If you think the turn of the millennium in US suburbia was as rosy as a Mandy Moore music video, think again. Provocative Canadian writer Alex Kazemi’s second book, New Millennium Boyz, is as sordid as a cum rag.
“I’ve heard that people keep pausing and resting from being so overwhelmed while reading it,” says Kazemi who, in an early review of the book, was described as a “boy wonder” by none other than Garbage frontwoman Shirley Manson.
More co-signs? Literary bad boy Brett Easton Ellis’s quote – “my favourite millennial provocateur” – is the inciting tagline on the book’s cover, while radical New York artist Kembra Pfahler called New Millenium Boyz a “job well done”. And Laura Albert, aka JT LeRoy, gave it two throbbing thumbs up.
Vancouver-born Kazemi, 29, has been writing for well over a decade, often interrogating the pop culture landscape and cultural happenings of the internet. In 2017, aged 22, he appeared on The Milo Yiannopoulos Show dressed in drag, to test the muddied waters of far-right conservatism in the US as a self-proclaimed “bi-racial libertarian man and a freedom of speech activist”. In the same year, for Dazed, he went head-to-head with fellow writer and journalist Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff in a debate on whether we should be allowed to say whatever we want.
“I will never be for protecting people from hate speech and having people rely on trigger warnings or safe spaces,” Kazemi wrote in the magazine. “If you can’t handle the reality of violent words, how can you handle the reality of life’s violent interruptions?”
In 2020, Kazemi published his first book, Pop Magick: A Simple Guide to Bending Your Reality. A counterculture guide on freeing ourselves from the shackles of modern capitalism, realising our dreams and seeking solace through the supernatural – or, in other words, a cooler version of Rhonda Byrne’s best-selling self-help book The Secret – it was a widely celebrated addition to the millennial bookshelf, one aided by a glowing foreword by activist, actor and one of the #MeToo leaders. Rose McGowan, wrote: “I stand for change. That’s what this book does. It brings change – change of thought, change of action, change of spirit.”
A couple of months after the book’s release, Madonna posted a shout-out to Pop Magick on Instagram. And then Kazemi met Taylor Swift. She hugged him and said “thank you for making me feel understood.”
So, New Millenium Boyz. The year is 1999, and Brad Sela has arrived at an all-American summer camp, having just become acquainted with his new friend Daniel via a fist-bump. They bond over Red Hot Chilli Peppers, American Pie and a common hatred for the Calvin Klein-brief-wearing jocks shouting “boo-yah!” across the room. Within a few pages, Kazemi’s banked a conveyor belt of Y2K references: Abercrombie and Fitch, Dawson’s Creek, Janet Jackson, Girls Gone Wild, Kate Moss, MTV.
“I think that it was the perfect period to tell this kind of story because I was trying to examine our current obsession with Y2K nostalgia and this revisionist history,” Kazemi says. “We think it was all Britney [Spears] and colourful and we don’t actually look at the really dark underbelly because we are so inundated.”
What starts as a pretty pleasant scenario of two high school misfits getting plonked in a Christian camp for the summer vacay quickly reveals itself as a commentary on toxic masculinity, American consumption and outright privilege. In New Millenium Boyz, the “boyz” are told to “get out of your feelings, pussy boy”, and inanimate objects become a “fucking gay ass computer”.
Women – mostly ’90s pin-ups such as Carmen Electra and Pamela Anderson – are objectified, and seen as nothing more than for their sex appeal that infiltrates the grizzly wet dreams of suburban high school boys. White kids in backwards caps openly say the N‑word, while suicide is romanticised by greasy-haired Marilyn Manson fans. And homework extends to hours surfing bigjugsxxx.com.
“When I discovered the works [of photographers like] Larry Clark and I saw an unhinged perception of youth that was more accurate to things that I was seeing around me, I was like: OK, I want to create a documented reality, an analysis of teenage boys and also their issues.’ We always have that soft gauzy Petra Collins adolescent idolisation with the femme but we never look at the more dirty and gross aspects of male culture.”
There are “the populars”: the homoerotic six-pack studs who play for the school football team. The pack of weirdos who wear eyeliner, black trench coats and hail Satan. And there’s the overbearing, Boomer-generation family-man dad – concerned, conservative and homophobic.
Stick them all together and New Millenium Boyz reads like a script for an American high school classic, taking the familiar characters and concepts of She’s All That, Heathers, 10 Things I Hate About You, Bring It On, American Pie and The Craft.
Kazemi, having been born in 1994, is only just a millennial himself. And yet he writes with such vivid candour that you can practically smell the fresh paint coming off the white picket fences of the wide suburban streets, Stars and Stripes waving in the breeze and the engines of Jeep convertibles revving into high school car parks.
Like Gen Z – whose obsession with all-things-’90s has manifested itself in countless Kate Moss fan accounts, global pop alt-girls such as Beabadoobee and PinkPantheress, and the huge success Deftones-referencing teen go-to brand Heaven, the spin-off by ’90s designer daddy Marc Jacobs – Kazemi has no recollection of the time, only the retelling of history through a rose-tinted veneer.
“We kind of romanticise this era, especially if you’re a middle child millennial,” he says. “I think one of the reasons that I chose this era was a way to trick people into reading it, because everyone is so obsessed with Y2K nostalgia. I was like: OK, why don’t we explore really serious themes about this era, through this story?”
The dark side of Y2K has only recently started revealing itself. Last year, Netflix doc White Hot: The Rise & Fall of Abercrombie & Fitch unpicked the mammoth success of the US apparel brand that infiltrated the ’90s and early-’00s. Beyond the jocks, blondes and beach shots were underlying issues of systemic racism and discrimination that weaved itself into the brand’s selective ethos. If Abercrombie were a film character, its line would be “you can’t sit with us”.
Then, in July 2022, Netflix released Trainwreck: Woodstock 99, about the ill-fated festival that sought to recreate the original free-loving 1969 weekend. Instead, what Trainwreck presented was a shocking product of seedy pop culture at the turn of the millennium, incidentally the same era captured by Kazemi: sweaty, wide-eyed American boys with a lack of empathy, misogyny in swathes and shocking accounts of rape and violence steeped in “bro culture”.
“When we are younger and we love pop culture, we don’t want to believe the media that we like is socialising us into certain behaviour. If you look at pornography, you could talk to a lot of straight or queer men, and for many, they learnt about sex through porn. Your adolescent brain is shaping into something and you fully identity with it. The media really influences the way we make decisions.”
The characters of New Millennium Boyz certainly are. By the end of the book, there’s nothing left but a gun, a cliffhanger and the uneasy feeling that something terrible has happened. But beyond the ages, New Millenium Boyz is a critique on, well, boys. After all, the book is dedicated to “anyone who was born a boy”.
We’re just over two decades since the book was fictionally set and, undeniably, some progress has been made: men are more open about their feelings now, terms like “poof” and “gay” aren’t as widely used as slurs in playgrounds, and call-out culture on social media has meant men aren’t always able to get away with bad behaviour as readily as they did in the pre-Instagram era.
Saying that: serial misogynist Andrew Tate is the posterboy for a legion of young male worshippers, post-Trump America is still – if not more – as polarised under a Democratic leadership, and TikTok is awash with the hateful droning of incels.
“Bro culture [now] is at its most hyper-real, psychotic fucking mania,” Kazemi says. “If anything, when ‘woke’ went global, all of these boys felt that this privilege that they had romanticised and obsessed over in their childhood – through ’90s culture, their older brothers and this permissible male culture – was being ripped from them.”
Bro culture, laddism, toxic masculinity, whatever we call it, is still alive and thriving. But as we peel back the layers of history – as New Millenium Boyz does – the cultural beginnings start to make a little more sense.
“In the ’90s it was, like, [radio personality and comedian] Adam Carolla on The Man Show, girls showing their tits, beer and racist jokes,” Kazemi says. “But now it’s like a fucking endless reminder [of bro culture]. These guys all get off on it. They all think they’re so cool for loving these hyper-masculine figures because they actually think that their subversion is anti-world. But it’s nothing fucking new at all.”
Boo-yah! New Millenium Boyz, published by Permuted Press, is out 12th September for $28 (around 22 quid). It will also be available at the Heaven by Marc Jacobs stores on London’s Brewer Street and Los Angeles’ Fairfax Avenue.