I’ve Been to the Year 2000 with Nicole Tremaglio

Exploring nostalgia and internet trend cycles
Nicole Tremaglio is a writer, podcastress, and pop culture theorist who joins the mag for a conversation about nostalgia, aesthetic revivals, the leopard print midi skirt, and how the internet hyperaccelerates the speed of trend cycles.

You can find Nicole on Instagram and Twitter, read her newsletter, or listen to her podcast Nicstalgia. Listen to the extended version of our conversation on Spotify.

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USURPATOR: Alright, so you're a pop culture commentator, nostalgia correspondent, digital anthropology enthusiast, you also come from a background in fashion. I wanted to start off with your trajectory through that, how you got to doing what you're doing now.

NICOLE TREMAGLIO: Yeah, most recently I worked as a marketing director at a Web3 entertainment studio that was co-founded by Scooter Braun.

U: Was Scooter there?

NL: No, I never saw him. I never saw anybody famous. But I got laid off the same day that Ariana and Demi were dropping Scooter as their manager. I was like “Yeah, me too. I'm right there with you, girl.”

U: I stand with Taylor!

NL: Yes, that meme that’s like “your Spotify Wrapped is just 525600 minutes of denying what a Swiftie you are.” That’s me.

U: Was she your number one?

NL: Yeah, she was. I was only in the top 12% or something.

U: I mean, that's a tough competition.

NL: Yes. I'm not even that invested in her. I love singing and I live by myself, so the reason I listen to Taylor Swift so much is because, unlike Celine Dion and Mariah Carey, I can't sing their songs for a prolonged period of time without my voice hurting. Whereas Taylor Swift is very sing-alongable.

U: So you weren't a Swiftie back in the day, like 2010.

NL: No, I was not. I thought she was wicked corny in the country era. One of my friends turned me on to Taylor in the Red era, and I really loved Red. I did end up going to her Reputation tour. She was just a great entertainer, but I don't relate to her lyrics at all. I don't feel like she represents me in any way.

U: I have the same thing with Lana. Lana is my number one on Spotify every year, and I thought Lana Del Rey was so corny and awful in 2012. Once Norman Fucking Rockwell came out—which was when everyone got really into her—but ever since then, I'm like, I fucking love this woman. I would die for this woman.

But this is a very good segue into the nostalgia of 2012. Lana Del Rey, Tumblrcore, also the 1975 is huge right now. Were you on Tumblr in this era?

NL: I was not very much. I was definitely more of a MySpace person. I really loved that era and the idea of getting to be yourself via a new medium. It was really the precursor to the presentation of the self, which was even before this curation of the self that we see on social media now. But with Tumblr and Lana Del Rey, I listened to Born to Die so many times. It was concerning. Lana creates these picturesque landscapes where you can insert yourself or project whatever kind of narrative that you want because her songs aren't super literal.

I had just graduated from college in 2012, so I was in this weird in-between space where I'm like, “Okay, what happens now?” I had been promoted at the job that I worked at in college, which was at a Michael Kors store in suburban Massachusetts. I was still partying and selling handbags and I'm like, “Is life supposed to be different? Is it supposed to be better?” And I've always been a super emo person. I'm a huge Celine fan, huge Mariah fan. They have this melancholic melodrama. That's something very intoxicating as a young person, when you feel like you're old enough to try to decide what you want to do with your life, but still young enough where you don't actually have to.

U: You're right, teenagers want to be grownups. They want to be responsible for themselves and they want to prove to themselves and other people that they are mature enough. I think that it was aspirational in that way.

Lana was surfacing an aesthetic that already existed, right? She's borrowing from Priscilla, from Marilyn. But it really seemed to solidify itself in this way that hasn't really left the zeitgeist since, I don’t think. This makes me think of how I can't tell when a trend has gone out of the zeitgeist and come back in, or if it's just always latently there. What is your take on that?

NL: I personally feel like it's the latter. There's this latency in that something can be tapped at any time and come back into the consciousness of people. It's not that it wasn't there, it's just that we were focused on something else and something was in our vision more closely or more clearly. You'll see the same themes repeated over time. We're still talking about Priscilla and Marilyn. These are people who had the peak of their popularity a long time ago. It’s like double nowstalgia, which is different from nostalgia. People keep using nostalgia as a name for everything, and it's really a misnomer because I cannot have nostalgia for Priscilla. I was not there, but I can have nowstalgia for it. Marilyn and Priscilla, the peak of their popularity was so long ago that it becomes inception, where it is another meta-layer added.

U: It's like telephone because you're trying to interpret the vibe that you've gotten from what you've seen online, from the people who are actually there to experience it.

NL: Yeah. And then as the generations go on, there can even be a second layer of that. I think a prominent example of this is what people call the Y2K aesthetic of now. The Consumer Aesthetics Research Institute, they name all of these aesthetic trends and assign dates to them. My favorite one was called Groovival which is nostalgia for the 1970s from the vantage point of the 1990s. I was a kid in elementary school in the nineties, and my American Girl doll had a hippie outfit. I was a hippie for Halloween. I had a hippie themed birthday party and I wore tie dye shirts and platform shoes and bellbottom jeans. The first revival of a trend is when it becomes parodied in that way. It becomes meta self-referential, because whoever is reviving this, whether it's the media, whether it's fashion companies, whatever form through which these trends revive and come back as, it's because you're cherry picking particular elements from the original cultural zeitgeist without the sociopolitical implications. Especially as a little kid in the 90s, I didn't know about all of the sociopolitical movements of the 1960s and 70s. So the fact that I could just go and get a costume of it is kind of hilarious. Our parents, maybe they were frustrated by that.

It's more obvious with the presence of the internet when generations start to age in that way, and they finally become old enough to see the completion of a trend cycle from about 20 years, they're like, “I'm getting old, and my generation is not the focal point of youth culture or of cultural conversation anymore. That makes me feel irrelevant. That makes me feel aged out, that makes me feel disappointed, and that makes me terrified of fading into obsolescence.” And the same way you see with the diffusion of innovations, the way of aesthetics, the way that trends follow this pattern. I think people subscribe to that too, in trying to make meaning of their lives. Now people are like, “You can't just pick whatever you want from the 90s and call it this or that.” You know, the Mcbling aesthetic and the Y2K aesthetic, and they're totally different. 

My fashion historian self—I went to school for fashion, I literally had to study these things and I was tested on these things. So the fact that democratization of literally everything has happened based on the internet, whether it's democratization of access to celebrities, to one another, to access to information—

U: Everybody's a trend forecaster.

NL: Everybody is this, that, and the other thing. Putting my fashion historian hat on, it is kind of bullshit that everybody can just pick these things apart and build entire platforms for themselves without having the traditional authority behind it. But I think that's the battle too, where it's undoing what I had learned as a Millennial from the baby boomer generation. This idea of meritocracy, where if you go to college and you get a good job in your field and you work really hard, then things will happen for you. And due to the timeline of what happened with my generation, that didn't happen for a lot of people.

I read a very interesting article about aesthetics recently, and it was called Our New Aesthetic Reality by Paula Luongo for Haloscope. The point she makes there is that now “we chase after fleeting esthetics in the hopes that one day simply looking the part will be enough.”

And my favorite part of it was a graphic that's included with the article. It's so funny.

I'm like, “Oh my God. Precisely.” It's so funny how the chronically online community frames these things and expresses these things.

U: I know it's hard to get out of this online perspective that I have. When I try to think about stuff like this objectively, I just have to accept that I don't fucking know. I have no idea if monoculture even exists, or if my bias is correct that there's so many more micro trends but they seem more evenly populated. I don't even know what's at the forefront of culture right now. I don't really know what are the dominant trends happening right now, and maybe it's just easier looking back in the past now that we have identified the dominant trends of every decade versus now. When I'm thinking about the 2010s, the difference between early 2010s and late 2010s, they seem like two different eras in and of themselves that are so completely distinct from one another. But is that just because I'm too close to them?

NL: It's very interesting because I literally never thought I could ever summon any nostalgia for the 2010s whatsoever. The 2010s were a very hard time, a dark time. And I have a theory called the 1990 theory, because that was the year that I was born. Not to make it about me specifically, but I think it's very interesting because my decades of life align with the calendar decades. So all of the 2010s were my twenties, all of the 2000s were my teen years. There are various pop culture references that also contribute to the validity of my theory. For example, my last month of being 22 years old was when 22 by Taylor Swift came out. Now it's funny when you go on the internet and people are like, “Oh, 22, I loved that song when I was in kindergarten.” But I was 22 when 22 came out. I think that's really special.

Another thing is that when I graduated from middle school, high school, and college, they were all election years. So 2001 to ‘04, that was middle school for me. ‘04 to ‘08 was high school, leading up to the recession and financial crisis. And then the Obama era was college. And then I guess Obama part 2 was a clean break as well, where I moved from Boston to New York. It's very interesting to see how the cultural zeitgeist shifts with all different kinds of sociopolitical and cultural events.

U: Do you think that culture and trends are still being shaped by your generation?

NL: To an extent, because these corporations are now being run by people in my generation so that they are either self-serving—

U: Or are they trying desperately to understand the younger generations?

NL: I do think that it's more so the latter. I think that if it's the former, it's because people who are older try to pull the seniority card. As you were saying; is there a monoculture? Not anymore, in comparison to how it was in the 90s, for example. I like to think of the trend cycle as a paintball. It comes out at a fast speed and it's increasing in velocity. And now I would say, in parallel with the 2020s and the explosion of TikTok, the paintball just went splat. And now there's paint everywhere.

U: And what's the paint— trends, or culture, or what?

NL: All of it. It's what people want it to be because there's not a monoculture in the same way anymore. It's whatever you see; it's whatever your algorithm tells you what to see. It's the confirmation bias always being served. There are these huge silos and echo chambers, and the more online I am, the more real the online world feels and the more obvious it is to me that the two entities—your physical life and your digital life—are fully integrated in it. But at the same time, the online world feels more surreal. It feels weirder than ever when I talk to a not chronically online person.

The best example of this… OK so it's 2017. I'm living in Soho. I work in the fashion industry. What am I wearing? I am wearing a leopard print midi skirt. This is the look. You cannot walk down Houston Street without seeing like eight of these skirts.

U: I saw a tweet once that said this skirt caused the pandemic.

NL: That is so true. But that's the thing. You can't walk outside. You can't go on the subway. Nowhere is safe from these skirts, and they're everywhere. Sometimes I'll do polls in my Instagram story just to see how the people are doing. And I made a poll talking about this skirt and someone was like, “What are you talking about?” They just didn't live in New York. I was like… there's no way that the cheetah print midi skirt is just a New York City psyop. There's no way. And yet, I couldn't believe it, my bubble just popped.

U: In the age of the internet, I feel like we’re all much more globalized. When I was in middle school, I had no idea what other kids in middle school or high school in America were wearing or doing or saying. I had no clue. But now I feel like it must be much more similar all across the board. So I always assume now when there's a trend, even if it's something that I'm seeing a lot of in New York, if it's big enough that it's really palpable and people are taking notice of it and talking about it, it's probably going on elsewhere.

NL: That's a really interesting point that you make because when I was in middle school, that was when we still had the ubiquity of print magazines, right? I would know what was popular all across America. Also, I'm from the tri-state area. I'm not from middle America where there's one stoplight and a mall is a half an hour away. I could get to New York City easily. I could get access to these things. But anyway, I think what’s interesting about it is that in middle school especially, it's this time where you're going through puberty and you feel like you're the only person that this has ever happened to, and you are looking so desperately to fit in with other people. You are praying that people don't find you out as othered. You just want to be normal.

U: This ties in directly with what we were talking about earlier about losing the reference point. I grew up in a place that was absolutely not New York. We didn't even have a Zara or an H&M or anything. I remember when I first started dating my boyfriend, he had this Rick Owens cowl neck top. And to me, I had only ever seen the fast fashion cowl neck. It probably came out on the runways, and then started getting knocked off, knocked off, and knocked off again. And that was what I was exposed to. So when I saw someone wearing an original Rick Owens cowl neck, I didn't know that was the reference point. I was just confused as to why someone would be wearing something that I was buying at an Urban Planet in 2010.

NL: I think a lot about dupe culture. When I was in high school I had a fake cubic zirconia Chanel logo necklace. It was the McBling era. Ed Hardy, Von Dutch, Paris Hilton; square acrylic French manicure. Trashy, and I say that in an endearing way.

I was recently in a TJ Maxx and I saw that they had the Alexander McQueen skull scarves. 2012/2013 me would be gagging. I think so much about the diffusion of innovations, about the perceived value that we put on particular physical items and how they're relevance or irrelevance is sustained over time and seeing certain things come back in style. But nothing ever has the same exactness that it did before.

U: What do you think counts as “back” when something is coming back in style? Everyone is a trend forecaster now, and I find that they're never really wrong because there's such a wide margin for what can be considered a trend. To me, balletcore has been coming back for the past three years, but I still see trend forecasters now being like “Balletcore is going to be huge in 2023!” Like, you're just stating the obvious, but it's becoming bigger and bigger all the time.

NL: This is very much a chicken or egg thing. You see something on TikTok, then one cultural media outlet will write about it and then everybody's writing about it. So it validates that proof of concept. I think about the manufacturing of subcultures a lot, too. How can you have a subculture when we don't have a monoculture? Everybody is too busy talking about creating culture instead of actually doing it. Nobody's doing anything. They're sitting on their phones scrolling TikTok. So I guess the answer is that there is no answer. Because the access to a platform and to this “authority” is democratized, any time anybody says anything, it can gain steam. Especially with TikTok’s remix culture, sometimes a trend can travel so far, it's even harder to know what the source of something is.

U: I don't really know why everyone wants to be a cultural trend forecaster. Do you think that it's just because they want to be right?

NL: Ooh, that's a good point. I think people love being right. Social media platforms are designed to promote inflammatory opinions because they get people engaging, even if it's just arguing. For example, there is this trend where you would come into the frame pretending to pose for a 2001 yearbook picture. And then people will get angry because the song that's playing in the background came out in 2004. The thing is—we're talking about reference, vibes, and memories of vibes that some of us don't even have. The idea of “2001” exists as a separate thing now. It exists as a concept or a vibe or a nostalgic feeling. We are not trying to go back to the year 2000. No one wants to go back. I have a friend who has a whole brand around nostalgic Y2K stuff; she was born in 2000.

U: Like Charli XCX—”I just want to go back to 1999”—she was four or something. Are you nostalgic for the 90s? For your version of the 90s?

NL: I mean, I don't ever want to go back. I don't wish things could happen differently. I'm not old enough where I am like, “Things were better back in my day.” What is also tricky is that when you become a parent and you say that you want a better world for your kids, and then your kids grow up, and then you're like, “Oh shit, the world is actually not better for them.” The past is simpler because I was a kid. I could have been a kid at any time and it would have been simpler.

U: Do you think that there is a hyper-acceleration of trends and culture since the dawn of the internet? And do you think that it's speeding up?

NL: Yeah, I do. And I'm also very interested in reality. And the fact is: nothing's real. Like, everything is real because it's what you're seeing either in person on the streets of New York or on the internet due to your algorithm. Whatever you see, whatever you consume shapes your reality. Therefore it affects what you think about, it affects what you talk about, it affects who you're hanging out with, whether virtually or physically, because you want to be around like-minded people. I want somebody who's going to understand the cheetah print skirt debacle.

It’s interesting to look at how reality is shaped through different platforms. How does that information go from TikTok to Instagram? How does it go from TikTok to Twitter? How does it go from TikTok to Reddit to Twitter? You start to see the big tech companies and all the social media platforms as these interconnected webs. It feels like this computer game from the 90s that no one actually knew how to play—I still don't know how to play it—called Minesweeper. All those gray blocks and you just click a random one and then it's a bomb and you're dead and you're like, “I didn't even know what I was supposed to do. I didn't mean to lose the game.” That's what it feels like to try to be like, “Am I on the right side of TikTok? Am I ahead of the curve?” I'd be posting on Instagram or TikTok, but should I be posting on a certain day? Should I be making different kinds of content for each kind of platform?

U: So, now that the cultural paintball has splattered, there's no more monoculture, there's no dominant trends that are happening.

NL: Or, I guess my perspective is that once something has become what we think of as a “dominant trend,” it's dead. Status and Culture by W. David Marx is a very interesting book that dives into this more.

The same way that nostalgia is used as a misnomer a lot, I feel like “culture” has become this word that now suddenly means everything. It can mean aesthetics, it can mean politics, it can mean activism, it can mean a million different things.

U: What does that even mean to you?

NL: It's almost like the word in and of itself can have multiple meanings and that the paintball has splattered and there's no more white space anymore. Every single article that's coming out is talking about culture; but in the wrong way, so to speak, where a cultural statement will be made about something or it’s functioning as a proof of concept like “Young people only use flip phones now.” So an article will come out and say that. Then one article will be like, “Yeah, young people are using flip phones because they're worried about data surveillance and privacy.” And then another one will come out and be like, “Yes, flip phones. They like them because there's going to be a resurgence in analog technology and people liked when products were made with higher quality back in the day.” All these points will be present and it's like, no, actually if you went and talked to those kids in New York who did that, you’d find out that it was actually for a much simpler reason. That's literally what young people do; they want to have fun with their friends and they don't really think about it that much. Whereas when you're an adult, you're trying to reconcile your expectations with reality constantly. And guess what? A lot of the time, reality does not live up to your expectations. So you look for these meanings; especially in the age that we live in now, where everything is ragebait, everything is clickbait, everything is SEO strategized, where we just want eyeballs and clicks. There's a whole lot less continuity than people are trying to create with all this ad hoc sense-making.

U: We have to make meaning out of things and or even just draw relationships of causality. That's literally how we make sense of the world, which is very human. If you've ever read David Hume, his philosophy was that there is no rational explanation for cause and effect. There's just patterns that seemingly always happen in conjunction with each other. And because we see them happening, then we assume it to be necessary, even though they aren't necessarily causal effects of each other. It always broke my brain whenever I read David Hume. But it's something that I think really shapes how people look at anything in the world. They need to make sense of it. There needs to be a linear narrative or a trajectory that makes “sense.” And also people like being right.

NL: No one loves being right more than people on the internet.

U: So where can people find you? Your socials, your podcast, your substack?

NL: You can find me at Nicole Tremaglio on all platforms. My Substack is Nicstalgia. The podcast is called Nicstalgia, you can watch it on YouTube or Spotify.

And yeah, if I mean, if you're listening to this podcast, then I'm sure you're an interesting person that thinks a lot about these things that we're talking about. So you're also always welcome to reach out to me. I think something that's so fun about having a platform that's rooted in culture and in nostalgia is the fact that when you look back at something, so much meaning has already been made of it, and we come to clearer conclusions about things as opposed to speculating the way that we do now. So I just always love having these conversations with people. You always know where to find me.

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