In the wake of the US departure from Afghanistan and the near-simultaneous 20th anniversary of 9/11, a lot of hay has been made about the attempted rehabilitation of George W. Bush's political reputation. This is especially odd considering how far the star of his comrade-in-arms, Rudy Giuliani, has fallen, from "America's mayor" to finally being widely recognized as the doddering, corrupt old fraud he always was (and who ripped a fantastically loud one in the middle of the Michigan recount hearings). Fortunately, the consensus still seems to be that both are fucking twats, and should be remembered as such.
But this moment has put me in mind more and more of the 2000s, a "decade without a name" as Timothy Garton Ash called it, the decade when I came of age, and therefore the era that is supposed to be ensconced in my memory as hallowed.
Yet if you ask me to think back on the 2000s (or the "oughties," or whatever you want to call them), my memories are of nothing but disgust, particularly with the "short 2000s" lasting from 9/11 to the Obama election (to crib a technique from Eric Hobsbawm). Sure, there was political disgust. The general opinion of those who identified as in any way "progressive" tended not to see Bush as a malefactor, but as a puppet of Cheney, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, et al. But the blame went deeper. The general opinion among my peers was that these bastards were elected in in '04 by a fundamentally fucked country, with a stupid, piggish, populace of cross-clutching nationalists, fearful of gays marrying and brown people at TSA, that was to blame.
If there's any piece of media that sums up this particular stance, it's MTV2's Wonder Showzen, a pisstake of children's shows that ran in '05 and '06, featuring puppets harassing civilians on the streets of New York, kids dressed as reporters in trenchcoats doing vox-pop interviews (going to the racetrack and asking a retiree "why not cut out the middleman and give your social security check directly to the mob?"), or just dressed as Hitler and screaming "what are you afraid of?" at passersby in Lower Manhattan. In other words, taking pure anarchic glee in the freaking out of the squares.
For me at 19 or 20, this seemed the only sane reaction to a reactionary decade. One in which not only was the military apparatus and surveillance state radically expanded, never to contract again, but in which the culture just seemed so damn dumb. So it might be illustrative to look at how the culture expressed itself.
In cinema, it was the year when everything I hate -- leaning into franchise products, comic book movies as surefire seat-fillers, CGI excess -- all became the standard (which isn't to say that cinema was necessarily better in earlier decades, it's just when this particular iteration of shittiness became the norm). "Quality" films weren't safe eitehr. I remember watching The Aviator on DVD in someone's apartment, and wondering what had happened to Scorsese, why he couldn't stop moving the camera, why everything had to be so damn big.
In television, while it is (rightly) remembered as the era of The Sopranos, The Wire, Deadwood, Six Feet Under, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men, let it be remembered that it was also the era when reality television reached its highest form, an arc stretching from Survivor through Laguna Beach to Jersey Shore before that impulse in entertainment was taken over by Internet culture writ large, when the famous-for-being-famous were given the key by network execs rather than simply posting cringe on TikTok.
In music, it was the decade of album after over-long album of grandiose Southern rappers all of whom had album titles like "Tha Thug Life, Volume 1: The Feature Film" or some such shit, replete with Gothic fonts and weirdly Tyler Perry-ish music videos (he goes on the list too) with minute-long cinematic intros. On the country side, we were told that putting a boot in one's ass was the American way. In rock, the charts were topped by... that Canadian band, you know which one... along with a host of other shitty groups, many of whom had numbers in their names (in numerical order, you had Three Doors Down, Maroon 5, 30 Seconds to Mars, Sum 41...). It was when the shitty emo out of Vegas and Orange County that is being revived for some dumb fucking reason right now was being played in dorm rooms by boys in puka shells and Livestrong bracelets, alternating with Dave Matthews Band and Ben Harper. Across the hall, their English-major counterparts were listening to any number of bland indie bands with giggly names (and to be fair, I listened to some crappy stuff, but I was at least above Mumford and Sons). Or Arctic Monkeys, Franz Ferdinand, or other "dance-punk" bands hyped by NME.
And in design... I'll just list some representative objects off. The McMansion suburbs built in the prelude to the 2008 crash. Von Dutch hats. Ed Hardy t-shirts. The Hummer H3. Uggs. Thongs peeking out over low-rise jeans. Chinese-character tattoos on white people. Ads for "x-treme" snack foods. The creepy Burger King ads.
It's easy (and fun!) to blame conservatives, especially during a decade largely dominated by conservative politics, but if I look at liberals from the time period, they didn't fare much better. Their objects in the rising culture war were the obnoxiously smug Daily Show at its Jon Stewart peak, and the sheer idiocy of the near-parody of politics in The West Wing. They felt good about themselves after watching Crash.
Looking back, with the wisdom of my added years, sure the culture sucked, but my finger-wagging at those I felt to be beneath me was mere adolescent misanthropy. People may have had wretched political opinions and lousy taste, but it was far easier to blame the hog-people than to actually interrogate why they believed what they believed, or why the mass culture of the time looked the way it did. It's a lot easier to point and mock than to ask why people might want some spectacle in their lives and max out their credit at a time when the media kept us in a state of perpetual fear.
But what's most interesting out of all after all these years is the fact that this is really the last time in American history when there was anything you could call a common culture (Marvel movies being really the only thing nowadays that pretty much everyone watches). It was still a time when Saturday Night Live could parody an episode of a reality show that had aired the previous week, with the expectation that the audience could be counted upon to laugh at the joke.
We don't have that anymore. Our lives are so individuated, so self-contained, our choice of media so curated, that trends are increasingly difficult to observe, and increasingly fleeting.
As I age, my ability to parse a fundamentally youth-driven culture becomes poorer and poorer. But I will say this, I will never become one of those annoying nostalgists who can't shut up about Woodstock, or grunge-era Seattle, or whatever. When looking back at the ethos of the time in which the light of youth shone strongest on me, I can only sigh and roll my eyes.