In the new issue of the New Yorker, Adam Gopnik talks about pop culture's 40-year cycle of nostalgia.
So it seems time to pronounce a rule about American popular culture: the Golden Forty-Year Rule. The prime site of nostalgia is always whatever happened, or is thought to have happened, in the decade between forty and fifty years past. (And the particular force of nostalgia, one should bear in mind, is not simply that it is a good setting for a story but that it is a good setting for you.)
If you combine this with Kurt Andersen's recent piece about the slowing rate of change of pop culture, perhaps there's another lesson here other than Gopnik's assertion that we'll be nostalgic for the Obama age 40 years from now. Maybe we've reached Peak Nostalgia and in an effort to find more and more nostalgia for an ever-increasing audience, culturemakers are mining more from those eras outside of the appointed 40-year era and as a result, pop culture is feeling more timeless, echoing all eras, until it becomes a culture that can't draw upon anything but itself.
And if not, I'm looking forward to the return of 70s-style moviemaking in the coming decade.
In a piece for Vanity Fair, Kurt Andersen argues that for the first time in recent history, American pop culture (fashion, art, music, design, entertainment) hasn't changed dramatically in the past 20 years.
Since 1992, as the technological miracles and wonders have propagated and the political economy has transformed, the world has become radically and profoundly new. (And then there's the miraculous drop in violent crime in the United States, by half.) Here is what's odd: during these same 20 years, the appearance of the world (computers, TVs, telephones, and music players aside) has changed hardly at all, less than it did during any 20-year period for at least a century. The past is a foreign country, but the recent past -- the 00s, the 90s, even a lot of the 80s -- looks almost identical to the present. This is the First Great Paradox of Contemporary Cultural History.
Think about it. Picture it. Rewind any other 20-year chunk of 20th-century time. There's no chance you would mistake a photograph or movie of Americans or an American city from 1972-giant sideburns, collars, and bell-bottoms, leisure suits and cigarettes, AMC Javelins and Matadors and Gremlins alongside Dodge Demons, Swingers, Plymouth Dusters, and Scamps-with images from 1992. Time-travel back another 20 years, before rock 'n' roll and the Pill and Vietnam, when both sexes wore hats and cars were big and bulbous with late-moderne fenders and fins-again, unmistakably different, 1952 from 1972. You can keep doing it and see that the characteristic surfaces and sounds of each historical moment are absolutely distinct from those of 20 years earlier or later: the clothes, the hair, the cars, the advertising -- all of it. It's even true of the 19th century: practically no respectable American man wore a beard before the 1850s, for instance, but beards were almost obligatory in the 1870s, and then disappeared again by 1900. The modern sensibility has been defined by brief stylistic shelf lives, our minds trained to register the recent past as old-fashioned.