It’s 1994. I’m twelve years old, and music is – to my parents’ bewilderment – suddenly the only thing I care about. I’m searching out anything harsh, dissonant, and confrontational, and the louder it is the louder I want it to be. Of course there was plenty of Nirvana given that Cobain had just died, Green Day was just breaking out and exposing my sheltered suburban world to the sounds of the East Bay punk scene. But I was also trying to dig deeper into the sounds that had chewed away at the edges of the mainstream for years. Violent Femmes. The Pixies. Dead Milkmen.
I didn’t have to dig particularly deep to find the Ramones. When I first heard “I Wanna Be Sedated,” it sounded just primitive enough to be quintessentially modern for me. When I looked at my friend’s CD collection after it played, I saw it was the first track on Ramones Mania, a compilation album released in 1988. The music video for the song was also released that year. Only later did I discover that the song had in fact been released a full decade earlier on the band’s fourth album Road to Ruin. Still, to me, this song, which had come out in the 70s and I had heard on a CD first pressed in the 1980s, sounded like the 1990s that I wanted to be in store for me. To this day, it still does.
That’s the thing about nostalgia. It’s not particularly accurate. Maybe it’s because its whole reason for being is to glom events from one time onto another one, or maybe it’s because human memory is so infamously fallible to begin with, ultimately exaggerating or eliminating various events along the lines of the rememberer’s agenda. One of my primary gripes with “okay, boomer” rhetoric, along with much of the generational discourse, is that it substitutes a particular demographic of the generation for the generation as a whole.
This is easy to do with the Baby Boomers, given that they’re mostly at what should be retirement age. Meaning that we’re talking about the Boomers who were lucky enough to make it to retirement, who really did reap the rewards of affordable education, cheap mortgages and a stable economy. Not the Civil rights and Black power activists gunned down or locked up. Not the founders of the Gay Liberation Front that were abandoned to the oblivion of AIDS. Not the Vietnam veterans brought low by the long-term effects of Agent Orange.
There are, of course, plenty from that generation who were kicked around by time and lived to tell about it. But nobody cares what they have to say. Their stories, their narratives, their sense of which way the arc of history might bend, are strangely absent from the mainstream discourse.
Oral history and wisdom passed down from parent to child fails us in these situations. The version of the 1960s and 70s isn’t going to be particularly reliable if we only hear it from those who survived them relatively unscathed.
The same could be said for the 1990s. Most of us who remember them have survived so far, but at the expense of the lion’s share of our hope. Recent years have seen Generation Z either celebrated or condescended to for their own apparent infatuation with all things 90s.
It is jarring to think that that decade is about as far in the past as the 60s were in the 90s, but here we are. Choker collars are back in. So are bucket hats, loose jeans, and grungy cardigan sweaters. There’s even a growing interest among Gen Z in the kinds of sounds that defined the height of the 90s rave scene.
Right about here is where your typical cultural writer would put the meat of their article, which would consist of a bunch of eye-rolling and barely concealed condescension, implying that kids today are blind and unthinking and can’t even come up with their own cultural signifiers, blah, blah, fucking blah.
There is also a version of this among culturalists on the left, who mostly home in on all the negatives of a decade in order to prove once again that nostalgia is inherently reactionary. I’ve been known to make that argument myself in times past.
I’m not going to now. For a couple of reasons. One, you can read it literally anywhere else, and it usually makes the reader’s skin crawl. Observe this Business Insider article, which at first couches its criticism in how dismal the world can seem, before essentially saying that Gen Z are turning themselves into perpetual children.
It’s one thing to point out how nostalgia can be weaponized. It’s quite another to turn it into a pathology. Like most critics, Hillary Hoffower at the Business Insider is willing to wag their finger at anyone except those who actually benefit from the rise and fall of trends in fashion, music, etc.
The left version of this is almost as bad. While it rightly identifies the culture industry as a malevolent culprit, it overcompensates through creating a false wall between “good culture” and “bad culture,” ignoring that culture is always polysemic. It is essentially the mirror opposite of the more mainstream version, seeing those enthralled by nostalgia as in love with their own passivity, ignoring the activity inherent in reinterpretation. These folks would do well to re-read their Stuart Hall.
Which brings me to the second reason that the 90s revival – or whatever we with to call it – deserves better than to be dismissed as just about nostalgia. Because no matter where you land in your theory about nostalgia, if you’re speaking English then there’s a very good chance you are being frustratingly vague. A great many other languages have several words for different kinds of nostalgia, many of them hinging on what precisely you are nostalgic for.
For the most part, if you’re an American, then your nostalgia hankers for a past that never actually existed. What some are now calling “anemoia.” The Achilles heel of this particular nostalgia is that its very existence undermines itself. “If we’d have stayed on that path, we’d have never wound up where we are” chimes then. But then, we are where we are. Which inevitably calls to question whether these events past are precisely what got us here now.
Hence the selective memory that normally accompanies this kind of nostalgia. Conservatives and reactionaries pine for the 1950s as a time when everyone had a decent job, a nice home, a car and plenty of leisure time, but either leave out or straight up justify that it kept women trapped in the home and that non-white people were for the most part shut out of the prosperity. Which is to say nothing about the spread of the American empire, McCarthyism, or the millions of poor whites similarly shut out of the post-war order.
For most mainstream liberals-centrists-neoliberals-Blairites-Clintonites-whatevers, the 1990s are a decade when their vision could strut triumphant across a newly cleared, post-Cold War world stage. End of history, images of a tumbling Berlin Wall, normally with Jesus Jones’ “Right Here, Right Now” playing in the background, AOL finding its way into every home, all that.
But just as the 1950s, the 1990s were never sealed into a specific telos. This was a decade where the very financial-economic order that was supposedly spreading over the globe hand-in-hand with democracy and security was, by the decade’s end, being protested by radical workers, indigenous groups, and environmentalists on the streets of cities like Prague, Montreal, Genoa, and Seattle. It’s a dramatic contrast, showing how wildly history can swing between its different contingencies.
And in between? Between the apogee of Clintonian smugness and the feeling that America may yet be on the verge of a new 1960s? Well, those are the cultural-political moments that, whether we were conscious of it or not, were seized upon to reshape. Make no mistake, people are imminently capable of reshaping the meaning and trajectory of historical moments, of creating new possibilities out of them that didn’t exist before.
Mark Fisher certainly saw this in the decade, though he only really knew how to articulate it in retrospect after he coined terms like “popular modernism.” He saw and heard in young people’s cultural expressions a very clear yearning for freedom. What particular freedom they yearned for could fall into any number of categories: whether it was “freedom from” or “freedom to,” freedom of expression, freedom from false choice between drudgery and poverty, freedom of a world without racism and war, and on and on. The point is that it was indeed yearned for, and what’s more that it was necessarily yearned for because something in the structure of society was pointedly denying it.
We have a tendency to apply the word “monoculture” to today’s cultural landscape, a way of describing this state of affairs in which pretty much any expression can be easily metabolized back into the reproduction of profit and obedience. But in its own way, the culture of the 1990s was both more and less monocultural than our own moment. What I mean by that is that it was possible, for the culturally perceptive, to note the way in which the pendulum could swing between insurgence and recuperation. That moment when a new movement or aesthetic gesture could rise through the independent scenes and gain attention in the mainstream press and have its moment on MTV before it had to negotiate the pressures of the culture industry, then finally witnessing its sterilized cookie-cutter version rehashed for us over and over on the TV screens.
It is easy to see this recuperation as fait accompli. But the give and take meant an instability in which meaningful counterculture could still be constructed. This was a decade where Ticketmaster – by then already a veritable monopoly in live event ticketing – could jack up prices and still raise ire from massive artists like Pearl Jam; a drama we now see recently replayed around Taylor Swift (and now, apparently, Death Grips). This was also a decade when radical cultural front groups like Refuse & Resist! would receive favorable coverage on MTV for their abortion rights advocacy or “Free Mumia.” concerts. Even if the culture industry couldn’t walk the walk, it had to talk the talk, and this always risked inadvertently creating room for something to pop through that could shed light on just how inhuman real life could be, when the buzz of spectacle momentarily faded.
Now, there is no doubt that most of the gestures and looks from the 1990s being recapitulated have already gone through their own thorough recuperation. That might inure them to a certain extent against rediscovery of whatever radicalism they might have contained. But then counterculture has never been only about what’s already in culture, but what can be reinterpreted back into it, redefining it in a way that creates space for new subjects to discover themselves.
Which is why when I hear that some of those among Gen Z are acquainting themselves with the sounds of Detroit techno or London drum and bass, I can’t help but view it a curiously hopeful light. Against the temporal and spatial politics of the current moment – isolation as a virtue, public space as a tightly controlled and mediated experience, time that always finds a way to befit the commodity – the defining characteristics of the rave scene – space reclaimed without permission and reshaped by a youthful utopian recklessness – can find traction.
Granted, this is not the version of rave most popular conceptions have handed down to any potential acolytes. But it is the reality, captured deftly in books like Simon Reynolds’ Energy Flash. The willingness to take over an abandoned warehouse or railway depot, disregarding questions of legality or permissibility, transforming neglected urban space with sound, rhythm, and dance. On the individual level, well… even approaching raves or house parties or other EDM events on the level of the individual requires a huge qualification, mostly because their whole point was to create collectivities that both animated and were animated by the various sounds and beats that filled the air. There was a particular relationship between how the individual subject related to the collective subject, and in turn how the collective subject related to the neoliberal urban landscape. It was this ethos that also put the scene on a collision course with police and governments alike.
These, rather than just a taste for repetitive beats and MDMA, were the hallmarks of the scene’s height. It is interesting that the sounds associated with them are embraced by an age group whose own relationship to physical space is in profound flux. These are people whose final years of high school took place online, if they took place at all. Their whole lives have been lived enveloped by social media, as well as its toxic pitfalls, the way its shaped employment and redefined sociality through isolation. To think that they aren’t primed to rediscover the essential collectivity of a style and sound they’ve embraced as their own is to bet on some very slim odds.
It is worth remembering that nowhere in the diverse pantheon of situationist writings, does it say that détournement – the practice of hijacking and redefining gestures or aesthetics that have been long sanitized into signifiers of rebellion and protest – can only be done by bona fide situationists. In fact, one of the reasons the concept is so potent is that it can be, and is, often performed instinctually by people who, no matter how much theory they have or have not ingested, feel on a gut level how existentially displaced they are, and how incapable the dominant culture is of providing anything like relief.
Why raise this? And so close to the end to boot? Because there is no such thing as history – political, cultural, economic – that is cut entirely new from the air, that doesn’t avail itself of the signifiers and gestures that came before, albeit subjected to the righteous and reckless irreverence of youth. And while changing history requires suspicion of a culture that deadens, it counterintuitively rejects the idea that people are necessarily deadened by it.