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The Totally Sweet '90s: From Clear Cola to Furby and Grunge to "Whatever," the Toys, Tastes, and Trends That Defined a Decade

(Penguin Group; US: Jun 2013)

For some reason, when I think of decades with lots of crazy trends and fads, I think of the ‘80s. Swatch watches, leg warmers, neon colors, and Sweet Valley High.


The Totally Sweet ‘90s: From Clear Cola to Furby and Grunge to ‘Whatever,’ the Toys, Tastes, and Trends That Defined a Decade by Gael Fashingbauer Cooper and Brian Bellmont reminded me that each time period has its quirks, accomplishments, and what were we thinking moments.


Arranged alphabetically, and focusing primarily on the United States, the book begins with Adam Sandler Songs on Saturday Night Live and ends with Zubaz pants. In between is everything from television shows like Friends and Cops, to technological advances, such as Giant Cell Phones and Fax Machines, and food choices including Magic Middles Cookies and Tan M&M’s. From things like Oprah’s Book Club that most likely everyone from the ‘90s remembers, to those squishy balls called ‘Gak’, which quite possibly no one remembers, to the “Macarena”, which most probably wish they didn’t remember—it’s all in this compact book.


For each entry, the authors supply general background, status, and a fun fact. For example, of Zima’s history we learn “Its maker, Coors, tried to ride the clear beverage wave of the early 1990s, but the one thing that wasn’t clear was why you would buy the stuff. It wasn’t beer. It wasn’t wine. It wasn’t a wine cooler.” It’s status: “Long gone”. And the fun fact, “According to Slate, college kids mixed Zima with schnapps and called the resulting drink ‘Nox-Zima’”. 


The language is snappy, the pace brisk, and the research impressive. Cooper and Bellmont know how to dig—how else would they know that Surge Soda appeared in an episode Buffy the Vampire Slayer, that one set of instructions for doing the “Macarena” included “Punch the DJ”  as the second step, and that Scrunchies (first called Scünci) were named after a pet poodle.


But the book isn’t just all fun, games, and campy humor; Cooper and Bellmont have a larger point in mind: “The reason we wrote this book… is that we believe the lost toys, tastes and trends of an era do more than just remind us of what we liked as kids. They tell us a lot about who we were then, and who we are today. You can’t figure out where you’re going until you understand how you got there.”


With some entries, these connections are clear. Bottled water, a novelty in the ‘90s, is the norm rather than the exception in the United States today. And, of course, where would we be without the Mac Classic II? Even though it played the “chimes of death” when it crashed (and it did), “we had Apples in our eyes and could taste the juicy, gadget-filled future”. Many of the same thoughts hold true for other technologies and gadgets—the Zack Morris cell phone, the floppy disk, Windows 95 (plus you have to love the fun fact here—“The refrain of the Rolling Stones’ ‘Start Me Up’, the song Microsoft used in its ad campaign, is ‘You Make a Grown Man Cry’—a fact not lost on Windows 95 critics”).




The entry Movie Rental Stores sums up the ‘90s and technology nicely. How quickly we moved from barely understanding how to hook up a VCR to DVDs to downloading:


“But the high life for movie-rental stores was a short one. VHS tapes were replaced by DVDs, and the craze for wandering the aisles, then having to return the movie the next day, started to wane. Choosing from a streaming website or opening a Netflix envelope was so much easier. Movie stores started a fight for life to rival anything in a Bette Midler-starring tearjerker. But, while it lasted, what a show it was.”


Certainly the technologies of the ‘90s, along with the rapid-fire changes and fleetingness of some mediums, do exactly what the authors propose—show how we got to where we are now (although some may have already made this connection). Even the fun fact about Light-Up Sneakers might say something about our current state: “Ever wonder why the human species hasn’t lived up to its potential? In a 2001 interview, comedian George Carlin blamed people’s obsession with light-up sneakers, Salad-Shooters, and DustBusters.”


But what about The Olsen Twins, Father of the Bride, “MMMBop”, Brenda Walsh, Clear Colas, Bubble Tape, Troll Dolls, or Pogs along with some of the other things that many have long since forgotten? Other than the fact we may have wasted resources to invent or produce them, do they really say anything about the world—past, present, or future? Maybe they do; it’s just a little harder to connect the dots here, and personally, I could have used a touch more help from the authors to see what owning, say, a Socker Bopper in 1997 says about me and/or the world.





On the other hand, as the back cover promises, I did “get a kick out of seeing which toys, treats, and trends stayed around, and which flopped” and I did enjoy “this ride through the unforgettable (and sometimes unforgivable) trends of the ‘90s”. And since Cooper and Bellmont have already covered the ‘70s and ‘80s, I’m looking forward to seeing what they have to say about the ‘00s.

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