People don't have retro parties anymore. Not like they used to, anyway. I remember an 80s party in university. People costumed up - clothes, hair, make-up. The host thumb-tacked 80s LPs to the walls and we laughed at the dated font, colours, hairstyles, even from recognizable artists who were caught up in the look of the times. And the sound of the times - the synth sound everyone leapt onto, the drum machines, the computer voices. So dated! Flippin' hilaaaaaarious!
This was in 1993.
Imagine someone throwing an equivalent party now. How elaborately could people costume themselves up to lampoon the hoary old sensibilities of 2006? Is there a recognizable 2004 make-up style? Or colour scheme? Or font? Or signature set of trendy musical elements?
I have to tread carefully as I chart this cultural change, because it seems to have happened for the population at large pretty much in tandem with when it happened to me. But here we go.
In the early 90s, a big switch happened. Not overnight, and not for everyone. But it happened. Before that, there was a great enthusiasm for the macro. Big = good. Corporations were good. Coke and Pepsi dominated the soft drink marketplace (and their equivalent minions squared off: Sprite vs. 7-Up, Cherry Coke vs. Dr Pepper, C-Plus vs. Orange Crush) and no one felt there should be any more variety than that. The three major TV networks were the only ones anyone was interested in (that upstart Fox didn't pose any threat). Wealth was celebrated. As was America's military might, sitting comfortably on the winning side of the Cold War.
Then the Cold War thawed and the Berlin Wall came down. America found a new enemy, and trounced Saddam Hussein in the Gulf, and then… sunk into a recession. The Simpsons (Fox) kicked Cosby's (NBC) ass in the ratings. Grunge exploded, giving voice to the outsider, the depressed, the alienated, the ugly, the stupid, and those lacking the ambition to live in New York, LA or London. The Barenaked Ladies made it cool to have been a loser in high school. Fat and geeky meant fun, funny and creative. Sarah McLaughlin and others gave voice to women who actually played instruments and had things of their own to say. Indie movies found audiences and won Oscars (Good Will Hunting, Shine, Secrets and Lies). Spielberg made a black and white film about the holocaust. HBO changed TV with The Sopranos.
Snapple happened, and soft drink coolers in convenience stores and gas stations sprouted rows of ice teas, fancy juices (not just the clear piss-like apple juice from-concentrate), bottled water, yogurt, smoothies, and eventually, energy drinks. Not to mention coffees in exotic varieties on the counter, as a matter of course. Naomi Klein published No Logo, and massive corporations became suspect - sources of corruption and oppression. The Battle of Seattle. Michael Moore. Nike = sweatshops. Fast Food Nation. Organic produce. Whole Foods.
In philosophical terms, postmodernism entered the mainstream. Or at least claimed a share of the mainstream.The modernist mainstream kept going on strong, don't get me wrong. Walmart spread. Starbucks took over. Spielberg made a movie about dinosaurs. The NBA and the NFL lost no fans to the minors. Oprah. Foxnews. Austin Powers. Independence Day. Chumba Wumba. The Macarena.
But people at the postmodern wave stopped jumping onto the latest fashion trend. And the trends that did get embraced had a longer life. I remember looking at guys with goatees in the 90s - especially if they'd also shaved their heads - and gotten tattoos - thinking "you're gonna cringe when you see pictures of yourself from this period in a few years." I was wrong. If you see a guy today with a shaved head, goatee and tattoos, does the thought spring to mind "look who thinks it's still 1997"? Or more significantly "someone's on their way to a 90s retro party"?
There are 90s retro parties. A friend of mine's college student daughters described going to them. How did they lampoon the 90s? With the music. The Spice Girls, the Backstreet Boys. It was so bad… and we used to like it!!! But no one dresses up in retro 90s gear, unless it's a Spice Girls T-shirt. And some of the music from that period is just as listenable now - Radiohead's OK Computer, for instance (alternative music, indie music… from postmodern side of the stream). Doesn't sound dated at all, really. To me, the pop stuff sounds as dated and horrible as the Top 40 I liked in the early 80s, and couldn't get away from in the late 80s and early 90s. Appropriately, the Backstreet Boys have combined with the New Kids on the Block for recent tours: NKOTBSB. Packaged pap, celebrated for its datedness. Same with the ironic embrace of hair metal.
How and why did postmodernity stake a greater claim in the culture at large? I don't know. The best explanation I can give is to say that that's how the developmental sequence unfolds. Consciousness builds on itself, eventually. Certain people reach a limit with the answers their frame of reference provides, and then push to see what's on the other side of the boundaries they're beginning to notice. They make new discoveries. Some of these people bump into each other, and share values and ideas, and collaborate. A movement grows, organically. And reaches a critical mass to the point that it becomes a noticeable part of the overall demographic.
Why has OK Computer aged so well? Why don't goatees and shaved heads seem ridiculous? Again, I don't know. I'll speculate that the changes that happened in the postmodern end of the spectrum hit something deeper. They resonated closer to the timeless than the timely. I got into indie music in 2006. Found a bunch of artists I'm still crazy about. Calexico, The National, Laura Veirs, Jim White, Neko Case, Andrew Bird, and many, many others. If I explore their back catalogues, going back to the early 2000s, or even the 90s, the music sounds like it could have been released today. And the font on the CDs looks pretty contemporary (or rather, timeless), as do the colours, and the clothes and hairstyles.
But you know what has aged poorly? The fact that I got their music on CD.
Technology has aged poorly in general. A few years ago I watched a video that had been taped from television in the mid-90s, and even though the clothes and hairstyles all seemed passable, the ads seemed incredibly dated because (and it took me a while to spot this) not a single one featured a web address. I saw a screening of Jurassic Park a while ago, and the two kids enthuse over the dinosaur tour jeeps, pointing out they come equipped with a fully interactive CD-Rom! The audience chuckled heartily. Leaving the theatre I overheard a group of people reiterate that line, and laugh again.
People reminisce about their earliest experiences exploring the internet, how slow the connection was, how little there was to find and how exciting it seemed anyway. Whatever happened to virtual reality? Remember the Y2K scare? Who's on Myspace anymore, and doesn't Rupert Murdoch look like a schmuck for buying that clunky old site for however many hundreds of millions? On 30 Rock, Liz Lemon's nightmare boyfriend is painted as an absolute loser by the fact that he sells pagers, and is the only person in New York City who does. There's a widespread nostalgia for the charming simplicity of first generation Nintendo games like Super Mario Bros and The Legend of Zelda, as well as a desire to reinvent them in sketches, burlesque dances and banjo renditions of their music.
So at some point we switched our unbridled love of the new from clothes and colours and hairstyles and electronic instruments to communication technology.
The surfaces weren't as important anymore. The modernist values of wealth and physical attraction became less important than (or at least ceded some ground to) the postmodern values of cleverness and individuality. People started calling themselves geeks, and this didn't mean they were exempt from getting laid. Napoleon Dynamite seemed a more appealing character than Tom Cruise's good looking achiever in Risky Business. Jack Black triumphed at the box office. As did Seth Rogen. Michael Cera. Jessie Eisenberg. Sarah Silverman. Patton Oswalt. Tina Fey. Steve Carrell. Margaret Cho. Ellen Degeneres. Chris Rock. David Cross. Jason Schwartzman. David Sedaris.
Our world is changing so quickly, and we're fascinated by it. We're watching it happen, year by year. We're processing it in our art and entertainment. We all watched Michael Richards lose his career in an instant, thanks to the flipcam. The HBO series Treme, set in post-Katrina New Orleans, has a scene in which a college professor, played by John Goodman, expresses an almost childlike delight in his discovery of this new website his daughter has posted herself on: youtube! Anyone can put themselves on there! Tee-hee-hee, thinks the audience. Imagine not knowing what youtube is! - which is tantamount to saying "Imagine how innocent we all were back in 2005." In HBO's movie Game Change, looking at Sarah Palin and the 2008 election, the campaign manager, played by Woody Harrelson, points out that this is the first presidential election since the emergence of youtube, and as a viewer you really do consider what a game changer that one website is, in terms of the dissemination of sound bites and news clips and humiliating moments. In one scene Palin (played by Julianne Moore) watches the clip of Tina Fey spoofing her on youtube, and silently pontificates how badly and irreparably her image is getting tarnished. The Social Network helped us all grok how Facebook came to exist, only a few years after it infiltrated pretty much all of our lives. And out of curiosity, did you follow a link on Facebook to get to this article? And with the emergence of the Facebook newsfeed, don't things like group emails seem like a thing of a past? And forwards? The name of Facebook's earliest incarnation, as used in the first half of the movie, wasn't that different, but just sounded so wrong: "The Facebook." And one of the characters was the brains behind that moldy old (and short lived) internet phenomenon: Napster, even more antiquated than the also-dead kazaa, and limewire, but which lies at the root of how clunky and dusty CDs and DVDs seem to us now, not so long at all after seeming practically space age compared to the video and audio cassettes they replaced. And is there anything as inadvertently funny for a character in a 90s movie or TV show to have as one of those big blocky old cell phones? It's like they're holding a brick!
But we don't seem to be laughing at the characters' 90s hairstyle. Or the collar on their shirt. Or the colour combination in their outfit.
Technological change - especially in the realm of communication - will keep chugging along at an even more accelerated rate than it's been doing for the past fifteen years, given the money there is to be made. It's well nigh impossible to predict what new gadget or website or internet idea will become an intrinsic part of our daily experience next. Great riches await the person who can see what that particular twist in the future will be. People will continue to vie for status, by adopting and becoming fluent in the most up-to-date of these things - like Google glasses. Every new version of the iPhone and iPad will make the users of the previous models seem like people reading physical newspapers, or riding horse-drawn buggies. And each change that hits will merge with the timeless elements of life: apples, swimming, sunsets, cats, push-ups, bed-head, laughter, sneezing, sex, hurt feelings, dizziness from standing up too quickly, mustard, farts, the befuddled look back a person gives after tripping on a crack in the sidewalk, and the big kick we get from coming face to face with an artifact that embodies our innocence and unselfconsciousness from any point in the past.
And by the way - those goofy Justin Bieber swirl hairstyles. Oy.