The ’90s are in the air. There’s a new show about the Monica Lewinsky scandal and a film about Princess Diana in which Kristen Stewart is apparently so good, it’s uncanny. Teenagers are wearing “90s jeans”, all balloon legs and trailing hems, and the cast of Friends sat on a couch together earlier this year for the low fee of $US2.5 million ($3.4 million) each.
Why the ’90s now? Maybe it’s simply the cyclical nature of fashion. This nostalgia trip feels tinged with sadness, though – for a time just before the era when things got really complicated. When summers weren’t routinely associated with ever-scarier hellfires. When the internet was mostly MIDI files and “under construction” banners, and human knowledge was encapsulated in the finite form of Microsoft’s Encarta rather than the sprawling, anarchic wilderness of Wikipedia.
Most of us seemed to agree back then that democracy was a good thing, that people wearing white coats knew more than the rest of us about how the world worked, that – as that now unbearably naff-seeming ’90s anthem proclaimed – “things can only get better”. Who didn’t want a robot or two to help around the house? Sure, there was Y2K to worry about, but we used to read dystopic fiction for fun.
Is it possible I’m wearing rose-coloured glasses, like a cast member of Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo + Juliet? After all, our memories of recent history are invariably unreliable. This thought occurred to me while consuming the glut of content around the 20th anniversary of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Some of it was maudlin, and some of it so searing I had to look away.
During a documentary about the day which went minute-by-minute, I discovered many of my memories of its chronology were flat-out wrong. In my mind, the time between when the first and second towers fell spanned one terrible morning. In fact, there was only a half hour between the two events, with the second falling at 10.30am. My memories were also notably incomplete: the fact that a third building in the World Trade Centre complex fell that day felt oddly unfamiliar.
There’s also a tendency to want to impose order on a disordered past, or to believe that the clues to a major historical event were there before it happened.
Perhaps September 11 as a historic instance was so traumatic that our brains collectively chose to elide many of the details. Yet that wouldn’t explain why I also watched a miniseries about the O. J. Simpson trial as though all the twists and turns weren’t on the historical record, and hadn’t been covered in exhaustive detail on the 7pm news back when they happened. Or why the glorious reminiscing last year about Sydney during the 2000 Olympics was like a postcard from another planet, despite my being there.
There’s also a tendency to want to impose order on a disordered past, or to believe that the clues to a major historical event were there before it happened. Hence the articles that analysed what was on the front pages of newspapers on September 10, 2001. Reader, I clicked on each of those pointless stories, and found the answers were Big Brother, the Tampa incident, and that a little company from California called Google had just had its first profitable quarter.
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