Capital 2010 Almanac: The year of '90s nostalgia

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Greg Dulli performs. ()
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In October, on the first day of this year's CMJ Music Festival, a figure familiar to music fans of a certain age was on stage at Bowery Ballroom.

Greg Dulli, of Afghan Whigs, the soulful punk with a furnace of sexuality and self-obsession burning just below the surface, was playing in support of his own project. But the feeling for his former band's tormented '90s songs, reminiscent of larger acts like Dinosaur Jr., sometimes Mudhoney or the Replacements, filled the room. According to Maura Johnston at the Village Voice, audience members used the moments between songs to shout the titles of their favorites from the band's 1990 album, Up In It.

Reflecting on that show and a few others in an end-of-year post about music, Johnston writes: "This year I was a bit distracted from the current moment thanks to a couple of projects that forced me to take longing looks at chunks of the 1990s, although in 2010, that sort of retro fetishism was quite current."

Each of us seems to have a defining moment in the nostalgia for '90s music that was everywhere this year. For many, it was anchored to Sept. 19, the first date of Pavement’s reunion tour in New York, including four sold-out dates in Central Park.

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Memories of other '90s bands were bandied heavily that night. Biohazard, a hardcore-metal band that emerged from Bensonhurst in the late-'80s—all pummelling bass lines, pitbull shoulders and tank tops—was known for causing a mild chaos with their New York punk brethren the Cro-mags and Agnostic Front.

At Pavement's first date, on the Williamsburg Waterfront stage, Bob Nastanovich, the band's Falstaff-ian multi-instrumentalist, reminisced about seeing the band on tour and recalled their graffiti appearing on brick walls in Brooklyn neighborhoods before the baby strollers took over.

Stephen Malkmus, Pavement’s frontman and avatar for the '90s slacker male in general, referenced '90s feminist postpunk rockers Sleater-Kinney.

A crowd of youngs and olds listened, standing on the pavement platform on the edge of the East River, facing the stage, their backs to Manhattan. This is the city where Pavement first formed, first performed and first recorded in makeshift studios. Back then, bassist Mark Ibold was in charge of cassettes at Tower Records on Broadway and Nastanovich worked for UPS and Hoboken bus terminals. Today, the venues where they once played are now pop-up boutiques and Subway sandwich-shop franchises.

ANNOUNCED A YEAR PRIOR, THE REUNION TOUR seemed to signal a shift: It was "the end of Baby Boomer cultural hegemony." It was the return of the Greatest. Indie-est. Band. Ever., the one that defined a decade. Call the babysitter, rip up your Converse, blast the "Quarantine the Past" compilation.The '90s were back.

"Music is about nostalgia," Malkmus told Spin in advance of the tour. "From the minute you hear a song for the second time, you're reliving it."

2010, the first year of the 21st-century teens, was a big year for '90s nostalgia, and not just in music. Why wouldn't it be? Roughly speaking, the 1970s had its '50s obsession, the 1980s had its '60s, the 1990s had its '70s, and the 2000s had its '80s. Our nostalgia is right on schedule. And can we make any sense of movies like Grease without noting that its creative energy was coming from a generation of gatekeepers who came of age in the '50s? That cultural cycle probably hasn't changed much during the last 40 years.

But could the era defined by grunge, by UNC Chapel Hill hard rock, by the Pacific Northwest, come back to life on our streets?

Let's begin with the tactiles: Vintage glasses everywhere, ubiquitous plaid-on-plaid violence, chunky sweaters, beards. Spend some time on Lafayette Street in Soho in the midafternoon these days—you'll sometimes feel like you're in the Record Libe of a college radio station in '95. Is that Angela Chase or it-girl Alexa Chung? Can't tell anymore.

Whoever she is, she's joining the endless march to reunion tours from beloved '90s acts including Superchunk, Evan Dando and Julianna Hatfield, Urge Overkill, Cap'n Jazz, Swans and Liz Phair. Maybe she's going to the huge party Matador Records threw for itself. Or she's holding out for Lync.

Meanwhile, Courtney Love, an empress of '90s grunge, seemed to stumble back into tabloid articles and New York Times profiles as a celebrity curiosity (although some will argue she never left pop's id). Riot grrrl, a music movement born in the '90s underground scene, received a revival through Sara Marcus’ book, Girls to the Front, and subsequent nostalgic rallies were booked at places like the Museum of Modern Art. Kanye West's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which many critics have dubbed the defining album of the year, is a bit of a '90s throwback, ripe with "Bad Boy excess." "Music is so fun right now. Hip-Hop is alive,” according to West. "The Hip-Hop I always loved; an extension of what me and Jay did on BP3. That Mobb Deep.. That Nas… That Wu… That Biggie… 94' 95' shit!"

Today's record label executives, TV writers and movie producers are the overeducated kids of the '90s who are now grown ups with cultural marionette strings at their fingertips. Maybe they are just expressing themselves, or maybe they're just making stuff for their friends. Either way, they are selling creativity to a generation who are old enough to have household incomes that appeal to advertisers.

So here we have Hulu uploading catalogs of '90s-era shows and asking us to pay $9.99 per month to revisit our friends Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Officer Tom Hanson. Some of us just scrolled down to cable's nether regions (love you, SOAPnet) and hung out with Brenda and Dylan and the Lorelais instead.

In TV's upper echlon, amid the reality shows that were templated with the first episode of MTV's "The Real World" in 1992, NBC revived Parenthood, the Steve Martin's 1989 comedy flick, as a TV show that reminded us of "yuppie navel-gazing" classics like "Thirtysomethings" and even "Full House."

Certainly TV writers have been weaving nostalgia into the very structure of their shows. In flashbacks on "30 Rock," we see 37-year-old Liz Lemon transformed into a frizzy-haired girl in college drawing up her World of Warcraft plans with a Bic pencil (a pencil!) late into the night or sneaking into her father's liquor cabinet to find a suitable rock collection container. Or we see Liz placed awkwardly in the absurd present as a reminder not just of why a generation's adolescence can be so comforting, but also how those comforts protect against grown-up pressures. Working late was for drawing an imaginary world instead of staring at spreadsheets on a screen. Alcohol bottles weren't meant to be emptied as medication or a social crutch, but used as a protector of your favorite things.

THESE POP CULTURAL INFLUENCES HAVE A WAY of trickling down into other industrial pursuits. Like in publishing.

Zines had their own mini-revival in New York this year. Although a small community of indie publishers have been bunkered in copy rooms during the past two decades, blogs seemed to delete the need for Xeroxed-and-stapled stories about first make-outs, adored drummers and sexual consent. As writing for the web became common practice and print magazines shuttered, a certain class of writers saw the appeal of their words being tangible—something they could hold in their hands—once again. "Zines are special, so we got way more submissions and people took it more seriously than I think they might have if we just put it online," one zine publisher Marisa Meltzer told Capital this summer. "When you're a writer, there's such an instinct to monetize all your interests and turn them into work in some way. So a zine is one nice way to feel more casual, more off the grid."

Maybe the digital grid and its mediums is exactly what we're trying to escape. But those marionette strings are strong and can be pulled and tangled. Inevitably the other thing arises—the generation not yet come into its own frets that the nostalgized past is not recoverable, that nothing new will be as good as what's now old and gone.

In April, Tavi Gevinson, the 13-year-old irreverent fashion blogger of The Style Rookie wrote a post mourning Sassy, the shuttered magazine that served as the alternative girl’s antidote to Vogue (back then, there was room in the media business for both). She was born in 1997, two years after Sassy was shut down. "I, like many, would like another Sassy Magazine," Gevinson wrote. “It called out celebrities and politicians for being assholes, educated its readers on politics without sounding biased, and focused on fashion in a way that was unconventional. It was lipstick feminism for teenage girls, covering sexist issues but not discouraging having fun with makeup or caring about boys.”

Her longing became so intense and the digital cheering in agreement became so loud that, last month, Gevinson declared that she and Jane Pratt, one of Sassy’s founders, would start a new magazine. However, the nerdy, weird, hip girl that Sassy created was already being eulogized, or consumed as a historical reference point, or played with in a sort-of post-whatever pastiche in the mainstream (Taylor Swift posturing in glasses). The rebellious, creative spirit of Sassy would have to make a comeback as a contemporary to Gevinson, with guidance from godmother Pratt. The coos of excitement echoed across Twitter.

OF COURSE, PART OF THE REASON THE NOSTALGIA FEELS SO POWERFUL RIGHT now is that so much that is happening in the world feels like it's straight out of the 1990s. (As the giant from "Twin Peaks," which also trended in 2010 when it was homaged on the TV crime-comedy "Psych," said: "It is happening again.")

In 1990, after environmental concerns bubbled up after the Exxon Valdez oil spills in Alaska, the Oil Pollution Act was enacted. But that didn't stop spills during the Gulf War in Kuwait and Iraq. It also didn't stop this year's Deepwater Horizon disaster off the Gulf of Mexico. BP was our new bulls-eye.

In politics, too, there are some surface parallels between this year's events and the '90s. In 1994, as in 2010, we had a Republican revolution in Congress, sweeping into power a class of angry and highly ideological freshmen at a cost to the Democrats of their House majority. And in New York that same year, a new governor came to power vowing to turn Albany on its head. (George Pataki, who replaced Mario Cuomo in the governor's chair, backed a coup in the State Senate to install an ally at the head of the Republican majority there; already, Andrew Cuomo is taking a hard look at ways he might be able to bring Sheldon Silver and his unaccountable Democratic conference in the Assembly to heel.)

But of course, our reactions to these modern issues are as nostalgic as anything, even if we have new technological tools at our disposal.

When abortion rights, a crisis issue in the '90s, entered the danger zone after the midterm election, a group of women started tweeting out dates accompanied by the hashtag #ihadanabortion. No movement was so profoundly evoked as the queercore and feminist graffiti-bombing and printmaking of the 1990s.

As in the '90s, young gay men became a rallying point for celebrities this year, especially after Tyler Clementi leapt from the George Washington Bridge after taunts from his college peers (more on that from Tom in the next edition of our almanac).

The echo returned in the debate over Julian Assange, himself seeming like a controversial leftist college professor causing arguments in the dining halls.

Assange, the chilly Swede and WikiLeaks founder, was briefly detained in jail this week for a rape case that was re-opened in September. Progressives rushed to support him. It's all too familiar.

As always, nostalgia links the serious up with the banal. And usually, the banalities take over.

There were attempts to hoard the physical objects of nostalgia—or at least their digitized glamour shots—on Tumblr: the preferred social platform for New York's creative class. Blogs dedicated to everything from '90s cereal to Courtney Love to general fuckyeah enthusiasm for the decade included seemingly endless "likes" and "reblogs" of pictures of Doc Martens, Caboodles, "Seinfeld" VHS tapes, The Dude’s bathrobe.

THE '90S THREADS WILL WEAR THIN BEFORE THE FIRST decade of the century is out. It may not be so much that we get sick of the '90s as that we outlive them; Grease, after all, feels much more '70s than '50s if you watch it now. A generation can't help but make something new out of the old, even if it's only in their mind's eye. But if something did feel different about this time around, it might be Meltzer's "grid." Has it ever felt so all-encompassing, so completely determining?

Probably.

But that's why nostalgia's such a nice thing. It's a brief escape to a decade seen through those unforgettable black-and-white sunglasses.

Some will see that view as dangerous. It is easy to pine for the past, and ignore its ugly chapters, instead of figuring out how to make a future in which we want to feel present. The fear of repeating ourselves is just like nostalgia itself: cyclical and universal. The great Argentine Julio Cortázar wrote in his '60s novel Rayuela (Hopscotch): "Why have we had to invent Eden, to live submerged in the nostalgia of a lost paradise, to make up utopias, propose a future for ourselves?" That's the issue. Same as it ever was.