September’s song

A recent college graduate yearns for the innocence of childhood — and the world before 9/11

By Natalie Southwick
September 20, 2010

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If you’ve been paying attention to the music world or watching “The Daily Show’’ in the last month, you might have heard — or at least heard of — indie band Arcade Fire’s sublime new album, “The Suburbs.’’ And if you spend too much time online, you may have discovered the astounding interactive video for the band’s song “We Used to Wait’’ that combines animation from director Chris Milk with footage of the viewer’s childhood neighborhood taken from Google Maps. It’s a heavy-handed tug at the heartstrings, but it works. Watching it, I felt pangs of nostalgia for my childhood — and I’m only 22 years old.

Nostalgia might seem premature in a recent college graduate, but I’m not the only one yearning for the days of my (earlier) youth. In the past few years, it’s become hard to miss the number of movies, TV shows, and other entertainment catering to young adults who long to be irresponsible children again. “Toy Story 3’’ might have been disguised as a kids’ movie, but it was even more meaningful for those of us who grew up with those beloved characters. Just watching the gorgeous trailer for last year’s film adaptation of Maurice Sendak’s classic children’s book “Where the Wild Things Are’’ brought tears to my eyes. The film itself was obviously — and successfully — marketed straight at my demographic: twentysomethings who fell in love with the book as children and still identify with its bittersweet view of growing up.

In this economic climate, growing up seems less appealing to many of us — and in some ways, less possible — than ever.

“Making that transition to adulthood is not so easy anymore,’’ says Dr. Montana Miller, associate professor in the popular culture department at Bowling Green State University. “Lots of people these days can’t do it because of the economy. People get trapped in this phase of life where they don’t feel independent yet, and its hard to embrace and enjoy adulthood when you feel like you’re being held back, so people are looking for things that remind them of their childhood.’’

It’s definitely an important factor, but I don’t think the economy is the only reason the so-called Millennial generation harbors a soft spot in our hearts for our childhood years. For us, the desire to return to childhood has far more to do with falling towers than falling stock prices.

My 13th birthday — already a landmark moment in a new teenager’s life — fell on Sept. 13, 2001. It might be cliché, but that week was the first time I understood that there was a world beyond cafeteria pizza and dancing in my friends’ room to the Spice Girls — and that world wasn’t necessarily friendly. Of course, everyone in the country has their own “where I was when I heard’’ story, but for those of us who were young teenagers or preteens, there is an additional layer to the discussion. To us, “Remember where you were?’’ also means, “Remember when you realized you couldn’t really be a kid anymore?’’

Of course, this isn’t unique to today’s young adults. Everyone, as the saying goes, has to grow up eventually. But I think it’s safe to say that not since the JFK assassination has there been an event that so profoundly shattered our national sense of security and invincibility — and that feeling of vulnerability trickled right down to the middle schools. We may not have understood the international implications of what had happened, but we did realize that our parents couldn’t protect us from everything anymore. At 12, that’s a pretty staggering concept to absorb.

The ’90s were a great time to be a kid in America — the economy was booming, nobody was directly threatening us with nuclear obliteration, and Nickelodeon had maybe the best lineup in its history. This newfound nostalgia of the aughts seems less for an age than for an emotional state, when the most important decisions were about what flavor of Pop-Tarts to snack on, and the most divisive debate was over the superiority of the Backstreet Boys or ’N Sync — when “troop surges’’ and “foreclosure’’ were words we didn’t understand because there was no need to know them. It’s impossible to return to that era now, but for two hours in a darkened movie theater, it doesn’t hurt to try.

Natalie Southwick can be reached at