Wednesday, October 13, 2021

My Strange Oughts Nostalgia

I have a long-standing theory that there is a 20 year nostalgia echo. In the 70s there were 50s movies like Grease and American Graffiti and 50s TV shows like Happy Days. In the 80s there was The Wonder Years and Vietnam movies. In the 90s there was Dazed and Confused and That 70s Show. So we are due for oughts nostalgia, even if the phrase itself sounds so alien.

It was a decade so indistinct that we weren't even sure what to call it. That's in part because of a major transition in the decade itself. On or about February 2007, to paraphrase Virginia Woolf, human character changed. The smartphone hit and the internet went at long last from an ancillary thing alongside day to day life to its ubiquitous center and the biggest conduit for entertainment. 

It had the effect of speeding things up and slowing them down at the same time. While it put communication of ideas and discourse into hyperdrive, people today dress pretty much the same as back then. (You would never think the same of comparing 1967 and 1981, for example.) This is why the 90s is the last true coherent decade in the way we started thinking about decades back in the "Roaring Twenties."

So maybe nostalgia for the oughts is impossible on the basis of it not even being a tangible entity. That being the case, I feel weird pangs for that time. It's mostly personal. I am a late bloomer and the oughts, of all times, ended up being my salad days. It's when I started my PhD program, met a lot of people whose friendships I still cherish, got a tenure track job, met my wife and got married. Related to the last point, I had figured out how to dress myself properly and make small talk. I was old enough to know some things about the world, and young enough to still enjoy it to its fullest. 

Beyond the personal level subjective stuff like this, one might question oughts nostalgia. This was the time of 9/11, government crackdowns, the Afghanistan War, the invasion of Iraq, Hurricane Katrina, and the 2008 economic crisis. How could anyone want to go back to the Bush Era?

Well the Trump years and pandemic have shown us things could get even worse than America under Dubya. In any case it looks like we are doomed and as the 2010s are worse than the oughts the 2020s will likely be even worse than that. Nowadays what I once thought unbearable seems quaint.

At base I feel like there is something we lost in that fateful circa 2007 transition. We went from blogging to Twitter and Facebook, from long, deep essays to bon mot tweets and all their snark. (This blog itself is a kind of relic, one I am not willing to part with no matter how much it makes me look like a guy in 1983 with a Beatle haircut.) The internet had been this strange, rich haven that soon became corporatized and dominated by social media. 

The late 2000s saw the first Marvel movies, a transition toward a one note Hollywood churning out blockbusters and blocking out more mature art. The high point before this came in 2006 with the release of both No Country For Old Men and There Will Be Blood. Both films are masterpieces, and both seemed to distill the decade's dark realization of America's imperial decline. 

As one of a dwindling number of rock music fans I can also look back to the oughts as that genre's last and moment of cultural relevance. Back in 2001 everyone was playing the Strokes and White Stripes. The whole "the band" thing wasn't so much a genre as the last distinct rock movement to hit the mainstream. Since then it's either been lame nostalgia or great stuff that's buried left of the radio dial. That was the decade that brought file sharing and burned CDs, and with it the culling of record stores. Its true symbol was the iPod, a harbinger of much more to come and maybe the best device ever invented to deliver music. It also happens to be completely obsolete, a true artifact of an era with no name.

So it could be that the oughts represented the last moment of the culture existing outside rather than inside the internet. A time when you had no clue of the reactionary political opinions of someone you once knew in your hometown because there was no Facebook to throw it in front of your eyes on a constant basis. Perhaps this century's oughts will seem like the last century's, a time before a new modernity stripped away part of our humanity. In the meantime, I'll crank some Wilco.

No comments: