Albums by Interpol, the Strokes, Modest Mouse, Bloc Party, M.I.A., and Vampire Weekend, along with Tyler, the Creator
Illustration by the author

Please, Help Me Justify My Millennial Nostalgia

Now that it’s a booming business, can anything good come of dredging up the 2000s and early 2010s? It’s complicated.
August 6, 2021, 4:15pm

Lately, the music I like has been making me feel old. I’ve come to realize that records that still feel “current” to me—Drake’s Take Care, Kanye and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne, ScHoolboy Q’s Setbacks, and Rustie’s Glass Swords, to name a few—came out an entire decade ago. I’m 32 now, and I wonder what a young person thinks when they listen to them—if these albums sound as fresh and exciting to their ears as they once did to mine, or if they sound like time capsules, relics of an era that feels as distant from their experience as records like Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers) and Pavement’s Slanted and Enchanted felt from mine.

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Do the children remember Blog House? When Donald Glover’s music was actively embarrassing instead of just passively so? That two of the biggest existential threats to hip-hop were once skinny jeans and T-Pain? Have they ever bought a physical CD on a Tuesday? Tried to get so stoned that the album Lou Reed made with Metallica became good? Was there a brief period where, after listening to his guest verse on Big Boi’s Sir Lucious Left Foot: The Son of Chico Dusty, they were convinced that Yelawolf was going to make it? Gil? Scott?? Heron???


The fact of the matter is that at some point, the music I care most about became old, and I did too. But just because I’m constitutionally incapable of eating a McDonald’s BTS meal now without immediately experiencing the processed-food equivalent of a hangover doesn't mean that the culture industry has stopped trying to find ways to make me cough up my hard-earned dollars. Lately, it seems to have cooked up a new and exciting category of music consumption to serve to us millennials: Nostalgia, baby!!!

Last month, the bill for the 2022 Just Like Heaven Festival hit the music internet with the force of a Four Loko. The marquee compressed the entirety of the 2000s indie scene into a single day, with sets from Interpol, Modest Mouse, The Shins, M.I.A., Bloc Party, Santigold, Cut Copy, Islands, Chromeo, and Wolf Parade performing Apologies to the Queen Mary in its entirety(!!!)—of course, the band by the name of !!! will be making an appearance as well.

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Because taking out student loans to pay for college then graduating into a recession gave my generation a healthy sense of irony, it became a minor Music Writer Twitter trend to dunk on and/or improve the Just Like Heaven lineup. “It’s called Just Like Heaven because this is the festival that plays in heaven when an old millennial dies,” wrote the critic Steven Hyden. Another, Larry Fitzmaurice, submitted his own—and to be honest, better—Just Like Heaven bill, prompting a wave of “remember some guys”-style responses and a “wow yes” from Unknown Mortal Orchestra (a band that, with a fuzzy indie rock sound that helped define early-2010s blog-rock, may very well end up on the Just Like Heaven bill if they give it a couple of years).

I have trouble remembering most things that happened prior to the pandemic, so I had forgotten that there was actually a first Just Like Heaven festival held in 2019. My friend, the critic Ian Cohen, attended the festival and wrote about it. “It’s incredibly rare for a festival of this nature to have such a fully-formed identity,” he marveled, “even if that identity is ‘washed 30-something indie music fan.’” I do not see the lie. 

Nostalgia has been on my mind a lot lately. I don’t mean stuff like Space Jam, which I did not watch because I am an adult. I mean nostalgia for the time when we were cool—I’m talking about the 2000s and early 2010s. Thanks to COVID, the same Lower East Side that The Strokes once made seem like the hippest place in the universe is once again popping off, and the New York Post is NOT happy about it. Nostalgia-bait essays celebrating the tenth anniversary of records like The Weeknd’s House of Balloons have become a subgenre of music journalism. Gossip Girl is back. HBO’s new Woodstock ’99 documentary is basically two hours of Gen X-ers apologizing for nu-metal, so desperate to satisfy the classic Millennial request to “do better” that they kinda-sorta end up blaming the January 6 riot in Washington on Fred Durst. 

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Back in my day, every band felt like they were our band, even the ones like Radiohead or The White Stripes that had been around for a while and were technically Gen X-ers. We innately understood every new gadget or social media platform because they were all aimed at us. There were no pesky Zoomers lurking below us to steal our thunder or create trends that flew over our heads. Shit was tight. Or at least, that’s how I remember the time emotionally. When I look back at the actual facts of the matter—like the undue cultural significance we afforded to American Apparel, for instance, or how much we all loved Sun Kil Moon—I’m less sure. 

Can anything good come of dredging up a whole era and trying to do it all over again? A few recent projects give me hope.

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There’s a scene in Gabriel Krauze’s debut novel Who They Was, which was recently published in the U.S., that I can’t get out of my head. Snoopz, a promising literature student and talented stickup kid in London’s East Kilburn neighborhood, bumps into a new friend named Gotti one evening. To celebrate their burgeoning bond, the pair throw on ski masks and rob some sucker for his TAG Heuer. They then rendezvous at Gotti’s place, smoke weed, semi-accidentally find and take a dealer’s stash, and end the night by falling asleep to an Uncle Murda mixtape. “The Uncle Murda track we’re listening to is pure shit from the soul,” Snoopz says, “and the darkness embraces me, fills my heart and holds it, squeezes it.”

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Now, I’m guessing that the out-of-nowhere Uncle Murda reference flew over the heads of the Booker Prize judges, who longlisted Krauze’s novel, but it encapsulated so much of why I couldn’t put the book down. Though Who They Was is coy with time, there are scant references, mostly musical, that date its story to an era that holds a special place in my heart as an aging music nerd: the mid-to-late-2000s. In London, it was the tail end of Grime’s first heyday, when Dizzee Rascal had gone pop but the underground was still full of fast-talking MCs chatting shit at underground raves and on pirate radio. Uncle Murda, a native New Yorker and one-time Roc-A-Fella Records signee best known in 2008 for getting shot in the fucking head, checking himself out of the hospital the next day, and making an insanely hard mixtape about the whole thing, seems like the exact sort of street-focused rapper whose music would travel across the pond and that Snoopz and Gotti would fall asleep to after robbing a guy. 

Who They Was evokes the era and mood of a world that’s crackling with possibility and danger. And reading it made me extremely nostalgic for my own late teens and early twenties, when I was an underachieving college student spending all my time writing, reading, listening to obscure rap, and getting into trouble of a decidedly more mild sort than Krauze, who based Snoopz’s story almost completely on his own life. But my reaction to the material on the page also hammered home for me the gap between our nostalgia for certain moments in culture and people’s actual lived experience of it.

The truth is that the realities of Snoopz’s world are brutal, and a lifetime of being dealt shit hand after shit hand has given him and everyone in his circle an almost Nietzschean sense of ethics. They’re unapologetically violent, he tells us, “not because we’re evil or any basic moral bullshit like that” but because “in this kind of environment any act of violence, exploitation, whatever, can’t be unfair because that’s how life works.” At one point, Snoopz uses a butterfly knife to cut a suit-clad stranger down the entire length of his arm. His crime? Being on the same street as Snoopz and not saying sorry when they bump shoulders as they pass.

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“A few months of this mad life can seem like forever,” Snoopz reflects. “But this moment is just a whisper in the dark that everyone forgets when the new day comes.” It’s only when he’s aged out of the streets and a new generation has taken over that he’s able to process it all over a zoot with a friend, slowly realizing that what felt wild and free at the time was in fact traumatic. By the end of the book, Snoopz has mentally moved on but physically returns to where he started, living once again in the same council estate bedroom of his youth. The past never really leaves us, and we never really leave it.

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If the present is the result of a past that kind of sucked, is nostalgia ever a good thing? Is it possible that a version of nostalgia could exist that channels the things we miss about the past while acknowledging its lessons—so that perhaps the present, which still sucks, can at least be a little less shitty? Tyler, the Creator’s new record, Call Me If You Get Lost, might offer an answer.

In many ways, Call Me If You Get Lost feels like a celebration of the aesthetics and touchstones of the 2004-2011-ish period, a time when Millennials were ascendant and Tyler—perhaps the ultimate musical avatar of the internet-drunk Millennial ethos—was a teenager. On “Corso,” he shouts out Hurricane Chris’s single “A Bay Bay,” slips into The Game’s flow from “How We Do,” and flips Kanye’s “Other other Benz” line from “Otis.” The cavernous drums and errant squawks on “Lemonhead” sound like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy-era Yeezy, while Tyler’s flute-filled beat on “Hot Wind Blows” inspires such lyrical highs from guest rapper Lil Wayne (with whom Tyler has always had uncanny chemistry) that he hits the legendary zone known as “Mixtape Weezy.” 

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Odd Future members Jasper Dolphin and Domo Genesis make appearances, and the Jamie xx production credit on “Daisy World” answers the question of, “What the hell has Jamie xx been up to lately?” Though the record’s cover art is a flip on Ol’ Dirty Bastard’s early-90s debut, its loose, casual mood and semi-random deck of features (42 Dugg! NBA YoungBoy!) give the whole thing the air of a mixtape you stumbled across on DatPiff, only to discover your new favorite rapper off the strength of a cool cover and a cosign by DJ Drama—who, tying this hodgepodge of period-perfect references together, serves as the project’s host. 

The nostalgia of Call Me If You Get Lost works on multiple levels. On the surface, Tyler, now 30, is simply laying claim to the hip-hop of Millennial youth as fodder for reminiscence. I remember dancing to “A Bay Bay” at parties, listening to “How We Do” while riding around country backroads in high school, playing Wayne’s Da Drought 3 and Dedication 2 as I vacuumed the basement of my college’s student union while fulfilling community service hours for an underage drinking ticket. These are real experiences that mean something to me, and having them referenced by a new record I enjoy brings me back to those times in my life.

But there’s also something deeper going on. Early Odd Future was, in and of itself, a nostalgic act. Their digitally washed-out beats were wistful even when the raps were at their most violent. And it could be argued that the vulgarity of those lyrics, in turn, was an attempt to recapture the impish glee that millions of children derived from watching South Park and listening to Eminem in the early 2000s, a time when consuming the dirty words of others was, for many preteens, about the only form of rebellion available.

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As critic David Barry points out in his book on the subject, the word “nostalgia” is a combination of the Greek terms “nostos” and “algos.” Put together, this translates to something like “pain associated with home.” And early Odd Future had plenty of that: the misanthropy of Tyler, the Creator and Earl Sweatshirt’s first mixtapes was part and parcel with personal narratives about growing up with absentee fathers and adolescent strife, of Earl Sweatshirt’s mysterious absence from the group as it gained fame. (The mystery was solved once it came out that Earl’s mother had shipped him off to a school for troubled youths in Samoa after finding his music.)  

Then again, the group’s very name promised that things would be different when they were in charge. And they were, to a certain degree. As digital natives selling a look and a lifestyle alongside the music itself, Odd Future set the template for a wave of artists using the new tools of the internet to cultivate and monetize a fanbase. Their devotion to Supreme was perhaps the final push to bring streetwear culture to the mainstream. If you doubt their impact, allow me to submit this Billie Eilish Instagram caption to the jury. I hereby rest my case.

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And yet, for all their innovation, Odd Future’s music was very much a product of an *ahem* pre-woke culture. Part of what made the group blow up was the quote-unquote “controversy” around their lyrics, which is another way of saying that this was a group of teenagers who routinely said stuff that combined violence, misogyny, and homophobia in ways that were vaguely creative but mostly just disheartening and mean-spirited. At the time, nobody knew that three of their members—soon-to-be superstar Frank Ocean; their DJ, Syd, who also sang in the OF-affiliated soul band The Internet; and Tyler himself—would later publicly identify as queer, a fact which injects a dose of retrospective complexity and nuance into the whole thing. Still, there is no amount of nuance and complexity that can make the whole Tyler vs. Tegan and Sara thing not at least moderately fucked up.

Like Snoopz in Who They Was, there are signs that the members of Odd Future have done some soul-searching since then. Earl Sweatshirt has been vocal about both his personal growth and present ambivalence about his past music. Though Tyler has been less generous in interviews—in The Guardian in 2019, he argued that listeners should have understood his non-malicious intent from the start—the new record offers plenty of evidence that he’s been thinking about his old self. 

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Much of Call Me If You Get Lost deals with Tyler’s personal evolution, both financially and emotionally—hilariously, he declares he “might buy a boat” on “Corso,” then ends the track rapping about crying on said aquatic watercraft. There are references to failed romances throughout the record, analyzed without spite or malice, only regret and an acceptance of his role in things not working out. On “Manifesto,” he scoffs at people on the “Internet bringin’ old lyrics up, like I hide that shit,” and raps “I came a long way from my past, n—ga it’s obvious.” On “Massa,” he says he’s no longer “that little boy y’all was introduced to at 19.” At that age, he flatly rejected the label “horrorcore” that the music press placed upon his group’s music, yet on “Lumberjack,” he’s rapping over “2 Cups of Blood” by the archetypal horrorcore masters Gravediggaz, a group he once claimed to dislike so much that being compared to them made him want to cry

Maybe this is all a coincidence, but it gives me the sense that Call Me If You Get Lost is less Tyler’s attempt at an Odd Future throwback and more of a stab at an enlightened redux, a hard-rapping reconsideration of his time before the Grammys and the Grinch soundtrack. It’s a nostalgic record that avoids nostalgia’s greatest pitfall: letting a fake version of the past become the product that is being sold.

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The existence of Just Like Heaven is less obviously productive.

The indie scene of the mid-2000s was every bit as problematic beneath the surface as Odd Future’s music was at first listen. Once you peeled away all the jangly guitars and twee keyboards, the wildly white and male rock world was full of systemic racism and rife with a sense of cultural colonialism that sought to appropriate global sounds. As women on the inside of these scenes knew all too well, and as the rest of us would come to learn later, indie rock was also infected, perhaps fatally, with casual misogyny that made shows and green rooms across the nation feel hostile, if not actively unsafe. 

Do we really want to go back to that? Of course not. But on a second look, another thing does stand out to me from that time. In their prime, many of the acts on its bill expressed a discomfort bordering upon loathing for the era’s increasingly technologized capitalism. Wolf Parade’s Dan Boeckner sang that he was “not in love with the modern world.” Modest Mouse warbled about the alienation from the self that occurs when “you ain’t machines and you ain’t land.” M.I.A. was making music about the merger of the tech industry and the surveillance state back when people were still using BlackBerries. 

By packaging the art expressing the era’s discontent and slapping it on a festival poster, Just Like Heaven almost asks us to mentally go back to a time when maybe, just maybe, we could have done something to make 2021 different than it actually is. It’s worth noting that none of the scene’s most flagrant offenders haven’t been anywhere near either Just Like Heaven bills—and compared to the 2019 festival, next spring’s lineup will also feature a larger number of women and people of color. It might be too little, too late, but hey, if we pay enough money, we can at least pretend

Maybe by taking the once-underground and bathing it in a nostalgic light, we’ll cast some sunshine on the dark shadows. Or, maybe along with that, we’ll be rejuvenating the careers of bad people whose bad actions we’ve forgotten, or which we never found out about the first time around. Because that’s the thing about nostalgia: On its own, it’s only as real as the thing we’re nostalgic for.