‘hey old lady/you’re so old/tell me about the ‘90s’ – unnamed Girls Rock Chicago band lyrics, as related to the author by their bandmate
It’s no surprise that ‘90s nostalgia is everywhere right now. My teen decade was the ‘90s, and we were big on the ‘70s then – I remember wearing my dad’s threadbare decal t-shirts everywhere with bellbottom corduroys or thrifted slip skirts or polyester tennis skirts, nostalgic for the decade I was born in that I couldn’t remember anything about because, you know, I was a baby. Teen nostalgia is particularly fascinating to me because it asks us to recall a time only known to us in photographs and hazy early memories, a time marked by its past trends. The gauche becomes trendy again through these revised and rosy lenses. We rarely have complicated conversations about Operation Desert Storm, or about the signing of NAFTA and CAFTA, or the emergence of mass HIV education and the battles fought to get there, and so on. Chain wallets? We can talk about those. Nostalgia asks us to remember our gentle personal foibles. It does not like the messy and complex.
Most media does not like the messy and complex in general, of course. The messy and complex does not generate clicks. It is particularly dangerous to ad revenue to ask us to look at ourselves as truly fallible. To be fallible is to be, on some level, both complex in a way that nothing an advertiser can sell you can heal, and to also be responsible as a participant in culture and society. It asks questions for which there are no universal balms.
We love nostalgia because nostalgia loves us, at least at a very basic surface level. It gives us a chance to talk about our shared cultural touchstones, though it does not allow much for different perspectives – the nostalgic reading in mass media is pretty unilateral, assuming that we all come from pretty much the same background. As such, it falls into the “universal subject” trap - in which the universal subject is designed as white, middle class and so forth – the universal subject is the one that is allowed to dictate history from a position of relative social and political capital. This is why the work done over the years to highlight marginalized voices is so incredibly important – the more voices, the bigger the cracks in the idea of the universal subject. We see multiple perspectives, multiple histories – challenges, if we occupy dominant positions in culture and society, to our worldviews. Challenges to our worldviews also do not generate clicks.
‘90s bands reunite, or reissue, or both. ‘90s bands make money. (For some who never got their due at the time, how can you begrudge that? I raise my eyebrow, however, at the $38.99 Temple of the Dog 180-gram LP reissue and wonder if that is something truly useful to anyone.)
I have written elsewhere about the dangers of looking back without a critical perspective, particularly about Riot Grrrl, something I was a part of which has seen a good deal of revival in recent years, partially due to the nostalgic drive. Imogen Binnie’s MRR column from September 2013 (http://www.keepyourbridgesburning.com/2013/09/we-see-through-you-18/) addresses some of the problems with seeing certain RG musicians and participants as icons.
By asking us to remember cultural touchstones in a positive light, mass nostalgia asks us implicitly not to remember perspectives that might not agree, erases voices that are already marginalized. This is precisely why oral histories from a wide variety of participants are critical to any kind of biography of any kind of historical phenomenon, and why it’s important to dig below the surface to those who might not have gotten as much recognition.
I have found myself telling stories that privilege my perspective over others, that gloss over personal responsibility. I am just as culpable as anyone else here, and I am greatly humbled by that. My own personal nostalgia machine is dangerous too. While memory is all we have, sometimes memory is faulty, memory is driven by ego, memory is bound by narrative. It helps sometimes to ask why we tell the stories we do about ourselves, why we share the anecdotes we share, what we hope to gain, how we refashion ourselves by doing so. When we look back at our own histories or others, it helps sometimes to ask why we are selecting out the things we are. The nostalgia machine won’t ever be broken – nor should it, as it is a thing which can at its best bond us to one another even if it is at its worst an inequity-perpetuating marketing gimmick – but it can be cracked, complicated, messed with, steered away from easy feel-good answers into critical, thoughtful work, and that is what I advocate for.
Inundated by ‘90s nostalgia due to the way media works in this day and age, my particular perspective as someone of a particular age during those years, my commitment to a critical perspective both historical and contemporary, and my wariness of narrative, I am exhausted. I watched a band the other day that my bandmate, standing at my side, described as “Letters to Cleo trying to do Dinosaur Jr.” She was not wrong. It was painful for both of us, and I thought about all the bands I loved in my teen years that aped Zeppelin, or Blue Cheer, or the MC5, or the Stooges, or late ‘70s Wire, and I thought this is not for me, and that is ok.
To those who are 15 now and will be 35 in 2034, as I was 15 in 1994: it’s gonna be weird, you guys, seeing your reflection in the nostalgia mirror. I promise, it will be really, really weird. You might not be able to see them right now – during the ‘90s I felt as if there was nothing notable or distinguishable about the culture I was embedded in, and how wrong I was – but you’re going to have your own touchstones, your own icons. Look around yourself, rather than too far backwards. That’s the other thing, and it sounds really corny, but it’s true: it’s easy to miss what’s right next to you or even what’s within you if your head’s craned back.