The nostalgic TikTok kids are all right

Let millennials who didn't use vintage Instagram filters cast the first stone!

The nostalgic TikTok kids are all right

I don’t think I have any subscribers who are teens, so what I am about to show you will probably make you feel old. I’m sorry. It’s necessary.

The teens are longing for the good old days — the early aughts and 2010s.

There’s a lot to unpack here. We see some naïveté in the comment section. A video from the class of 2012 includes comments like “throwback to when everyone wasn’t addicted to their phone!” and “The diversity and how everyone got along!!😍.” By far the rudest comment I’ve encountered was on a video of the class of TWENTY THIRTEEN, less than a decade ago: “the teacher in the first clip prob dead now.”

The early aughts takes are rough in a different way. Comments on a video of the class of 2002 include “man life was great then,” “When life was so much better :\” and “I love how everyone looks so natural and carefree 😭” — as a reminder, the class of ’02 had watched 9/11 live on TV just a few months before graduating. (One comment, not as directly related to this lack of historical perspective but perplexing to me nonetheless, simply asks “They wore hats??”)

Obviously to anyone who lived through it, the 00s were not halcyon days for America. The aforementioned 9/11 was NOT GREAT, plus the president was a war criminal. I was in high school from 2005 to 2009 and have some videos that these kids would love to watch and dub with approximately contemporary hits. In one video, when a female friend tells me that she loves me so much she would marry me, another friend jokes that we need to move to California. Gay marriage was only legal in a few states back then, you see. There was no one out in my high school. I remember being surprised a few years later to hear that a lesbian couple went to prom together while my younger brother was in school. The year that I graduated, Hilary Duff was urging people to stop using “that’s gay” as a way to say something sucked.

Homophobia was a lot more common and a lot worse back then, and our knowledge of sexuality and gender was more limited. I, personally, genuinely didn’t know that bisexuality was a thing until college, a stark contrast from today’s teens growing up with celebrities who identify as bi or pan. While I knew and accepted the concept of gay people, bisexuality seemed to be a made-up synonym for sluttiness. And as a high schooler in North Carolina, my exposure to the concept of trans people  was limited to punchlines in comedy specials and movies.

Body positivity was not a thing. Whenever I see the red carpet for an event like the VMAs or Grammys nowadays, I marvel at the concept of young girls seeing a variety of bodies on the stage. Mental health disorders were treated more like jokes than medical conditions — the defining millennial pop culture moment might have been seeing our generation’s biggest star get broken down in real time by a merciless industry and cruel media. (“Leave Britney alone” became one of the first YouTube memes, a joke like everything else about her struggles.) We’re getting better about understanding consent nowadays, too. That wasn’t in the conversation at the high school level back in the day.

These are all caveats, of course.

Of course I think that times were better back then overall.

We did have social media, but it was new and exciting and there were no adults on there yet. It was deeply, deeply cringey in retrospect, but that’s okay. Living your life online was new and we weren’t used to it yet.

I constantly see reminders that today’s high school kids have it much worse. School shootings, the urgent climate crisis, and now a global pandemic all loom over the classes of the 2020s. Young girls might be more aware of the concept of body positivity, and yet there’s more pressure to consider plastic surgery, fillers and other ways of achieving Instagram face. When I tune in to what’s happening on the pop charts, I wonder what kids dance to at prom or college parties nowadays. Kanye West was remixing Daft Punk when I was in high school and collaborating with Jay-Z on party bangers when I was in college. It was a much more fun time!

How could I ever judge those backward-looking kids? I’m obsessed with fluctuations in the zeitgeist. (“Fluctuations in the zeitgeist” could be the name of this newsletter!) I had a Y2K themed party in college! In 2012!! And my reason was exactly the same as the rationale for making these TikToks: I wanted to reenact the fantasy of young adulthood that I’d pictured as a child. Pop culture sets our expectations for the way the world will be, and growing up means confronting the differences in reality. When I first got to college, I had a vague sense that something wasn’t right about the experience. After examining that impulse for a while, I realized that I’d subconsciously expected everyone to be in flannels hanging out in basements. My earliest frame of reference for college was Boy Meets World episodes from the 90s and some part of my brain was registering the dissonance. Some days I indulged that impulse intentionally, listening to the Pixies or the Postal Service and imagining I was part of a lineage of college kids who discovered that music for the first time.

I might be more prone to that kind of pop culture-centric thinking than the average person, but I’ll bet that you engaged with the nostalgia industrial complex at some point. Did you share a BuzzFeed list of things only 90s kids would understand? Did you put a filter on an early Instagram photo to pretend it was a Polaroid? American culture is obsessed with fake nostalgia for an imagined better time in our history. Not a cell phone in sight, just living in the moment, when America was Great. Everything is rebooted, everything gets a sequel. The current gets overwhelming sometimes. We’re all borne back ceaselessly into the past.

I imagine that someone savvy will make a period piece set in the early aughts soon, and it will fascinate Gen Z as much as it will repulse Gen X and millennials. With today’s sensibilities sanding off the edges, it will present a blissful image of the aughts without the backdrop of the Iraq War or rampant homophobia. Teens will love it, and we should let them. They may not have a future, but they can borrow our past.

More like this:

On the zeitgeist

The decadent memes of peak Tumblr

They don’t make ’em like they used to!