05 October 2010

On Restalgia, In Romgret

My good friend Sara Marcus just put out a book called Girls to the Front: The True Story of the Riot Grrrl Revolution. Sara is a terrific writer—I’ll term her style “passionately precise”—and the book does an excellent job of presenting a comprehensive history of RG, including first person accounts of many people involved with it, as well as the historical context in which the movement(s) was born. Though she takes great pains not to overly nostalgize in her book, it’s impossible, as a reader, to have been someone for whom RG was important in the early-mid 90s and not spiral a ways down the nostalgia path. And since I came into RG a bit on the later side of things, that nostalgia’s a little pinched with, say, regret. Say romanticization. Why wasn’t I there earlier, when it was most vital and exciting and important? That path is steep and picks up momentum. Why wasn’t I five years older and living in Olympia in 1991? And, for that matter, why wasn’t I 20 years older and part of the downtown New York writers’ scene in the late 70s? A queer activist in the 80s? What’s new now, at 33, is that this romanticizing/regret (“romgret”? “restalgia”?) extends to my own past experiences—why isn’t it still the early 2000s in the San Francisco music scene, why can’t I make it still be then, that way, today?

I think, and this is a theory I’m formulating as I write it, that projecting wishfully back in time usually speaks to some lack in the present moment. Or an insecurity about the possibility of a lack. If nostalgia is necessarily a backwards-traveling path, then the best opposite, the most forward-thrusting path I’ve known is the very thing I’m nostalgizing: the DIY spirit. The sparkiest, most energizing, exciting, and possibility-laden times in my life have been those most brimming with DIY artmaking, political action, and community: the summer I was 16, in Vermont, meeting queer artists my age for the first time and realizing I could be that, too; the Erase Errata shows/anti-development protests at the 16th St. BART station; the Excuse 17/Vitapup show in 1995 when the bands moved the show from Under Acme to Spa Studio because the original venue wasn’t all-ages; self-releasing the first EE 7”; the Matt Gonzalez campaign; radical queer flyering at Wesleyan; 949 Market; the Big Ballyhoo art show. There have been brushes with it in more recent years—the “Art of Touring” event/ gallery show in Portland last year, the Mirah video shoot—but it’s anomalous when it happens, and thus more loaded and prone to nostalgia itself: I was remembering this while it was still happening.

None of this is any more of a cliché, any more than getting older. But how can that not feel like an excuse? I can list more excuses: I move too much, I went to grad school, I’m in a relationship, I’m a writer and thus self-isolating, New York is too busy, too obliquely political, I eat $13 hamburgers, no I don’t want to self-publish my novel thank you very much, who the fuck knows, the Internet. There are many, many things that I love about my life right now. But I miss—sometimes excruciatingly—that DIY spark, that anything’s-possible not just hunch, but absolute certainty. And though it’s so easy, and sometimes tempting, to forget it, I know that if I‘m going to find the today-version of that spark anywhere, I’m not going to find it by looking behind me.