The ‘Pop Culture Decade’ Died In The 1990s

This journey could just as easily begin in the 1920s, or 1940s, but I think starting with the 1950s is sufficient to illustrate my point. And to avoid confusion, this article is written entirely from the perspective of American pop culture. But I have a hunch that the same phenomenon that killed the “pop culture decade” has swept around the globe, immune from regional pop culture variations.

The 1950s saw mass adoption of a new technology, the television, and this new medium would fuel the pop culture decades to follow. The 50s was also the decade responsible for rock ‘n roll, blue jeans and poodle skirt fashion, and it gave birth to the star of Elvis Presley. This particular decade has been highly romanticized in later pop culture decades starting in the 1970s and reaching its pinnacle in the 1980s with movies like “Back to the Future.” You know a 1950s reference when you see it. Whether it be slicked back hair or the chrome kitchen set, this pop culture decade is deep-seated in our collective pop culture brains, even if the decade we visualize is in reality shaped by rose-colored references from future decades.

When we think 1960s, we think change, revolution, social upheaval (followed by greater social acceptance). If the 1950s was your conservative (sometimes bigoted) uncle, the 1960s was your rambunctious (and drugged out) cousin. The decade of assassinations (President John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr.) was also the decade of the British Invasion (The Beetles, The Rolling Stones, The Who). While all decades take pop culture cues from music, it was the 1960s where music had its biggest effect on pop culture and the greater culture at large. The rock ‘n roll music that began a decade earlier was joined in the 1960s by its rising sibling, pop music. The “teenager” clothed in the conservatism of the 1950s, grew out his hair and rebelled in the 1960s. When you think this decade you think sub-culture. When you think the 1960s, you think peace signs, hippies, VW bugs, and  tie-dye t-shirts.

Pop culture in the 1970s was directly influenced by the social change of the 1960s. In television, the 70s began a trend of more controversial, socially conscious programming with TV shows like “All in the Family.” Seventies television also contained much sexual innuendo with shows like “Charlie’s Angels” and “Three’s Company.” And 70s television saw a rise in programming centered on minority families like “Good Times,” and “Sanford and Son.” In music, the 70s was all about experimentation with styles ranging from jazz/rock fusion to darker, heavier, and harder-edged sounds from the likes of “Black Sabbath” and “Led Zeppelin.” But the 70s also produced soft pop from groups like “The Carpenters” and long-form progressive rock from bands like “Genesis.” The 1970s gave rise to the familiar half-hour, fast-paced, local news program, and the influence this format has had on society cannot be overstated. The unofficial mantra “If it bleeds it leads” of this style of news reporting has had a profound effect on the way people perceive the world, what they consider important, and how safe (or unsafe) they think this human experiment is. When you think the 1970s, you think earth tones and oil embargoes. The 1970s woke up the few remaining hold outs, still caught up in a post-war slumber. The 1970s was far removed from the quiet and safe confines of the 1950s.

Ah, the 1980s, the decade of my childhood. I was 4-years old when the decade began, a teenager when it ended. The 1980s saw the second British Invasion, with new wave, and a heavy reliance on synthesizer-based pop. The 1980s also rang in the era of self-absorption and Wall Street greed, two things that we still can’t shake nearly 30 years later. The decade of the personal computer was also the decade of big hair. Whether it was hair metal bands, or teenage girls testing gravity and the limits of hair products. And like the 1960s, the 1980s saw its share of iconic pop artists like Madonna and Michael Jackson. And of course, any mention of 1980s pop culture must include MTV. Launched in 1981, MTV had a major impact on the music industry and how music is marketed, and the 1980s was all about marketing. From My Little Pony, Care Bears, and of course the Cabbage Patch Kids, consumerism was not only alive and well in the 1980s, it was raised to a whole new level of gratuitousness. Everything was big in the 1980s. When you think this decade you think loud, you think bombastic, you think colorful and you think neon, ripped jeans, the perm, and the mullet.

So now we’ve reached the 1990s, and it all seemed so promising at the beginning of that decade, with the grunge music scene rebelling against the excesses of the 80s. It matters not if you liked it, because it’s simply undeniable that “the Seattle sound” was a defining moment at the beginning of the last decade of the 20th century. Unfortunately, it really was the last defining moment for the 90s. Oh sure, the 1990s saw the rise of the world wide web, and the tech bubble that followed, and obviously the impact of technology and the internet is profound, but when it comes to music, television, fashion, the 1990s killed the pop culture decade. Post 1990s, decades are no longer defined by an aesthetic or a zeitgeist. Don’t believe me? Well consider this example:

Adam Sandler - The Wedding Singer (1998)

Adam Sandler – The Wedding Singer (1998)

Think of the movie “The Wedding Singer.” This comedy gold flick was released in 1998, starring Adam Sandler and Drew Barrymore. It was a period comedy, taking place 13 years earlier in 1985. Think about that. This movie was released 16 years ago, and when it was released, it depicted a timeframe 13 years before that, utilizing an unmistakable 80s aesthetic that was completely foreign only a little over a decade later. More time has passed since this movie’s release than the difference in time between it’s release and the period it depicted. Why does this matter? While I realize this is a comedy, using over-the-top fashion and pop culture references for comedic effect, that also makes it the perfect microcosm of the greater point I’m trying to make here. Could we have a 2014 “Wedding Singer” movie depicting 13 years earlier, the year 2001? What would be the defining visual aesthetic of 2001? How would it be set apart from the aesthetic of 2014? See what I’m getting at? Sure, social media and smart phones are a big deal in the time that has passed since 2001, but that really doesn’t give us a defining visual aesthetic. It seems we reached a kind of odd pop culture malaise that began in the 1990s, a homogenization, if you will. What is the zeitgeist of the first decade of the 21st century? Will there ever be one?

While music, fashion, and technology do continue to evolve, I believe we have lost the ability to isolate any defining aesthetic for the decades that follow the 1990s. We are no longer able to recite obvious, relatable, and universal pop culture references when talking about the current decade or the first decade of the 21st century. In fact, we never even settled on a universal name for either of these two decades.

So what do you think? Hit up the comments section below with your thoughts.

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