Stop me if I start sounding like your grandpa.
This year, I taught an American Pop Culture course to a group of about 35 high school students. We started in the 1920s and tracked overall cultural shifts while learning about the important people, movies, music, inventions, etc. of each decade. As we finished the semester with 2010 to the present day, a student remarked that this “doesn’t even feel like a decade.” Several of her classmates nodded, and when I asked her to explain, she essentially said that there was just nothing that really sets it apart culturally or that people will remember — that everything feels so temporary.
I’ve thought about that conversation quite a bit since then, and every time I try to examine the student’s theory, the examples I choose to look at prove it even further. Take the decade of my childhood, for instance. The 1990s were culturally rich and may prove historically to be the last “decade” in the traditional sense of the word. In fact, the cultural elements of the decade (music, movies, TV, fashion, language, sports, etc.) were so significant that each year feels like its own mini-decade. Nirvana and the grunge explosion plants you firmly in 1994. The boy band and Britney Spears pop movement at the end of the decade feels very much like 1999. It’s an intangible, almost impossible to pin down concept, but as you read those sentences, I bet you felt it too.
At the risk of being misguided by nostalgia, I tried the same idea with other decades. I didn’t exist at this point, but even retroactively, my experiences with the culture they produced all have a distinct feel. It evokes a time and place when I see pictures of people wearing aerobic gear to shopping malls or with giant, teased hair in the 1980s. Shows like All in the Family or The Jeffersons hearken back to television coming of age in the 1970s. The turmoil and rebellion of the 60s are alive in Bob Dylan’s protest lyrics or The Rolling Stones’ blues-inspired guitar riffs. You hear, or see, or simply think about these things and there are landmarks in your mind anchored in them.
And today there … aren’t. A song from my college days is only tied to memory as a moment in my life, not as a moment in society. A re-run of The Office doesn’t transport me through time in the way an episode of Friends or Seinfeld does. We were told that the internet would accelerate popular culture, but so far, that only seems half true. It has accelerated the creation of it — there’s a new song or app or meme every day or week — but in the creation of the “next” one, whatever “next” replaces fades before it ever leaves its indelible mark. The cultural touchstone becomes an acquaintance instead of a friend. There’s nothing to make 2019 feel different than 2013 or 2022.
Again, stop me if I start sounding like your grandfather, but I think there’s something to be said, not only for the constant creation and bombardment of new culture but also the uninhibited access to all culture at all times. Instead of learning about The Eagles or Steve Miller Band on the oldies station while riding in the car with your dad, they’re streaming on-demand on Spotify alongside every other song from every other decade. There’s no cultural context to place anything in because the song or movie or show never goes away long enough for it to be missed. It’s there for you to keep listening to and watching, on repeat, forever. Instead of moving through popular culture in a linear way that shows progression and change, it’s all dumped into the pool together, and it has the same effect as watching all of the scenes of a movie out of order. You’ve technically seen it, but you didn’t experience it.
To be clear, I’m not arguing whether this is a good or bad thing, nor am I placing any sort of judgment on whether pop culture now is better or worse (it’s worse). I refuse to yell at the kids to get off my lawn or romanticize what things were like back in my day. It’s possible that we’re simply too freshly exposed to this new way of consuming culture for anyone to draw any conclusions. Maybe someone writes a similar article in 2060 with the same perspective but the decades adjusted to include the ones I’m dismissing now. But for now, for us, it’s undeniable that the same Teen Spirit Nirvana sang about is noticing that they’re growing up in a world without it.