Monday, July 10, 2006
American Culture X

A few days ago, I decided to vary my driving experience by heading up to Memphis via Getwell Road. I've always sort of liked Getwell -- it's got an optimistic name, even if most of the neighborhoods through which it travels are grounds for pessimism. As I travelled north into the eastern edge of Midtown (or the western edge of east Memphis), I passed by a familiar landmark: Cheapskates. I was astonished to see that it was still there and still operating, though not surprised. I take it for granted that it's still there, even if I can't come up with any good reason why it should be. Do kids still skateboard? Are there still skate punks? I know perfectly well that there are; I see them all the time. They look almost identical to how they looked when I was coming up, if bearing just a touch more hip hop edge. But the baggy pants, the Vans, the band t-shirts (some different, some the same), the haircuts, the piercings and tattoos on the older or more incorrigible ones -- it's all just the same as it was fifteen years ago.

Do you ever get the feeling that American culture has ground to a halt?

I mean, when I was 15 or 16 years old, I could look back at what it meant to be cool fifteen years previously and see a very marked difference. I went into high school in 1990, so fifteen years prior would've been around 1975. And obviously punk existed in 1975, but then it was fresh, and new, and still something that existed predominantly along the edges of American society. Fifteen years before that -- in 1960 -- the culture looked radically different. Between 1960 and 1975, everything changed; between 1975 and 1990, quite a lot changed. And between 1990 and 2006, it sometimes feels as though nothing has changed. There's been some modest development -- black culture continues to be the source of most of our cultural innovation -- but the skate punks have barely changed in fifteen years. If you go to the mall this afternoon, you'll find the early hints of 80s-retro fashion (the new New Romantic thing seems to be warming up gradually), but you'll also see plenty of stuff from this wretched 70s-retro phase we've been living through. Hippies look basically the same as they always have, if somewhat more demure and workaday than they once were. Is there any such thing as being out-of-fashion anymore?

Now, as I see it there are two possible explanations for this. The first is that, at 30, I'm now so far removed from the youth culture that I can't see it anymore. Call it Joe Dirt Syndrome: on some level, I'm the mulleted, Def Leppard t-shirt wearing guy who's completely oblivious to the fact that he's drastically behind the times. This, or something similar, is entirely possible. I have become painfully aware that I no longer have any clue to what bands the kids are listening to these days, preferring instead to go off on my own little musical tangents, searching endlessly for something more challenging than corporate pop/rock. "These kids today, they don't even know from good music!" That kind of thing.

The other possibility is that American culture is over. Frank Zappa wrote in his biography that the world will end not by fire or ice, but by nostalgia. That the gap between the present moment and the time upon which we fixate will narrow until we find ourselves constantly nostalgic for the moment just passed, and thus unendingly paralyzed. And if the culture is not at a definitive end, then it seems to me that it has at least badly stalled out, grinding and churning away at the familiar without ever reaching for anything new.

I admit that I tend to be a pessimist about America's medium-term prospects. Today I saw a bumper sticker on a blue pickup truck that bore a flag and the words, "THESE COLORS DON'T RUN!" It was funny because all the red parts of the flag had completely faded away to just a faint hint of pink -- whatever enthusiasm had originally spurred that driver to afix the sticker to his bumper was long gone, and now he couldn't even be bothered to peel off its remains. That about sums it up, doesn't it? Everything ends, including "America." Which isn't to say that the nation will cease to exist, or that the people won't reinvent it while retaining the old name. But I just can't shake this feeling that I was born an American during the waning years of this society.

I don't necessarily think that's a bad thing. I do think it suggests that there are difficult years ahead. I'm not a doomsayer -- I don't believe that our society faces collapse on a grand scale; I think that regardless of what comes, the one thing that has always been true is that life continues, and humanity continues to advance. Yes, we might now face issues that bring that assumption into real question for the first time in human history -- but I doubt it. I do, however, feel very strongly that the world is changing again, and that this country's golden age is either well behind it, or far into the future. Whatever comes next, we're going to be watching from the outside, and that's going to be very hard to get used to.

The state of the culture is a big indicator, in my opinion -- we seem to have lost much of our will to create. My old hopes that, at the very least, the declining wellbeing of the poor and middle class would provoke some good art are so far proving futile. That's not to say that there aren't people who are pursuing creativity, or doing good work and daily going about the business of changing the world. Those people are always there; life is never completely barren. But as a whole, American society has become lethargic and uninterested, too satisfied with the way things are to make much effort at progress. When not even the kids can be bothered to come up with anything new, you know the culture's on a downward spiral.

Or maybe I'm just a cranky 30-something with too much idle time to spend thinking about it. That's always possible, too. But I doubt it.
4:32 PM ::
Amy :: permalink