We Love The ’90s: Remember When People Used Payphones?


On Friday night the New Museum and n + 1 bring you The ’90s vs. the ’90s, a panel talk that will include Michael Azerrad, Mark Greif, Emily Gould, A.S. Hamrah, Marisa Meltzer, and Aaron Lake Smith, and will examine the legacy of the decade’s pop culture touchstones — from the “Dirty Boots” video to Kurt Cobain’s suicide note to those Tickle Me Elmo dolls — on who we are today. After the jump we talk to Aaron, whose popular fanzines Big Hands have been called “an ongoing treatise on disappointment,” about the ubiquitous obsession with Generation X, the WTO riots in Seattle, and the blue hair he rocked back in high school.

Flavorpill: I found this line from the press release for the event interesting: “Generation X is forever identifiable with the ’90s, but with many members of the subsequent Generation Y identifying with ’90s signifiers.” It’s true. A lot of people who don’t “belong” to Gen X think they do. Why?

Aaron Lake Smith: I think people identify with the ’90s because the 2000s have been, culturally, kind of a nonevent — the Mac laptop and the cellular telephone seem sterile compared to the sweetness of the signifiers of the past era like walking around trying to find a payphone late at night, girls in flannel and combat boots, or riding the Greyhound bus to visit someone you hardly know. All these things still happen, but now they have some element of kitsch to them. Nowadays you don’t have to pick one identity like a “punk” or “b-boy” and stick with it — thanks to the Internet, you can be a little bit of everything, pick and choose pieces from different identities. It seems like the social, economic, and cultural fragmentation of the 2000s has left people feeling somewhat adrift and the closest thing to cling to happens to be the ’90s.

FP: My favorite year of the decade was 1996. What was yours and why?

ALS: I was a half-conscious tween for the first half of the ’90s and a disturbed teenager for the second half. In 1999, when I was in high school, I vividly remember turning on the news and eating a Pop Tart and watching the images from the WTO riots in Seattle — kids in black smashing Starbucks windows — it really blew my mind. I was like, wow — I want in on some of that. It turned out that all those people were right. It was like they were prophets, and it just took another 10 years for our make-believe economy to crumble.

FP: What were you like in high school?

ALS: I dyed my hair blue in high school and spent most of my time driving around in a beat up car with a ragtag group of friends looking for things to steal or vandalize, going to shows, and drinking cheap warm vodka. I was voted “most creative” — I had two periods of art and my art teacher liked me so much that she let me skip them every day — during this time I would walk off campus to the Barnes and Noble across the street every day. I spent most of my adolescence lying around in that parking lot, reading magazines, drinking Frappuccinos, and staring at the wall.

FP: If you had to resurrect one piece of ’90s slang, what would it be and why?

ALS:It seems like some things about the ’90s might be better left dead.

FP: What about the music? If you had to pick a handful of albums that define that decade for you, what artists does it include?

Icky Mettle by Archers of Loaf One Foot in the Grave by Beck In on the Kill Taker by Fugazi Honky by The Melvins Flipper and Crimpshrine by The Smoking Popes

FP: If you could live in any city in the world right now, but you’d have to go back to the 1990, where would you pick?

ALS: Austin, Texas, as re-imagined and canonized in Richard Linklater’s movie Slacker. [Editor’s note: You can watch the whole thing on Hulu here.]

FP: Have you finished writing your first novel, Mother Asphalt, yet? Where did the name come from?

ALS: The title and to some degree the subject of the novel is about embracing your fate and time even when it feels like you’ve been born decades or centuries too late. I often find myself fantasizing about living in America in the 1800s or before it was colonized by Europeans when it was still an unbroken green continent, a garden of Eden — the sad reality is that people my age and younger were born into an America of parking lots and shopping centers. It’s strange to be nostalgic for pure gone things “nature” or “the ’90s” or “New York City in the ’70s” when they’re gone and never coming back. When I’m an old man and all Americans speak Chinese or everyone has an iPhone installed in their ear, my fond memories of purity will be of things like the freshly paved freeway, the suburban drainage creek, the sound of a 56K modem connecting.

FP: Have you ever come across a stranger reading Big Hands? If so, did you approach them?

ALS: I have a memory of a movie where some middle-aged, failed writer sees a beautiful woman pick up his book in a store and goes over to talk to her —of course it works out badly. This is how I imagine all unexpected writer/reader interactions are must go — with the voyeuristic reader feeling like they’re being caught in the act by the unbearable and desperate writer, popping out of nowhere and shouting, “Surprise!”