Ironically, new technology has reinforced the nostalgic cultural gaze: now that we have instant universal access to every old image and recorded sound, the future has arrived and it’s all about dreaming of the past. Our culture’s primary M.O. now consists of promiscuously and sometimes compulsively reviving and rejiggering old forms. It’s the rare “new” cultural artifact that doesn’t seem a lot like a cover version of something we’ve seen or heard before. Which means the very idea of datedness has lost the power it possessed during most of our lifetimes.
They never used to remake old TV shows, as they did Hawaii Five-O and Charlie’s Angels this past season. It didn’t use to be that most Broadway musicals were revivals (Godspell, How to Succeed in Business, Anything Goes, and Follies, with Evita, Funny Girl, and Annie due any minute) or a movie/TV-derived pastiche (Wicked, Mary Poppins, The Addams Family, Spider-Man, Bonnie & Clyde). The hottest ticket to any straight play last year? Gatz, a six-hour verbatim theatricalization of The Great Gatsby.
Loss of Appetite
Look at people on the street and in malls—jeans and sneakers remain the standard uniform for all ages, as they were in 2002, 1992, and 1982. Look through a current fashion or architecture magazine or listen to 10 random new pop songs; if you didn’t already know they were all things from the 2010s, I guarantee you couldn’t tell me with certainty they weren’t from the 2000s or 1990s or 1980s or even earlier. (The first time I heard a Josh Ritter song a few years ago, I actually thought it was Bob Dylan.) In our Been There Done That Mashup Age, nothing is obsolete, and nothing is really new; it’s all good. I feel as if the whole culture is stoned, listening to an LP that’s been skipping for decades, playing the same groove over and over. Nobody has the wit or gumption to stand up and lift the stylus.
Why is this happening? In some large measure, I think, it’s an unconscious collective reaction to all the profound nonstop newness we’re experiencing on the tech and geopolitical and economic fronts. People have a limited capacity to embrace flux and strangeness and dissatisfaction, and right now we’re maxed out. So as the Web and artificially intelligent smartphones and the rise of China and 9/11 and the winners-take-all American economy and the Great Recession disrupt and transform our lives and hopes and dreams, we are clinging as never before to the familiar in matters of style and culture.
If this stylistic freeze is just a respite, a backward-looking counter-reaction to upheaval, then once we finally get accustomed to all the radical newness, things should return to normal—and what we’re wearing and driving and designing and producing right now will look totally démodé come 2032. Or not. Because rather than a temporary cultural glitch, these stagnant last couple of decades may be a secular rather than cyclical trend, the beginning of American civilization’s new chronic condition, a permanent loss of appetite for innovation and the shockingly new. After all, such a sensibility shift has happened again and again over the last several thousand years, that moment when all great cultures—Egyptian, Roman, Mayan, Islamic, French, Ottoman, British—slide irrevocably into an enervated late middle age.
You can see a corollary dynamic operating in politics as well. At the same moment that movies and music and art and design suddenly began reveling in old-fashioned subjects and forms, America became besotted by Ronald Reagan’s dreamy vision of a simpler, happier, old-fashioned America. Today, with our top federal income-tax rates half what they were when Reagan became president and income inequality dialed back up to its 1920s level, the mantra of today’s sore-winner Republicans remains, still, Less Government … Lower Taxes. Likewise, today’s radical grass-roots political movements are remakes. The Occupy Wall Street (and Occupy Everywhere Else) protests are a self-conscious remix of the Tea Party and Arab Spring protests. And, although the Tea Partiers began by nominally re-enacting the pre-Revolutionary early 1770s, they were actually performing a cover version of the New Left’s would-be-pre-revolutionary late 1960s. Meanwhile, the thing driving all the populist rage, right and left, is the unprecedented flatlining of economic progress: Americans’ median income is just about where it was 20 years ago, as unchanging as American style and culture.
Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose has always meant that the constant novelty and flux of modern life is all superficial show, that the underlying essences endure unchanged. But now, suddenly, that saying has acquired an alternative and nearly opposite definition: the more certain things change for real (technology, the global political economy), the more other things (style, culture) stay the same.
But wait! It gets still stranger, because even as we’ve fallen into this period of stylistic paralysis and can’t get up, more people than ever before are devoting more of their time and energy to considering and managing matters of personal style.
And why did this happen? In 1984, a few years after “yuppie” was coined, I wrote an article in Time positing that “yuppies are, in a sense, heterosexual gays. Among middle-class people, after all, gays formed the original two-income households and were the original gentrifiers, the original body cultists and dapper health-club devotees, the trendy homemakers, the refined, childless world travelers.” Gays were the lifestyle avant-garde, and the rest of us followed.
Likewise the artists, not so much because we loved art but because we envied the way their lives looked. In the 80s, the SoHo idea—a tatty, disused urban stretch of old warehouses and factories transformed into a neighborhood of loft apartments and chic shops and restaurants—became a redevelopment prototype and paradigm, rolling out like a franchise operation in cities across America and around the world.
Tastefulness scaled. The pivotal decade, from the mid-80s to the mid-90s, can be defined as the one that began with Alessi’s introduction of Michael Graves’s newfangled old-fashioned teakettle, of which more than a million were sold; continued as stylish retail went mega-mass-market in America, with Gap (600 stores then, 1,011 now), Target (246 then, 1,750 now), Ikea (1 then, 38 now), Urban Outfitters (a few then, more than 70 now—plus 135 Anthropologies), the Landmark art-house movie-theater chain (a dozen or so then, 245 screens now), Barnes & Noble (35 then, 717 now), and Starbucks (dozens then, more than 11,000 now) all expanding exponentially; and produced the new magazines Martha Stewart Living, InStyle, Wired (always as much about cool as useful), and Wallpaper.
Then, in the first decade of this new century, came the flood of decorating and fashion and food shows on cable TV—Trading Spaces, Queer Eye for the Straight Guy, What Not to Wear, Project Runway, Iron Chef, followed by their scores of second- and third-generation descendants. What really made Mad Men so hot? Not the stories, not the characters, but the “creative class” setting, the 60s-fetishizing production design and wardrobe.
People flock by the millions to Apple Stores (1 in 2001, 245 today) not just to buy high-quality devices but to bask and breathe and linger, pilgrims to a grand, hermetic, impeccable temple to style—an uncluttered, glassy, super-sleek style that feels “contemporary” in the sense that Apple stores are like back-on-earth sets for 2001: A Space Odyssey, the early 21st century as it was envisioned in the mid-20th. And many of those young and young-at-heart Apple cultists-cum-customers, having popped in for their regular glimpse and whiff of the high-production-value future, return to their make-believe-old-fashioned lives—brick and brownstone town houses, beer gardens, greenmarkets, local agriculture, flea markets, steampunk, lace-up boots, suspenders, beards, mustaches, artisanal everything, all the neo-19th-century signifiers of state-of-the-art Brooklyn-esque and Portlandish American hipsterism.
Moreover, tens of millions of Americans, the uncool as well as the supercool, have become amateur stylists—scrupulously attending, as never before, to the details and meanings of the design and décor of their homes, their clothes, their appliances, their meals, their hobbies, and more. The things we own are more than ever like props, the clothes we wear like costumes, the places where we live, dine, shop, and vacation like stage sets. And angry right-wingers even dress in 18th-century drag to perform their protests. Meanwhile, why are Republicans unexcited by Mitt Romney? Because he seems so artificial, because right now we all crave authenticity.
The Second Paradox
So, these two prime cultural phenomena, the quarter-century-long freezing of stylistic innovation and the pandemic obsession with style, have happened concurrently—which appears to be a contradiction, the Second Great Paradox of Contemporary Cultural History. Because you’d think that style and other cultural expressions would be most exciting and riveting when they are unmistakably innovating and evolving.