Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History (33 page)

BOOK: Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History
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No more. Now people drove new Nissans and Infinitis that looked practically identical to the Nissans and Infinitis from a generation earlier. They sat in new Aeron chairs exactly like the new Aeron chairs people had sat in twenty years earlier.

I conducted taste tests among people my age and in their forties and thirties and twenties. I played them new pop songs that weren’t big hits and showed them clips of unfamiliar new movies and photos of recent buildings and cars, asking when they thought each had been created. Almost nobody could definitively say that things from 2007 weren’t from 1997 or 1987. Weren’t Lady Gaga and Adele and Josh Ritter, all new phenoms at the time, more or less Madonna and Mariah Carey and Bob Dylan redux? Hip-hop had broken through to the mainstream in the late 1980s and early ’90s, but in the 2000s it was just…continuing to be mainstream, no longer excitingly
new
.

I started culling through old images and recordings, hundreds of them from the twentieth century and back in the nineteenth century, comparing era to era, decade to decade, the differences in clothes and hairstyles and cars, music and movies and advertising, architecture and product design and graphics, all of it.

In the past, over the course of any and every two-decade period, the look and sound of life changed dramatically. New York’s famous new architecture of the 1930s (the Chrysler Building, the Empire State Building) looks nothing like the famous new architecture that appeared twenty years earlier (the Flatiron Building, Grand Central Terminal, the Woolworth Building) or twenty years later (the Seagram Building, the UN Headquarters, the Guggenheim Museum). Anyone can instantly identify a 1950s movie (
On the Waterfront,
The Bridge on the River Kwai
) versus one from twenty years before (
Grand Hotel,
It Happened One Night
) or twenty years after (
Klute, A Clockwork Orange
) and tell the difference between hit songs from 1992 (Sir Mix-a-Lot) and 1972 (Neil Young) and 1952 (Patti Page) and 1932 (Duke Ellington).

That unmistakable ceaseless stylistic change was the nature of life for most of the history of the United States. But after the 1980s, cultural time slowed down and in many ways stopped. The 1990s looked and sounded extremely different than the 1970s, but by comparison, the 2010s were almost indistinguishable from the 1990s, as 2020 is almost indistinguishable from 2000.

In any year during the twentieth century, if somebody on an American city street were dressed and groomed in the manner of someone from twenty or twenty-five years earlier, they would’ve looked like an actor in costume or a time traveler. Whereas if every second pedestrian you passed today actually
was
a time traveler fresh from 2000, you’d really have no clue, even if one of them were speaking on her (cool vintage) cellphone.

Jeans and T-shirts and sneakers remain today a standard American uniform for all ages, as they were in 2000, 1990, and the 1980s. There are now more yoga pants and other “athleisure wear,” which is really just tighter, thinner sweat clothes.

Pop music was a truly modern cultural form because by its nature it changed so quickly, its stylistic evolutionary speed resulting from a century of new technologies, first recordings and radio, then TV and cable TV. This makes music worth a slightly deeper case study, because that process of abandoning real novelty as a guiding principle is so apparent. Along with the rest of pop and high culture, music plunged into self-conscious nostalgia in the 1970s, which listeners at first
heard
nostalgically—such as
Born to Run
—and then proceeded into automatic recycling and stasis, with listeners more and more unaware that more and more of ostensibly “new” music was being recycled from musical history.

I started nailing down this phenomenon in an essay in
Vanity Fair
a decade ago, around the time Simon Reynolds published
Retromania,
his great book-length history of the decline and fall of the new in pop music, showing how startlingly new sounds had disappeared in favor of “revivals, reissues, remakes, reenactments” and “rampant recycling.” I was delighted to have my theory validated in the musical sphere by somebody with far greater knowledge. The 1960s had “set the bar impossibly high” for breaking new ground, writes Reynolds, who was only six at the end of the ’60s, and then as

the eighties rolled into the nineties, increasingly music began to be talked about only in terms of other music; creativity became reduced to taste games. What changed from the mid-80s onwards was the level of acclaim that blatantly derivative groups began to receive. Retro-styled groups had generally been a niche market, for people unhealthily obsessed with a bygone past. But now these heavily indebted bands [such as] The Stone Roses, Oasis, [and] The White Stripes, could become “central.” In the 2000s the pop present became ever more crowded out by the past, [with] bygone genres revived and renovated, vintage sonic material reprocessed and recombined. There has never been a society in human history so obsessed with the cultural artifacts of
its own immediate past
.

Reynolds documents how the new pop musical stars of the twenty-first century, even the best artists among them, continue doing cover versions, de facto when not literally, of soul and rock from the 1960s, punk and rap and synth pop from the ’70s and ’80s. “Is nostalgia stopping our culture’s ability to surge forward,” he asks, “or are we nostalgic precisely because our culture has stopped moving forward and so we inevitably look back to more momentous and dynamic times?” I’m pretty sure it’s both, as it tends to be with big, diffuse causes and effects.

Thirty years
have passed since the last two genuinely new pop genres of significance had their golden ages—rap and hip-hop, and techno and house and rave. In 1990 the former was about to be mainstreamed and still endures, while the latter, with its self-consciously futuristic
newness
from the early digital age, now seems…quaint. I asked Reynolds if any new musical forms had emerged during the 2010s that inclined him to modify his theory of the case. He mentioned the “digital maximalism” of “electronic producers whose music is very processed sounding and smeared in terms of both its textures and its pitch.” Right. In other words, not really. “You could say with much of this stuff, it’s an extension of what was going on in the nineties, just with even more fiddly production and tiny sonic events per bar.”

In fact, it is ironic how digital technology—newness incarnate, the essence of the present and future—has reinforced our fixed backward stare and helped mesmerize us into cultural stasis. Starting in the 1990s, Internet search (as well as cable TV) provided access to old pictures and sounds that we’d never had before, and then all at once, from 2005 to 2007, comprehensive new digital archives of the old opened up and transfixed us—first the astounding YouTube, then the endless streams of Pandora, Spotify, and online Netflix. When the future arrived, it let us sink further and further into uncanny dreams of the past.

As Reynolds writes, “We’ve become so used to this convenient access” to old music and images “that it is a struggle to recall that life wasn’t always like this, that relatively recently one lived most of the time in a cultural present tense, with the past confined to specific zones, trapped in particular objects and locations.” If you’re young, and have grown up only since the Internet has been dissolving the distinctions between past and present and old and new, the sci-fi writer and futurist William Gibson says, “I suspect that you inhabit a sort of endless digital Now, a state of atemporality enabled by our increasingly efficient communal prosthetic memory.” What’s more, I think digital technology has made it so easy for anybody to create and distribute songs and pictures and videos and stories, and for everyone to consume them, that the resulting democratic flood of stuff—each of the 100 million cover versions and impersonations and fan fictions that are
nominally
brand new—can fool us into thinking the culture is more fertile and vibrant than it is.

A slightly different expression of the stasis that descended in the 1990s was the disappearance of musical diversity among the most popular pop songs. A 2018 study, by two young data journalists, of the summer hits every year from 1970 to 2015 algorithmically derived each song’s “fingerprint” not from its genre or style but from its underlying sonic components—valence, loudness, energy, and so on. By those measures, from the 1970s through the ’80s and into the ’90s, the hits were extremely different from one another, such as the 1988 songs the researchers deconstructed by Cheap Trick, INXS, and Def Leppard. But then suddenly, in the late 1990s, they discovered, the hits were no longer diverse, and they haven’t been since. Now even when hit songs
seem
fairly different—such as those by Katy Perry, Eminem, and Lady Gaga in the summer of 2010—their deeper sonic traits (valence, loudness, energy) are actually quite similar. So it isn’t that the most popular new songs now all sound like
old
songs, but that they all fundamentally sound the
same,
like one another, thus satisfying the deeper need driving nostalgia—for reassuring
familiarity,
nothing too strange or challenging.

Genre by genre and medium by medium, we could debate whether
this
or
that
show or song or design or work of art counts as a truly new cultural species. Obviously the last twenty years have been an exceptional time for television drama—few to no series as great as
The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Black Mirror, Atlanta, Fleabag,
or
Succession
existed on American TV during its first fifty years. However, this golden age mainly resulted not from deep changes in culture and sensibility but rather from changes in the technology of distribution and the business models of entertainment: cable and Internet broadband allowed for a great migration of creative talent and ambition and risk-taking and rule-breaking from one distribution channel to another, from movie theaters to TV sets and computer screens. It’s like how Amazon hasn’t changed the things we buy, just how we can buy them and how they’re delivered to us.

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose
always meant that the constant novelty and flux of modern life is superficial, that the underlying essences endure unchanged. But that saying now has an alternative and nearly opposite meaning: the more that underlying structures change for real (technology, the political economy), the more the surfaces (style, entertainment) remain the same.

In the early 1990s, Francis Fukuyama published his argument that all societies were inexorably arriving at the same evolutionary end point—the glorious finale of political economic history. Such folly. Yet in the arts and entertainment and style, what happened then, at the moment when both
The End of History
and the film
Groundhog Day
came out, does feel like an end of cultural history. Or at least, and I’m still hoping, an extremely long pause.

So to recap: the national nostalgia reflex was triggered in the first place in the 1970s by fatigue from all the warp-drive cultural changes of the ’60s. It’s as if the whole culture, finally too stoned to stand up and lift the stylus on an LP that was skipping, just let it go on playing the same track over and over and over. That was indulged and encouraged by impresarios and marketers and, in the digital age, by new archival technology. We entered a Been There Done That Mashup Age, in which our culture’s primary MO came to consist of endlessly recycling and reviving old forms, or in any case steering clear of the unfamiliar. After two or three decades of compulsively pressing
SEARCH
and
REWIND
on the culture machine, which was now equipped with the practically infinite Alexandrian library of YouTube, we’d found a
STOP NEW OUTPUT
button and pressed that too.

But
why
? Why did we allow a taste for old or otherwise familiar forms and styles to spread and congeal into a general cultural stasis?

Because, I think, the economic changes of the 1980s, while not as immediately or spectacularly obvious as those of the ’60s, were in their ways at least as profound. The 1960s had triggered that first nostalgia wave as a soothing counterreaction. A generation later the unpleasant economic changes of the 1980s and ’90s made us retreat even deeper into our havens of the recycled and reassuringly old as a kind of national cultural self-medication. The
unavoidable
newness disoriented many people—the brutal winners-take-all economy and PCs evolving to supercomputers in every pocket all connected to one another, the easily graspable Cold War replaced by the confusing rise of China and militant Islamism, the influx of immigrants—take your pick.

Just as Americans who came of age from the 1960s and after tended to be Peter Pans, fearing or resisting adulthood like no previous generations, trying to stay forever young, we also started fearing the future and resisting the new in general. Again, the writer J. G. Ballard delivered a kind of early-warning prophecy. “The year 2000 will come,” he wrote in the early 1990s, “but I have a feeling that some time over the next 10 or 20 years, there is going to be a major break of human continuity. One of the reasons we’ve turned our backs against the future at present is that people may well perceive unconsciously that the future is going to be a very dangerous place.”

Since the 1990s, people able to make good livings in technology have reveled in innovation and disruption and remain devoted to the quest for the new in some ways, but many more Americans have been clinging ever more desperately to the tried and true and familiar, wherever and however they can, comforted by a world that at least still looks and sounds more or less the way it looked and sounded last year, or last century.

There are now also pockets of wistfulness for the time just before cultural stagnation took full effect. In 2019 I talked with Liz Phair, the singer-songwriter whose first album made her famous in 1993, and asked her about all the new young singer-songwriters emulating her musical style from a quarter-century ago. It derives from a specific nostalgia, she thinks, for “the last time before the Internet.”

BOOK: Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History
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