How 2023 Became the Year of Cultural Reappraisal for Disgraced ’90s Icons
As we venture into the new year, brimming with uncharted prospects, the shift in the calendar prompts me to ponder the year we’ve left behind. Nostalgia, I find, tends to ebb, and flow, especially when we revisit the 1990s through contemporary lenses. Take 2016, for example, when the cultural zeitgeist was captivated by the O.J. Simpson trial—a saga from two decades prior. That year, the narrative was reignited by the Academy Award-winning documentary O.J.: Made in America and the critically acclaimed TV miniseries The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story, both commanding the entertainment headlines. Then, a resurgence of ’90s animation followed, with classics like Beavis & Butt-Head, Chip ‘n’ Dale: Rescue Rangers, Rocko’s Modern Life, Animaniacs, Rugrats, and more making a comeback. While these revivals bank on millennial nostalgia and sometimes hit the mark, there are instances when they lack original inspiration.
The year 2023 marked the emergence of a fascinating cultural phenomenon: the reevaluation and restoration of figures who stirred the public consciousness in the 1990s. This reassessment has been particularly evident in two documentaries that surfaced recently, aiming to shed new light on events that have become the stuff of legend. Another case of reexamination was prompted by the sad demise of an iconic figure. From the music industry, we revisit the saga of Milli Vanilli, the duo infamous for a lip-syncing scandal, and the indelible legacy of Sinead O’Connor, the Irish singer and activist whose contributions transcended her art. Then there’s Miss Cleo, the television psychic who became a household name through her hotline, her story revisited posthumously. These documentaries endeavor to present these individuals in a new light, offering nuance to narratives once cast in scandal and controversy.
Milli Vanilli’s rise and fall is perhaps one of the most dramatic arcs in music history, epitomizing a precipitous journey from pop sensation to cultural cautionary tale. Fab Morvan and the late Rob Pilatus, the faces of the group, were the toast of the early ’90s with chart-toppers such as “Blame It on the Rain” and “Girl You Know It’s True,” even clinching a Grammy for Best New Artist. But their meteoric ascent was matched only by their swift descent into infamy. The revelation that the duo hadn’t sung a note on their own records, with their live performances being mere pantomimes, caused their credibility to crumble overnight. They went from heralded idols to the butt of jokes, their Grammy revoked, leaving their legacy in a complex limbo between sympathy and satire.
The documentary Milli Vanilli, which premiered on Paramount+ earlier this year, chronicles the rapid unraveling of the group’s career with stark clarity. A particularly telling moment is a press conference that did more harm than good, with the band coming across as defensive rather than remorseful, which did little to curry favor with the public. The film, however, paints a more sympathetic portrait of Fab Morvan and Rob Pilatus as two young men from Europe, inexperienced and perhaps out of their depth, dazzled and ultimately misled by the allure of Hollywood success. When the façade of their musical career collapsed, it was Morvan and Pilatus who bore the brunt of the fallout, symbolically marked by the humiliating retraction of their Grammy Award. The documentary suggests that they were made scapegoats in a much larger deception, a sentiment that has prompted some to reassess the harshness of their fall from grace.
Milli Vanilli was a watershed moment for the music industry, a “don’t fly too close to the sun” cautionary tale as the band members struggled professionally after the revelations, particularly Pilatus who died in 1998 at the age of just 33. The documentary is very effective at telling the story of Milli Vanilli, while also positing that there was no one specific villain, nor was anyone completely blameless either.
Miss Cleo is another uniquely ’90s figure. A staple of late-night commercials on cable television, Miss Cleo was a psychic tarot card reader who, alongside her Psychic Readers Network, promised to tell you your fortune over the phone for a hefty fee. Miss Cleo’s real name was Youree Dell Harris, and even her trademark Jamaican accent wasn’t genuine.
The Psychic Readers Network was the subject of a federal investigation by the Federal Trade Commission, but Miss Cleo was never indicted. Nevertheless, her name and brand were tied to the investigation in the public’s eyes, and her reputation suffered greatly. She attempted a few failed comebacks before ultimately dying from cancer in 2016. Her life story was the subject of Call Me Miss Cleo, a recent documentary exclusively streaming on Max.
Once again, this documentary tries to make the case that Miss Cleo is nothing more than the scapegoat for something she was not in control of. She was a public-facing figure to be sure, but not one who called all the shots, despite what her prominence in the commercials would suggest. “Miss Cleo,” after all, was just a character, and the documentary would rather the viewer focus on that she was a real person with a real life outside of that persona. That both of these documentaries have such a specific and shared agenda and came out so close to one another, would suggest we are at another moment of cultural reappraisal of some of the major cultural events that happened in the ’90s.
The shifting tides of public opinion are a fascinating study of cultural forgiveness and the reevaluation of past judgments. Monica Lewinsky serves as a prime example; once vilified in the ’90s as the other woman in a scandal that nearly toppled a presidency, she has since redefined herself as a respected advocate against bullying and a voice for those publicly shamed. Contrastingly, the former president, once widely admired, has come under scrutiny for his connections to Jeffrey Epstein. It seems the creators of these recent documentaries hope to facilitate a similar transformation for Milli Vanilli and Miss Cleo, steering public perception from scorn to understanding—or perhaps even vindication. However, the effectiveness of these efforts remains a subject of debate, as not all stories are equally amenable to rebranding in the collective memory.
And then there’s Sinead O’Connor. Her much-deserved moment of cultural reevaluation tragically only came about because of her untimely passing in July at the age of 56 of natural causes. Her voice had incredible range and power, best on display in her trademark powerhouse ballad “Nothing Compares 2 U,” a song Prince gifted her.
O’Connor became a figure of derision after she decided to rip up a picture of the then-Pope, John Paul II, after performing a cover of Bob Marley’s song “War” on Saturday Night Live. “Fight the real enemy,” she exclaimed. It was later revealed that the move was to criticize and condemn child sex abuse in the Catholic Church, the widespread scale of such was not known to the general public at the time.
O’Connor’s gesture, general statements, and behavior were widely condemned by prominent Catholic celebrities, including Joe Pesci and Frank Sinatra. Nevertheless, she stood firm amid criticism for years, until she and the world got to see the Catholic Church admit the wrongdoing she always accused them of. Saturday Night Live, which seemed to go out of its way for years to disavow both O’Connor and her act, had Kenan Thompson call her a “brave lady” when her name came up in a Weekend Update segment shortly after her passing.
I remember watching an Irish movie in grad school called The Butcher Boy in which O’Connor plays the Virgin Mary. It felt like subversive casting when I first watched it, a tongue-in-cheek gimmick. Nowadays, her brief but memorable role in The Butcher Boy reminds me of another music icon in a Biblical role, David Bowie as Pontius Pilate in Scorsese’s The Last Temptation of Christ. Like so many other great musicians, she excelled at being many different things: a provocateur, an icon, an activist, a proud Irish woman, and a rebel.
With time and perspective, narratives become clearer. Life always goes on, and sometimes people pass on, as well. There is a compelling need to tell stories about people, particularly after they die; it’s why we give eulogies at funerals. So much of this recent trend of rehabilitating controversial ’90s figures feels like it’s about legacy, what one gives to the world, and what we leave behind. In the case of Milli Vanilli and Miss Cleo, I understand that there is a compelling need, particularly by those who knew them, to clarify, to speak well of the dead, and to offer perspective. But there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of legacy there beyond a few well-remembered songs and a memorable late-night commercial.
Sinead O’Connor, on the other hand, leaves behind a vibrant, compelling legacy. In the early ’90s, she was depicted in the media as a mean-spirited punk who spat in the face of the world’s largest religious body. Today, she’s considered brave; I just wish it didn’t take her leaving us for the rest of us to collectively realize it. Her funeral procession in her native Ireland was witnessed by thousands, how befitting for a modern Irish poet on her way to join the best of them.