Earlier this month, LCD Soundsystem released one of its first proper singles in nearly seven years: “American Dream,” a shiny bit of sad-sackness that, like many of the group’s best tracks, feels both elegiac and ecstatic. “In the morning, everything’s clearer/when the sunlight exposes your age,” sings 47-year-old frontman James Murphy, as groggy synth-beats and shooting-star keyboards cascade underneath. “Dream” is a song about the cruelties of aging—the way time robs us of our heroes and burdens us with regrets—and if you’ve been a fan of LCD Soundsystem since the group’s 2002 inception, you can likely relate to its theme of middle-aged malaise. Because, whether like it or not, you and all your friends are starting to get at least kinda old.
Not that you needed another reminder, as the last few months have seen a sudden, near-cyclonic amount of early-’00s revivalism—one that’s especially fixated on the years between 2000-2006, when albums still went multi-platinum, streaming was just a glitch-ridden daydream, and the phrase “prestige TV” meant, “Hey, I just saw an ad for The Prestige on TV!” LCD’s return, for example, took place the same week that Interpol—once the dapper downers of New York City’s post-9/11 scene—announced dates for a tour in celebration of its 2002 debut album. Shortly after that, a casting notice appeared for Tina Fey’s forthcoming Mean Girls musical, which will open next year on Broadway (where it will likely join another early-’00s-indebted stage effort, School of Rock). There’s also a forthcoming James Franco-directed biopic about The Room, which was one of two beloved 2003 movies about a long-haired, gibberish-spouting rapscallion (the other, Pirates of the Caribbean, unveils a new sequel this weekend).
What else? The return of Gilmore Girls. Last winter’s Napoleon Dynamite reunion. An entire book, out this week, about the Strokes, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, and their downtown-NYC peers. (I’ll be reading it in the back room of the Cherry Tavern all summer.) The ads for Baywatch (a franchise launched in 1989) being anchored by DMX’s “Where the Hood At” (a song from 2003). And just last week, the story of a beloved, Bluth-enterprising early-’00s network sitcom once again being revamped by Netflix.
The simplest reason for this earlier-than-expected revival is the fact that, in the all-digital era, two decades is waaaay too long to wait anymore. Our art-absorption metabolisms have been sped up by the web, which often feels like a borderless 24-hour culture klatch.
It’s not quite arrested development, but it is a remarkably specific pop-culture spree, and if you were responsible for an even semi-successful movie, TV show, or album released during the Bush II administration, you may want to review your IP deals; at this point, we’re only two months away from the announcement of Twyla Tharp’s The Pianist. And it’s all the more surprising when you consider that, for a long time, nostalgia-runs arrived with locust-like predictability, always operating in 20-year cycles: The ’50s resurfaced in the ’70s via Grease and Sha Na Na; the ’60s were excavated by ’80s hits like The Wonder Years, Rambo, and Freedom Rock; and a posthumous fondness for the ’70s led to some of the best work of the ’90s, from Dazed and Confused to Britpop.
But the early-’00s revival arrived quicker than expected, and with several good reasons. For starters, the major moments of that era were inescapable—if you can’t remember where you were the first 1-2-3-4 times you heard “Hey Ya!,” it’s probably because you heard it 438 times that day alone—and even the less fondly remembered hits had reach (wait, The Sum of All Fears made almost $200 million worldwide?). And the can’t-shake-it-off strangeness of post-9/11 life made the art from that era, even the so-so art, feel all the more important. (Were the Vines a genuinely good band? Who knows! But those frazzle-haired dingo-dongs sounded pretty good back when it seemed the world was melting.) Given how big everything felt back then, in every sense of the word, it’s kind of surprising that our 2002 nostalgia didn’t start in 2003.
Yet the simplest reason for this earlier-than-expected revival is the fact that, in the all-digital era, two decades is waaaay too long to wait anymore. Our art-absorption metabolisms have been sped up by the web, which often feels like a borderless 24-hour culture klatch, full of non-stop pop-convos about The Stuff We Love. And because it’s hard to stand out when there are only a handful of mass-audience pop-topics left—we all should have bought starwarstrailersanddrakebeefs.com when we had the chance—the entertainment-blog complex now relies on nostalgia as a semi-reliable traffic-stabilizer (even WIRED likes time-traveling to the past now and then). For editors and readers, nostalgia is a sticky salve: When there are so many modern-day screen gems to keep up with, and when consuming pop-culture feels more like a profession than a passion, it’s easy to default to knowable, already-lovable past. Will I find time this week to finally catch up on Season 3 of (the genuinely great) Better Call Saul? Probably not. But a 10th-anniversary retrospective on Clipse’s Hell Have No Fury? Wamp wamp!
Years from now, when we finally gaze back at the pop highlights of this modern age, will any of us even be looking in same direction?
Once we’ve burned through this current boom of early-’00stalgia, though, the future of the past gets a bit fuzzy. By the early ’10s, our tastes and pursuits had become far more far-flung: Netflix and Amazon moved into original programming, adding more must-sees to an already overtaxed content-grid; YouTube, Instagram, and Vine gave creators their own platforms-turned-provinces; music became a field of streams, making it possible to avoid hearing even the most over-played Top 10 hit; and the big studios became dependent on established franchises that pleased die-harders, while giving long-time moviegoers an excuse to remain on the couch. Our shared moments of cultural consciousness—the massive series finales, the unavoidable pop smashes, the summer-dominating blockbuster—are becoming rarer and rarer, with only a few truly galactic-sized phenoms left (think Minecraft; Game of Thrones; Marvel movies; pretty much anything released by Rihanna, Bieber, Adele, and Beyoncé). Years from now, when we finally gaze back at the pop highlights of this modern age, will any of us even be looking in same direction?
Hate to Say I Told You So
That’s not to say the nostalgia biz as we know it is in danger of dying off. There will always be a need to revive a beloved album, or resuscitate a failed movie, or re-litigate a dodgy send-off; as a bunch of Monkees with a drinking problem once sang, the end has no end. Which is important, because for anyone interested in the way art evolves—the way older works can be re-examined and championed by younger fans—nostalgia, especially other people’s nostalgia, is a necessary reminder that your own personal canon could use a few adjustments. Ten years from now, someone far younger and smarter than me will make their case for the overlooked supremacy of, say, the Chainsmokers (“Hold on to Your ‘But’s: How the Chainsmokers Brought EDM Closer to the Mainstream”). Maybe you’ll read it politely before walking to a corner where no one can hear you roll your eyes. Or maybe you’ll give the group a second (or first?) listen, if for no other reason than irrelevance-averting curiosity. Either way, for fans who watched their favorite artists or works ignored or naysayed in real-time, that shared nostalgia can provide a feeling of overdue justice.
But my guess is that future waves of nostalgia will focus less on specific pop-cultural explosions, and more on the technologies that allowed them to spread. That’s partly because it’s never been easier to tune out the mass culture, making shared moments all the more rare; if you have zero interest in DAMN. or Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2 or American Gods, you can essentially zone them out via any other number of on-demand distractions. Or you can catch up with them years down the line—there’s so much out there now, what’s the rush?
And even for those of us who do try to stay as plugged-in as possible, so much of what we consume each day online is so easily forgettable that our exact recollections tend to be hazy. When ’90s-era web-adapters talk about the glory days of the dial-up era, for example, their memories tend to focus not on what they were doing, but what they were feeling: Their pride over a GeoCities layout, say, or their delight when an hours-long AOL download culminated in a chummy “File’s done!” The actual work we created and consumed on those platforms are long gone, but the horizon-expanding joy experienced in those years is still accessible.
Our modern digital culture is made up of equally ephemeral moments, even if they seem important at the time. When you think of 2009’s “David After Dentist,” does it conjure up instant, specific, I remember where I was when I saw it excitement—or does it instead bring on warm, vague memories about wading into YouTube’s early-era viral-video stash? When the 10th anniversaries of Snapchat’s Dog or Face Swap filters roll around in 2026, will your thoughts turn to that one time you traded faces with your best friend, or to the now-outdated smartphone that once served as your connection to the world? In order for nostalgia (or a nostalgia-stoking article) to survive, it needs a peg, and right now, culture feels pegless—millions of people, occupying millions of different parallel timelines and worlds, joined together only a few times a year.
If that sounds like a lament, it’s not; everything has to move forward, especially the past. And there’s a good chance that, in 10 years, we’ll be just looking at the anniversary of, say, Kong: Skull Island with the same kind of happily glazed gaze we look at things now (if so, get ready for my decade-pegged follow-up, “Remember When I Idiotically Predicted Nostalgia Was a Thing of the Past?”). But I don’t know if we’ll return to any part of the 21st century with quite as much unity and clarity as we’re currently revisiting the early-’00s. We’re simply too far apart to ever again be that closely linked in our pop-culture pursuits. But hey—at least we had last nite.