I have written before about the mall. For the last few years, though, I haven’t really availed myself. Every mall around here has either closed its doors for good or else been transformed into some sort of open-air high-end lifestyle center catering to tech wealth and Chinese tourism. Hell, most of them – Mayfield, the Old Mill, Sunnyvale Town Center – bit the dust well before my time, and only Vallco survived for years as a ghost of itself. Valley Fair has gone way upscale chasing the business of Santana Row or Stanford Shopping Center, and even Hillsdale has started to posh it up a little.
So you can imagine my bemusement when I was alerted to a new musical genre called “mallwave”. Itself a subset of a niche genre called “vaporwave,” which is built around taking late-80s/early-90s-style ambient music and applying all manner of VCR distortion and Windows 95 sound processing, mallwave actively adds the visual aesthetic of…well, just search YouTube for “Neon Palm Mall” and you’ll get the general drift.
It’s weird, extremely weird, to see your past getting chopped and screwed and recontextualized as some sort of nostalgia trip. (Not really surprising, though: the high-waisted jeans, puka-shell necklace, scrunchie and enviro-conscience of the “VSCO girl” is pretty much a direct lift from 1990, just like the Neo-hippie aesthetic of my late high school era was itself twenty years old.) But in a way, I think it makes sense that mallwave landed when it did and where it did. Generation Z is the first generation to grow up entirely on the other side of the nodal point. After 1994, our present model of politics plus civilian access to the Internet plus the advent of affordable mobile phone service meant that life in the United States was drastically and permanently transformed.
And that transformation wasn’t always for the good. It’s possible the kids are nostalgic for the world they see in Friends (still wildly and inexplicably the most popular thing on Netflix) – a world without iPhones, a world unmediated by Snapchat and TikTok, a simpler and saner world where your meet your friends in person at the food court and shop for clothing in an array of stores instead of through Instagram ads, when a wayward remark (or even just existing) wasn’t enough to bring a thousand assholes into your conversation out of nowhere. It seems like a simpler time, a time when a lot of things weren’t better than now but when shame was still enough of a thing to make people try to hide their bigotry or at least not present it as a virtue.
No mall (around here, anyway) has a tobacconist or a music store anymore, and if they have a bookstore it’s likely to be some Amazon pop-up thing. The last piece of clothing I bought at a traditional mall for myself was probably a random button-up shirt six years ago. Socks, T-shirts, work shirts, jeans, flannel, plastic sandals – all online. Every song, album or movie I’ve purchased in the last decade or more: online. Every gadget imaginable: online. It’s been that way forever, but as the Amazon bomb completes its destruction of malls and starts leveling big-box stores (there is no longer a Sears or a K-Mart in the entire state of Alabama), it’s worth contemplating what life used to be like and if we didn’t lose something in the transition.