Quick! What's the hottest new trend of the 1990s?
Gotcha! There isn't one.
The Sizzling Eighties, the era of excess, of Beemers and designer everything and junk bonds and air-conditioned dog houses, of Leona, Imelda and The Donald, have been replaced by ... nothing.
What's out? The gear of greed: Power suits, $1,100 Italian espresso machines, power suspenders, pasta-makers, power ties, Cruvinets, power breakfasts, all-suite hotels, power lunches, Saabs, power golf, lettuce masquerading as arugula, radicchio or AHN-deev, electric pepper-grinders, platinum credit cards, helicopters on yachts, Mercedes Benzes on diesel and Dom Perignon. Even "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" has found the decency to move to a time slot when the children are sleeping.
What's in? Uhhh ... well ... Ties are neither wide nor narrow; hair and skirts, neither long nor short. Sex is out, but abstinence is not in. Oat bran is irrelevant, but we can't go back to bacon and eggs. Try to name the latest dance step. Or the trendiest car.
Communism is dead, but nothing has replaced it. All over Eastern Europe they're vowing to avoid the hard edges of unbridled capitalism.
"Right now everything is on hold," says Jack Nachbar, professor in the pop culture department at Ohio's Bowling Green State University. "Six months ago I was predicting that this would be a new decade of environmental commitment. But now you have the Middle East thing. Will it lead to new international understanding or to World War III? The stock market slides. Literally, you don't know what you can afford to do, what plans to make."
Other eras had slogans:
The 1960s: Hell, no, we won't go.
The 1970s: I'm okay, you're okay.
The 1980s: Me first.
The 1990s Official slogan: Get a life. Official mascot: Bart Simpson.
Are we indecisive? We're not sure. Our moral compass spins. We're in a decade of drift. A fad famine. We have no messiah, no hula hoop, no great crusade, no pet rock, no goldfish to eat, no phone booth to stuff.
Even our current crisis is recycled: Madman in the Middle East. Gas-gouging. Hostages. Shades of 1973. Of 1978.
The closest thing to a fad so far this decade is that annoying plastic flower that dances to music.
It's clear in hindsight that the Overreaching Eighties started running out of gas before the oil crisis. What killed greed is hard to say.
Maybe the movie "Wall Street." Maybe the Exxon Valdez. Maybe Jim and Tammy Bakker. Maybe the S&L scandal, or the passing of the Reagan presidency.
More likely, it was the wrinkling, graying and balding of the baby-boom generation. The generation that vowed it would never trust anyone over 30 has passed clear into fortysomethingness. It's too tired to be trendy.
It is facing the years when kids in college coincide with parents in nursing homes, when worry about retirement plans creeps in just as the stock and real-estate markets plummet.
What's out? Mutual funds, junk bonds, home ownership, tax-free municipals. What's in? CDs, maybe, but they don't even keep up with inflation.
Upward mobility seems to have taken a U-turn.
"Young people who grew up in the Eighties are suspicious of the greed of the yuppies of the Eighties," says Nachbar. "They're very indecisive, hesitant.
"They're in a world where social problems are being addressed by hysterical factions, and they don't want to commit themselves to the hysteria. They want to work for the environment, but what can they do?
Maybe "in" is out.
One of John Naisbitt's most prescient predictions in his first "Megatrends" book was that the future would not bring a uniform drabness -- with everyone dressed alike, as they did in science-fiction flicks up to and including "Star Trek" -- but that it would see a virtual explosion of choices. As we do today.
But that explosion of choices also atomizes society, tugs and pulls it in so many directions at once that it risks psychological gridlock.
And if we can't decide how wide to cut our lapels, how do we reach a national consensus on the budget deficit? Abortion? Offshore drilling? Saving whales?
Our ambivalence is showing in every facet of our ennui-filled lives.
Nowhere is this more obvious than in entertainment. Nothing seems able to claim the national attention long enough to become a fad.
Just 10 years ago, 90 percent of us watched exclusively ABC, CBS or NBC. Now only 60 percent of us do. Cable TV, pay-per-view and public-access have penetrated more than half of our homes.
Dance trends? The lambada died even faster than disco, to be replaced by ... nothing.
What's hot in leisure time? Skiing? Boating? Camping? Bowling? Nothing?
We're bored with cocooning, but afraid to venture out.
The foreign vacation of choice has fallen victim to fears of foreign terrorism. The Federal Aviation Administration forecasts that the biggest growth in international travel will be to Asia and the Pacific, partly because people are nervous about vacationing in Europe.
Try to find a trend in movies. An era has ended. Clint Eastwood doesn't want to be Dirty Harry any more. Rambo seeks deeper dialogue. J.R. talks as mean as ever, but now it makes his jowls jiggle, and rumor says "Dallas" is heading for its last roundup. Jane Powell does denture commercials, Suzanne Pleshette does Leona Helmsley, Angie Dickinson uses a body double in "Dressed to Kill," Sam Malone's hair is leaving, Gene Hackman has a heart condition.
Even our mini-fads are getting shorter, weaker. The summer of '89's "Batman" movie grossed an impressive $250 million; this summer's entry, "Dick Tracy," grossed only $90 million. "The Jetsons" grossed $8 million the first week, $2.9 million the second and then fell off the charts.
The only mini-trends that haven't quite reached the end of their 15-minutes of fame are the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, the New Kids on the Block and Bart Simpson.
There was almost a trend toward obscenity. Shock-rappers and Andrew Dice Clay made George Carlin's "seven forbidden words" seem almost nostalgic. But for easy listening, they exude all the enduring potential of break-dancing. Remember break-dancing?
In June, a Fort Lauderdale federal judge ruled that 2 Live Crew's music is obscene; in October, a Cincinnati jury ruled that Robert Mapplethorpe's photos are art.
Any possibility that the 1990s might bring a religious revival were quashed by the TV evangelist scandals. The Gallup Poll says 88 percent of all Americans regularly pray, but only 65 percent do it in a church or synagogue, the lowest percentage in 51 years of polling.
What's out in the food department? Those that put on airs: sun-dried tomatoes, flavored vinegars, pesto, goat-cheese pizza, kiwi, all 83 kinds of pasta except spaghetti.
All that hype gave Cajun cooking a blackened reputation. Sushi has parasites. Carbohydrate-loading makes us fat after all, if we don't follow through with the marathon.
Grilling is still in, sort of. But mesquite is out. Is coffee in? Depends. What time is it?
Oat bran has slumped, resisting Wilford Brimley's gruff attempts to restore its image. Bacon and eggs still are verboten. By default, we're tasting corn flakes again for the first time.
"Oat bran was supposed to save us," says Nachbar. "Now it's just another reasonably OK thing to eat. Or caffeine: By next week, will it help us or hurt us? One week our cholesterol level is absolutely crucial; the next week it doesn't matter."
We might have gone back to meat loaf if Beef Board national spokesman James Garner hadn't had his bypass surgery and Beef Board national spokeswoman Cybill Shepherd hadn't admitted she avoids eating the stuff.
We still feel guilty about veal and still are afraid of pork. Maybe the Nineties will be the chicken generation.
Hard liquor died in the health-conscious early 1980s. Its rear guard, the Soviets' briefly stylish Stolichnaya vodka, doesn't seem so sexy now that the Bear is declawed. Wine was supposed to replace it, especially boutique brands made in 300-case lots by French-American cooperatives in California. Now that's out, too, with U.S. wine sales down by 13 percent since 1987. Particularly out is the unnatural concoction called blush wine, which always had every reason to be.
Also out: Beer with limes, tequila with worms. Alcohol-free beer may enjoy a brief vogue while our thirsty guys are in Moslem Saudi Arabia, but it will die a quick, vicious death when they're back home.
Designer water: Perrier was yuppie pretension. Even with the benzene out, imported bubbles at a buck a quart do not fit the mood of the Nineties.
Illegal drugs no longer are cool. Former drug czar William Bennett says 23 million Americans were users in 1985, only 15 million today. Still, we haven't achieved any great moral aversion to drugs. People merely snickered when Nancy Reagan urged us to Just Say No. It may be merely that aging Boomers are dropping out because 1, their hearts and nasal passages won't take it any more and, 2, they're bummed by waves of home burglaries perpetrated by druggies.
In the Sixties, anything went, and we thought of our bodies as indestructible. In the Seventies and Eighties, we were aggressively into jogging, eschewing the hard stuff and hamburgers for white wine and health food, blithely confident that trying hard could keep our bodies hard. Now we suspect that sag has more to do with time, genes and gravity than hard living.
We finally admitted that smoking is awful for our arteries, just in time to be told that jogging is bad for our joints.
"The jogging boom has run its course," says the editor of Walking Magazine, who recommends fast-walking.
And sex? As recently as 1987, America delightedly debated whether "L.A. Law" teddy bear Stuart Markowitz really mesmerized his too-tall-and-gorgeous-for-him wife Ann Kelsey with a secret sex technique called the Venus Butterfly. Today we fret that for every year we've practiced safe sex, scientists have extended the estimated incubation period for AIDS by another 12 months.
Predicted trend of the Nineties? The Motion Picture Association's new scheme replacing X ratings with NC-17 may make movies safe again for surrogate sex.
Fashionwise: Is the miniskirt hot? Nope. But neither is it not. The same for the maxi: Up and down are neither out nor in. A woman can flaunt four inches of thigh or hide four inches of calf, and nobody will notice.
Hair? Either revenge-of-the-nerds white sidewalls or all the way to your shoulders.
Beard? Clean shave? Not a hair of difference.
What's in? Nothing. Cheap, maybe.
In sport, nasty as they want to be is out. Suddenly, dancing in the end zone is illegal procedure, and fans are tired of hockey fights and soccer hooligans.
Forecast for the 1990s: a kinder, gentler era. Except in contract negotiations.
In every realm of human endeavor, we're in the nothing, the nervous, the neutral Nineties. If you want to put a good face on it, you can call it a tabula rasa, a blank canvas awaiting a genius's imprimatur.
After all, remember 1980? The Ayatollah had our hostages. Jimmy Carter was trapped in the White House. Gas was out of sight. Who'd have thought then that it was the first year of The Sizzling Eighties?
"We're poised for a new generation," says Nachbar. "A dramatic event or a hugely dramatic person could determine the whole decade.
"You know, Reagan determined the Eighties."
Looking Back ... & Ahead
Here are some things we can say goodbye to:
Casual sex: With 80,000 Americans dead of AIDS in the 1980s, this year's new Boy Scout Handbook introduced eight pages on sexually transmitted diseases. Some schools now teach about AIDS in first grade.
Auto lust: BMW has just brought back its model that sold for under $20,000.
Upward mobility: "There are too many baby boomers for the few top spots in America's companies," American Demographics magazine says. It predicts more self-employment, moonlighting.
Wall Street security: Nearly 40,000 brokers have lost their jobs since October 1987's Black Monday. Money magazine found one running an oil-change shop in Montana, another hanging wallpaper in Staten Island.
Throwaways: "Recycling is spreading like wildfire," says Miami Metro Commissioner Harvey Ruvin. "People are ready. I think they're ahead of the politicians and the prognosticators."
Self-indulgence: "Only 15 percent of men now buy on impulse, compared with 23 percent two years ago," a Gentlemen's Quarterly survey says. Half of the shoppers in two-career families say shopping is more of a chore every year.
Childless couples: Last year's 4 million births were the most since 1964, the U.S. Census says.
Steel and glass monoliths: "In the early '80s we had a battle convincing people of our ideas," says Bernardo Fort-Brescia, 38, of Miami's avant-garde architecture firm, Arquitectonica. "Decision-makers were not of our generation. Now we can talk to the top man, or his right-hand man, and he is of our generation. And we're no less radical than before."
Flaunting it: Breast augmentation is out; breast reduction in, says plastic surgeon Lawrence Robbins. "The trend is to a less-busty style, for health reasons."
Fancy digs: New-home sales plummeted last year. Some builders were throwing in Rolls-Royces as purchase incentives. Knight-Ridder Newspapers