On the nostalgia and reality of a past decade

Camera: Minolta XD5 Lens: Minolta MD 50mm f/1.7 Film: Kodak Ultramax 400

The rule of thumb is that nostalgia for a particular decade occurs twenty years after it happens. This is because people in their teens to early twenties during that decade would be in their thirties or older when the nostalgia comes around. It’s natural to get wistful of a “simpler” time when middle age is imminent. This means that nineties nostalgia should have come about in the 2010’s. Instead, the eighties nostalgia that started in the 2000s surprisingly continued for another decade. (And that whole “neon letters on a space grid background” aesthetic from the 80’s is still around.) It finally seams like something of a nineties revival is happening now.

I just finished reading cultural critic/essayist Chuck Klosterman’s book, The Nineties. It’s a good general overview of the decade, albeit a very Americentric view from a white cis guy. 1 If anything, it’s made me think about the nineties again, think about it in a way that I probably haven’t thought about it.

I’m a Gen X’er (born 1975). I entered the nineties at 14 and left it at 24. 2 A decade that happens from your teens into your mid-twenties is bound to be Your Decade, since you came of age in it. And it cam be argued that the nineties are the only true Generation X decade, as Boomers got three full decades of cultural dominance before it, and the aughts to teens generally belonged to Millennials. Gen X is definitely the “oh yeah, them” generation sandwiched between two bigger, two “more important” generations. We have to hold onto the nineties, it’s all we got.

And in retrospect, the nineties weren’t such a bad time for many people. (Many, not all.) The Cold War was over, the existential threat of nuclear war had receded. The economy was strong, though it didn’t feel that way to those of us just starting out in the workforce. Underground music enjoyed a brief spotlight. And even though we thought we were living in a “digital world”, it was still possible to get by without ever having to use a computer or owning a cellular phone. The internet did start, but it was more a theoretical thing for most than an intertwined part of our reality.

With all that I stated in the last paragraph, plus the fact that I was a teen-to-twentysomething in the only decade ceded (by default) to my generation, it’s easy to feel a sense of nostalgia. But nostalgia is a tricky thing, as it often glosses over the bad. And in retrospect, the nineties really wasn’t that great of a decade for me.

Let’s analyze my 1990s for a moment. The first four years, 1990 through 1993, were occupied with high school. 3 My high school years were not fun, and all I could look forward to was getting out of both high school and Connecticut, the state I had spent all but one year of my life. 4 But my plans of leaving state for art school did not materialize. If I was smart, I would have just gone to a cheaper school in-state. Instead I floundered about in a state I no longer cared to be in, and now working crap jobs. Going away to art school never happened, and besides a semester at community college, school in general was out of the picture.

Things got better later in the decade: I found a few friends, got into mini-comics and zines, “worked” as a “merch guy” for a local band that seemed to be going somewhere, also worked a few jobs that were more tolerable. But as the new millennium dawned, I was still living with parents, despite a vow to myself that I wouldn’t as the calendar turned to 2000. In the end, I was unhappy and unfulfilled. And whatever joy I had in my Nutmeg State existence quickly crumbled in January of 2000: My car died, I lost my job, the band broke up, friends grew distant or moved away. It was time for a dramatic change, the sooner the better.

By any metric, my aughts was exponentially better than my nineties. Yeah, my (less than a) year in the Bay Area was rocky, but at least I got out of Connecticut. And instead of moving back, I moved here to Portland, where I thrived: getting involved with the local zine/punk/DIY community, really getting into cycling, getting good friends, finding love, starting the Urban Adventure League, becoming something of a “professional artist”. And after years of being a loner by either choice or circumstance, I was now in the thick of a vibrant city with stuff always going on. There was a rough patch or two, especially 2004-6. But overall, the decade I was 24 to 34 was hands-down superior to the decade I was 14 to 24.

So why do I feel more nostalgic to the nineties than the aughts?

Perhaps it’s because of the idea that the nineties was the Gen X Decade. That means something, but that didn’t have much impact on how I lived through it. It probably has more to do with how old I was when it happened. I was still young and fairly impressionable. There was new music that appealed to me, and I absorbed pop culture to a degree. I did my share of watching TV during the earlier part of the decade, especially MTV 5 . Watching television made not having a social life slightly tolerable. But by decade’s end my TV consumption dwindled, and what passed as “popular music” when nu-metal and boy bands was the flavor of the day left me wanting.

Perhaps that nineties nostalgia occurs because I engaged with the decade externally: I was “into” it while it was happening in real time, participating in the way many young people do. While the time period of 2000 to 2009 was heaps better for me, my interaction with it was internal: I did not watch TV or listen to mainstream radio. It didn’t matter that much to me what was going on in popular culture, I was doing my own thing or a thing with other likeminded people. The decade itself did not matter.

The thing about nostalgia is it’s not rational. Sure, things seem better when “life was simpler”. Life’s always simpler when you’re younger and have less responsibilities. Simpler isn’t always better. Yet telling myself all that, I still look at the nineties with rose-tinted glasses.

If anything, I should be a bit bitter about the nineties. I still feel salty about not going away to art school, though I’m relieved that I avoided student debt. 6 And despite my generation’s depiction as “slackers”, I spent most of the decade working 40 hours or more. Heck, during my last two years of high school, I was working about 20 hours a week on top of school. None of these jobs were personally fulfilling, but it definitely helped shape my future outcome on work: I wouldn’t invest my life in menial jobs that led nowhere. It was great that I realized this by 21 vs 51. There’s a part of me that wishes I could redo this decade with the knowledge I have now. But wouldn’t most people want to do this?

Maybe that’s the best takeaway for appreciating the nineties: The things that happened this decade set me up to accomplish what I did with the aughts. My nineties taught me what I didn’t want out of life, my aughts was my attempt to live my life according to my values, values that solidified in the previous decade. I wouldn’t want to relive 1990-1999 again, but I can respect what it gave me. So allow me this bit of nostalgia.

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1 Klosterman is from rural North Dakota and spent most of the aughts and teens living in New York. So I was surprised to find out that he now lives in Portland. It’s always amusing to me that one of the reasons I chose to move to Portland twenty-odd years ago was its “general anonymity”. Now the Rose City has become such a destination for semi-to-famous folk. Maybe I’ll run into him on the street somewhere. I hope to not confuse him with my other male friends from the Midwest with red hair, beards, and glasses, which I seem to have a lot of.

2 Klosterman considers the true start of the nineties in September 1991 with the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind and conclusion on September 11, 2001 with…well, you know what happened. I’m going with the more common “it started on Jan 1, 1990 and ended on Dec 31, 1999” perception.

3 I entered high school in 1989. This really isn’t significant beside the fact that I can say “I was in high school in the eighties.” So what if it was just for four months?

4 That year was 1990-91, when I was in North Carolina.

5 One thing noted in Klosterman’s book was our interaction with TV in the nineties: It was the last decade where watching mindless entertainment because it was simply “on” was a given. And unless you were obsessively home-taping shows, if you missed a particular episode of a series, you had to wait until it rerunned in summer or later syndication to see it at all. This is definitely different than today, with streaming TV that can be watched whenever and Youtube as a repository for older shows. While this is mostly true, MTV was the exception then: Everything seemed to be repeated multiple times a day, and every other weekend was a The Real World marathon where you could “binge-watch” the whole season in a sitting. You couldn’t cue it up exactly when you wanted, but if you waited not that long you’d be sure to see whatever it was that you “missed”.

6 By decade’s end I knew quite a few great artists who despite going to art school, were working the same shit menial jobs I was working and had a mountain of debt to deal with. (Art school ain’t cheap.) This made me slightly happy that I didn’t go, but just slightly happy.


6 thoughts on “On the nostalgia and reality of a past decade

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  1. Funny thing is when I was growing up, I wasn’t considered a boomer, they were born the first decade after WWII, I was born in 1958 … I prefer to think of myself as the “Blank Generation” after the Richard Hell song … the real boomers were the Hippies and they did not accept my age group … somewhere along the line they changed the rules (kinda like they did with Social Security) and made me a boomer!!!

    1. When Generation X became a thing, it started around 1960. Now its start is considered 1964 or even 1966, depending on who you ask. Talk about moving the goalposts!

  2. Right from the title I knew I was going to especially like this post. I, as well, did not thrive in the ’90s. At least not the early part. I didn’t enjoy high school, and I also floundered (great way to put it) after graduation. My plans were different from yours, Shawn, but I gave them up in favor of following the path of least resistance. And I did so for far too long.

    One thing I found particularly interesting to consider both from your post, and my own pondering recently, is how my view of popular culture at the time, was formed and cemented by the moderate amount of television I viewed during the ’80s and especially ’90s (I was a rabid Seinfeld fan). Now I’m almost completely cut off from mainstream media, having given up on all news, and most social platforms. I’m living “in the real world” yet sometimes I feel I don’t know very much about it. And in this moment, I don’t care. But right now, I can look back on a time, such as the 1990s, and feel like I knew the world I was in (of course I wasn’t enlightened at all then, and only know what I was spoon fed). I’m wondering if I’ll look back at this moment 20 years from now, and have any concept of what was going on. Maybe I’ll realize I knew it better this way, I can’t say.

    I did note that my library has “The Nineties,” and it’s on my reading list for the very near future. They also have several other Klosterman titles, which look interesting. Thanks for making me aware of this. I’ve long had a fascination for 20th century eras from before I was born. Interesting to realize I’m now old enough to where the era I grew up in is now documented like that.

  3. I always enjoy your self reflection posts, and this one was no exception. I have been noticing the 90s nostalgia lately also, mainly due to my now teenage daughter wanting to surf radio stations while in the car and sorting through my old 90s music (cassettes and CDs) when moving recently, which I’m still dragging around with me for some reason. I’m still processing what my nostalgia for that time period might look like, though I admit I haven’t thought much about it until more recently. I’m not sure what to make of it yet.

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