Earlier this year, inside a longer story about the newly organized Parkland teens, there was a quick line about their listening to “Mr. Brightside,” the Killers song.
That song debuted in 2004, way before any of the teens were listening to music — but at the middle of the cultural wasteland between 9/11 and the financial crisis. It can be hard to see an era until you see what it was missing, though, and it can be hard to see a generational fault line until you see what commonality the next wave of people doesn’t have.
This was the post–late ‘90s pop, post-’90s rap, post–first wave of indie rock space in which people listened to a lot of pop punk, emo, Auto-Tuned R&B, and strip-club rap. Celebrities were falling apart in public. The style of the time could probably best be described as “various stages of a Vegas weekend.” If you ask people to list their favorite movies, very few of them come from that era, and while there are great reality series, reality TV — especially in the competition format — completely overwhelmed the time.
It felt like a transitional period while it was happening. The sales and distribution models for music and shows were starting to be destroyed without much to replace them; this was literally before streaming bandwidth, when caps on data usage dictated consumption. The tech platforms were nonexistent or half-formed, and in that half-formed stage, not equipped to be places where people could produce music or videos or opinions or movements. Greta Gerwig’s recent Lady Bird is set right around all of this — the 9/11 poster in the classroom, the Howard Zinn–reading teen, the Dave Matthews Band songs — and even the characters in the movie don’t want it to be 2003 anymore.
As an era, it somehow managed to be both subdued and chaotic, and there was a sense that we were all just perpetually waiting to see how what began on Sept. 11 would turn out in the end.
Then the gears sort of clicked into place. Maybe beginning with the introduction of the iPhone in 2007, but certainly by the time of the financial crisis, and certainly by the time Barack Obama was elected. On the other side — from the endless golden era of TV to the boom in great rap, the emergence of latter-day Beyoncé, a second wave of indie rock and pop, the superhero explosion from The Dark Knight straight through to Marvel — things felt like they could be new again.
The above timeline is reductive, but the general contours of that time between 9/11 and the financial crisis feel real: a weird, jagged, ephemeral cultural period that preceded a major outpouring of creativity on a mass scale. And each part seems connected in some nebulous way, such that you cannot arrive in the politics and culture of 2018 without each preceding event, beginning with 9/11.
Beginning next fall, however, there will be voters who were born after that day. And, of course, there are currently plenty of voters without much of a memory, if any, of 9/11.
It’s hard to know how that will change things, but it seems likely to do so. For the last 17 years, a foundational understanding of the political moment is that it started on 9/11. What happens when an important segment of the adult population didn’t experience the sheer abruptness of that day?
Maybe this change will be a good one; people will be free from that beginning/end feeling of something that happened almost two decades ago, and the loose chain reaction of events that followed.
But if you were looking for a bright line dividing one generation to the next, here is one. A shared experience of most older millennials is this: that they were at school, or on their way to school, or getting ready for school, when 9/11 happened. That demarcation, concentrated at the tail-end of that generation, offers a prism for understanding the intervening years. Maybe that weird and jagged half-decade of culture would have followed anyway without 9/11 and the Iraq War, but it probably would not have been so weird and jagged; maybe Obama would have run and been so appealing to so many millennials in 2008, but he probably would not have carried that enveloping sense of cultural cohesion for the people who got caught up in it, after the dearth of cohesion post-9/11; and maybe we still would have done the waves of illusory ’90s nostalgia, followed by the ’90s and ’00s backlash of the last two years in politics, from Clinton and Bush to Bernie to Trump, but the backlash might not have been as hard.
No one can really know the difference, right? No one will be able to definitively say what it’s like to be with or without a memory of 9/11 against the other. But if you have one, can you imagine existing without it? Doesn’t it seem like some floor on which the past two decades rests? Don’t, even when you see a movie or read a book when the plot starts lurching through 2000 or 2001 toward 9/11, you feel that spike of dread, knowing that that’s where things will end or begin?
And even if you were far away from it, even if you didn’t know anyone, video from 9/11 produces that sliding internal temperature drop, an instant reminder of the concentrated shock, people’s pain, the abruptness of the horror. How could you not know it?
Something must be different when that happens.