They were talking about Acid House on the radio this morning. On Radio 4. On the Today programme! Then again, Acid House was 25 years ago and the people who made it happen are now middle-aged. Was it the last of the great revolutions in music and youth culture? It’s difficult to think of anything since that has had quite the same impact.
It’s often said that before rock ‘n’ roll and the invention of the teenager, young people dressed like their parents. Harriet Walker reckons we are going back to that:
Turning into your parents used to be a bad thing, a soul-freezing moment of recognition that hit while plucking your first nasal hair or paying a bill on time. Lately, though, it has become a badge of honour. Retail analysts are calling 2013 the year the generational divide disappeared (for the middle classes, at least), with a bullish pearls and bow-tie market proof of how the habits and tastes of old and young have converged.
It’s as if the 60s and subsequent eras of angry young men with political hairdos were a blip. We’re back to father and son in matching sports jacket, mother and daughter in aprons and Elnett, Buddy Holly frozen in time at 22 with the wardrobe of an octogenarian.
So if fashion is losing its edge, is rock ‘n’ roll going the same way?
Suzanne Moore thinks so, as she compares the music and performance of Lady Gaga with that of the late Lou Reed:
[I]f Gaga is working overtime to shock us, it just isn’t happening. We are familiar with the panto of The X Factor and with Gaga’s turns. We expect her to look bonkers, cram in a ADHD medley and probably get naked. The soundtrack/product that comes with it is pedestrian…
Lou Reed was avant garde precisely because he came out of modernism, because he changes for ever how things look and how they sound.
You could say the same about most of the artists that have appeared in recent years. Amy Winehouse had a great voice and her wild lifestyle made headlines but her style of music was not new. Same for Pink, Adele and a host of others. They are talented people but they haven’t recorded anything that could not have been released fifteen years ago. The same is true of guitar rock. Today’s jangly indie bands don’t sound a lot different from the jangly indie bands of the nineties. This picture was doing the rounds on Twitter a couple of weeks ago, reminding everyone that the baby on the cover of Nirvana’s classic album would now be 22.
Who’d have thought that the music in the charts would sound pretty much the same?
Dance, the genre that was supposed to have been the sound of the future, seems to have stagnated too. Old Skool tracks have been revived so often they have barely had time to become oldies. Take the Ibiza anthem Cafe Del Mar. It has been re-mixed and re-released nearly every year since it was first recorded twenty years ago. Sure, DJs have always played their Revive 45s and Raves from the Grave but Cafe Del Mar is resuscitated before it gets anywhere near burial. It has been current for the past two decades. Dance has gone the same way as rock and soul. There is no distinctive sound of the 2000s in any musical genre.
This would have been unthinkable a few decades ago. Radio stations played the classic oldies like Elvis but everything else was pretty much forgotten a couple of years after it had been released. When the ska revival happened in 1979-80, we danced to Tears of a Clown, Don’t Call Me Scarface, Madness and Whine and Grine with no idea that we were listening to covers. These songs were over ten years old and no-one played them any more. They were dead and buried. You’d be more likely to hear the original version of Tears of a Clown on the radio now that you would in 1978. Music from even five years ago was for older brothers and sisters. Each generation had its own sound.
As music and fashion went hand in hand, the same was true of the clothes people wore. There is an early 70s episode from Carla Lane’s Liver Birds where Sandra gets her old clothes out. She parades round the flat in her short skirt and white knee boots, reminiscing. Her younger flatmate looks at her in horror and disbelief. She has never worn such things and never will. The clothes were only five years old but they might as well have been from the moon. The point of the scene was that Sandra was feeling old. The difference in the clothes was so obvious that even I got the message. (Most pre-teenage boys in the 1970s had no interest in fashion and even the few that did would never have admitted it.)
I’m not sure how you’d do a similar scene now. The clothes just haven’t changed as significantly in the last ten years, let alone the last five. I’ve been watching old episodes of the West Wing recently and there is very little to show that it is ten years old. The only giveaway is the antenna on Toby’s phone. The clothes don’t look that different. Perhaps nowadays you could do the Liver Birds scene by having Sandra walk in with a Nokia 6210 but it wouldn’t have the same impact.
A couple of years ago, these themes were the subject of a brilliant Vanity Fair article by Kurt Anderson.
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.
Now try to spot the big, obvious, defining differences between 2012 and 1992. Movies and literature and music have never changed less over a 20-year period. Lady Gaga has replaced Madonna, Adele has replaced Mariah Carey—both distinctions without a real difference—and Jay-Z and Wilco are still Jay-Z and Wilco.
The Aeron chair in which you’re sitting is identical to the Aeron chair in which I sat almost two decades ago, and this morning I boiled water for my coffee in the groovy Alessi kettle I bought a quarter-century ago. With rare exceptions, cars from the early 90s (and even the late 80s) don’t seem dated.
Not long ago in the newspaper, I came across an archival photograph of Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell with a dozen of their young staff at Morgans, the Ur-boutique hotel, in 1985. It was an epiphany. Schrager’s dress shirt had no collar and some of the hair on his male employees was a bit unfashionably fluffy, but no one in the picture looks obviously, laughably dated by today’s standards. If you passed someone who looked like any of them, you wouldn’t think twice. Yet if, in 1990 or 1980 or 1970, you’d examined a comparable picture from 27 years earlier—from 1963 and 1953 and 1943, respectively—it would be a glimpse back into an unmistakably different world. A man or woman on the street in any year in the 20th century groomed and dressed in the manner of someone from 27 years earlier would look like a time traveler, an actor in costume, a freak. And until recently it didn’t take even that long for datedness to kick in: by the late 1980s, for instance, less than a decade after the previous decade had ended, the 1970s already looked ridiculous.
The article is illustrated with this wonderful cartoon.
If a picture paints a thousand words…..
Almost inevitably, people drew parallels between Andersen’s polemic and Tyler Cowen’s Great Stagnation. This, from right-wing US columnist Steve Sailer made me laugh:
Economist Tyler Cowen kick-started this fad of bemoaning stasis by publishing one of those newfangled e-books, The Great Stagnation, in which he lamented today’s lack of technological change. Now, 57-year-old Kurt Andersen, co-founder of Spymagazine back in the 1980s, has announced in Vanity Fair that, so far as he can tell, styles are stuck. Practically everything—cars, movies, music, men’s clothes, and haircuts—seems about the same to him as when he was a stripling of 37. Like Gloria Swanson in Sunset Boulevard, he’s still hip; it’s the times that have gotten square.
As another one of these writers of a certain age who seldom gets out much anymore, I heartily agree. Well, except, of course, for that handful of fields where I actually know a little bit about what’s going on. Those are clearly getting worse.
It’s true that old blokes have always moaned about young people’s tastes. Dads wouldn’t be dads if they didn’t say the music their kids listen to all sounds the same.
But this is different. Dads never said ‘it all sounds the same as it did when I was young‘. In 1977, if you’d suggested there was any similarity between Johnny Rotten and Gene Vincent you’d have got a slap. From both adults and kids. These days, the middle-aged men who don’t get out much are complaining that things aren’t changing fast enough and that the kids just aren’t revolting any more. How do you shock your parents nowadays? You certainly can’t do it with rock n roll, not in an age where whole families go to Glasto and teenagers listen to bands that were formed before their parents were born.
Does cultural stagnation mirror economic stagnation? Anderson certainly alludes to it in his article.
Americans’ median income is just about where it was 20 years ago, as unchanging as American style and culture.
But there may be other explanations too. Bob Cesca thinks that technology and social media might be more a force for conformity than innovation:
[D]ecades ago, with fewer options in terms of entertainment, audiences and consumers were trapped into accepting what was there. Now we have infinite choices, and anything that’s slightly unpopular dies rapidly.
This death comes with a thousands of negative (and often ugly) comments or it comes with a total lack of attention at all.
Fewer people want to stick their necks out to try something new for fear of being publicly — and instantly — rejected. Consequently, fear motivates them to recycle what’s already succeeded. Hence, the endless roundelay of remakes and reboots.
One of the reasons why 1970 were so different from the 1960, and so on, was also due to the lack of instant reflection. We know exactly what we look like right now because we’re all video stars. We can tweak our appearance in real time via instant digital photography and instant feedback via social media. That wasn’t as true about 1970 or 1950. We followed cultural trends without the self-consciousness that comes with constant digital feedback.
The interweb becomes a vast virtual school playground in which anybody who looks or sounds a bit different soon finds a circle of people around them pointing and laughing.
That’s one of the paradoxes of outrageous mass fashion. It could only be outrageous if everyone was doing it. This is particularly true for men. In the early 1970s, miners and steelworkers started wearing long-hair, flares and high-heels, outfits that would have seen them classed as transvestites only five years before. They could do this because there was safety in numbers. Everyone was doing it.
But a few brave people have to get things started. The pioneers probably took a bit of stick in their small towns and suburbs but at least there was no-one putting pictures of them on Facebook and calling them ‘gay’ for wearing platform boots. Bob Cesca is probably onto something here. These days, the avant-garde never get started in the first place. Which is pretty much what Suzanne Moore was saying.
Technology has changed the way that young people interact with each other. It has made a lot of that interaction invisible to those outside their social circles. The rapid shifts in fashion now happen on social media. One media empire has already been burnt by this trend and another may soon be. Facebook may turn out to be the Prog Rock of its day – the thing that older siblings and even adults are into. The 13 years olds, as ever, want something of their own. Fashions are still changing, it’s just that they are less easy to see now.
For some youngsters, especially the boys, the allegiances and sense of identity that used to be anchored in rock bands and youth tribes now comes from gaming. Gaming is the new rock n roll – even the Christian right has noticed. Perhaps that is where you’ll find some of the innovation and energy that used to go into music. Unless that, too, is yesterday’s news.
What does this all mean? I really have no idea but it does feel like yet another Back-To. There have been a lot of them recently. We are going back to 1938 levels of income distribution, back to a time when profits took the lion’s share of GDP, back to a time when charities, rather than the state, were expected to provide for the poor, back to lower economic growth. And back to a time before rock n roll when sons dressed like their fathers. All of which makes me wonder whether the postwar world, with its high wages, increasing equality, high economic growth and rock n roll revolutions every few years, may turn out to be a historical blip.
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Fashion and music were simply the available spaces for youth culture up till the 90s, and areas that could be easily commoditised for profit. The lack of “innnovation” or “rebellion” since is not due to a new conservative temper, but simply a reflection that other, newer spaces have taken on this function and now offer greater scope for profit (that is the assumption behind the share prices of Facebook and Twitter). That’s the significance of the cartoon above – i.e. the appearance of the earphones on the 5th character.
This tendency to look in the wrong place out of habit also informs the views of techno-pessimists like Tyler Cowen and Robert Gordon. Their critique of the Internet and iPods, that these are just new ways of doing old things or little more than unproductive distractions, reflects their disappointment that we’re not all using jet-packs yet.
You should also bear in mind that the “selling stuff to teens” business has gone global since 1989. There is no need to foment new styles and subcultures in the West, other than as haute couture loss-leaders, if you can tap an even larger market (and one with lower quality expectations, i.e. greater innocence) elsewhere. The growth market for the monetisation of inter-generational conflict over the next couple of decades will be in Asia and Africa.
I recall a joke from Mad Magazine back in the mid-80s saying that in 20 years kids would have a hard time finding music to offend parents who grew up listening to the Beastie Boys. As I type this, my pre-teen daughter has mid-70s Black Sabbath (on cassette!) cranked up for inspiration while doing dishes. I suspect there is something significant buried not-so-deep in both those thoughts.
It has, imho, with the fact that so many people in the west aren’t “growing up”. The phenomenon of the teenager essentially begun in the 1940s and 50s, when thanks to affluence young people had far more leisure than their parents had had at 16, but it was still the norm that after they’d had their few years of fun they would marry and have children and lead lives little different from those of previous generations.
(It is not widely enough remarked upon that what a baby boomer regards as a normal youth and progression into adulthood is not historically normal and belongs to a relatively short timr).
In this day and age, fewer people are doing the latter and it’s harder for people to move out of the family home. I am 28, and I can in several respects pretend to be five or ten years younger, which my granddad certainly never could. Like most of my peers I am unmarried and childless. And (though I accept this is partly because of the mates I have and not a universal thing) I am considered a rarity for not living at home.
The hitherto no-longer-young and middle-aged are just not giving up without a fight, and that has to be part as it is. We have time to at least pretend we are as we were at 18, and because luxuries have become cheap and necessities expensive a number of us can keep up with the latest technology, culture and that but can’t afford homes and families.
In this regard I endorse the final part of David Timoney’s analysis. And you will have to excuse me- this comment could have been better, but I am not feeling that good atm.
A really great article, Rick. The world seems to be at the stage of sad stagnation, as though waiting for the next evolution. The earlier generations were more driven by hope and change and optimism – liberating and making things better than the generations and illusions that came before. Today it is more based on survival as the new “lost generations” are the victims of an economic system that has failed in the context of a the world inclusive of all its people. Regression is sad, not only clothes and music, possibly fear of the next bold step that must be taken for civilization to advance.
Just a few thoughts!
Two thoughts occur:
(1) The fast pace of musical innovation over the last few decades is pretty much unprecedented. The widespread availability of pre-recorded music allowed us to be exposed to a far wider range of musical influences than any earlier generation. We could listen to more music, more often. It allowed the Beatles and the Rolling Stones to be inspired by acts they would likely otherwise never have heard of. The development of new instruments and recording techniques allowed us to stretch a little talent and technique a lot further.
(2) That same drive towards ubiquity has compressed the generations. If you crank up Spotify you have a menu from which you can chose any artist recording in the last 60 years. There are so many byways to wander down we should expect to find people’s tastes more widely distributed.
I don’t quite think you can choose ANY artist on Spotify though. Away from my own computer, CDs and even my ipod (which I don’t listen to in company for what I should hope were obvious reasons) I tried playing some Beatles albums at my mum’s yesterday. Imagine my disappointment when they weren’t there. And I don’t know 100% but I gather there are quite a few.
(sorry to be pedantic- and I certainly agree with the general point).
Alternatively, this is just the age-old tradition of whining about the youth of today, but adapted to a society that claims to value change rather than continuity.
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