The main thing people were unsure about last night at the 90s panel was whether they were remembering things wrong. Everyone seemed motivated by this sense that we probably are glorifying the 90s a little, maybe a lot, and we should sort out what’s what. I think that is what it was built to address, anyway— Mark Greif, the moderator, very clearly wanted the more nostalgic of his panelists to snap out of their fantasies and realize the 90s were actually awful.
One person who really wasn’t down with that was Aaron Lake Smith, who I think is my age (24) or maybe a year older. That guy, who was in 10th grade in 1999, loved the 90s and as far as he’s concerned it’s been downhill ever sense. When Mark Greif said the 90s totally sucked, and kind of jokingly offered by way of support that there had been no good bands after Pavement, ALS said he was dead wrong, that there had been tons of good bands.
It makes sense that ALS was the panelist most nostalgic for the 90s, because he was the youngest by a couple years, and was obviously there because he could bring the perspective of someone who was a baby when Nevermind came out. He said something at one point about how the “national conversation” had deteriorated in recent years— that back in the 90s we used to talk about inequality, and now we just talk about… torture. He fore flannel and defensively insisited when this was remarked upon that he always wore clothes like that, that it wasn’t some ironic costume.
Two facts I learned about ALS: he edits and distributes his own print zine, and used to go to a lot of protests except doesn’t anymore because the institutions he once threw rocks at, like the World Bank, are these days crumbling under their own weight. Another fact: he just joined Facebook the other day, reluctantly. He expressed great distaste for the idea that a political protest could be organized via Facebook, and said with thick sarcasm that maybe he should get into Tumblr. That would be lame, was his point.
All of which makes me confident that what ALS is really nostalgic for are the days when we were all less free— when it was harder to do, be, and say whatever we wanted than it is now. Being different, and finding people who were different in ways we found interesting or sympathetic, required more work— and more conspicuous work— back when there wasn’t an internet. Back then you had to spend money on printing a zine and time on giving it out at basement shows. Now that he can just blog and build an audience online without ever leaving his room ALS isn’t as into it. What he was saying but not saying: do-it-yourself used to mean something, and now it doesn’t, because everyone does everything themselves. Where’s the fun in that?
Basically what ALS is sad about is that being a non-conformist doesn’t look as cool anymore now that we’re all just on our computers. I think at one point he told a story about the guy from Fugazi, and how back in the day he used to be able to just come up to a skinhead chick and start talking to her. Nowadays, ALS said, everyone just wears hipster uniforms, and it’s impossible to tell who you’re gonna see eye to eye with and who just bought their shit at American Apparel and Urban Outfitters.
At the end of the panel ALS got told, in an “oh snap” kind of moment, to stop pretending he was living in the 90s. Which, OK, I guess he should stop doing that, but he should also think about whether he really likes having a zine and if so, why.