may 17

A Mosquito, My Libido

I attended the n+1 panel discussion on the '90s on Friday. I had a question that I wanted to ask, but the q&a was dragging on, and raising my hand felt like a complicated extension of a prolonged My So-Called Life marathon (so good, yet who has the time?). Had I raised my hand, this is what I might have asked:

Nostalgia wasn't always like this, right?

History wasn't always this flat, and everything didn't always seem to happen at once. While we like to point at a decade where "accelerated culture" became normative, nothing actually sped up in the '90s. Everything just ground down to a black hole slacker halt. It was timeless, dude.

Sure, there was that whole internet thing, gnawing at time and space while scrapping our quaint notions of subculture and identity politics. But postmodernism was pimpin, and all of history was being prepped for the pillage. Beavis and Butthead, the Beastie Boys, Jeff Koons, Napster -- these were the princes of pastiche, gobbling up the table scraps the Boomers left behind.

Let me say it more clearly: the '90s invented nostalgia. Or at least nostalgia as we commonly now know it. There was always that anxiety of influence playing its fatherly games, but the '90s morphed anxious fear into an international pastime. The decade obsessed about historicizing itself precisely because history felt as flimsy as the Berlin Wall that had crashed into it. I Love The '70s could not have existed in the '80s, but I Love The '90s could only have existed, instantaneously, in 2000.

This way of thinking -- nostalgia for nostalgia -- now seems commonplace. But it didn't exist in the Reagan '80s or the Wategate '70s. Fukuyama was fugged up enough to see these signs and declare it the end of history (the '00s version of which is the world is flat). He saw the right symptoms, but came up with the wrong diagnosis.

Nostalgic for itself, the '90s were indeed a trap. But never mistake ambivalence for apathy. While the rock gods of yesteryear all perished in accidental pools of vomit, it took an act of will -- a shotgun blast to the head -- to break with the past. Or at least try. It was like that Dostoyevsky Wannabe character in Slacker who asks "Who's ever written a great work about the immense effort required in order not to create?"

And that's why this panel itself seemed yanked out of the past, like that Indiana Jones scene where they find the Ark of the Covenant in a warehouse. The format itself seems tied to the days when the culture wars still mattered and you couldn't Skype your way to Tokyo. I remember panel discussions about "the future" all the time on CNN circa 1995. Now they prop up two bozos to fight out the definition of torture. (Look! Nostalgia for nostalgia!)

Oh yeah, a question? Can we talk about Courtney Love please? Oh well, whatever, nevermind.

See also: Foster | Leon | Bakes.


"While we like to point at a decade where 'accelerated culture' became normative, nothing actually sped up in the '90s. Everything just ground down to a black hole slacker halt. It was timeless, dude."

Right. I think of it as the last gasp of fad-culture. That's why it's still tough to say something looks/sounds like it's from the 90s. We were losing the sort of pop culture we've had since the 40s. Sure, music companies capitalized on "alternative" and movie companies capitalized on the slacker flicks or whatever was popular that year & but media companies lost the ability to dictate culture. If capitalizing means taking advantage of and pumping money into -- then big media companies lost the ability to do either to the same extent as they had previously. When things are starting to whiz by and people got more control, the whole culture becomes more organic.

posted by yep at 2:18 PM on May 17, 2009

Actually, National Lampoon invented nostalgia with its publication of high school yearbook. Yes, your generation is great and special and neat. And no one has done anything as great, and special and neat as you.

Yup. We never watched Happy Days (50s Milwaukee shown during the 70s on ABC).

Next time, go to your library, and get a copy of National Lampoon.

posted by bevo at 2:28 PM on May 17, 2009

You didn't read what I wrote. I didn't say the '90s invented nostalgia. I said that it's always existed, and National Lampoon is precisely the kind of artifact that proves it.

I said the '90s discovered a new form of nostalgia, one in which that past is evoked not for its fond remembrance, but for its empty representation.

Happy Days is to your nostalgia as Blue Velvet is to mine. Or if you want, that Weezer video.

posted by Rex at 2:38 PM on May 17, 2009

The flimsiness of nostalgia is probably illustrated best by the fact that there were two mid-twenty-somethings on the panel. Heck, I don't feel much qualified to speak with authority about the early 90's because of my age, and I'm five years older than them!

Nostalgia makes for some interesting retread entertainment. Specifically, its what we would now call "remixes" in music - not authentic or original, but using a prior idea in a new meme. Listening to Led Zeppelin albums (timeless they are) in your college dorm room in 1998 is not nostalgia. An advertising campaign in 2009 that uses 60's-style graphics and memes to sell modern products in modern media - that's nostalgia.

This is all a perfectly good justification to be dismissive of nostalgia. Hipsters might be much derided, but when they're not being hypocritical they have a good point: stick to the originals.

posted by Brian Van at 2:55 PM on May 17, 2009

"I'm nostalgic for conversations I had yesterday. I've begun reminiscing events before they even occur. I'm reminiscing this right now. I can't go to the bar because I've already looked back on it in my memory... and I didn't have a good time."

-Kicking and Screaming. So 90s chic, man.

posted by katiebakes at 6:03 PM on May 17, 2009

i think the sentiment you're going for is better understood as "premature nostalgia".

posted by marco at 6:48 PM on May 17, 2009

I've read a few accounts of this panel and it sounds like even if it was any good it couldn't have measured up. But there was more to the 90s than Sassy and Kurt Cobain. I haven't seen much mention of some of the less "cool" touchstones of the 90s, like the rise of Britney and boy bands; the Spice Girls; "Titanic"; reality TV ("Survivor" and "Who Wants To Marry A Millionaire?" broke in 2000, but they were conceived of and filmed in the 90s, and grew out of that decade; also, see "The Truman Show" (1998) and "Ed TV (1999)"; "The Big Lebowski" (1998, the year in which "Shakespeare In Love" won the Oscar); and to that point, "Good Will Hunting" and Matt, Brad and the new Brat Pack; also, hello, Ellen? "Yep, I'm Gay" was in April 1997; and, unrelated but equally germane, Monica Lewinsky ("A Lewinsky, a Lebowski..." haa). I think I'd enjoy seeing this panel with some older, more seasoned, more diverse people on it who could speak to a broader sample of culture and put it into more meaningful context.

p.s. In the summer of 1992, when I auditioned the Teen Unit (10-11 yr olds) for their unit play, almost all the boys sang "The Bridge" by the Red Hot Chili Peppers as their audition song. Hearing 90 ten-year-old boys singing "Sometimes I feel like I don't have a partner..." will burn into your brain. So I feel like the Red Hot Chili Peppers probably would have merited a mention, too.

posted by Rachel Sklar at 10:58 AM on May 20, 2009

Sigh. I spent way too long searching for this post and then totally forgot to mention it: Kottke's timeline of shrinking cultural distance from the 50s 'til now. I thought of this when I originally read this post, but got distracted by my own 90s touchstones (and yes, KatieBakes, leaving out "the Rachel" and Friends would be a big omission, too).

posted by Rachel Sklar at 11:02 AM on May 20, 2009

It's interesting that the biggest gripe people have with the panel (I'm looking closely at you, Foster) is what was left out.

This seems strange. It's like it's own form of one-up-manship. Or people wanted a big long list? Or maybe it's merely trying to own our history, I dunno.

Anyway.... Lewinksy/Clinton was definitely discussed. The blue dress was compared to the pubic hair on the Anita Hill coke can (natch (actually natch is totally a '90s word!)). Boy Bands also came up (somewhat extensively), as did reality tv (less so -- it should have been more) and Red Hot Chili Peppers (briefly).

The whole thing started with a "when did the decade begin/end?" question. 9/11 was the obvious end-point, but the answers for onset were varied. I wanted to scream "NOVEMBER 1999" -- fall of the Berlin Wall / "end" of "communism". I was completely shocked this crowd in particular didn't use that marker. It's the single biggest historical event of our lifetime, excepting Sept. 11.

Movie-wise, The Matrix was the biggest oversight to me. But now I'm playing the same game.

posted by Rex at 11:12 AM on May 20, 2009

I think you probably wanted to scream "NOVEMBER 1989," unless the most important moment of the 90s was when I moved to Sweden. That was a big one for me.

posted by Rachel Sklar at 1:31 PM on May 20, 2009

Uh, yeah... That.

posted by Rex at 1:33 PM on May 20, 2009

"Oh yeah, a question? Can we talk about Courtney Love please? Oh well, whatever, nevermind." lol, dude, seriously the funniest thing every, you write so well!

posted by sba at 2:02 PM on May 22, 2009

Haha, the notion of "premature nostalgia" is pretty interesting. I'm only 25 but I feel like I can already relate to that...

posted by ShellMedia at 12:46 PM on June 2, 2009

You've given yourself a great loophole: "as we know it."

So, yes, you're right, and, of course, you're wrong. Nostalgia has been around forever, and it's faster now. But maybe not so fast, right? I point to "The Wackness" as proof.

posted by Susan at 4:42 PM on June 3, 2009

In my opinion, nostalgia kind of died with the big bang of cable TV.

Used to be when something was over, it was pretty much over - yes, there were a very few reruns on tv. But, now, with eleventy-billion channels trying to fill time. Re-runs are everywhere. Images aren't "dated" as quickly as they used to be, because they are constantly echoing across our TV screens.

posted by Sam at 11:25 AM on June 10, 2009

Actually I think Fukuyama was pretty smart about the diagnosis. Smarty-pants French thinkers call the 90s the "grĂªve des evenements," when nothing really happened. Nothing like a total lack of world-historical conflicts to give birth to an entirely aimless culture.

So two books that I haven't read seem relevant here: Joshua Clover's new history of pop music in the wake of the Wall falling--"watching the world wake up from history" and all that. Go to his blog at Jane Dark's Sugarhigh for excerpts. And second, Svetlana Boym's Future of Nostalgia which is actually kind of a history of nostalgia (invented mostly by Napoleonic soldiers who missed home) and a discussion of what nostalgia looked like in the Soviet Union ("ostalgie" and all that).

posted by Jared at 3:18 PM on June 10, 2009

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