Has Culture Frozen in Time?

A Vanity Fair article suggests so – that in the last twenty years there have been no significant changes in trends, fashion or design:

Since 1992, as the technological miracles and wonders have propagated and the political economy has transformed, the world has become radically and profoundly new. Here is what’s odd: during these same 20 years, the appearance of the world (computers, TVs, telephones, and music players aside) has changed hardly at all, less than it did during any 20-year period for at least a century. 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… with images from 1992. Time-travel back another 20 years… 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…  The modern sensibility has been defined by brief stylistic shelf lives, our minds trained to register the recent past as old-fashioned.

I don’t quite agree with this.  One only needs look at an episode of Seinfeld from 1992 to realise that it did look quite different, albeit less different than five years before that.  And 1992 was all about grunge, and that particular fashion is quite obsolete now.  Nobody wears those plaid shirts and baggy jeans.

However, the article has a point.  Things have definitely slowed down.  And if the author Andersen had reduced his timeframe slightly – to 1997 perhaps, his case would be infinitely stronger.  Grunge was over, alternative music pretty much sounded like it does now (with the same artists in many cases), hip-hop was introduced to Eminem and Puff Daddy and became the mainstream phenomenon we know today – fashion ceased to have any defining features that would make it different from today… life has simply frozen into place.

There are tiny distinctions, of course.  It is hard to imagine films like Fight Club or American Beauty being made today, for example, or a book like No Logo being written in quite the same way with its focus on labels and corporate marketing.  But I regard those phenomena as grunge’s hangover more than anything.  The rot had already set in.

But I think therein lies the key to Andersen’s dilemma.  While he blames the fast pace of technological change for the stasis, my view is also that grunge culture basically killed off cultural change for good (or at least the forseeable future).  When fashion becomes anti-fashion, when alternative becomes the mainstream, when everything is open to question, derision and cynicism, what is left?  It has the effect of just locking everything in place, because nothing is real any more, and even what is fake simply becomes the equal of the real.

The other contributer is of course the internet.  It used to be that mass media defined trends and culture for us.  But there is no such thing as seeing T Rex or Roxy Music on Top of the Pops for the first time and running out to buy the latest glam rock gear any more.  There’s blogs, and facebook, and “Hey, check out this cool video.”  It’s almost impossible to start an all-encompassing trend or fashion that way.

In conclusion…

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