The life and death of Popular Culture

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By Doug Bolst

The 80’s and 90’s marked the zenith of the phenomenon once known as “Pop Culture.”

The 70s came before media saturation; and the aughts witnessed the dawn of the internet, when the once discernible contours of Pop Culture began to blur through a “forced erasing” and rendered nearly impossible to define due to the breakneck speed at which new ideas of “cool” swiftly replaced their predecessors. The relentless turnover of ideas, memes and tropes became a race, a relentless pursuit of the “next big thing” with a shelf life measured in weeks, days, or even hours. Donald Trump, who muscled this phenomenon into an incredible juggernaut, dragged the internet into the current epoch, characterized by a seemingly unending cycle of outrage and, perhaps, reluctantly, humanity’s descent into a what has been called the post-truth era.

The pace at which information, encompassing ideas, memes, tropes and coolness, circulated during the Pop Culture era was unprecedented in all human history. This “era” began as a hazy shadow in 1977 with the arrival of the first Star Wars movie, zoomed into full vibrant life beginning in 1981 (at the time of Star Wars’ retitled re-release [now known as A New Hope]), but started to fade around the advent of the internet and America Online in the late 1990s (and the Star Wars revival), and which is now long-gone. It was during this distinctive period that concepts could linger in the public consciousness just long enough (and short enough) to craft the perfect formula to capture your imagination. a lingering “ear worm” of ideas (a mind worm?).

In the era before — let’s call it the pre/post Kennedy assassination era, headlines and information reached nearly everyone immediately in the U.S. and lingered for years with a national pain and confusion that permeated every facet of society. It created an atmosphere that simultaneously cried for more information yet desperately sought relief from the ever-present subject of conversation, whether at a table, lunch counter, desk, or water cooler of the time. In the subsequent years, marked by tragic events, Martin, Bobby, Malcolm and others, the national populace developed a coping mechanism to soothe itself from the painful implications of the frequent cascade of tragedy. From the Bay of Pigs through a string of assassinations in the ’60s, and culminating in the deaths of cultural icons like the Beatles, Janis, Jim and Jimi, America had had enough. People hungered to steer conversations toward topics they could mull, chew and finally consume, perhaps as a means of liberating themselves from the lingering pain these events caused.

It was time to exalt the “good” (if not the great) stories the populace could “handle” in the Reagan era of saber-rattling and brinksmanship, and other more depressing and horrible events. Against the backdrop of the renewed U.S. space program (largely successful), cultural touchstones like E.T., Indiana Jones, Robocop, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and The Empire Strikes Back emerged. The era’s music, veering away from preachy dogma and what were increasingly seen as tired or overly simplistic ideas and experiences.

Instead, boomboxes and radio stations brought a massive onslaught of New Wave and Hard Rock and Punk. They brought to the masses an offering of Fun, carefree stories, wild journeys, tales of ideal relationships and a way to make heartache and heartbreak seem and feel like it could be beautiful, and, at the same time deliciously sad, lonely and adrift, a metaphor for the broader emotional landscape of the culture at that time.

In a very real way, the music of the era let people, in a sense, choose their destiny through their music, creating a personal identity that could be shared with the like-minded (and like-hearted). It offered  an unseen but palpable sense of tribal belongingness, whose magic would only be experienced at live concert events, where the shared passion of every attendee forged an unspoken connection. Of course, not everyone in America cared about music, and many decried the “decline” that took root during the allegedly numbed culture of the 1960s and the dawn of the “Me Decade.”  

The youth of the 1960s and early ‘70s took great comfort in the knowledge that the “fuddy duddies” of the time wouldn’t espouse their distaste for long, and soon the youth would be free to rule the age with their newly discovered “rebel” sovereignty. The ideas of the elders were so thus dispatched in the viral way as the era before it, only this time it could be kicked to the curb without the pesky cost of the kicker – no bad news.

Everything just felt good during the Me Decade, after so much bad news. Everyone was looking for that good feeling, and they found it. It was as if the life they felt they were living was created by them, for them, and of course for the future generations that would replace them. Or so they thought. However, by the early nineties, a counter-revolution emerged en masse, seeking to undo the gains achieved through the hard work of all nations. Youth actively yanked the reigns away from their immediate forebears, , only to discover that their hard work was now overshadowed by the new generation’s inclination to “dial it down,” “chill,” and “let it go” – a novel solution for coping with and supplanting the methods of the previous generation. This same solution appears now to have been abandoned.

The Me Decade’s bid for virility was about to be upstaged by the internet, and with it the age of “Pop Culture” would very quickly be over. The idea that a cultural touchstone could stick in the minds of the populace for an entire a summer, like “who shot J.R.,” or even earlier, a movie phenomenon buzzing with lightsabers, that stayed in movie theaters an astonishing 54 weeks, became a relic of the past. Today, we are lucky to find any movie in such a venue beyond three or even two weeks, quickly discarded to the hyper-viral dustbin of today’s streaming services, feeding the “media gluttonous” masses.

How can any idea grab cultural attention in 2023? Strangely, and antithetically, the summer of 2023 did just that, not just once, but three times! Astonishingly, this feat was achieved through two movies and a concert tour that appears poised to out-earn any tour produced before it. It is also possible a single song has also captured the imagination for the first time collectively in many years, perhaps through its connection to the summer’s Barbie movie phenomenon. This song’s plaintive murmur of “what was I made for” resonates with unheard, impotent voices, catapulting its creator into the rarefied realm of mega-stardom. In an era dominated by super-megastars like Taylor Swift and Beyoncé and Billie Eilish, (who rose to prominence from age 14) and is credited with creating her own music, now stands as a superstar in her own right, marking a unique and noteworthy cultural shift.

One question worth asking: Did the world breathe a sigh of relief when the Berlin Wall fell, or just America? The era of global peacekeepers was over and only the “sleeping giant” that was China could be considered an unlikely but possibly credible threat on the far distant horizon, to America and to the world. What now that sleeping giant has awakened?

Perhaps today’s era will embrace a virility that can captivate nations worldwide into an unprecedented wave of ideas that will ultimately lull America and the rest of the world into a sleep that could last a thousand years. Hyperbole, probably, one hopes, but perhaps such a slumber could be perceived as that ever so elusive “red pill”, a post-Pop Culture  idea (but one that enjoys the same virality). The ideas of The Matrix could then embed themselves deep in America’s collective unconscious mind and across the entire planet. Since the early 2000’s, we’ve seen the allure of a clean slate, with a cheat code that would guarantee a charmed life, one that would bequeath the dreamed-of richness and perceived perfection that, in our present reality, is offered only to the very few.

Is there a collective desire to return to a simpler time? Maybe. Time will tell. If there is a future at all, it will determined both by the incoming generation and the events that shape its responses. Will they invent something new and cloak it in the events of the day, or maybe the inverse? Will the events of the future shape new ideas, lurking beneath the surface and waiting to be unleashed, but with a misguided power and propensity like that of a religion, or other current tribal affiliation. Is this time now?

Maybe, maybe not.

While social scientists may identify signs and indicators that they can attempt to plot and project, foreseeing the future remains a challenging task. And should we trust much of what is called social science, which is so devoid of science as to be unreliable at best?

I’m not trying to predict the future but instead to offer a perspective through a specific lens — the lens of one person’s lived experience, which allows for little or no room to consider subgroups or other cultures or nations. Neither does the world’s myopic barometer of popular culture; the USA has shipped its culture o? to much of the free world, where it has been widely imbibed. Italy loves Levi’s. Harley Davidson motorcycles are popular the world over, not to mention nearly every product made by our own MegaCorp, Apple. How have these ideas fallen on them to accept or reject: what does any of this have to do with people living in China, or Russia, Europe, or our close neighbors Mexico and Canada?

And for all this opining, I hope to convey that the richness and uniqueness of Pop Culture is singular in all of time. While it will one day be thought of as a “flash in the pan” (or whatever moniker the future will craft to term historic caprices), it ultimately will lack the staying power of most short-lived dots on history’s timeline. We must remember this point was created by us, for us, Generation X (and Gen X-adjacent eras), so we should enjoy it while we can. Some people think rock & roll died years ago, and for them it did, existing only to us, confined to the annals of history beside Mozart, Brahms, Beethoven and all the prior “capturers of the imagination.”. To the present and future generations, it may only resurface as whimsical kitsch, which will gradually fade away in today’s public consciousness like an ad on a cellphone website. Time will tell whether, once our voices are forever hushed, anyone will remember us or our pop culture icons and give a shit.

^^^

Doug Bolst is a photographer at Libertine Photography. Photograph by Doug Bolst.

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