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Are we repeating 2001 all over again?

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WRITING: ANNE T. DONAHUE
@annetdonahue

In 2001, two very important things happened to me: I switched from Catholic to public school, and I abandoned my once-beloved pleather pants for skate shoes and Dickies. I was cool now. Different. Comfort became the name of my game, and I declared proudly that the excess of Y2K-centric fashion could go to hell. I wasn’t like “other girls”, and I was desperate for my “preppy” ex-best friends to note that my change in wardrobe elevated me to levels far above them.

Obviously, I was insufferable. But I was also young. At age 16, my only goal was to be exceptional. It didn’t occur to me that I was playing into other social and aesthetic trends, only that I’d found a world that let me throw my insecurities into a subculture that prided itself on being above the status quo. And that made my world very small. I cared only about my direct circle of friends; of the bands they said were cool, and of the brands that were appropriate for evenings spent sitting in basements or vandalizing mailboxes. Pop culture outside of Tony Hawk, Less Than Jake, and the hoodie my crush let me wear made up my day-to-day context didn’t matter or exist.

That said, a similar spirit of change is once again defining 2021. At the start of last year, many of us basked in the luxury of ignorance. We believed the year held only potential and would signal the end of a terrible decade, ushering in an updated version of the roaring twenties that would erase any darkness of the 2010s. And then came the pandemic and its complete disregard for our plans. The world shifted, and we were forced to shift along with it. A much different disaster than the one we eventually witnessed and in 2001, but one with a similar ability to upend normalcy and to wade into new norms, new fears, and new revelations.

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"Instead of acknowledging the events of the real world, I spent my days trying to reinvent myself and jettison anything that made me feel tethered me to the girl I used to be."

At least that’s what comes to mind when I think about this time twenty years ago. As a wee baby suburban teen, I was sheltered and my world was tiny. 2001 was the first year in which I genuinely experimented with personal style and learnt after too many nights at all-ages clubs that vinyl miniskirts and heels make me feel hugely uncomfortable (even if I was years from understanding that this revelation didn’t make me better than my club-going friends). It was a year I spent obsessed with only myself and the pals I kept close to me, so I barely clocked the hype of Moulin Rouge! Or that “Lady Marmalade” was a terrible match for the film’s romantic sensationalism. Instead of acknowledging the events of the real world, I spent my days trying to reinvent myself and jettison anything that made me feel tethered me to the girl I used to be. I granted myself permission to bury my head in the sand, believing my precious self could avoid the consequences of time, politics, or world disasters.

Of course, that purposeful ignorance is something I’m super embarrassed about, and rightfully so. But the environment in which we lived then and are living in now have still somehow aligned themselves. 2000 began with the relief that the world wasn’t ending via Y2K, only for September 2001 to assure us that tragedy is always at the ready. Meanwhile, early 2020 issued the last gasp of hustle culture before descending into the hellscape we all live in. And we cope by seeking out pop and celebrity culture to make time go a little faster. Case in point: over the last few days, we’ve begun clinging to news of Harry Styles and Olivia Wilde’s new relationship and Kim and Kanye’s impending divorce, distracting ourselves from our own reality just long enough for us to forget what outside looks like. Which is what I now understand I was doing back in high school: yes, my “world” was pop punk, PlayStation, and the Warped Tour lineup, but they were really just my distractions. It was easier to escape into Transworld magazine than to acknowledge that I still felt out of place, sad, and unsure of myself constantly. It was easier to lose myself to new-to-me trends than to acknowledge how scary the world was outside of it.

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And in 2001, the world was terrifying. After losing Aaliyah in August and witnessing 9/11 only one month later, we sought solace by insulating ourselves with cultural tastes. To counter the bubblegum vibes of Britney Spears or the terribleness of Lifehouse (“Hanging By a Moment” was the song of the year), bands like The Strokes and Good Charlotte burst onto the charts and ushered in the “us vs. them” ideology of anyone who prided themselves on how “mainstream” they were not. (Hello!) Movies also created an escape through a world of fantasy via films like Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and The Lord of the Rings, while TV shows like Sex and the City upheld its own type of fantasies. Anything went in 2001. Even if some of us weren’t quite ready to understand that yet.

The thing is, while pop culture twenty years ago felt disconnected and at odds, I’d like to see 2021 channel its predecessor’s actual intentions. Teens like me may have spent most of 2001 condemning anything we didn’t personally like, but outside of our bubbles was a world in which we were free to delve into the trends we wanted. This year, I’d like us to build on that and use pop culture to discover who we want to present ourselves as, and then commit to wearing, listening to, and watching makes us feel happy and strong without putting anybody else’s tastes down. After all, to use pop culture as a means of escape or source of identity isn’t the problem. There’s nothing wrong with burying ourselves in what we love if it acts as a balm or fuels a deeper purpose (like discovering what you love or the work you’d like to do.) The problem is when you use it as a barometer for someone else’s validity. Or worse: when you’ve buried your face so far into a pile of Roxy hoodies, that you can’t hear anything but your own entitlement. And reader, I was never cooler than any of my old vinyl skirt-wearing Britney-loving friends. I was just a wee bit cozier.

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