'90s Nostalgia: A Look at How Our Lives Do and Don't Matter

Riot Grrrl zines from ALIEN SHE. At Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Photo by Laura Schadler.
Riot Grrrl zines from ALIEN SHE, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. Photo by Laura Schadler.

Nostalgia is a sentimental, incomplete idea. Our human patterns of emotion, recognition, self-awareness and desire seem far stranger and more difficult to understand than mere wistfulness. However, the ‘90s are certainly having their nostalgic moment right now.

From 1990 to 1999, I was 11-20, my entire adolescence comprised of the art, music, fashion, politics, ethos and aesthetic of that time. Its resurgence, Urban Outfitters babydoll dresses and Doc Martens notwithstanding, is unsurprisingly quite compelling to me. There's been talk lately of the cycles of nostalgia, our romanticizing of the time right before we were born and/or for the time we came of age. I wonder if these cycles are looping us back around to something more existentially provocative, not merely a wish, but an attempt to understand the passage of time, our place within it, what matters, what lasts, and why.

Last night, I saw J Mascis play a sold out show at The Independent. Granted, his encore was a Dinosaur Jr. song that sort of broke my heart, calling out to the 15-year-old parts of me still alive and well. But the bulk of his material was new, with the energy and intensity of a musician not relying on his previously established reputation. I leaned over to my friend and said, "When his voice goes high like that, I feel my whole life."  My whole life...not just the past, but certainly my life given depth by the past, by where it now intrudes, evolves and somehow, mysteriously, becomes the present.

We all think our time on Earth is the most important. Every generation believes theirs is the one that will get to see the apocalypse. It's that dire, that essential. Annie Dillard writes of this strange  human belief in her gorgeous book, For the Time Being, which ruminates on the misplaced confidence we have in our individual egos, as they exist amongst the incomprehensible vastness of all other people  and all of  history.

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“Are not our generations the crucial ones? For we have changed the world. Are not our heightened times the important ones?...Are we not especially significant because our century is?...No, we are not and it is not. These times of ours are ordinary times...Who can bear to hear this, or who will consider it?"

The really interesting part is when we have lived long enough to bear hearing it, to consider it, to see just the tiniest flicker of the larger context, alongside the blinding subjectivity of our daily existence. We can begin to see that our lives, the surrounding cultures and subcultures that build, inspire, and support those lives are beautiful, essential, unknowable and fleeting. Somewhere in the mix comes this attempt to look back, to orient ourselves. Where are we? This strange year, this singular present moment, this contemporary time that occasionally seems so unfamiliar, so futuristic. And where were we before? This is not nostalgia, this is the most profound navigation, an attempt at narrative.

Last weekend, I saw ALIEN SHE at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, an exhibit that examines the lasting impact of Riot Grrrl through archival ephemera, as well as a collection of contemporary works by artists who draw their influence from Riot Grrrl. What an intimate and unmoored feeling it is, at age 35, to see the counter-culture of my youth, these early ingredients of my very self on display with placards offering up dates and explanations. Aside from not being able to touch anything, the museum might well have been my high school bedroom. And, in many ways, Riot Grrrl was about our high school bedrooms, the stories written there, the music born there, the sensations of being a girl felt there, the tangible creative results that manifested.

As a teenager, I wrote BITCH on my stomach and went to a party wearing a beret and ripped up stockings. I can't imagine I fully understood the complex combinations of powerful and sexy this outfit inspired in me or why that mattered. But I marvel now at how lucky I was to have the images and language of this particular type of feminism available to me. That snarl and cuteness were ways we could be, an invitation to inhabit contradiction. "Dude, babe, sir," my sister and I joked, mimicking Kathleen Hanna's hilarious and deadpan railing against sexism in the music world on Mike Watt's Ball-Hog or Tugboat album. It would be a long time before I'd hear the phrase third wave feminism or even begin to comprehend why, as an adult woman, I'd wear fuchsia stockings to work and keep my last name when I got married.

With a spate of films, books, archives, documentaries and exhibits, Riot Grrrl is getting examined and celebrated. Something so visceral cannot yet be a documentary-tidy closed case, right? The past still reverberates, is still relevant. Riot Grrrl politics still have a place; evolved or updated, but still...connected. Watching The Punk Singer, I nearly cried when Kathleen Hanna says she doesn't care if people believe feminism is still important or not, because she knows it is. 'Girls to the front,' was her rallying cry at the rowdy shows Bikini Kill used to play. She no longer says this because girls are at the front.  Yet, too, as Sarah Marcus, author of Girls to the Front, says in the New York Times, “people are flocking to these reminiscences because there remains a tremendous hunger.”

Perhaps hunger is a better word than nostalgia. We seek to understand something while it's happening, and again when we believe it's over, more confident in our abilities to take stock. Yet a different sort of complexity is born when we attempt to weigh the retrospective. Looking back is so evocative, muddled with confusion, recognition, some stirring, some realization of how small we are even in our most important moments.

Still, the moments matter because they matter to us. The larger cultural realities help us with our autobiographies, and so are sometimes too difficult to stay objective about, and why should we? Like anthropologists, we might pick up and turn over the reasons for who we are. I wandered the Riot Grrrl exhibit, the fragments of it like a memory in 3D, vivid and fractured, sweet and illuminating to recall, but also not entirely finished or clear.

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In an interview with The Guardian, the famously short-winded J Mascis, when asked if he considers the overall importance of Dinosaur Jr. in the scheme of things, says no. Because what is the scheme of things, exactly? These ordinary, extraordinary times are ours, these years, of all the millions of years there have been and will be. We do our best to understand. We collect these vital objects to display beneath plexiglass. We play our famous songs during encores. We listen, we look, we remember, we feel this longing. Yes, nostalgia too. We navigate our way through time, the origins of why we are who we are, always, to some degree, shrouded in mystery.

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