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Thursday, February 22, 2024

The Strangest Time for Nostalgia Is Now

The Monitor is a weekly column devoted to everything happening in the  WIRED world of culture, from movies to memes, TV to Twitter.

Tomorrow marks the 20th anniversary of 9/11. If this wasn’t obvious from a simple glance at your calendar, then surely it is from a quick scroll through your TV options. National Geographic/Hulu is airing 9/11: One Day in America; MSNBC/Peacock has Memory Box: Echoes of 9/11; HBO has Spike Lee’s somewhat controversial NYC Epicenters. News and social media feeds are also quickly filling up with remembrances and reflections. As befits such a somber anniversary, there is plenty happening in culture to commemorate the day. There is also plenty going on right now that could make it feel like we're back in that era.


As the think-pieces like to remind you, everything changed after 9/11. Airports modified protocols, surveillance increased everywhere, the entire political landscape of America shifted seemingly overnight. Culture changed too. Movies with terrorism plots reportedly got shelved; the increased costs of travel held up movies like Mad Max: Fury Road, which wouldn’t come until 14 years later; Lilo and Stitch, of all things, had to be heavily altered. A trailer for Sam Raimi’s Spider-Man was edited to remove a scene with the Twin Towers. Stand-up comics had to figure out how to tell jokes without upsetting crowds. Rage-y rap-rock like Limp Bizkit began to fall by the wayside (though that may have just been musical Darwinism). Some argue, rightly, that a movie like Fight Club, which ends with a city blown to bits, would never have seen the inside of a theater in a post-9/11 world. The examples are endless, but the TL;DR is that, in America, there was a way of life before September 2001 and one after it—and those differences permeate the culture from, and about, those times.

Twenty years later, we live in a time of deep nostalgia. Part of this has been brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic and a yearning to experience life before masks and lockdowns and a constant fear of terminal illness, even if it’s just experienced through a screen. But more acutely, the nostalgia on offer right now seems to live squarely in the 1990s—the (seeming) halcyon days right before the terrorist attacks. FX is currently airing its latest American Crime Story installment, about the impeachment of President Clinton and the shifting sexual politics and media landscape that turned it into a talking-head fiasco. There’s a new Matrix movie, the trailer for which dropped this week, making everyone yearn for 1999, even while HBO’s recent Woodstock '99 documentary is there to remind them that it wasn’t exactly the best year on record. And if that wasn’t enough, Steve Burns, the original host of Blue’s Clues, randomly popped up on Twitter this week to apologize for disappearing from our lives.

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In a way, this is just the natural churn of things. Ten years ago, millennials and younger Gen Xers were going through the same series of emotions about reliving the '80s. But as the nostalgia cycle creeps closer to 9/11, the ability to look back wistfully diminishes, and the things that make us most nostalgic will be the things that bridged the pre- and post-9/11 worlds, like The Sopranos. (That series’ prequel film, The Many Saints of Newark, hits theaters October 1.)

Frankly, that’s probably the way it should be. Nostalgia is nice and all, but it is often overly sentimental. It’s not uncommon to want to return to the joys of one’s youth, but that notion implies that everyone’s youth was in some way joyful. Not everyone’s was; nostalgia is something afforded to the privileged. Of all of its gut punches, one of Euphoria’s most elucidating—if overwrought—motifs was that it was a show about people born after 9/11. As that generation hits adulthood, the line is often that they won’t know the innocence of the time before the attacks, but really the aftermath of 9/11 was Americans realizing that innocence may have never been there at all.

It's weird to end this with a sentiment from a UK band, but I promise it’s apt. Back in 1995, during what seemed to be their own bit of nostalgia, the narrator of Radiohead’s “The Bends” lamented, “I wish it was the '60s, I wish I could be happy.” Some listeners take the line literally, interpret it as the musings of someone disaffected by the malaise of the ’90s culture wars. But it’s far more likely that the line is sarcasm, the ruminations of someone nostalgic for an era they perceive to be about hippies and good vibes, but one that was actually full of war, inequality, and political upheaval. Overlooking chaos, perhaps, seemed easier then; it’s impossible now.

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