an anthem for a trash generation
|Helena Fitzgerald||Apr 10, 2019|
In the late 2000s I was sleeping with all of my friends. This didn’t make me special; we were young in one of the several ways people move to cities like New York in order to be young. We were in general not doing much with our lives and so we did what generation after generation of young people have done in order to combat that particular circumstance: We tried to generate enough sex drama amongst ourselves that we didn’t have to notice that we weren’t doing much of anything, that things were harder than they were promised to be, that we had very little money and that everyone else seemed to be achieving more and doing better than we were. I was in love with most everyone I knew, for no particular reason except that it made the pitch and timber of my days better match the urgency and kick-ins of the music I was listening to on a rickety first generation iPod.
The summer after college I spent most of my time at one particular horrible dive bar, which seemed to be so far out into Brooklyn as to be halfway to Chicago, although I realize now it wasn’t remote at all. At the time it bordered a serenely gentrified neighborhood; now, if it still exists, it sits smack in the middle of one. My friends and I sat around half-naked in the sweaty hours that even an air conditioner couldn’t alleviate, the bartender making us unnameable, disgusting drinks like dares. One of the songs that always meant everyone would have to get up and dance (it was the kind of bar where people danced, even me, a person defined at my core by my inability to dance) was Peaches’ “Fuck the Pain Away.”
I don’t remember hearing it for the first time, although I do remember my reaction to it, but that reaction could have happened at the bar, or in my best friend’s bedroom, or just in response to someone telling me that there was a song called “Fuck The Pain Away” whose lyrics were “fuck the pain away.” I could not believe it existed: How was this song actually called that, and how did we all manage to hear it, how did it manage to get heard despite having made its name unprintable, its whole self unplayable on the radio, how was this allowed? I was the kind of person even up through my early 20s who was obsessed with sex and transgression because I was deeply, essentially naive, which is to say, exactly the kind of person that this song - and the whole decade that it indelibly soundtracks in my mind - was for.
At the time I had this reaction, the song had already existed for almost ten years, and was far from new. It had been playing for most of my adult life, and some of my teens, pulsing somewhere under whatever I was doing. “Fuck The Pain Away” came out in 2000, an near-exact mile-marker of the disaster party of a decade that it underscored. No song is as deeply of its moment as this song, I think, but in this case it was a moment that lasted nearly ten years, which is perhaps why the song felt new to me in 2007 or so when I heard it for the first time.
There is a lately a growing nostalgic trend toward the 2000s, one beginning to match the vast nostalgic energy thrown at the idea of the 1990s, an era so ceaselessly eulogized as to have become not just a noun but an adjective. I find 2000s nostalgia at once bizarre and utterly predictable: Predictable because every era will sooner than later be cannibalized by this same sentimental impulse; bizarre because the 2000s were a decade of pure trash in which George W Bush was president and Tila Tequila was a star and most everyone thought an heiress wearing a shirt that said “Stop Being Poor” was funny. If anything has ever proved that nostalgia is never about a particular era and only about a collective longing for a time when the people doing the longing were still young, when our choices had not yet narrowed our path, it is nostalgia for the era of MySpace and low-rise jeans.
Perhaps nostalgia for past eras is simply one more way in which people try to make themselves important, the desire to situate oneself at the center of the story: I was there I was there I was there. Perhaps we simply like a conversation in which we are guaranteed to have something to contribute. Perhaps this is the era in which we loved people we no longer know, in which the things we have lost were not lost yet. I have little longing for the ‘00s because I was miserable during them, but I also assume that everyone else who longs backward into this time period probably was miserable then, too. It is more the desire to plant a flag in one’s own experiences, to try to make a period of time belong to oneself by getting the answers right to a quiz no one is giving, naming all the details, the characters and the places and the events, who mattered and when and why. Remember low-rise jeans, remember Friendster, remember Mr. Brightside, remember the Dark Room and the Pink Pony and that huge abandoned house down near the Bowery that people would throw parties in for years before the developers came, somehow? Remember livejournal, and the last days of video stores, the 9 train and the first time the L shut down on weekends? Remember when we loved each other, when we were still friends, when I would still go over to your house late at night and walk home through the sunlight with tangled hair in the morning? Remember that bar where we all hung out and the disgusting bathroom and everyone who fucked in there while we all waited to pee, remember the parties where we went outside and stood in the cold on the street and smoked cigarettes and talked shit about everyone else and talked about ourselves in the future tense? Remember Razer phones and Blackberries and Sidekicks and the first person you knew who got an iPhone? Remember the person you thought you were going to love forever who isn’t even in your phone anymore? Remember Peaches?
It’s a little precarious to claim that an era in which I myself was very young was a particularly horny era, since I imagine this is true for a great deal of people about whatever era happens to coincide with their own extreme youth. Nevertheless, the at-a-loss aftermath of the apocalypse that didn’t come in 2000 often felt like one big idiotic slutty house party in which nobody actually knew the host or how they’d been invited. Or at least that’s how I remember everyone behaving in the uncertain, lurid time between 2000 and 2010. Everything was wrong, and stupid, and terrible, and it wasn’t yet widely accepted that one should be intelligently mad about it - the stylish pose was a sort of flippant on-purpose stupidity. It was the era of Paris Hilton, the first real boom time of reality TV, the long siege of the going-out top. It was the sex idiot of decades. My heart was broken through most of it. The fact of standing at the beginning of a new century - one that hadn’t been supposed to happen at all - made us all, it seemed, at once panicked and wasteful, frantic and lazy. Sure, this might be the end of history, but it was also the very very beginning of something, the prelude to the book written in italics, the intro that everybody skips. Nothing counted yet. “Fuck the pain away” felt, to me, with my dumb, frantic, lazy broken heart, like a meaningful directive, like it might be the real cure.
A tweet went around recently that said something like “maybe the problem is that we’re a whole generation who were told to fuck the pain away.” (After a whole lot of digging through google results I can’t find it, please send it to me if you know what I’m talking about so I can credit the person who tweeted it) People are too obsessed with defining micro-generations, but it is true that if you were in your late teens or early twenties anytime maybe between 2001 and 2008, you might at least once have been drunk in a bar and thought Peaches was the only person who had ever really known the answer.
Peaches, of course, doesn’t know the answer. That was her whole thing, her whole appeal, whatever she was defiantly selling and refusing to make it easy to sell, or at least that was the whole thing of the song on the back of which she got famous. “Fuck the pain away,” as a life strategy isn’t a strategy at all; that’s a the point of it. It’s choosing to sink rather than trying to swim. Taking Advil instead of going to the doctor. It’s saying that we are all going to die and there’s nothing to be done about it, so we might as well stop thinking about it, and party. Fucking does take the pain away, with crisp and unbelievable effectiveness, for the exact duration of the fucking, at which point it comes screaming back twice as strong, wanting its overdue wages and its lost time.
This maneuver is deeply unfashionable now, in our new era of hysterical permanent crisis, the place where the nascent century landed after its introductory chapter of trash parties. Fucking the pain away is too much akin to turning off one’s phone, becoming the man in that NYT article who took all his insulating money and went to live in the woods. Love is in almost all its forms is a selfish proposition, a closed circuit. It is one of the obliterative strategies that shrink down the world. Fucking the pain away is a thing I wish fervently still worked, and in that way, perhaps I am guilty of the same nostalgia for the trash decade in which I was young.
We are at the time of year about money, which is to say the time of year when my anxiety is worst. Outside my window, the world explodes into indecent bloom, but nothing ever feels as dead or sexless to me as the first two weeks of April. My anxiety focuses on logistics and money, paperwork and banks, homework and signatures and forms and post offices. I understand anxiety to be, in solid fact, no more than a learned chemical misfire, and talking about it, no matter how much the internet has made it ubiquitous and accepted, still makes me feel like some self-justifying fancy lady in a Tennessee Williams play blaming the self-inflicted wreckage of her life on her nerves. But what anxiety wants me to believe it is, at this time of year when realities that cannot be thought or argued or drunk or smoked or fucked away crowd in too close like a forest of little paper knives, is the curse of knowing better. It says that the only honest or safe way to live is to press oneself up against the crowding, awake-at-night worries, that at least then I will not be caught off-guard when my world finally blows apart, that if I live in the worry about it, at least I will be ready.
This kind of anxiety is what the current, hyper-informed era feels like. It is inarguably better, and probably kinder in the truest sense of kindness. It is possible that this is the only way through to a better world, this awful readiness, this opposite of a party. My life is better for my miserable, slamming-hearted attentions to problems I once fucked into the background. Right before I stopped drinking (for a while? forever? who knows, it’s just a minor thing I’m doing and neither important nor prescriptive, an aside I feel the need for here because swearing off alcohol is such a hot little trend right now), I became acutely aware of a thing that happened after around three drinks, when my hearing would collapse on itself, sound filtered through a sort of rushing white noise, as though I were underwater. I had come to find that sensation unbearable and panic-inducing, but there was a time when it was the sound of a good evening revving its engine to get started. Fucking was like that too, once, dampening the sound on everything except immediate joy. Avoidance is neither noble nor effective, but there is a world of theory and media that will try to make you believe it is. It would be convenient if our selfishness were radical, or helped even ourselves. It is easy to understand why the longing for this to be true has generated so much faith and so much content.
Perhaps nostalgia for the 2000s is, like all nostalgias, a longing for the condition of not knowing better. What it felt like to believe that you might be able to fuck the pain away is what the whole feeling of the ‘00s is when I call it up in memory. It is the same feeling that sent me back to that incredibly shitty bar with my incredibly shitty friends every night that one long useless summer. It was the sense that maybe our problems could be put off forever, that maybe the answer to the future was simply that it would never arrive. We could stay in the dark bar, making out and fucking around, forever keeping the world at bay. The consequences of that era are the world in which we live now. But I can understand the nostalgia for it, for the time when we thought the final shitty hours of the party might last forever.