On 90s nostalgia and why we need it right now

When I first started writing my new book Gentlemen of the Shade: My Own Private Idaho, I fell into a deep wormhole of 1990s nostalgia. It was difficult for me then to separate my own feelings from that period because I was going through some pivotal personal changes. I started the 90s at 14 years old (bespectacled in Grade 9, pining after a skate boy named Robin) and ended them at 23 (engaged, writing my first novel, working three shitty jobs). These were the years of great drama!

But now that the book is freshly released, I have some perspective and I’m not the only one indulging in that 90s hiphop playlist. Walking into any Urban Outfitters is like shopping amidst an explosion of my undergraduate wardrobe. The Red Hot Chili Peppers are touring again. Mud brown lipstick. Doc Martens. But why now? Why does the world need the grungy, alternative 90s all over again?

The last two years have been horrific, if you pay attention to politics and culture. Everywhere, those with privilege have been working hard to protect their privilege, which translates into a doubling-down on oppression. All the gains that marginalized groups have made in the last 30 years are in peril. I don’t know about you, but I have certainly felt that I’ve been pushed further and further into the shadows.

This process, of having to refight the political and social battles we thought we had won, means that we try to find comfort in anything we can, and, for many, that comfort lies in the narratives writers and filmmakers and musicians created in the 1990s, when being different was cultural currency. Bring queer or a person of colour or a sex worker had value. Those stories deserved to be told and, in the 90s, they were. Think My Own Private Idaho. Living Colour. Pump Up The Volume. Even Pretty Woman.

Right now, when there are many people asserting that these narratives are not worth hearing, we’re going backward in time to cocoon ourselves in what the 90s did so well: give us the space to feel belonging. This is not to say, of course, that the 1990s were a paradise of acceptance. They weren’t, which is obvious now, especially as we focus more tightly on trans rights, Indigenous issues, Islamophobia and Black Lives Matter. But how we talk now about all of these topics has its genesis in how the 90s gave voice to oddity, to the misfits, to the people who didn’t know where to turn to feel empathy from others.

So my funny little book, which is about one independent movie, is part of a wave of 1990s nostalgia that really isn’t nostalgia, but perhaps a necessary balm for the fear we feel right now. In a world that seems to be spinning on ideologies and events that make no sense, maybe it’s all we can do.

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