’s core act was not the salute, but the shrug. The ironic, the uncommitted, were about to take over the world.
Across the world, and in Britain more than anywhere, the coming decade was to be a fruitful time for creative, public quitters. On my return in late 1990, I started collecting resignations and analysing their backgrounds in earnest. It wasn’t easy, simply because over here, too, there were suddenly so many flying around. Thatcherism was imploding, with Michael Heseltine and Geoffrey Howe taking turns at playing Mark Antony and Brutus with their own parting shots. Then, as recession hit Britain and the West, and the eighties achievers’ party hit the buffers, it was business’s turn. These were not the quiet goodbyes of yesteryear, but great, furious, splattering media events.
This was the dawning of a great age of corporate dissent.
In the West, the slackers wandered off the career path with a shrug – their anti-aspiration the mirror image of all those refuseniks in the East now discovering the joys of consumer society – while Adbusters’ subversive ‘truth in advertising’ defacement campaigns echoed the theatrical marginalia of the Berlin Wall’s Eastside Gallery. Self-empowerment was in, and suddenly no soap opera, cabinet meeting, movie, international summit or AGM was complete without a grandstanding declaration of independence.
Climactic, public resignations became a powerful international currency, everywhere from Wall Street to Hollywood. The era’s defining movies – Slacker (1991), The Firm (1991), Glengarry Glen Ross (1992), A Few Good Men (1992), Groundhog Day (1993), Clerks (1994), even Jurassic Park (1993), all feature stars plotting and rehearsing their eventual break from the hypocrisy, villainy or empty repetition of their professional roles.
(Surely a candidate for least likely resignation speech in history is the Tyrannosaurus Rex in Jurassic Park: Richard Attenborough’s park boss, micro-managing every aspect of the lives of the revenue-generating animals inside his hermetically sealed biodome, is as clear an early-1990s everyboss or Iron Curtain dictator as ever lived, with his insistence that everyone could be bought, and his creation of minutely surveilled spaces for workers, human and reptile alike.
It’s great fun to watch it now as Berlin Wall or corporate allegory: the literal iron curtain keeping humans and dinos apart! Jeff Goldblum’s ominous soliloquy on chaos! The heroes’ suspicion of being co-opted into branded ideology! It’s no coincidence that when they rebel, the animals not only wreck the commercial plan, but vandalise his company’s iconic logo. As T. Rex tears apart the logos on the branded Jurassic Park hoardings in the final scene, he becomes the movie’s anti-corporate hero; its Adbuster; he gives his notice with a roar of independence that brings the whole venture crumbling down. The inhabitants have wrestled their own land back.)
By 1993, ‘getting on’ in your job had come to look, at least in pop-cultural terms, very much like being suckered. Irvine Welsh’s sarcastic jab at aspirational eighties consumerism in his bestseller of that year, Trainspotting – lifting the slogan of the iconic Katherine Hamnett/Wham T-shirt that symbolised the decade’s worst go-for-it platitudes – lifting the slogan of the iconic Katherine Hamnett/Wham! T-shirt that symbolised the decade’s worst go-for-it platitudes – became a pop-culture mantra, appearing on albums, club singles, and finally on T-shirts of its own: ‘Choose life. Choose a job . . . Choose rotting away at the end of it all, pishing your last in a miserable home, nothing more than an embarrassment to the selfish, fucked up brats you spawned to replace yourself. Choose your future.’
Pop culture’s superstars were Homer Simpson and Kurt Cobain, its key image the swimming baby chasing a dollar. Beck defined the mood with ‘Loser’ (1994), and vowed he wasn’t ‘going to work for no soul-sucking jerk’ on an album that seemed to dramatise quitting jobs (blowing leaves/washing dishes/putting chicken in a bucket with a soda/whatever) over and over again, while Rage Against The Machine created the ultimate ’90s chorus with ‘Killing In The Name’’s “Fuck you, I won’t do what you tell me.” (1992).