Ninety-Six2 October 2016
According to DJ Shadow, hip-hop sucked in 1996. I don’t believe that is true. But maybe at the time, with all the incredible music that had come before, 1996 didn’t seem to stack up in comparison. I was born that year in a humble hospital in Melbourne’s southeast. It doesn’t deal with maternity anymore. My brain was so small that it couldn’t cast a judgement on the state of hip-hop. I’ve heard from my parents that when I was a baby I cried very little, that I appeared to be happy-go-lucky. Perhaps deep within my subconscious, I was at peace with the world and knew that I had to embrace my ultra youth. In the years since I have looked back to the 1990s with reverence, not knowing what it was like to live through, yet reassured that I was briefly there with a little beanie covering my head. I suffer from the delusion that theorist Fredric Jameson termed “nostalgia-deco”.
A weary man on the V/Line the other day kept on referring to the balance of life as a blanket explanation for the extremes of the human experience. Apparently he is a mean guitar player and invited me to his hotel room in the city to show off his skills. Blew some Irish backpackers’ minds. I got the sense that this man ritually spun his tales aided by the goon sack protruding from his backpack. Nonetheless, his insistence on acknowledging the yin and yang of one’s life rang true and too often I ignore it and work myself into unnecessary slumps.
What Would the Community Think (1996), the third album by Cat Power, powerfully captures what the bearded 60-year old tried to teach me. It’s WD-40 for the brain, coating my memories in lucidity, fixated on a fabricated past. I don’t recognise the world Cat Power is singing about – I was raised on broadband internet – but there is a perverse appeal to exploring its outsider affliction. My adoration for Cat Power’s music and her contemporaries from that time may have more to say about my internalised ‘Tall Poppy Syndrome’ than any superior experience of living then. After all, she did sing of being “at the bottom of a river,” a socially suffocating pain present in all eras.
I’m also struck by mixed emotions when reading about artistic movements of the past. There is the exhilaration in learning about strange, distant periods populated by super cool people and their wild stories. But then there is the sadness in knowing that I will never be able to exist alongside those creators.
The current Melbourne scene is seriously flourishing and people from around the world are taking notice. But it’s so difficult to shake the thought that what came before was somehow better. In the years to come we will look back at the now with appreciation; many already do. Until then, I keep returning to the happenings occurring alongside my infancy in a juvenile attempt to establish some loose spiritual connection.
Watching Breaking the Waves (1996) reminds me of my comfort living in a saturated technicolour society. Set a generation earlier in the 1970s on an isolated Scottish island, Lars von Trier’s early attempt at a Dogme 95 film is slathered in miserable grey. Thankfully I’m not trapped in the sinister puritan VHS nightmare that Emily Watson’s heartbreaking character finds herself battling. Fredric Jameson notes that when indulging in nostalgia, the individual only takes in the mythical positivity constructed by purposeful media representation and von Trier sought to deconstruct that in his film. 1996 was at a crossroads of cinematic aesthetic, caught between aging celluloid film and the high definition digital technology of today. The Eels song from The Mighty Boosh describes the moment perfectly: “elements of the past and the future combining to make something not quite as good as either”. 1996 was a period visually lost in the murky terrain of European art cinema. although I cherish memories watching recorded videotapes of ABC television shows with my grandma.
When we idealise the past as simple and elegant, we are really applying our lived experience as a naïve child – the individual’s most tangible signifier of past – to an entire pre-history, erasing its complexity and troubles. I constantly convince myself that the 1990s espoused an attitude and aesthetic more closely aligned with mine of today. But in doing so, I critically gloss over the concurrent corporatisation that was at play, co-opting the ‘grunge generation’ for its own capital gain. MTV ruthlessly wringed the integrity out of the decade’s diverse subcultures and condensed them into a bizarre homogenous mass, voyeuristically displayed on shows like The Grind (search ‘MTV is so punk’ for a prime example). Neoliberal globalisation has dominated the culture industries since the 1970s, so setting a binary between now and then is inherently flawed.
The internet provides historically unparalleled access to alternative media. It allows me to mine the past for sound and sight and then convert that inspiration into a better-informed present. Not everyone in the ’90s wrote underground zines or attended to cassette mailing lists and I’m still capable of doing both today. There is no “spirit of the times” and its total contemporary absence can be seen as a creative blessing, not a curse. Excessive nostalgia-gazing veers dangerously close to a culturally reactionary stance that I absolutely oppose. I’d rather listen to ‘My Woman’ by Angel Olsen, released only a few weeks ago, than pushing the systemic, rock canon continuum that traditionally sends interesting artists to the peripheries.
This year marks the 20th anniversary for every single thing that occurred in 1996; the zodiac rats and pigs that were born and the art that was made. I can do things today that a 20-year old back then would simply scoff at. But we aren’t so different. Getting caught up in nostalgia-deco and fretting over the future are human phenomena not specific to my generation. I’m not such a Luddite anyway; I wrote this on a 21st century machine that has become an extension of myself. And if I can’t part with my ’90s bond I may well have to relocate to Portland.