The Weird Sadness of Aughts Nostalgia

Photo: Matt Jelonek/Getty

There’s a running gag I have with some friends where we reminisce about the very, very recent past the same way baby boomers pining for the ’60s might; one person will recall a lively party from a few months back, and another will chime in with a wistful, “Simpler times.” The joke is that the world is growing so quickly and terribly complicated every morning that it’s possible to have palpable nostalgia for what it was like even a handful of weeks ago. Nostalgia cycles that used to travel in 20- to 30-year loops — consider the preoccupation in the ’90s with classic rock artists of the ’60s and ’70s or aughts kids’ love of a good ’80s theme party — are running much shorter now. As this decade closes out, the bygone era music fans seem fixated on the most hasn’t been the late ’90s. We’ve zipped past the 20th anniversaries of several cultural milestones from 1999, a year steeped in futuristic films, envelope-pushing pop music, and a pervasive fear that computers were going to turn on us. We’ve now turned our attention to the uncertain decade that followed.

The aughts are peculiar years to carry a torch for. The good art from the era came at the expense of great distress. A lot changed in a short stretch. In just three years, we experienced a contentious presidential election; a catastrophic terror attack on home turf; a disorienting, expedient march to war; and a recession. The shaky early George W. Bush years left New York City pained, paranoid, and hurting for jobs, but if you could afford to stay on your feet, the city was a playground. A network of downtown dive bars and performance spaces cropping up across the Williamsburg Bridge (in the years before social media and smartphones made entertainment reporters out of unassuming partygoers) proved to be fertile ground for a new wave of New York City rock music. It was this era that birthed the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, TV on the Radio, Interpol, and the Strokes, all of whom were warping and recasting the city’s rock legacy for a new, less nihilistic but no less cynical generation. You know the rest of the story: Some folks got rich, and some folks got priced out of the neighborhood. Scuzzy, artsy Williamsburg turned into waterfront developments and tech headquarters. Downtown Manhattan fashion boutiques swallowed vital studio and apartment space.

The memory of weird, sad, post-9/11 New York City twinkled over this last weekend as Interpol headlined Madison Square Garden, as part of a Matador Records showcase that also included sets by the young rock acts Snail Mail and Car Seat Headrest. The look of the crowd told a story, as it often does, of people revisiting strange days from a better place in their lives. The leather’s too clean. The liquor’s top-shelf. The band tees no longer sport holes. The audience was full of “old millennials,” for lack of a better term, people born too late to count as Gen X but too early to feel kinship with their younger, always-online counterparts. You could count the visible cell-phone lights on your fingers throughout the show, and that’s rare for a night at the Garden.

Interpol took us back to moments of youthful pain and longing as they ran through a relatively airtight mix of songs from the beloved early albums Turn on the Bright Lights and Antics while celebrating last year’s solid comeback album Marauder. In the middle of the set list, the first-album staple “NYC” shone a light on the differences between the New York of the aughts and the New York of 2019. For the first time, the lyrics (“The subway, she is a porno / The pavements, they are a mess”) felt like an indictment of what the city turned into rather than a taxonomy of modern horrors it needed to escape. The sturdiness of the set list and the attentiveness of the audience are proof that Interpol is a band that understands how to cater to longtime fans’ interests while nudging them deeper into the catalogue. Rock bands with a little seniority sometimes struggle with this mix. (Consider the contentious, tribal nature of Weezer fandom.) Interpol gets that it can be a bit of a nostalgia act while continuing to add to the catalogue in ways that keep the audience happy. The ability to strike this balance is the difference between seasoned veterans and nostalgia cruise packages. Interpol won’t fall into the latter rut anytime soon.

Aughts nostalgia doesn’t belong to just the rock kids. It’s filtering into hip-hop and dance music as well. Last week, Coachella founders Goldenvoice announced the lineup for the inaugural iteration of its new Just Like Heaven Festival. The poster reads like a list of bands scrubbed from an iPod shuffle in 2009, or else a lineup from that summer’s JellyNYC Williamsburg Waterfront Pool Parties, which made lively use of East River State Park: Grizzly Bear, Beach House, Neon Indian, Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Phoenix, MGMT, the Rapture, Washed Out, and more. Appreciation for the stars of the so-called “Summer of Chillwave” — when the release of woozy singles like “Blessa,” “Feel It All Around,” and “Deadbeat Summer” animated parties and sent critics scrambling for a name for the new nostalgic electronic music — ought to be strong this spring.

Stronger still are the possibilities created by the rerelease of Drake’s Valentine’s Day 2009 mixtape So Far Gone on streaming services for the first time on its tenth anniversary. The tape and its hits “Best I Ever Had” and “Successful” converted Drake from a Canadian teen soap star who moonlighted as a musician into a legitimate hip-hop/R&B megastar so quickly that the label culled its best tracks for an EP just to have something to sell voracious fans. Mixtapes like So Far Gone, “jackin’ for beats” tapes that showcase the artist’s tastes and talent through freestyles and interpretations of other people’s songs, were long thought to be a tough sell on legitimate services. The policy was to throw them on mixtape sites like DatPiff and LiveMixtapes and then let file-sharing keep them alive, so that if sampled artists ever came looking for splits, it could be argued that nothing was sold, and no profit was made. The practice is said to have stiffed more than a few producers out of money for work on epochal releases artists now make gobs of cash playing live on tour. So Far Gone potentially making an impact on next week’s Billboard charts could kick off a wave of legal streaming of mixtapes once thought to be on the wrong side of the law, although the number of songwriters and producers who had to sign off to get So Far Gone legit might limit the practice to A-list artists with the money and clout to pull it off. Here’s looking at you, Lil Wayne.

The music of the last decade is emblematic of the last time we could feign ignorance to mounting troubles at home and overseas. Perhaps we shouldn’t have felt so free, all things considered.

The Weird Sadness of Aughts Nostalgia