December 12th, 2011
(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: firstname.lastname@example.org
My friends and I have been wondering why the word “cool” hasn’t become uncool, whereas words like “groovy” were immediately outdated. Seems related. On the one hand, the last 40 years were the 3rd biggest cultural revolution of the West:
1.) the adoption of Christianity in the late Roman times
2.) the Protestant Reformation of the 1500s
3.) the abandonment of Christianity in the 1960s
But in other ways, the era has been one of remarkable non-change.
Go deeper and you see that just 20 years also made all the difference in serious cultural output. New York’s amazing new buildings of the 1930s (the Chrysler, the Empire State) look nothing like the amazing new buildings of the 1910s (Grand Central, Woolworth) or of the 1950s (the Seagram, U.N. headquarters). Anyone can instantly identify a 50s movie (On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai) versus one from 20 years before (Grand Hotel, It Happened One Night) or 20 years after (Klute, A Clockwork Orange), or tell the difference between hit songs from 1992 (Sir Mix-a-Lot) and 1972 (Neil Young) and 1952 (Patti Page) and 1932 (Duke Ellington). When high-end literature was being redefined by James Joyce and Virginia Woolf, F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway, great novels from just 20 years earlier—Henry James’s The Ambassadors, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth—seemed like relics of another age. And 20 years after Hemingway published his war novel For Whom the Bell Tolls a new war novel, Catch-22, made it seem preposterously antique.
Now try to spot the big, obvious, defining differences between 2012 and 1992. Movies and literature and music have never changed less over a 20-year period. Lady Gaga has replaced Madonna, Adele has replaced Mariah Carey—both distinctions without a real difference—and Jay-Z and Wilco are still Jay-Z and Wilco. Except for certain details (no Google searches, no e-mail, no cell phones), ambitious fiction from 20 years ago (Doug Coupland’s Generation X, Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash, Martin Amis’s Time’s Arrow) is in no way dated, and the sensibility and style of Joan Didion’s books from even 20 years before that seem plausibly circa-2012.
The Aeron chair in which you’re sitting is identical to the Aeron chair in which I sat almost two decades ago, and this morning I boiled water for my coffee in the groovy Alessi kettle I bought a quarter-century ago. With rare exceptions, cars from the early 90s (and even the late 80s) don’t seem dated. Not long ago in the newspaper, I came across an archival photograph of Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell with a dozen of their young staff at Morgans, the Ur-boutique hotel, in 1985. It was an epiphany. Schrager’s dress shirt had no collar and some of the hair on his male employees was a bit unfashionably fluffy, but no one in the picture looks obviously, laughably dated by today’s standards. If you passed someone who looked like any of them, you wouldn’t think twice. Yet if, in 1990 or 1980 or 1970, you’d examined a comparable picture from 27 years earlier—from 1963 and 1953 and 1943, respectively—it would be a glimpse back into an unmistakably different world. A man or woman on the street in any year in the 20th century groomed and dressed in the manner of someone from 27 years earlier would look like a time traveler, an actor in costume, a freak. And until recently it didn’t take even that long for datedness to kick in: by the late 1980s, for instance, less than a decade after the previous decade had ended, the 1970s already looked ridiculous.
There are, of course, a few exceptions today—genuinely new cultural phenomena that aren’t digital phenomena—but so few that they prove the rule. Twenty years ago we had no dark, novelistic, amazing TV dramas, no Sopranos or Deadwood or The Wire or Breaking Bad. Recycling bins weren’t ubiquitous and all lightbulbs were incandescent. Men wore neckties more frequently. Fashionable women exposed less of their breasts and bra straps, and rarely wore ultra-high-heeled shoes. We were thinner, and fewer of us had tattoos or piercings. And that’s about it.
Not coincidentally, it was exactly 20 years ago that Francis Fukuyama published The End of History, his influential post-Cold War argument that liberal democracy had triumphed and become the undisputed evolutionary end point toward which every national system was inexorably moving: fundamental political ferment was over and done. Maybe yes, maybe no. But in the arts and entertainment and style realms, this bizarre Groundhog Day stasis of the last 20 years or so certainly feels like an end of cultural history.