Monday, February 06, 2012

[Rant] Nothing New

Nothing New: The Ready Player One review (above) made me realize something. The Eighties was the last decade that was aesthetically different. That is to say, if you went back to, say, 1996 today you wouldn't see any blatantly obvious differences (except that nobody would be texting on a giant smartphone). The clothes, hairstyles, music, cars, and stores would all feel very familiar. It is new to my lifetime that this is the case. You can spot the '80s in an instant. Same with the 70s, '60s, and '50s. Differentiating between them is obvious. It's as if in the last twenty years, the visuals of popular culture have just stopped changing.

I first took notice of this a few years ago when I read a throwaway quote by Gregg Easterbrook about the film American Graffiti. He pointed out that American Graffiti was produced in 1973 as it was a nostalgia filled examination of simpler the simpler times of 1962. In '73 you could look back 11 years and see a different world. Today, if you looked back at 2001 you'd see a reflection.

It's an interesting exercise to evaluate how cultural signs have stayed settled over the last twenty years. In the realm of the arts, the '90s was the endgame of the ongoing ascendancy of Film and Video (and their black sheep cousin, the videogame) over all other forms of art in terms of cultural significance. Genre books occasionally capture a mass audience, but only once in a while and even they get their main boost from Film/Video adaptions. Mainstream fiction is purely niche at this point. Even popular music gave way, only maintaining cultural relevance when associated with Film and Video, such as inclusion in a movie soundtrack, or being highlighted on American Idol or Glee, otherwise music is fragmented into nearly atomic markets, partially thanks to technology.

In fact, with the film and video microcosm, the '90s was when TV overtook movies for quality drama thanks to boundary busters like Buffy and Sopranos, both of which have not dated in the slightest. Movies have been reduced to sequels and remakes and remakes of sequels. The only thing that's changed about this is that people are starting to notice. (Bragging: I was about 10 years ahead of the curve on TV being better than movies.)

In personal style, let's see: stupid teenagers and even stupider young adults still let their pants fall down their butts. There was a side burn thing a few years ago. For a while, men were wearing suits without ties thanks to George Clooney. Oh, and some people seem to like spikey hair. There has been a barely noticeable return of preppy. Clogs anyone? None of this is remotely widespread or so far outside the mainstream as to challenge the status quo. Since the '90s we have had nothing widely adopted as leather jackets and brylcream ('50s), tie-dye and bell-bottoms ('60s), silk shirts and platform shoes ('70s), leg warmers, parachute pants, and multiple swatches ('80s).

How about music? Rock, Funk, Disco, Punk, various forms of Electronica, New Wave, Indie, Rap, Hip Hop, Alt-Country. All pre '90s inventions. Is there a new genre that I don't know about? If there is, it can't be all that relevant can it?

In the realm of cars, well, we now drive SUVs instead of Minivans. Despite a gas price shock or two, the best-selling cars are still mid-size sedans (Camry, Fusion) and pickups (Ford F-150). A lot of cars now have little electric motors to help them along, but that's functional technology advance, not an aesthetic one.

Common architecture hasn't changed one whit, although that has been the case since before I was born.

I don't profess to have any deep understanding of why this is. I'm sure everyone will jump to the conclusion that it's symbolic of some sort of grand socio-political sea change. One such person is Kurt Andersen over at Vanity Fair, who has an excellent and slightly different take than I do. I'm not so sure it's not just chance -- the probabilistic waxing and waning of ideas reaching a tipping point.

Also, let's not forget that, while we are stagnant aesthetically, technology is still turning our culture on its head regularly, said the man with his entire collection of books and music in his pocket who manages employees half the world away and hasn't seen a bank teller or stock broker in years. The results of disintermediation alone (eliminating the middle men, such as publishers and prfessional sales forces, in any exchange) will keep us on our toes for years to come.