October 30, 2023 - 10:00am

The passing of Friends star Matthew Perry this weekend was haunting in that way not all celebrity deaths are, even celebrities who die young. It’s like when, 20-odd years after you graduate, you hear that a school friend has died. “He died too young,” you might think — but still, it’s been 30 years. In the space of three decades, someone’s bound to die: you’re not 17 anymore. Similarly, the Nineties — that decade which for many of us still feels like yesterday — ended 24 years ago. It’s not 1997 anymore; it’s not even 2000 anymore. It’s 2023, and we haven’t entirely come to terms with it.

People have been saying, “The Nineties are back”, for at least a decade. Nostalgia for the period seems as impossibly long and winding as sentimentality for the Eighties did in the 2010s, the Seventies in the 2000s, and the Sixties in the Nineties. Indeed, the entire 20th century seems to be marked by a desire to process the past through nostalgia. 

There are many theories for why we’re always looking in the rearview mirror, why we seem to be stuck in this trap of perpetual longing for what’s already happened. The venture capitalist Peter Thiel has often commented on the present moment’s lack of innovation. Others like Mark Fisher and Franco Berardi, who Fisher cites in his book Ghosts of My Life, talk about the “cancellation of the future”. And on X/Twitter, it’s become something of a meme to say, “culture is stuck.” Yet these theories, while not totally without merit, minimise, or even straightforwardly reject, what is new, taking for granted that nostalgia is not the same as a denial of the future. 

Consider the recurring complaint that there are no truly “new” movies. Haven’t we always been stuck in a never-ending loop of sequels and remakes? How many times has A Star Is Born been made, to give one example? (Four.) Aren’t we always retelling the same stories, over and over again, with each re-telling offering its own unique inflection, right back to the oral tradition of antiquity?

It’s human nature to be constantly making sense of the past, and it’s through our recapitulation of the cultural products that preceded us that we’re able to create something new. Are we recycling yesterday, or are we rewriting and remixing it, creating something fresh from prior experience? Folk songs reappear and are reimagined over hundreds of years. Epic poems become operas and then films and then young adult novels, each saying something specific about the era in which they were created. 

We may not like the cultural products of the 2020s — or the 2010s or the 2000s, for that matter — but that doesn’t mean they aren’t distinct. To say we’re in an era of remixing is just another way of describing the method by which cultural innovation has always worked — it’s not an indictment on our ability to express ourselves in new ways. 

And so what is haunting about Matthew Perry’s death is not that the Nineties are over. Rather, it’s that we have now processed the decade. We’ve worked through our catharsis, and can begin the process anew, this time with a more recent piece of our past.

Katherine Dee is a writer. To read more of her work, visit defaultfriend.substack.com.