Beavis and Butthead wearing ACDC and Metallica shirtstwitter/maskedmaniacxxx

The 1990s is sandwiched between two of the most impactful world events in living memory – the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989, and 9/11 in 2001. In other words, the end of the War on Communism and the beginning of the War on Terror. It is a strange limbo decade characterised by growing prosperity, growing opportunity, and growing detachment. Although born in the 1950s, the business of teen marketing boomed in the 1980s to a point where young people were the trendsetters, responsible for creating the zeitgeist. This concoction of prosperity, boredom and power led to a wave of media that represented 90s teens as a beast that had finally become self-aware. At the start of the decade, teen America realised its own power and a new smell entered the air... and it smelled like teen spirit.

As teens discovered the true power they held in trendsetting, there was a need for a counterbalance, and this came in the form of parody. The two most popular and influential of these represented two sides of the same social coin, Beavis and Butt-Head and Daria. Both shows were low budget with simple animation, reminiscent of a more muted, less expensive version of ‘Saturday morning cartoons’ in the 80s. Appearing in primetime on MTV, these shows provided a perspective on what dominated 90s television: parodies of teens, created for teens and consumed by teens.

“The imagery of teen rebellion, starting in “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, eventually became a quintessential part of 90s media”

Beavis and Butt-Head was one of the first animated programmes on MTV. The show follows its titular protagonists, best described by the disclaimer that ran before the programme: ‘Beavis and Butt-Head are dumb, crude, thoughtless, ugly, sexist, self-destructive fools. But for some reason, the little wienerheads make us laugh.’ The two characters live in a perpetual state of boredom and idolise sex, violence, and celebrity. Everything is either ‘cool’ or ‘sucks’, they are the parodies of the very same people head-banging to Nirvana, spending all their money on Metallica T-shirts or Burger King, and dreaming of becoming famous to get ‘chicks.’

In other words, the exact teens that, in a dimly lit sports hall, washed in pale yellow light, Nirvana serenaded with “Smells like Teen Spirit”. Kurt Cobain and Nirvana introduced themselves to the sea of ‘over bored and self assured’ teens with the sound that soon became synonymous with the 90s. With Nevermind (1991), Alt-rock was ’dragged-kicking and screaming ... into the mainstream’ and became the first symbol of teen America’s overwhelming power in the media. Alt rock became a conduit for all the angst that would only grow as the decade went on. The imagery of teen rebellion, starting in “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, eventually became a quintessential part of 90s media, and filtered down to shows like Beavis and Butt-Head. The connection between Nirvana’s fans and Beavis and Butt-Head’s was so great that, on their album (yes, Beavis and Butt-Head have an album), there is a guest track by Nirvana. Track number 1 on The Beavis and Butthead Experience is “I Hate Myself and I Want to Die”, a song that was intended as a B side on In Utero, Nirvana’s third studio album, but was instead given to Beavis and Butt-Head with an added introduction by the characters.

On the other side of the coin is Daria, a character from Beavis and Butt-Head that was given her own spin-off in 1997. Comparing these two shows expresses the divergent responses to the targeted consumerism of the 1990s. Both shows depict characters at the centre of the consumer whirlpool, and while Beavis and Butt-Head are happy to be sucked into its depths and consumed by it, Daria fights it with disdain. As the power of teens grew throughout the 20th century, so did the focus of marketing upon them. Because teens had the power to pull music genres into the mainstream, fund franchises and create or destroy trends, they also got all of the focus and attention of the media.

“Both shows depict characters at the centre of the consumer whirlpool and whilst Beavis and Butt-Head are happy to be sucked into its depths and consumed by it, Daria fights it with disdain”

Daria directly parodies this with the in-universe group, the fashion club, a social clique headed by Daria’s sister Quinn. This group prides itself on its ability to say ‘in’ with trends, valorises consumer spending, and treats going to the mall as a quasi-religious experience. Daria looks down on her sisters and the group, calling them vapid and self-obsessed, while also, secretly, being jealous of their social integration. While Beavis and Butt-Head, the fashion club and Daria don’t seem to have much in common with one another, they all contribute to the greater consumer matrix. They each represent a different cultural movement that set trends within the decade. Quinn and her vapid social group are representatives of the rise of mall culture, Beavis and Butt-Head the obsession with celebrity, and Daria the disdain for all things commercial which, with Alt Rock and counter-cultural TV, became a consumer wave of its own.


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However, these depictions don’t show that the 1990s had a new breed of teen, developed in a lab or created by a nuclear spill. Instead, it is a comment on the power that young people had in America during the 1990s. A power that was magnified by the increase in prosperity and communication felt in the western world at the end of the Cold War. A power that was so great that Beavis and Butt-Head, two of the most obnoxious characters in TV history, have a 9-season TV show, 2 major motion pictures and an album featuring some of the most famous artists of the era. Well, load up on guns and bring your friends, it’s fun to lose and to pretend... that you understand what Kurt Cobain means by ‘a mosquito, my libido’.