Has pop culture been stuck on repeat for the last thirty years? That's the thesis of a pretty interesting—if redundantly argued—essay from this month's Vanity Fair. The author, Kurt Anderson, argues that until the 1990s, each decade of pop culture had a unique look and feel to it. Since the nineties, though, pop culture has failed to innovate in any meaningful way:
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.
Anderson's argument is compelling on its face, but he's painting in strokes that are too broad. First of all, without the benefit of hindsight, it's hard to analyze how exactly the current culture differs from that of thirty years ago. Second, contemporary culture does have a number of distinguishing features, the most obvious ones being technological (iPads, videogames, smartphones). But there are other unique features as well, like reality television, Facebook, and Twitter. Our culture may not be as creative as it once was, but it's not in paralysis either.
Anderson thinks that our culture is not innovating because we've become too fixated on the past:
But starting all at once in the early 70s, nostalgia proliferated as pop culture became fixated on the past: the 1950s and early 60s—American Graffiti, Happy Days, The Last Picture Show, Grease—and to a lesser extent the 1920s, 30s, and 40s (The Great Gatsby, The Godfather, Summer of ’42, Art Deco, midi and maxi skirts). Even the one big new Hollywood species of the mid-70s and early 80s, the special-effects adventure and science-fiction blockbusters by Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, was a re-invention of the B movies of the 40s and 50s.
I completely disagree. If anything, we've become less in tune with the past--especially our cultural past--since the seventies. Anderson wonders if we've reached the end of cultural history. If we have, it's because young people today have stopped studying the history, the literature, and the art of the West. The reason, I believe, that we're seeing revivals of The Great Gatsby, Anything Goes, and shows like Mad Men is because the culture wants to reconnect with the past and all that it has to offer.
What do you think?