It's So Sad When Old People Romanticize Their Heydays, Also the 90s Were Objectively the Best Time to Be Alive
The 90s were better. They just were. I’m sorry, but it’s science. It was the past, but there were vaccines and Jim Crow was over and there was a modern sensibility without all of the pathologies of the internet. Bill Clinton sucked and our government was doing all kinds of awful skulduggery in the world, but he didn’t suck in the same way as George W. Bush and there wasn’t this constant sense of the world falling apart. There was optimism about the coming of the new millennium before we found out what a rotten time the next couple decades would be. I graduated from high school in 1999; we were constantly told that we would become adults in a brand new world, what a blessing it was to be 18 when the calendar flipped to 2000. What they didn’t tell us was that the new era would start with a spasm of nationalism and empire and that our culture would climb deeply into the prurient and grotesque, a world of frosted tips and reality television, and after that all of culture would be swallowed up by new devices that became intermediaries between us and the basic stuff of human life.
Gas was cheap, and we didn’t yet know that we should feel guilty for burning it. Teenagers actually got their drivers licenses back then; they don’t anymore. Teenagers actually had sex back then; I didn’t, not until the last months of the decade, but my peers did, and they used those licenses to drive out to secluded places and hook up in their cars. Teens today don’t have sex, or so the sociologists tell us, none of the sweet fumbling apologetic teenager sex that you look back on with such fondness. People read the newspaper. I used to read Entertainment Weekly religiously because that’s how you knew what movies and albums and even books were coming out. I had an ancient TV in my room with fake wood paneling and I’d watch Mystery Science Theater 3000 every Sunday morning. You saw previews for movies once or twice, before other movies, and then you saw the movie that had been previewed in the theater, and the week after that you went to the movies again. And the best teen movies ever made came out in the 90s.
There was an immediacy to experience back then. I know what you’re thinking: that’s just because you were young. But honestly, there was something different, an intentionality and a lack of a certain sort of self-consciousness. Of course people were still anxious and shy and overthought everything. But there wasn’t yet this second mind thing going on, this sense of another consciousness that’s welded to your own consciousness and has its own say all the time. Your own mind might have been mixed up and gripped by worry but it was still one linear mind. Nowadays people have both their own anxious and worried mind and another mind that worries about how they’re anxious and worried and whether they should be. This is the part of the mind that’s concerned, bizarrely, with how the mind might appear to others, despite the fact that the mind cannot be observed by anyone but the self. And that’s a creation of the internet. I think you can best understand what I mean if you consider the difference between 90s politically correct culture and today’s social justice culture; in many ways, the concerns and vocabulary are the same, but the latter entails a type of mental self-surveillance that’s new. It’s how you think eating what you think.
You used to do things and have places to do them. For example, there were record stores. In my hometown in Middletown, Connecticut there was one called Record Express. Yes, I know: the cellphone in my pocket can access all the music ever made. I get that. I can’t actually buy any of the music I like on my phone, anymore, but am instead directed to commit to a subscription service that I will then have to pay for in perpetuity and which can yank any song at any time, or else hunt for a low-bitrate YouTube version that was made with an MP3 someone ripped off a scratchy CD on their Sony VAOI in 2001. But yes, my phone has all the songs.
But a record store was a place. And places demonstrate importance; sometimes they demonstrate devotion. You’d go in there and there would be a couple vaguely pretentious staff members and people pawing through racks of CDs and a wall of t-shirts and posters. And they’d play cool shit that you hadn’t heard before, which was one way to discover new stuff. So was flipping endlessly through every CD in a row. When you were there you were Doing Music. Now we’re never doing anything - we’re always getting through something to get to something else to get through, using various time-saving techniques that maximize the amount of time we have to get through things while keeping our attention divided into a thousand things we then get through. When you went to a record store you were intent on music, and sometimes, you’d care enough about a particular artist that you paid for their album, real money, so that the artist got a cut that was more than the .002 cents they get per stream now. Maybe you’d throw in a little incense to burn surreptitiously in your room. And then you went home and, precisely because you didn’t have access to all of the music that ever existed, you listened to the whole album, and then you’d listen to it again, and when you did you were just listening to it, rather than having music on in the background while you repetitively scrolled through other shit on your phone.
That vague sense of pretension I mentioned in the record store employees - which, to be clear, is an unalloyed good in a record store employee - in a more diffuse way, it permeated the culture in the 90s. People didn’t know yet that they were supposed to be embarrassed about having principles or standards. Mountains of dirt have been shoveled on the concept of selling out, in essay after essay, and authenticity has been communally rejected. Those concepts stood in the way of total unapologetic embrace of pure cultural consumerism, of just lining up and sucking down whatever Disney is serving without complaint. But I believe that selling out is real and bad, and I think that there are modes of being that are more authentic to the self and less, and I think there was something to be said for an era when the worst insult you could call someone was “poseur.”
I’m an old Millennial, but Gen X were the young people in the 90s, and we associate a decade with its young people so the two are inseparable. Nothing wrong with that; they’re an underrated generation, accused now of being apathetic a few decades after they were accused of being uncompromisingly political. The thing about the turn of the millennium was that it was understood - both correctly and incorrectly, it turns out - to be both the ultimate new beginning and potentially the end. 2000! Three zeroes. So much possibility. A new world to grow into for young people. And yet in our hearts each of us is a millenarian, and we know a good opportunity for the world to end when we see it. The 90s thus also felt like potentially the end of all things. In his (now deeply underrated) novel Generation X, Douglas Coupland sets the action against the background of a vast desert, mile after mile of emptiness, a hard stop, the ends of the earth. So hard, to feel trapped between having everything ahead of you and nowhere to go. I’ve been watching That 90s Show (yes, yes), and it’s interesting; I was just about exactly the same age as the characters in the show are at that exact moment in time, 1995. And I feel this profound sadness for those goofy characters on that silly and unambitious show. They too will grow into an uglier and more frenzied world. They too will find that the most beautiful manifestation of culture in their lives was arranged when they were just too young to fully explore it.
Personally, I spent the early 2000s taking a lot of drugs.
In the 90s we would drive to the mall, the Meriden Mall or the West Farms Mall, and we’d walk around and look at the girls who were walking around too, in midriff shirts and short plaid skirts. We dressed in 90s minimalist clothes, not knowing that’s what they were, khakis and earth tones, and yes, giant baggy jeans. I shopped at the Gap. When I go into the Gap these days I like the clothes but feel like I’ve stepped into a Spirit Halloween. Sometimes I’d wear short-sleeve t-shirts over long-sleeve t-shirts, which I find a little embarrassing now even though I admit I still like the look. Wandering in a very specific pattern from store to store, Software Etc. to FYE to American Eagle to Journeys shoes. Then food at the food court and more looking at girls. When you really had time to kill you’d go into JC Penny’s. There was often a lot of time to kill, which felt annoying then and seems good now.
There were “counterculture” kids at my high school, and while some of them were sweet I tended to think that their whole deal was a little lame. But there was a counterculture because there was a culture to be counter to. We hadn’t splintered off into a billion little online niches, which meant that there were shared cultural touchstones like Dawson’s Creek or the whole boy band thing, and it also meant that you could meaningfully oppose that shared culture, stand for something else. There’s nothing to stand against anymore, just endless little covens of people telling each other how valid they are. Old countercultures were defiant of monolithic elements of dominant culture and defiance is cool. New subcultures are almost always inventing a fake mainstream to complain about, usually with therapeutic language, and nothing’s less cool than applying therapeutic language to places other than therapy. I do dearly miss when people were flippant and disrespectful towards the systems that held them down, instead of weepy, telling everyone that it isn’t fair.
In high school there was a species of young feminist who was not quite a riot grrrl but who had felt their influence, jaded but not cynical, knowing without irony, a little crunchy, bookish, kind, and fundamentally uncomplicated in their feminism, not eager to denounce it as “white feminism” or whatever. People hadn’t been infected with this endless recursive tendency to double their politics back on itself and blame itself for being itself.
I would occasionally find Playboys in the recycling and just the smell of those magazines could make my whole adolescent body shiver. Now instant access to all of the most depraved pornographic material ever made has dulled and desensitized a generation. I read once about men who have to put porn on while they have sex and it’s all so bleak. Extinguishing mystery is, in general, an assault against the young, and what is the internet if not a giant machine for eliminating mystery? All of life is a spoiler, and today’s kids get to experience nothing with virgin eyes. I feel bad for the young women whose sexual partners have been trained how to fuck by internet pornography; I feel bad for the young people who have never been able to sit quietly with a song or movie or book, outside of the cacophony of other people’s opinions about it. And I feel sorry for myself for spending so much of my life impatiently waiting to get to the next part, to the next inevitable disappointment. When everything you experience arrives predigested, nothing feels like it’s yours, and everything feels rushed.
What I would grant to the youth of today is the ability to see things as new. Older people have always wanted to be able to do that. What’s different now is that this feeling is denied to the young. We have adolescents without adolescence.
We did have the internet, for the record. For most everyone I knew that meant AOL. We never had AOL in my family - we dialed in through Wesleyan’s old internet service, called EAGLE - but we subscribed to a service called The Sierra Network where you could play a game called Boogers and this rudimentary RPG that I never really got into, though my brother did. Yserbius, it was called. Eventually I used AOL Instant Messenger, and it was a fun weird thing that people did for necessarily short periods of time because their mom needed the phone line. The internet was pretty fun, when it was just this thing that you used occasionally, before you carried it around in your pocket and it became the way that millions of shopped, socialized, researched, and looked for love. When it was a curio. I think I got my first email address when I was a senior and remembered to check it maybe once a month.
At Middletown High we’d congregate in the parking lot after school. Everybody mostly got along although there were those subtle divisions between the classes. Like, freshman, sophomore, junior, senior, like that. I was an editor on the paper. People played hacky sack in Senior Court, the little courtyard space reserved for seniors, but I never did. My friend Scott had this tiny green Dodge Neon that too many people would squeeze into. There weren’t really cliques at my school and I’d hang out with slightly different groups with slightly different rituals. Some nights we’d sit on Foss Hill and smoke a little cheap weed from ceramic bowls in swirling colors that people would buy from this head shop called Old Glory. One summer I did Arsenic and Old Lace with a theater troupe organized around a local Catholic church; that was a big summer for discovering myself. One night at my friend Katie’s house when her parents were out of town she opened the flue at my request and I built a fire and we sat around it and my friends and I talked about all the great things we knew we’d go on to do. The nights were pregnant with pre-millennium tension; we ran riot because we had been promised a new century to become adults in, because we were sold on a vision of rebirth through numerology, and we knew what came next would be better than everything that had come before. It turned out that that was untrue, and we never got over it.
Go look around at the way the world looked in 2002. Everything looked like shit. The fashion was worse. The music was worse. The country was worse. I get it: I’m an old man engaged in nostalgia. I’m forgetting the bad stuff. I see with rose-colored glasses. I do. But it was worse in 1988 and in 2002. It was.
This is a source of constant fascination, but the way you arranged socializing without cellphones is that you said “I’ll be at Place at Time,” and then you were at that place at that time, and everything was fine. It was fine. You’d talk on the phone with friends for hours, if you wanted to, and if your parents let you use the one phone line. And, look! I’m not saying it’s not better to be able to just Google anything, to get all the world’s information at your fingertips - although I also don’t have to tell you all of the problems we have with information and its monetization and accessing it and deciding which is true and which is false and who controls it and how the constant firehose makes understanding so hard. Yes, it’s better to have all this information. But it’s true, what they say, about how needing to expend more effort to do something gives you discipline and patience that has a value of its own. Certainly I’m glad that I first started gathering and summarizing and synthesizing information when you had to open physical books to do so. It wasn’t better. But I’m better because I lived through when it was worse.
Having Google Maps is just better, though.
In the 90s we went to parties at houses on the edge of town and we’d all jump and dance to “Superthug” by N.O.R.E., and during final exams half the school would tromp down to McDonald’s to buy an Arch Deluxe. I was on the cross country team and practice was this wonderful thing - you just go run, a bunch of teenaged boys tearing around town, trying to make each other laugh even as we huffed and puffed. The world was brown and slick with light. You’d have conversations about episodes of television you had only ever had the opportunity to see once, and nobody had laboriously picked over every frame of that episode and thrown an obnoxious video about it at you. (You could also miss an episode of a TV show without worrying about it.) The hair wasn’t great but it wasn’t that bad. People wore bracelets made out of thick scratchy strings. Coffee was mostly skunky Chock full o'Nuts-type stuff and beer was almost exclusively watery Coors Light style swill, and neither of those things was good, exactly, but we also didn’t know what we couldn’t have, and anyway I was drinking very little of either. Our country was still the seat of capitalism and empire, and that was bad, but we had to deal with neither George W. Bush nor Donald Trump, and that was good. Lunch in the cafeteria cost two dollars and I mostly always liked what I got. People made mix tapes for each other and drew intricate covers with magic marker. Movies had tits in them. God, I miss tits in movies.
I’d need to call someone to come give me a ride home from somewhere so I’d start the collect call process from a payphone and when the automated system said “say your name after the tone” I’d say “comepickmeup!” and then they’d hang up before accepting the call because the message had been sent. To save a quarter.
You can’t stop the flow of time. But you can count the costs. And I think a lot of people, for reasons I can’t quite make out, are threatened by the idea of counting the costs when it comes to change. That’s what I’m asking you to do today: count the costs. Count the costs with me.
That’s the simple, unvarnished truth of being a 90s teenager, just the facts ma’am. I also have a fantasy version. In those 90s I was born exactly ten years earlier than I was in real life, and I graduated from high school in 1989 instead of 1999. And after one last summer in our hometown, partying and living at home, you and I (yes, you and me) moved to Seattle. We had the premonition that we could be there, at the start of something. And we went and we got jobs at a coffee house, selling and drinking 90s coffee, and we scraped by on nothing and lived in a ratty old house with a bunch of other layabouts who would share their drugs with us and eat takeout from cardboard containers on our dilapidated porch and go out to shows. The shows! God, the shows. So many shows. So many bands on the come up. And the city was alive and we were young and we’d just drop by each other’s places, the way you remember from college and have always missed since, people just dropping by. People called for us on our phone with the long curly cord and our roommates would scratch out messages on a notepad we stuck to the refrigerator. Most of our friends never washed their hair; you would hand-roll cigarettes for us that we would smoke sitting out on our roof as the sun came up.
One time we got high and resolved to drive to Mount Rainier, which hung so majestic in the background, and so we headed out that way with only the mountain itself to guide us, and it turned into a multi-hour comedy of taking the wrong streets, until we ended up in the parking lot of a diner where we ate cheese fries and smoked more weed, seated on the hood of my ancient Ford Escort.
Over time we grew older. The music changed, the city changed. People started showing up looking for the scene that we had enjoyed years before, too late, the way they always do. We adapted. We drank more 90s coffee. When the music scene was totally picked over and played out, we went further afield, trips to Olympia and Aberdeen to see what was new. We watched Modest Mouse play house shows where Isaac Brock was skinny as a rail and bedecked in sideburns. We did party coke, fearing nothing because fentanyl didn’t exist. We saw more sunrises on our long frayed drives home than I will ever recollect, feeling the drugs leaving our systems, ears buzzing, carrying scraps of paper with phone numbers of people we would eventually sleep with, too buzzed for breakfast. When we wanted to hear the news of the world we’d turn the radio to NPR. If someone had tried to get in touch with us, we’d find out when we got home, because people back then would do what it took to find you. And you’d pull out your banged-up electric guitar and play it for me, unamplified, the strings alone just loud enough to carry the tune.
One day we were closing the coffee shop at dusk, rosy-fingered sunlight streaming in and lighting us as we pushed our brooms, and Mazzy Star came on the radio. An aspiring novelist was still glued to her chair, scratching a pencil into a notebook, but we had locked the door so no one else would wander in and anyway we were unrushed and at peace. The place smelled like dank and fragrant coffee; we wore baggy jeans and muted neutral tops, something in a khaki or sand. Your new tattoo sat sore on your forearm and my hair was touseled and swept back. The slide guitar wailed in the quiet of the coffee shop and the mugs clattered as we stored them away. An hour or two later we would be in your old boxy Honda Civic, driving down an uncrowded highway overlooking the glistening water, headed to hang out at a friend’s place that would, that night, host a house party where we would drink watery light beer and smoke laid back 90s weed. Somewhere in the grim distance stood the inevitability of adulthood and all its vices. For now we just closed up the shop, skinny and free, and Hope Sandoval’s voice pierced the moment and made us feel haunted and unafraid.
And there were no fucking cellphones.