Pop quiz, hot shot: How much of 2002 do you actually remember? I mean, really remember? Not just where you were working or what you were studying or who you were banging—what were you doing every day? What were you listening to? Do you remember the best-selling book? Or the top-rated TV show? Try to recollect. No, it’s fine. I’ll wait.
Whatever you just guessed, it was probably wrong. The #1 TV show was somehow still Friends. The best-selling book was a lesser, particularly turgid John Grisham called The Summons. The #1 song was Nickelback’s “How You Remind Me,” and the #1 album was The Eminem Show (which feels like it belongs in the ’90s, but there you go). The top-grossing movie of the year was Spider-Man, the Kirsten Dunst-upside-down-kiss one.
Don’t feel bad if you bombed the quiz; until very recently, I knew almost none of these things myself. That’s because I remembered next to nothing about 2002, having personally devoted that year to getting loaded—which set the tone for much of the decade that followed. Over the next few years, as America frothily immersed itself in 24 and the third Austin Powers movie and Harry Potter doing something or other, I was living at the bottom of a tumbler of vodka, emerging periodically to show up for jobs with a delicate splatter of vomit on the lapel of my coat, or to have sex with guys I thought could “teach me about writing.” Things dragged on this way for six or seven years.
I lost the thread of popular culture while blacking in and out and up and down, but things hadn’t always been that way. Growing up an extremely weird, extremely Jewy kid in one of your less Jewy and decidedly unweird pockets of suburban Connecticut, my strong body of pop culture knowledge was often my only friend, and certainly my only solace after some boy on the school bus told me that I had a faint mustache. I went home, paged through an issue of Spin magazine, and fantasized about a distant future, one free of smug suburban jocks who didn’t understand that almost all natural brunettes have faint mustaches, okay? A future where pop culture and I were free 2B 2gether 4-ever.
But like most best friends who get us through the hard times of adolescence, I jettisoned pop culture almost immediately after leaving home for college, where I eagerly refashioned myself a world-weary party girl, someone who could get away with wearing a tutu in public, or pretending to be friends with a member of the Scissor Sisters. Pop culture had explained my bad feelings when I was young, but booze made it seem like there had never been any bad feelings to begin with, so my allegiances were clear. By late 2001, figures on the entertainment front had gotten hazy (J-Lo? Big Pun? That’s My Bush?). By 2002, I begin to draw a blank.
I picked up bits and pieces of pop culture over those Smirnoff-soaked years, between lost shoes and lost wallets and lost boyfriends and the odd improv class. I distinctly remember seeing the movie Old School four different times in the theater. I was ill-advisedly enamored of those tank tops with the one strap, and find a new one every time I clean my house, like a love letter from a long-ago ex. I know who tAtU are. But more often than not, when I try to summon memories of the early oughts, there are vast gaps, fixtures in my mind that don’t quite connect.
When I re-entered polite/non-binge drinking society a few years back, I realized that there were entire cultural movements I had missed over all those hours wasted in faux dive bars, talking to faux musicians. At first, I found that I could cover fairly well by just switching the flow of water cooler conversation back to a pop culture theme I remembered. With some prep time and a sharp eye, I could volley a Lord of the Rings reference into a Memento callback, and be back on my own ’90s-centric turf with minimal effort.
But as I began to rack up soberer years, I became curious. In the time I’d been checked out, not only had a lot happened, but the very way that people consumed culture had changed. When I was younger, being obsessed with popular culture made you a sort of cool-ish nerd, maybe, if you were lucky (see: Jamie Kennedy in the original Scream). Today, an exhaustive knowledge of popular culture seems like a prerequisite for getting on the internet.
At some point pop culture ceased to consist of just what was happening in the present; it is now built on a flying buttress structure of everything else that’s happened in the previous dozen-plus years. To understand pop culture in this moment, one had to understand pop culture from 2002 on, and know all sorts of crazy shit, like what a ‘Jason Mraz’ was. It was daunting. Every time the sun set on another day that I did not know what a Jason Mraz was, I felt I was missing out.
This summer, since I was no longer spending my off hours barfing in the back of cabs, it seemed high time to find out what I had skipped, and whether it would help me navigate a pop culture landscape that made me feel increasingly in the weeds. Was I out of the loop because I was getting old? Or was it because I had only the most vague, passing idea of who the Gilmore Girls were, or why Rachel Bilson was? To paraphrase yet another pop cultural phenomenon that I had missed out on, I had to go back.
As it turned out, I didn’t want to learn anything about our shared pop cultural heritage badly enough to watch 2002’s hugest rom-com hit, My Big Fat Greek Wedding. But I was willing to give most of the rest of it a shot. I watched Signs (turns out it is tough to get on board with the film’s pseudo-spiritual whimsy after Mel Gibson’s whole “Sugartits” thing). I read all of the Harry Potter books in a row, sobbing openly on the subway when an elf died, with all the grace and gravity of my thirty-two years. I listened to more Nelly than any other human being in 2014, including Nelly himself. “Hot in Herre” sounds better than ever: I was ‘too good for it’ before, but I am exactly good enough for it now.
I hate to ring ye olde post-9/11 culture bell, but from here, 2002 looks like a year conducted in the shadow of a national depression, something that made us act like someone’s unpredictably moody high school boyfriend. Stuff we had loved—like the Charlie’s Angels movies, or a goofy comedy like Zoolander—we suddenly hated. Stuff we had hated—earnestness, faux earnestness, Justin Timberlake—we suddenly loved.
Traditionally decades take a few years to make a switch; e.g., the way that “the ’60s” didn’t start in earnest until the mid-’60s, or the way that when we talk about “the ’90s,” we’re mostly talking about 1993-7, and not, say, Color Me Badd’s “I Wanna Sex You Up”. But 9/11 seemed to rush the process along, shoving us into a new era before we could prepare for it.
And so, we sought the comfort of familiarity. The year’s top four films were all continuations or adaptations of a franchise: Spider-Man, Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers, Star Wars: Attack of the Clones, Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets. The only stand-alone film to crack the top five was the aforementioned Greek Wedding.
Two-thousand-two signals some of the earliest rumblings of our modern “everything’s a sequel/trilogy/ part of a vast interconnected universe so we don’t really have to think up any new ideas” culture. And all those cultural products, the ones that spill over into the webbing of some other year, remain respected enough within our cultural consciousness today. But everything from 2002 that was 2002-specific—anything that was a pure and uncut expression of our very essential 2002-ness—we now find revolting.
For proof, please consult that guy who married Avril Lavigne (no, that other guy who married Avril Lavigne).
How did Nickelback transform from beloved, be-mulleted rock stars into people considered so culturally damaging that we needed a petition to keep them from playing during halftime of an NFL game, within a handful of years? What went wrong? Why was it so damned important that that pickle got more “likes” than them?
There’s more at work with the massive Nickelbacklash than the way people automatically cringe at pictures of their old haircuts. I mean, “How You Remind Me” is pretty much just a post-grunge update of Bob Seger’s “Night Moves,” and both songs are quite tolerable! No one devotes their time to making sure that various vegetables are more popular on the internet than Bob Seger. So what gives?
Rather than public taste somehow having grown so much more refined over the past twelve years that Nickelback is now offensive to our delicate sensibilities (what a laugh; I mean, have you heard this “Rude” song?), I think the issue at hand is shame. We’re ashamed of 2002. We’re ashamed of the people we were in that sad, lost year; ashamed of all the cultural comfort food we consumed. We did things we now feel guilty about in order to feel safe again. We supported unjust wars. We tuned out world news and focused on flat-ironing out “scene” haircuts. We liked Nickelback because we knew what chord would come next in all of their songs, and the knowing felt good. We were happy with no alarms and no surprises, as they said back when I had my finger on the pulse of pop culture.
In that way, despite its outward county fair-type traditionalism (All-male classic rock-ish bands! Superheroes! Unnecessary military conflicts!), I related to 2002. I, too, had done things during my lost years that I wasn’t proud of; things that I hadn’t needed to do to survive, but simply did out of a desire to grab a handful more of numbness. I, too, had parts of my life that I would like to stuff down the memory hole, parts where I had needlessly hurt or used people for no good reason. And I, too, was going to have to learn how to live with the memory of the person I’d been and the things I’d done at a time when I could think of nothing but myself. Two-thousand-two, c’est moi.
And that, at its heart, is what all our retro-nostalgia-GIFsicle craze is: an attempt to live with the past.
The nostalgia for the recent past we’re baking in right now—this stuff that’s basically just a list of names and pictures—isn’t really like Happy Days, or even That ’70s Show, some idealized version of a past that was actual normal and shitty and boring.
Today’s nostalgia trips are less like a romantic fantasy and more like a mile-marker. Things seem to be moving so fucking fast in the world right now that these nearly word-free listicles—Hey, remember this McDonald’s ad? Remember this board game? Remember this candy that no one really liked but everyone ate anyway?—are less tributes to the past and more reminders that the past actually happened. Hating on Nickelback is an attempt to rewrite the past, more in keeping with the mechanics of traditional nostalgia; but a Buzzfeed listicle that just reels off the top thirteen songs of the summer of 2003 is simply listing the past as it was, free of the revisionist whims of most nostalgia.
As every new year brings so many new technological innovations and weird invasive social media that you can’t imagine things going on much longer like this—can’t imagine having to make a whole life like this, having to get older and learn things and then attempt to die with some smidgen of dignity, like this, consumed with the future and the horrors and innovations that it might bring—these pieces of soundbite nostalgia are tiny, gentle reminders that there is indeed a past, that we have more than just this current moment. Because remembering the past can sometimes be as much of a struggle as dealing with it.
Traditional nostalgia still exists (see: The Reunion Tour to Play the Big Hit Album in Its Entirety), but internet nostalgia culture, for the most part, feels like the digital equivalent of those plaques screwed into the side of a building to say someone you’ve never heard of accomplished something you’ve never known there. Those listicles and GIFsicles and strange, pointless quizzes about boy bands exist to say: This happened. We happened. Two-thousand-two happened, and we can make fun of who we were then, try to deny or forget it, but it is real, and we have to figure out how to live with it. We did what we did, and for better or worse, this is how you remind us.
Gabrielle Moss's work has appeared in GQ, The Hairpin, Bitch, and other fine publications. Follow her on Twitter @gaby_moss to see if she ever changes her mind about Nickelback.