When I think about the 1990s, here's what comes to mind: roller blades, crimped hair, Beanie Babies and Walkmen. But there was more to the decade than tacky products and oversized flannel.
The '90s saw seismic shifts in American culture, some of which are on display in a new exhibit at the Blanton Museum of Art in Austin. It might be hard to believe – or admit– that 1990 was 26 years ago. Doesn’t it feel like yesterday?
Koven Smith, the director of digital adaptation at the Blanton Museum of Art, says he doesn't see it that way. He helped put together the '90s exhibit “Come As You Are.” The main focus is visual art, but there’s also a special music project that coincides with the exhibit.
“We’re doing a mixtape project," Smith says. "While you’re viewing the art of the '90s, you can listen to the music of the '90s on the technology of the '90s.”
Yes, there are two plastic bins filled with old-school Sony Walkmen and one tall tower jammed packed with Casio tapes. But the music on those tapes is up to you.
“The idea was, ‘Oh! Let's have visitors send us their own mixtapes and we’ll turn those into mixtapes!'" Smith says. "We’re actually in my office right now and you can see I’ve got two tape decks going."
The tape he's playing was created by the folks over at Breakaway Records – a vinyl store in Austin – but submissions came from everywhere. There are makeout mixtapes. There's one titled “Mo' Better Blues,” featuring a picture of Arsenio Hall. There's also one from a voice familiar to Austinites: KUTX DJ Susan Castle. She's been on air since the 1990s.
I caught up with Castle one morning during her shift. She said when it came to putting together her own definitive '90s playlist, she followed her heart.
"I was the queen of making mixtapes, even back in the '80s," Castle says. "And what I did – not even knowing I was doing it – was just picking my favorite songs, and songs that stirred my emotions. So, I basically picked my favorite songs."
Those songs have become part of the soundscape at the Blanton.
“It was great, man!" says Jesse McCrumb, a museum-goer. "It gave a rhythm to the whole experience. ... Electronic music was the tape I picked. They’ve got a bunch here that you can choose from, but I highly recommend this one.”
McCrumb's a local graphic artist who stopped by the exhibit. He wasn’t alone in his enthusiasm. Just ask Susan Foosness.
“It was super awesome," Foosness says. "In fact, I want to go look at what the songs were, because I could remember them and sing along with them, but I couldn’t remember who they were."
Veronica Roberts, the curator of modern and contemporary art at the Blanton, says that familiarity Foosness just mentioned – being able to remember the songs, but not the artists – is why now is the time for “Come As You Are."
“It’s actually a perfect moment for us to really think about this decade – between the fall of the Berlin Wall and 9/11," Roberts says. "It has such a profound impact on what we’re seeing now and I think it is a long enough time ago that we can look at it with some distance and clarity that you can’t when it’s yesterday."