“What is your destiny except to be dead? It is unfortunate that your generation had to be the one. It is unfortunate that for the better part of your days you will walk the earth a spirit. But that was your destiny.”
“Ad Astra,” William Faulkner
I rang in the new millennium as a 13-year-old over a friend’s house because no one in my family wanted to stay home with me and I was too young to stay home by myself. My friend’s parents had a party that night, and I remember having to kiss a lot of people I didn’t know right after midnight and those same adults drunkenly acting out the play at the plate to Meat Loaf’s “Paradise by the Dashboard Light” some minutes later.
There were two thoughts that went through my head at that moment. First, these adults weren’t acting like adults. Second, they really liked “Paradise by the Dashboard Light,” which I had only heard once before at a family wedding and had considered pretty melodramatic and entirely too long.
Ten years later when I think back upon that night, I understand the acute nostalgia my friend’s parents and their friends were undergoing at the time. Here was a group of individuals born in the 1940s and 1950s getting to live in the Year 2000—for them, more a concept than a year, always used as a symbol of some cold and distant future throughout their lives. And the only way they knew how to celebrate their endurance was with a song from the ’70s, and one that itself celebrated the bliss of youth.
Now, here we are in the waning days of 2009, the final breaths of a decade which, in all honesty, has been closer to the worst of times than the best. This is the decade Time recently christened “The Decade from Hell” on its cover (and “the worst decade ever” in its cover story). This is the decade that showed small breaches in our democratic foundation with Indecision 2000, and larger, more immediately problematic ones in the levees “protecting” New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina in 2005. This is the decade that saw our enemies cross the moat of the Atlantic Ocean and hit us in our urban heart. This is the decade in which our two-party system started looking like a bad idea, and when the separation of church and state looked better and better the more it was ignored. This is the decade that ended, fittingly it seems, with an economic depression.
This is the decade where America—the idea and the institution—lost its confidence and its direction. The United States were no longer the city upon a hill for the world—not politically, not economically. Hell, not even in basketball.
But this is our decade. We here at NPI—having witnessed 9/11 during our first weeks of high school and the inauguration of America’s first African-American president in our final semester of college (both, I might add, on particularly gorgeous Tuesdays in the northeast)—are part of that slim sliver of humanity to which the Aughts encompass the entirety of our maturation. And that’s why we’re spending the next month looking back on it with our, we think, cleverly titled retrospective, Aught Lang Syne. We’ll have a new post each day for the month of December—the order of which you can follow on our specially designed Aught Lang Syne page—providing an exegesis for the decade that did its best to defy simple themes and analyses.
The Aughts both require and deserve a kind of cultural commemoration; first to figure out exactly what happened, and second because the Aughts are to my generation what the ’70s were to my parents’ and the ’90s to my older brothers’. Culturally, the Aughts appear to suffer from a bit of an identity crisis. It’s obvious that decades garner more concrete identities in retrospect; at the same time, the ’90s seemed a lot more coherent on December 31, 1999 than the ’00s do right now. I mean, we’re calling them the Aughts, but we seem to have decided on this as a culture roughly three weeks ago, if at all. The Aughts are defined by cultural fracture, as more channels on our television and easier access to more music meant breadth at the expense of depth. The concepts of must-see television and iconic musical acts are fading before our eyes. The Aughts saw our consumption of culture itself become more isolated: Stereos and speaker systems were replaced by iPods and earbuds, and a lot of the time, it’s easier to watch that television show on DVR or DVD, or even on our laptops. The communal aspect of culture—which, in any definition of culture, is pretty significant—has been threatened by our own individual distance. The Aughts are where nostalgic retrospectives on prior decades became kitsch, and where my prom song came out the year I was born.*
*Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away.”
I’m not breaking new ground when I say that our cultural memories are inexorably linked to the context of our lives. We don’t experience culture in a vacuum, and it’s hard to separate certain events from where we were, who we were with, and what we were doing when they happened. But it works the other way as well: Events in our lives are often linked to concurrent aspects of the culture. Therefore, memories of my first middle-school crush are accompanied by Lifehouse’s “Hanging by a Moment.” I remember the girl I was trying to woo over AIM in the fall of 2004 because I had to console her when Mariano Rivera blew a Game 4 save to the Red Sox, explaining that the Yankees would no doubt win the series anyway. I forged friendships over episodes of Arrested Development and nearly wrecked them when I deigned to criticize The Wire—criticisms I now admit were unfounded. I jumped up and shouted with disbelief and cried tears of joy to a host of unbelievable moments in sports—many of which occurred in the greatest decade the Super Bowl will ever know. And when I think of memorable late nights with friends, it is with Kanye West or The Killers or Arcade Fire playing softly (or sometimes blaring loudly) from an iPod in the corner of the room (thankfully equipped with speakers for a more communal experience).
As hard as it is to envision myself spewing these nostalgic clichés about the Aughts in some unfamiliar future with hypothetical children—bound to show little to no respect for their elders and a propensity to shirk off hard, manual labor—it is harder still to acknowledge that I am past the peak of my cultural consumption. I now spend fewer nights in a crowded area with hypnotic beats playing, I don’t go to the movies on a weekly basis, I don’t have the time to catch up on old TV seasons in a week or two, and I can’t imagine I’ll keep spending as much time as I do now watching sports for very much longer. I’m reaching the point where the music I listen to, the movies I see, and the television shows I watch will not be part of the cultural conversation. I might as well start watching NCIS, which has an Infinite Jest-like grip on my parents’ generation.
This is why, as we close the book on this “Decade from Hell,” I can’t help but shed a tear or wax poetic. These are the Aughts: They were confusing, they were laughable, they were horrifying, they were disastrous, they were derivative, they were scandalous, they were self-effacing, and they were depressing.
But more than anything else, they were ours. And they always will be.