#175: Pre-Millennium Tension
First, thanks for a fun year—sending this newsletter is rewarding because you read it (even if you stop reading after this sentence), and in 2021 I actually got to meet many of you, which I hope happens more in 2022. I wasn’t planning to send an issue today but I caught an asymptomatic case of COVID which has freed up additional time in a week that already had plenty of it, so I no longer have an excuse, plus New Year’s Eve actually falls on a Friday for once. My personal tragedy is your “bonus content.” I don’t do end-of-year Kneeling Bus recaps but this is always a time when find myself taking stock of what has changed since a year ago (if anything), and rereading my own posts is a good way to do that. Last year that exercise was especially revealing—not in a fun way—because I was comparing the depths of December 2020 COVID bleakness (New York and urban existence more broadly were very “done,” remember?) against the end of 2019 and start of 2020, which we hadn’t known at the time were our final pre-pandemic months. My dispatch on January 3, 2020 discussed how digital technology was already making us much more domestic: “Homebound and antisocial, Netflix is the anti-Foursquare, with each of us the permanent mayor of our own solipsistic content universe.” The subsequent months would obviously nudge us much further in that direction but this year we seemed to push through to the other side, our tolerance for digital immersion finally exhausted. Now the metaverse is something we make fun of.
This outcome, of course, was not obvious a year ago. It’s not even obvious now: Despite the lows of the previous COVID winter, there was an undeniable sense of a narrative arc—we were in the troubled second act, awaiting the triumphant redemption that Hot Vax Summer would bring. But what would come after that? The reboot of the whole series. This December has felt strangely similar to last December, even though people are vaccinated and most activities have at least partially resumed. Between now and Groundhog Day, which is what this evokes, we will mark a few notable one-year anniversaries: the storming of the US Capitol (January 6), the impeachment of Donald Trump (January 13), the Biden inauguration (January 20), and the GameStop/Robinhood/WallStreetBets debacle (January 28). In February everyone started talking about NFTs and never stopped. But last January was surprisingly eventful, perhaps because people were experiencing an unprecedented degree of Internet Brain. My most prominent memory of the presidential inauguration—by far—was the New Radicals performing their one hit, the 1998 sensation “You Get What You Give.” On the day of the event, I described the song as a perfect choice, the ultimate embodiment of late-Clinton-era end-of-history optimism. Joe Biden was going to bring it back just as decisively as Trump had taken it away. It was Groundhog Day in America.
Last night I went down a YouTube music video rabbit hole, as I am wont to do, and rewatched the music video for “You Get What You Give.” I’d consumed the perfect amount of Polish bison grass vodka to get hit by a freight train of nostalgia. “If the ‘90s had an end credits scene, this would be it,” one of the comments said. Watch the video if you haven’t recently. It’s 23 years old but it somehow feels both contemporary and impossibly distant at the same time—a relic from a different end-of-history moment. Jordan Moore noted on Twitter that the band members and extras in the video seem happy and carefree in a way that we rarely observe today (see also: this video), something that is frequently said of ordinary people captured on film before social media existed. It’s already difficult to fathom how recently the ability to record video became constant and ubiquitous. Still photography was broadly accessible and familiar (if limited) long before the internet or iPhones, but video has exploded much more recently. The extras in the New Radicals video would likely have had minimal experience being filmed—their happy and carefree appearance is probably better described as a lack of self-consciousness, an unawareness of how to act in front of the camera due to insufficient experience. If they seem happier than their contemporary counterparts, who all have extensive training performing on video, maybe that’s just us projecting our present-day insecurities onto our past selves. Ironically, everything else about the music video—the clothing, the shopping mall setting, the music itself—feels like something that could easily appear today. The late Mark Fisher, that prophet of 2021, observed in 2013 that pop culture seems aesthetically frozen in the period just before the internet, which now encourages us to mine the past more and more thoroughly. “20th Century experimental culture was seized by a recombinatorial delirium, which made it feel as if newness was infinitely available,” Fisher writes. Aside from crypto novelty, maybe, the past seems to cyclically and fractally resurface with greater urgency as 2021 draws to its end. Fisher continues, “It doesn’t feel as if the 21st Century has started yet.” Closing credits for the ‘90s, indeed.
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No links today. Enter 2022 with a clean slate. Happy New Year!