Thursday, May 11, 2006

Cultural decades

What were the 1960s about?

Odds are some very specific things popped into your head immediately. To varying extents, and depending on how much you know about history, you will probably be able to come up with similar answers for every decade from the 1920s to the 1980s (maybe earlier too). Probably something like this -- noting that this is not really an accurate description of the decades, just of what has become the iconography of those decades:
  • 1920s: Roaring Twenties, flappers, Jazz Age, stock market crash
  • 1930s: Great Depression, speakeasies, organized crime, prohibition
  • 1940s: New Deal, World War II, swing, USO, film noir
  • 1950s: Doo wop, Motown, birth of rock and roll, soda jerks, sock hops, fuzzy skirts, chrome tailfins, excessive optimism, squeaky-clean families
  • 1960s: Psychedelia, counterculture, civil rights, hippies, peace movement, protests, maturation of rock music
  • 1970s: Disco, shallow materialism, pet rocks, smiley-faces, mood rings, fads, disaster movies
  • 1980s: Rampant capitalism, greed, exploitation of resources, selfishness and hedonism, new wave music, MTV
One interesting note is that in most cases the cultural decade doesn't match the calendar decade, but is offset about 2-4 years later. Naturally, there's no clear boundary of any cultural decade; there wasn't a day everyone decided to abandon the hippy movement and start grooving. But 1961 feels more like the 50s than the 60s, while 1971 feels more like the 60s than the 70s, etc. And peak defining moments in each decade are more likely to happen around the 7th year: the 57 Chevy in 1957, the Summer of Love in 1967, Saturday Night Fever and Star Wars in 1977, and so on. All such definitions are nebulous at best, but there does seem to be something of a trend here.

So what was the 1990s about? You'd think by now we'd know, but it seems it isn't really clear yet. A lot of notable things happened in the 1990s, to be sure. The fall of communism and the end of the Cold War, the Internet bubble, ubiquitous computing, and a groundswell of awareness of environmental concerns are amongst the most notable. Somehow this doesn't seem to want to coalesce into any kind of coherent theme, nor does any particular image rise up to claim dominance.

I'm inclined to propose this as the answer: "global awareness". The decade of Ben & Jerry and the World Wide Web; of globalization of markets and of news; the mainstreaming of the environmental, recycling, and conservation movements; the first big steps towards a more global sense of community. Am I being too optimistic? Maybe. But think of this. We don't think of the 1960s as defined by the Vietnam War nearly as much as we think of them as defined by the concomitant peace protests, perhaps because plenty of decades have wars, but the 1960s stand out for having this particular cultural reaction to them (and other things). So while the 1990s were also marked by corruption and petty localized things, those are not defining of the decade nearly so much as the relatively new trend towards a more ubiquitously global perspective.

The decade we're in right now doesn't even have a name. It's usually pretty hard to see from within the decade what it'll turn out to be about, but I fear this particular one is too easy to see: the war on terror, the fall of democracy, the erosion of rights, the undoing of so much of what the 1990s were about. Let's just hope it's someday spoken of as an interregnum rather than a turning point.

1 comment:

litlfrog said...

I'd like to add a couple of other defining characteristics about the 1990s.

1) The mainstreaming of the alternative. I was a college DJ in the late 80s and early 90s. The kind of music I played went from utterly marginalized to very in-demand in less than twelve months. The hard-edged sounds of Soundgarden, Nirvana, and Bad Religion were, by the end of the 90s, transformed to CHR hits by Limp Bizkit and Green Day. In film, every major studio was suddenly haunting Sundance and Cannes looking for an independent film to aggressively market to a wider audience.

2) The final triumph of corporate culture. I think this may in fact be irreversible. I don't think there's any room left for grassroots folk culture. It no sooner arises than it's descended on by swarms of consumer analysts and marketing hacks.