This post originally appeared at History Matters on 14 August 2017.
I’ve been researching the 1990s since the beginning of my academic career, when I wrote my PhD on popular music and national identity in Croatia after the break-up of Yugoslavia. (This was published in 2010 as my first book, Sounds of the Borderland.) As a queer writer and academic who was born in the early 1980s, I’m also someone whose consciousness and identity were shaped by the queer cultural politics of the 1990s – or by the lengths I went to in trying to distance myself from them.
Some queer historians become historians to investigate a personal past. My experience was the opposite, or so I thought: sometimes, while reading archived Croatian newspapers and magazines from 1990 to what was then the present during my PhD, I’d note abstractly that an issue’s cover date in 1996 or 1997 coincided with a personally significant day, or realise that, if I’d been the same age and Croatian, this or that pop video instead of this or that performance on Top of the Pops might have played a part in the protracted process of me trying to prove that, even though I kept noticing androgynous-looking women, I wasn’t queer.
At the same time, on a macro level, I’ve always believed that the histories of the Yugoslav region and the society where I live are much more connected than most British public discourse in the 1990s about the former Yugoslavia would suggest. During the Yugoslav wars, Cold War east–west geopolitics overhung older, semi-orientalised tropes about ‘the Balkans’ in the minds of many commentators who implied that Britain and the Balkans travelled at two separate historical speeds.
The more expansive and transnational view of the 1990s as cultural history that I take now has as much to do with Britain as the Balkans, and sometimes more. The period we can now name as ‘the post-Cold-War’ was defined by changing ideas about conflict and security, and how gender might determine who participates in conflict in what ways, who ought to protect whom, and who threatens whom. Also important were narratives of capitalism and progress that held out the hope of prosperity to many more young (and older) people than felt it in the 1980s or feel it today; rapid changes in the technologies through which people experienced popular culture and communicated with each other (it is already an imaginative leap for a student in their late teens to put themselves in the trainers of a young person the same age organising a night out in 1991); and also by the visibility and ambiguous position of queer identities in media and society. This, it turns out, is where I come in.
The project I conceived a year or two ago on how representations of the Yugoslav wars fed back into Western cultural imaginations of conflict, and how Western cultural imaginations of conflict also circulated through the Yugoslav region, needed me to start defining what did distinguish the 1990s or the ‘post-Cold-War’ as a period.
Meanwhile, the conceptual contribution I wanted it to make – what can cultural historians and scholars interested in the aesthetics of international politics learn from feminist and queer media studies? – sent me back to scholarship in feminist film theory and in cultural memory that was being written during the 1990s and was being produced within the very historical context I was trying to understand. Meanwhile, as a researcher embedded in 2016, I was becoming ever more conscious of how easily queer visibilities in the past and present can be erased, and starting to explore the 1990s’ and 2000s’ interlinked transformations of media technology, imaginations of conflict, and queer politics creatively in ways that even began pointing to new linkages in my academic work.)
Jackie Stacey’s Star Gazing (on women’s identification with Forties and Fifties women film stars) or equally Graham Dawson’s Soldier Heroes (on boys’ identification with military and imperial heroes through adventure play) both came out in 1994. Both books have passages that read like darts of recognition; both books have passages that my own embodied knowledge leaves me annotating, ‘What about masculinities?’ or ‘Can’t this happen with women?’
Together, they help me pursue a hunch that the dynamics of identification that can make people so invested in the characters and narratives of popular culture and the dynamics of emotional attachment to the nation that states and militaries depend on, have a lot in common with each other.
A thread of articles and book chapters in feminist and lesbian ‘gaze’ theory (which inform how I understand identification with the nation and with militarism) came out between 1994 and 1997: work by scholars like Caroline Evans and Reina Lewis on identification, desire and spectatorship (theorising things like what the pleasures of looking at fashion spreads in the British lesbian magazine Diva might have been for lesbians in the mid-90s).
In other words, in the mid 1990s, people were already writing about and answering questions that had been confusing me for years at exactly the same time – when I still had no idea they could even be spoken, let alone asked with academic authority. (I still wouldn’t even have dared touch a copy of Diva at the newsagent, in 1997, in case it meant I was a lesbian…)
And yet the first encounter with Croatian popular music that I remember, through the Eurovision Song Contest, is already entangled with my own history of queer spectatorship and not-coming-out. I would have seen Croatian entries in the 1994 and 1995 Eurovisions, but the first one I remember seeing is Maja Blagdan’s performance of ‘Sveta ljubav’ in 1996, for reasons that would have been quite obvious to me at the time.
(Not having had the foresight to press ‘record’ at the start of the song on the video tape where I used to collect highlights of Top of the Pops, I expected with disappointment never to see again, until a viewer who had written to the BBC about Terry Wogan speaking over the singing meant they played thirty seconds of it a few weeks later on Points of View.)
Blagdan went on to be one of the first Croatian singers I wanted to find out more about, and so the trajectory towards me becoming able to write a book that a BASEES prize panel judged ‘exceptional in both its originality and its careful research’, a book which has helped to inspire younger researchers to develop their own projects on post-Yugoslav nationalism, music, media, or sport, doesn’t just involve me as a historical subject trying to understand how a new nation like Croatia could suddenly appear out of what had seemed to be an old one like Yugoslavia. It also involves me as a queer viewer and teenager at a very specific moment, when lesbian visibility coexisted with an intense cultural anxiety over women as agents of the gaze towards other women.
Historicising the theoretical work I wanted to use for one project, in other words, has already pointed me towards another: what was the relationship between queer women and popular culture in the 1990s? This feels all the more urgent, not just because it belongs to a Very Contemporary History that’s already different from the present, but also because it denotes a past I managed to simultaneously live through and push aside.