I suffer a deep and persistent nostalgia for the 1990s, specifically 1994. That was the year before my two friends were killed in a car crash. It's sad. We were all eighteen. I'm forty-one now. They're still eighteen. That trauma changed me in ways I couldn’t appreciate then. Some lessons take a lifetime to learn.
I return to that decade, with its peculiar mood of listless anxiety, and try to find some comfort, some meaning in it.
The internet makes it easy, so I return to the 90s. I re-hear its music, I re-watch its films, I even search random footage on YouTube and my heart jumps when I find thirty seconds of flat, grainy video footage of white kids with dreadlocks moshing to the Beastie Boys at Lollapalooza 1994. I was there too.
I'm not alone in my sentiment, though. A generation of former teens and twenty-somethings remember those years as well. They scour the internet too, and post wistful comments under top-ten lists and YouTube clips: Those were the days. This takes me back to happier times, etcetera.
Adam Yauch of the Beastie Boys died of cancer in 2012. He was 47. Kurt Cobain was meant to play Lollapalooza in 1994. He didn’t make it. Maybe therein lies the reason for the nostalgia, the pain of longing to return. Time marches, they say. Like an army, it crushes everyone in its path: celebrities, along with your grandparents, your aunts and uncles, colleagues you knew of but weren’t close to, friends, your parents. They all die. Time robs us of vitality. It was a gift, but in youth we mistook it for a birthright. We didn’t realize that yet. We imagined we would always have enough time. Maybe that’s why back then seems like happier times.
I’m not convinced they were.
To us, the youth of that era – Generation X – the 1990s felt like a letdown, a second-rate Elvis impersonation of the 1960s, a commercial pastiche of its iconoclasm. Ask anyone who attended Woodstock 1994. Our revolution was technological, not social; we were more likely to experience it at home behind a computer screen than on the streets. The revolution was televised, or at least it was downloaded at 28.8 kilobits per second via a dial-up modem. The sixties, as our parents described them, seemed embellished to us, self-important. But the delusion of ‘flower power’ also sounded kind of wonderful. We were the generation of climate change and AIDS.
But we had more in common with the sixties than we realized. The counterculture was predominantly a middle class-experience. African Americans, the poor and working classes, they didn’t experience the sixties that way. They were too busy working, or staying out of trouble, or getting drafted to Vietnam. Like most of the hippies before us, the comfortable malaise we experienced in the 1990s was a middle-class privilege, enabled by our parents’ generosity.
Some of us fought ‘the system,’ or scuffled it, rather. We marched against human rights abuses, protested the excesses of the World Trade Organization. My friends and I dabbled in activism. Protest was social for us, not existential, so we more commonly submitted to our guilty pleasures: smoking indoors, bottomless coffee and buying CDs. We rationalized our slacking with an edge of melancholy, which somehow redeemed our central deficits of inspiration and creativity (at least to us).
Between wilful distractions, everything in the ‘90s felt lazy, in need of a jolt. Popular culture offered no answers, no direction. Whether you listened to rap, grunge or brit pop, music turned away from social issues and focused more on personal angst. On TV, the easy, de-fanged political humour of Saturday Night Live and Jay Leno ruled late night, while Seinfeld – the show about nothing – reflected life’s banalities back at prime-time audiences.
There was a prime-time television audience, though. We were part of that. If you wanted news and entertainment, you turned to TV, because the web, pre-1994 was still an enclave of nerds and people with security clearance.
Offline, you could still believe that your perspective was fresh, your feelings original, because social media hadn’t yet collapsed personal reactions into a singular, hash-tagged cultural response. Communication was decidedly top-down, not bottom up. News and information was aimed at you, not foraged for as it is today. Tuning out from corporate media was a form of social protest. It was as easily said as done. No one had a mobile phone.
But we bought into consumerism, played our role in corporate culture, far more than we realized or were likely to admit. Even our activism was a consumer act. We wore the ‘right’ buttons (WTO NO); the ‘right’ t-shirts (I Am Not A Target Market). Now you just post on Twitter. At least that’s free and requires no uniform.
Epistemologically, everything was relative. In academia, postmodernism informed the zeitgeist which meant that nothing was officially more important than anything else. Everything was subjective. There was no ‘Truth,’ which meant there was no morality (not really), which meant there were no just causes, which didn’t matter anyway because there weren’t any causes to fight for. As the singer, Beck, said years later, he wrote protest songs in the 1990s for a generation who didn’t have anything to protest about.
But of course, there were things to be upset about. There were causes. We were mostly just too lazy and self-involved to meaningfully respond to them: sweatshops, inequality, racism, de-industrialization, environmental degradation, Rwanda, Bosnia – these were all real issues, which we too easily dismissed or miscalculated as the last gasps of empires that hadn’t yet realized this was a New World Order, necessary sacrifices for globalization. This was the End of History and we had front-row seats. Our high-brow was low-brow but we were either too conceited or undereducated to acknowledge that.
Google ‘1990s nostalgia’ and most of what you get back is endless lists and clips: “48 Reasons ‘90s Kids Had the Best Childhood; 39 Awesome Things Only 90s Kids Will Remember.” Nearly all of it is an indiscriminate collection of stuff people owned back then: inflatable furniture and hacky sacks, VHS tapes and a cover box of Windows 95. To the oracles at BuzzFeed, 90s nostalgia feeds on a diet of consumer goods.
Those lists miss the point, though. There was nothing special about the 1990s. In the timeline of world history, it will be a blip of relative peace and prosperity (depending on who you ask).
What’s remarkable about that period for Gen Xers is that we were young then. We now look back on that period of prolonged adolescence and wonder if our own children will or can remember the 2020s with the same tenderness we regard the 1990s. My guess is they will.
Our ability to create and latch on to screen memories is a uniquely human characteristic. My parents feel nostalgic about the 1960s and ‘70s, despite that period’s open misogyny and Cold War tensions. I expect dew-eyed remembrances also grip 90-year-olds who lived through World War II, not because they particularly miss the life they had, but because they miss the time they had ahead of them. I expect nostalgia is part of the human experience of growing old and marking increased distances between memories. Like Proust, we are all in search of lost time and increasingly aware of how little we have left.
But youth is no virtue. Let’s be clear – as young people, we had no money, no influence, no patience or wisdom. We still had everything to do and everything to prove. The road ahead was steep and already we felt tired.
I’m convinced the view is better from forty than twenty, whether you look forward or look back.
Time feels more precious now.
That too is a gift.