In music, as in life, beginnings are often the most exciting part. Every song, every album, every concert and performance and dance routine must begin somewhere. It could be the opening guitar riff of Purple Haze, the lazy bass and snare heralding Proud Mary, or Destiny’s Child’s assertion that they don’t think you can handle this. Some beginnings are more exciting than others though. Some music is so entirely hardwired into our emotional memory banks, so thoroughly entwined with our emotional cores, that just hearing the beginning is almost a spiritual experience.
And so it was that I found myself bulldozing past a bachelorette party and shrieking like a child as the opening bars of Oops…I Did It Again blared out over the dance floor.
At the TRL-themed dance party I attended this weekend, this was not an isolated event. People swayed and ground together while wearing Carson Daly masks. I watched a group of friends perfectly execute the entire Bye, Bye, Bye video routine while holding full beers. At one point, as Chingy’s seminal Right Thurr began to ooze out of the speakers, a woman next to me loudly notified everyone that “this was HER JAM when she was twenty-five.”
It was fun and frivolous and deeply fascinating.
It’s difficult to ignore how culturally pervasive nostalgia has become. My generation in particular seem to possess a passion bordering on obsession with the recent past. But as I witnessed first-hand, it is not just twenty-somethings who love the music of the 90s and 2000s. What is it about the music of the last decade or so that seems to hold us in sway?
Maybe there is some answer to be gleaned in historical context. The new millennium was ushered in by a few epoch-defining events. The September 11 attacks were seismically altering, obviously. Today’s young people came of age in a world in which terms like “weapons of mass destruction” and “War on Terror” hung on the horizon like storm clouds, always threatening to erupt. Later, the financial crisis transformed a once-fertile economic landscape into the post-apocalyptic wasteland from whence it is still recovering. Technology advanced alarmingly. The internet emerged as the most disruptively democratizing force in the world. Suddenly, many people could access almost all of the knowledge accrued throughout human history on devices that grew smaller and more streamlined every year.
The music of the late-90s and early 2000s reflects this disruption. Popular music seemed to have absolutely no idea what it was doing. Punk, hip-hop and alt-rock were co-opted and commodified, scrubbed free of any traces of their subversive origins. Artists went to award shows wearing flip-flops, kimonos, and chopsticks in their hair. Mariah Carey had beef with Eminem, recorded a song about it, and then starred in the music video where she played both herself and her male stalker. Famous musicians wore grills and carried pimp cups. Brooke Hogan existed. It was a weird time.
Some of our cultural veneration of the 90s and early 2000s is no doubt the result of a cultural propensity for irony. We celebrate the aesthetic of this period because we all secretly realize its not very good. This certainly goes a long way towards explaining this phenomenon, but it also seems to miss something deeper or more essential about our love of this point in time.
Maybe the obvious vacuity is the very reason so many people respond so strongly this music. Our current musical landscape is populated by a dearth of artists who are all very much trying to say something. Critics and fans have also become much more receptive to pop music’s viability as a medium to explore serious ideas. For the most part, this is a great thing. But it also makes the gratuitous stupidity of a song like Fergalicious all the more appealing. It’s intellectual escapism. Throwing yourself into a song that’s deliberately devoid of any real meaning means that you’re absolved of the responsibility of critically engaging with the music on its own terms.
In her memoir Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl, Carrie Brownstein reflects on the nature of memory. “Nostalgia,” she says, “is recall without the criticism of the present day, all the good parts, memory without the pain.” While she’s not specifically addressing the craze for TRL-era music and culture, I suspect Ms. Brownstein is onto something.
We may put on Mariah’s Touch My Body, or Flo Rida’s Low because they remind of our youth, or because they were totally OUR JAM when we were twenty-five. But we may also put then on because they allow us to revisit our memories of a turbulent period without experiencing the turbulence. We dance to Oops…I Did It Again, not only because it is a nearly perfect pop song (though it is) but also because it allows us, for three minutes and thirty-one seconds, to emancipate ourselves from the heartache and confusion of being alive.