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I bought CDs, rented videos and lost my virginity to a boy I met on MySpace

I can’t help feeling we lost something when we stopped consuming art through physical objects. But maybe we would have lost it anyway

This week I watched a new film by Jane Schoenbrun called I Saw the TV Glow. It’s an artful, esoteric analogy for trans and queer self-discovery and repression, as well as a nostalgic paean to the era of analogue culture.

More of a mood piece than a tightly plotted story, it begins in the mid-1990s and shows us Owen (played by Justice Smith), a profoundly isolated adolescent boy living with the constant knowledge that there is something indefinably wrong with him that others can sense but he himself cannot name, and his fellow outcast Maddy (played by Bridgette Lundy-Paine) who is gay and suffocating in her violent suburban home. The two bond over a shared obsessive passion for a cult TV show named The Pink Opaque, whose slick but occasionally surreal supernatural aesthetic and sassy dialogue are based in part on the real-life sensation Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

What struck me most was its rendition of what it was to be a fan back then, to be a fan whose feelings were summoned through physical objects and set, definite materialities; a fan who had to be sitting in front of a particular machine at a particular time in a particular place to experience what they desired to experience.

I am 34, part of that mildly befuddled portion of millennials who grew up largely offline – using the internet a little, but in a contained and sporadic manner – and then rapidly acclimatised to its ubiquity in early adulthood. As a teenager, I had an email address and I used message boards and social media, but I used them on the shared household computer, or in 30-minute increments in internet cafes.


Did the internet intersect with my adolescence? Certainly – what else could someone who met the boy she lost her virginity to on MySpace say? Nevertheless, my obsession with certain films, bands and TV shows was resolutely analogue and physical. I bought the NME every week and then the CDs they recommended, I rented films on VHS and requested that the local shop order me posters of the ones I loved best, I consulted the RTÉ Guide to find screenings of sweary, sexy late-night TV shows.

Those moments of young adulthood in which you are coming to reckon with yourself – the ones where you feel, suddenly, the enormity of what you are on the precipice of, which is nothing less than life itself, nothing less than the potential for limitless personal freedom, even if so few of us ever end up achieving it – those were all tethered to art, and to objects. When I was 11 I became increasingly sentient and aware of my own loneliness, and my reaction was to lean into it, amp it up; I wanted to see just how alone I could get. I came across a video of The Texas Chainsaw Massacre in the house somewhere, filched from a brother’s room perhaps. I set it aside and waited until the house was asleep and took it into our kitchen where a tiny television was set in the corner. I watched it in the dark, cowering on a chair, feeling that some chasm between childhood and the unknown was being broached with each moment, a feeling which both excited and sullied me.

At 15, my first real boyfriend made me a mixtape, shortly after I had gained some moderate favour as an acceptably attractive person in the world for the first time, features having sharpened, shape having taken form. I lay on my bedroom floor listening to The Lemonheads, gingerly pressing all the bones and soft parts of my newly acquired body and feeling a giddy soaring in my chest, the kind which later only really arises from illicit substances but then meant only that I could feel the pure power of myself and of all the people I was about to meet. And a few years later, after heartbreak, I stayed up until dawn drinking black coffee – which I hated – and listening to records of old blues legends, Skip James and Blind Willie McTell, while I wrote in my diary. I was behaving this way because I had seen it in culture, I was aping the mechanics of emotion, but how else are we supposed to learn? All these moments were alive in their physical space and bleeding into their associated artworks in a completely tangible way. I wonder how they would have happened in a life where owning art necessitates so little physical ownership, as most lives now do.

On one hand, owning fewer things means greater freedom, something I remind myself of each time I move house. On the other, I notice a distinct difference between my relationship to cultural ephemera now. I have managed, through the dozens of relocations, to keep hold of a stash of notes, scraps and small drawings, things written or dedicated to me by friends and lovers and family stretching back into my early teen years and continuing right up to the point I became a mostly digital person in my early 20s. Although I feel no compulsion to keep scraps like these now, the old ones are no less potent and meaningful than they ever were.

It reminds me of how my singing voice degraded slightly in my 20s from smoking and booze, but when I would sing an old song I learned long ago I could still reach high notes I couldn’t if I tried to learn it as an adult; this cannot be scientifically accurate but is nonetheless true.

It’s hard not to wonder if there was some part of me that stopped when the objects stopped accruing meaning – and whether it would have stopped anyway with the recession of my youth, whether the disappearance of this sort of talismanic presence in my life hurried along that inevitable numbing. I remember an older friend telling me, when I was in the throes of my original heartbreak, that I wouldn’t believe it through my agony but that one day I would give anything to be a teenager again laying in the back garden looking at the stars and weeping to my Walkman. He was right, of course: the dazzling purity of feeling, how both the sadness and the song lose that unique intensity of pitch.

Megan Nolan is an Irish novelist based in New York. Her latest novel is Acts of Desperation