Much has been written about my generation, the one suspended “between Gen X and Millennials” like an incomplete thought. Analysts have long groped for our defining traits: We are old enough to have morosely watched “Nirvana Unplugged” when it aired on MTV, but not too old to post Instagram stories about sheet masks. Ours might be one of the first generations to watch the fashions of our teen years return while we are still just able to pull them off. I’m a freelance writer who’s occasionally had to exploit her personal experiences to cultivate an audience in a rapidly diminishing digital economy. But I also made $36K a year at age 22 as an administrative assistant, which I know sounds unbelievable but was once a fair starting salary for an advanced computer user — even without a degree. I’m not especially old, but it’s still like I’m from another time.
The most notable thing about people born sometime between the very late 1970s and the very early ’80s, though, is the chasm that runs through our experience of media: If we try, we can clearly remember what it was like to experience the world without the internet. We can remember watching it arrive wild, raw, juddering, and adolescent. And we can occasionally wonder how, when exactly, it swallowed us all.
We’ve gamely kept up. We are literate enough to feel as overwhelmed by the invasive, corporate-utopian, rapid-fire post-truth era as anyone: “What if phones, but too much?” It’s nearly as if this is the only reality I’ve ever known, where I can’t spend a quiet moment without checking Twitter, clearing notifications on apps, experiencing anxiety about the discourse, agonizing over every word choice or every photo tag, editing my selfies. I wish I could unsee all the horrible posts from people I used to like. I wish I never had to find out just how many people think violent, oppressive dates are normal or that mental illness makes you shoot others. I wish immutable things like facts and time still had meaning.
I have a strange and vulnerable confession to make: I’ve started watching old television through the magic of YouTube. Suddenly, a young Boy George glitters as he walks across Phil Donahue’s stage. His poise and fashion would feel fresh even today, like a JoJo’s Bizarre Adventure character, and grandfatherly Donahue’s attempts to bait the pop icon into discussing his gender expression are predictable. “Is it about his message? Is it about his ability as a performer? What do you think?” Donahue asks a bespectacled white-haired lady in the audience.
Through the smudged lens of the year 1984, there is immediately a quaint, vulnerable quality to the small, barely dressed stage, the soft focus, the muted applause. “I really don’t know,” giggles the elderly lady dreamily. “That’s what I came here to find out.”
What’s most striking about, say, this 1991 appearance of Sylvia Browne on the vintage talk show People Are Talking is not the way the TV psychic sits staring dourly into the beyond as guests earnestly recount their losses. It’s the long, long introduction by hosts Ann Frasier (spectacular in big tinted lenses) and Ross McGowan, who spend an entire five minutes of airtime chatting about nothing (“I went on a cruise…I went down to Mexico, and I went on the Dawn Princess…”). In those languidly paced minutes, you can summon the memory of a childhood sick day, propped up in the family room, lying in a late-afternoon sunbeam, doing hours of nothing.
As I watch, it becomes increasingly astonishing to me that Donahue, People Are Talking, and their ilk are somehow part of the same lifetime as today’s media. The way we experience time itself has changed. That world is somehow only 20 years apart from today’s, where a conservative backlash against traumatized schoolkids can start on your phone screen, where the Aziz Ansari thing already feels like a year ago, where you’re never doing nothing. Maybe you are refreshing, clearing notifications, scrolling without reading, or thinking, nerves frayed, about all the things you might be missing. You are cleaning your kitchen with one hand and texting with the other, while Netflix is wondering if you’re still watching.
Old talk shows and lifestyle programs are a curiosity. Old advertisements, however, are practically time travel. It’s like you’re watching a sleeping America dream about itself. The format is comfortably familiar, but the world they depict is far away.
“Listen to the sound of a whole new ‘O’!” a Cheerios jingle innocently croons while a lady in pleated pants asks if you’ve heard about new Apple Cinnamon. There’s an entire Taco Bell Value Menu for 59 cents. America’s Most Wanted dangles a salacious pedophile drama—with eerie reenactment trailer shots of (what’s hopefully just meant to look like) children being touched. Remember the California Raisins? What were they all about? Those particular examples constitute a tonal landscape of 1987, a year when a “cool guy” beer ad involved earnest arena rock, pastel snowsuits, and penguins.
I can’t express enough gratitude to the community who gathers old advertisements from yard sale VHS recordings and digitizes them into YouTube compilations. Thanks to them, it’s possible to time-travel to any year. You must try it: Type “[year] commercials” into YouTube search; you might have to add a location to get the most personally powerful results. I recommend picking the last year you remember being at peace as a child, falling asleep in front of the steady hum of the television altar on a sunny afternoon sick day, or at night while your dad does the dishes. Perhaps more than any other vintage media, commercials offer a surreal lens on culture — and whatever ideas about it you subliminally logged. The succession of garish aspirational beats takes you back to another part of your media life like a sudden impressionist painting. I know it sounds weird, but you really must try it.
I think 1994 is a funny vintage, personally. Everything is so hilariously “extreme.” Office workers and civil servants are figures of parody; it was a time when things like work and stability were mocked as disposable indulgences for those too blind to be “alternative.” Remember being excited for The Lion King to come out? Ruthless children chasing around dozens of beleaguered cereal mascots? Kids’ faces deformed by Gushers fruit snacks? Black-and-white tableaus warning of teens forcing free drugs onto kids? I remember, but feels like a lifetime ago, because I had to do so much less per minute with my attention then.
This must be part of the appeal of the fascinating “song remixed to sound like it’s playing in an empty mall” trend, which Jia Tolentino wrote about so eloquently in the New Yorker. Tolentino is right on when she notes that today’s young listeners encounter music primarily in virtual space, so they feel nostalgia for the “friction” and tactility of listening experiences in physical space. They know things were like that only recently; they might even feel they miss it — despite having never experienced it.
I recently discovered a new ’90s playlist, remarkable in that it used regional market research and unearthed forgotten songs to create a “true” sound of the radio during that musical era — it makes you realize that the big hits you thought defined a genre were really only incidental to it. “This sounds like working at Little Caesars til 3 am and college to me,” one Twitter user said. To another, it was like “[doing] algebra homework in the basement eating bagel bites with the radio on.” To me, it sounds like the parking lot after school, the movie theater in the dead of summer, lying awake listening to the clock radio in my old room. Perhaps there’s a light at the tunnel of endless content, and that light is our deep, loving relationship to context.
Using advertorial time travel to reconnect with historical media norms has a simultaneously pleasurable and disorienting effect — a look inside a world you remember but don’t recognize. The internet has recently rediscovered the Mandela effect, a sort of collective misremembering of history that feels related. My favorite example is the case of Kazaam, a ’90s genie film starring comedian Sinbad, which people in apparently significant numbers insist they remember, though no such film actually exists. The Mandela effect — and nostalgic YouTube time-travel dives — are particularly attractive experiences for this generation’s reality, where the truth is malleable in accordance with the dominant party’s algorithm shuffle; where what we remember may not be what’s real.