Rachel Elder is a freelance writer and author of "What Up, Wimpster? Beware of the wolf in geeks clothing" in this summers issue of Bust magazine. She lives in Brooklyn. We talked about fashion, the degradation of culture and what's on TV. All of my interview questions have been removed.
I just watched "I Love the 90s" last night. I hope it is no secret how hypocritical their cultural criticism is. Even though the show is called "I love the 90s", its neither "retro" nor "nostalgic." VH1s pundits again inform us that the 90s were lame, were never cool, and anyone who thought was stupid. (You might recall that theyre the same network that shoved the same bullshit up our asses for over a decade). How can they have forgotten? VH1 hinges itself on the impossibility of its own self-awareness. For them, this is easier than looking to their own pool of intellectual resources for inspiration. They have the nerve to criticize the very stuff they produced only just recently, and now they want to take it back? I feel so betrayed! The outcome is hardly better than watching garbage compost itself. It is no coincidence when one pundit actually admits, "I cant believe were still talking about the 90s."
This is our culture in "fast forward" whether it is trends flickering in and out, the faux-hawks, the Ugg boots, the "awesomely bad," whatever. It seems to be all about some never-winning race to the "next big thing." Were perpetually in anticipation (of culture) because were always missing the "next big thing." We do not love the 90s; all we know is that our present situation is fucked up. We live in a state of constant trauma, a trauma of anticipation whether it be the next trend, or act of terrorism. Its as if what we really wish we had was some discourse about what America Would Be When "Blank" Has Happened. Its like we are a culture of forgetting and simultaneously remembering. Because we are always feeling that were "missing" whats happening, we make these clumsy attempts to show that we didnt really miss "it" at all.
Again, its not about some undying love for nostalgia. Im honestly sick to death of this notion of nostalgia as postmodern. Victorian people loved Edwardian stuff, and I hear the Nazis were ALL about "retro." I believe that the problem is with mass culture, because as humans, we need "meaning" or representation. All culture is really made up of is really a system of ideas, a system of differences, and the very nature of culture gets in the way of difference. This is precisely why "cool" is an absolute necessity. Without cool, there is no mass culture; without cool, well never feel like we have any real sense of being. But what the fuck is cool? Is it some mass generalized group of something that has been patinaed and labeled "extreme" so we can buy it again? It worked once, so it should work again. Take the "new" karaoke craze. In a recent Times article about this "new" fad hitting Williamsburg and the LES, one interviewee finally admits, "It's the farthest thing from cool and yet for some reason it is cool precisely because it's so far from cool." The fact that its even mentioned in an article proves the fad was over before it even began, so why bring it back?
And fashion is the strongest example of this "recycling." There is an internal limit to it. Things must be cool for a minimum amount of time the total time it takes for people to recognize it and put it into mass action, because otherwise it would be sub-cultural. Take my "JAP flaps," for example (those $3 Chinatown shoes every woman under the age of 30 is wearing). They arent just popular, theyre part of the standard lexicon, especially considering how quickly trends change. It's as if there were a Webster's Dictionary of fashion and now, finally, there's a 'Chinatown shoes' entry. Fashion is also an ethical problem, a guilt problem. To be overly concerned with fashion, the way I am, is to feel bad about yourself in some way. But Im not talking low self-esteem; Im talking about an overwhelming sense of irresponsibility. To have more style is to be more remarkable. So when "style" deteriorates, when it becomes "uncool," the most fashion-conscious of us feels nothing but failure. This is why cool people tend to deny being cool and people who suck are anxious about what is or is not cool. Denying being cool comes off as a disaffection or cynicism but as THAT becomes "cool" then the response to being cool is also no longer cool, and then where are we?
You can only speed up these cultural cycles so much before its revealed as the nonsense that it really is. Not because fashion or television is stupid, but because all its really about is nonsense. Repetition is absolutely necessary for meaning. Its like trying to make "sense" of the war in Iraq by saying things like "its the second Vietnam." If culture doesnt repeat enough, its nothing. By imagining such repetitions, we try and make sense of our own history.
- Interview by K. Thor Jensen