The More Things Change

Today Digby pointed to an article By Kurt Anderson in Vanity Fair that hit on something I’ve been wondering about myself:  why does 2012, in terms of fashion, art, culture and such, look so similar to, say 1992?  The clothes, the cars, the architecture, the hairstyles, even the music haven’t really changed at all.  It’s great for me, because I don’t like to buy new things all the time, but it’s also pretty unprecedented.  As Digby hints, Anderson only gets about halfway to the answer when he seizes on the nationalization of retail chains for the decline of big fashion changes.  What he barely touches upon is how a similar dynamic has played out in every industry we quaintly still call “culture.”

Take architecture, please.  Although the current stagnation and sameness we see in smaller projects is mostly driven by tacit admission of past mistakes from when every architect took modernism as catechism and walked it off a bare-concrete cliff by the 70′s,  it’s the larger projects that mark the real decline of creativity.  As late as the 70′s, most skyscrapers were built as corporate headquarters; a single client wanted a trademark building and hired someone to build it, hoping to make a little money on the side from the excess space and save room for expansion.   Today, that model has been turned on its head.  Something called a “developer” comes up with a “program” for a generic building, and then hires a bunch of marketers to decide what it should be (and even its name) based on whatever tenants they manage to attract.  Architects, and architecture itself, are just a necessary evil in what’s really just a tawdry money scheme of banksters and charlatans.   Creativity, not to mention quality, invariably get lost in mad scramble to take the money and run and the work left behind, at best, seeks only not to offend.

And I think that’s the gist of it; anything really new, daring, and unprecedented is bound to offend somebody, and in our increasingly financialized era, such wanton and potentially costly upheaval is shunned even at the risk of boring everyone to death.  Worse, the ever more concentrated behemoths that dominate our culture can, by virtue of size alone, squash any upsetting new tastes like a bug, before they ever creep into the culture at large.   Fewer and fewer people make the decisions about what we will wear, buy, live in, drive, listen to, and admire, and they make them for all the wrong reasons, which mostly involve money.

Real creativity, whether it be in music, literature, fashion, or architecture, never makes it past the bean counters, leaving us all with our own greyish, semicircular blob of whatever is being served at the corporate cafeteria.  This comes in handy when you pull out a 20-year old suit and not only isn’t it brown and polyester, but it still looks pretty tasteful, if you can still fit into it.  And if you can’t afford a new car, it helps that the ten-year old one you have isn’t too ridiculously dated.  It’s quite a bit less pleasant, though, when you turn on the radio and hear the same eight songs for months on end, or rehashed mid-century modern architecture hailed as something “new.”

As someone who has cringed at seeing pictures myself decked out in a velour shirt and/or a pair of striped bellbottoms, I also feel sorry for 20-somethings today, who listen to the music of my youth for lack of anything better of their own, and are still into Star Wars, which began in 1976.   The commercial above aired in the 1980′s, cockily lambasting those darn commies and their lack of style; would that Wendy’s had known how things would turn out.  In our hyper-capitalist era, we ended up with no more choice than the Russians, and we aren’t supposed to notice.



  1. dirigo says:

    Here’s a laffer.

    David Brooks, the great chronicler of the American bobos (guilty former yuppies) is today calling for a “National Service Program”. For white people.

    The acronym must be NSP. I was pretty good in my Acronym 101 class.

    As I rub my eyes, having waded through his article, I find that he says this must happen so that we can save the white “tribes” of America, and shore up the “tenuous common culture linking them.” There is, says Brooks, an upper 20 percent and a lower 30 percent, and since about 1963 or so, a split in economic achievement, morality, and sensibility has grown to alarming levels of never-the-twain-shall-meet proportions. Apparently the poor, dissipated 30 percent have let down the bold, pious 20 percent terribly. Something must be done.

    Mash that big red button on the emergency klaxon, will ya?

    Brooks cites Charles Murray’s new book, called “Coming Apart”. “I’ll be shocked if there’s another book that so compellingly describes the most important trends in American society,” Brooks pants.

    Murray is famous for another “seminal” work, “The Bell Curve”. Murray coined the term “cognitve elite” in that book. Murray said this was a category of people who were always the smartest in any room in America, clustered at the top of the bell; and of course, since they were so smart (and white), they would rightly be seen by all as our natural leaders, because, well, things were simply immutable, see.

    Except that now, according to Brooks, things (and trends) in boboland have reached a dangerous pass because the “tribes” in question have separated in really scary ways.

    So Brooks describes his hoped-for NSP as a program, “in which people in both tribes work together to spread out the values, practices and institutions that lead to achievement.”

    Brooks wonders if such an NSP, as hatched in his head, could “jam the tribes together,” leading to “a better elite and a better mass.”

    I think Brooks should lead a discussion group in Florida, today. That’s a place to start the reconciliation, at the big breach in the levee.

    But, time’s of the essence, what with the GOP primary vote about to be recorded for all time, and the many sandbags to fill.

    Who will be the first to pick up a shovel?

    • cocktailhag says:

      I can’t believe that anyone listens to that Charles Murray guy, even a shill like Brooks. They both sound like blue-nosed temperance ladies, heaping scorn on the dissolute Lower Orders.

  2. Ché Pasa says:

    About 20 years ago, I noticed that nothing was changing on the radical fringes of the subcultures; it was like everything had ossified in 1976 or so. And damn, much of the radical fringe is still the same. Styles haven’t changed so’s you’d notice, and much of the activity on the fringes is almost identical now to what it was then.

    I used to wonder about this ossification/fossilization phenomenon a lot and question young people about it: “How come you’re doing the same things, wearing the same styles, acting out in the same ways, and have the same beliefs as people your parents’ age did??”

    There wasn’t an answer I can recall. What I recall is that it didn’t occur to young rebels of the early ’90′s that they were almost carbon copies of young rebels of the mid ’70′s. They thought they had come up with something “rebellious” on their own.


    And many of the young rebs today are nearly identical clones to the mid-seventies clones of the early nineties.

    I guess it’s the Triumph of Conservatism. In the commie context, it’s the triumph of Stalinist Realism (and conservatism) over Leninist Creativity (and radicalism).

    Creativity is scary, outcomes are uncertain, risk is emphasized, failure is too close at hand.

    Anti-creative “Realism” is comforting, secure, safe and apparently risk free.

    The common lot of the vast majority of Americans has been economic stasis or decline for decades and decades. It’s easy enough to understand their devotion to conservatism, even on the fringes.

    But there is no creative or radical-thought minority at the top, either.

    Kinda creepy, really…

    • cocktailhag says:

      The article, which is long and quite good, also speaks of the risk-averse stasis of the legitimate theater; it took ten years to get “Angels in America” to Broadway, which is now chock full of revivals. I think that, like in the music business, the door has been slammed on new talent, and everything must be market-tested before the public sees or hears it. What people don’t know won’t hurt them, or more importantly, the bottom line.

    • rukidding says:

      Have to agree; interesting commentary. I’ve also noted that the younger generations, post the Punk movement of the ’70s, have pretty much just churned through the same look/styles/sentiments of 60s/70s over & over. There always are the hippies, punks, preppies/frats/sorority types, and that’s about it.

      Traveled recently in Hawaii and duly noted a lot of younger people in hippie garb looking almost too much like my youth.

      It’s all recycled, including the music, as you note. of course, the radio stations have been monopolized by the powerful few, such as Clear Channel, who churn out the same stuff no matter where you live. It’s seems that it’s really only a few remaining University radio stations (they are disappearing or being gobbled up by NPR) that actually play new artists and non-mainstream stuff. Otherwise, you have to check out the Internet.

      A lot of this is about giant corporations running the show with their bean counters dictating what’s most likely to “sell.”

      • cocktailhag says:

        The lack of opportunities as radio has gotten more concentrated and impersonal mirrors what happened to the record companies; everything is reduced to the lowest common denominator, for the same national audience. In today’s climate, I don’t think even something like, say, Nirvana could emerge.

  3. rukidding says:

    Interesting, and I’ll check out the article. As you say, it’s largely about the mega-corp now dictating just about everything that we “consume” anymore. Can be useful, as you say, when your 20 year old clothing is still stylish (saves money!).

    This is also true of Hollywood & how! I used to be a big movie buff, but anymore, it’s difficult to find movies that make me excited. The Oscar race is often pretty sad when you consider the quality of mediocre fair that’s up for awards. And then the Oscar’s are often about whose “turn” it is to win, no matter what part they played.

    Hollywood is really run by the bean counters anymore, and I believe it’s difficult for nearly anyone with a different idea to get traction. They mainly sell towards younger men (I don’t have the links, but I’ve read and heard it discussed), generally in the younger teen years to early 30s. Hence a lot of formulaic “action” movies that appear to me, from trailers, to be the same CGI stuff regurgitated endlessly.

    And then of course, lots and lots of sequels bc, if the first one did well enough, then a 2d or 3d one is more “safe” to make money and so on. Pretty dull, but if it makes money, that’s all that matters.

    • cocktailhag says:

      Pretty much. The standard pitch for any movie is always based on lame demographic appeals: “It’s sort of like ________, but the girl is hotter, and instead of __________ at the end, _________ happens, more like ___________.”
      “Sounds good, can we get ____________ for the girl and still do it under $80 million?”
      I suppose the Popes, Medicis, and Rockefellers aimed a tad higher, but inarguably the art was much better; lesson: don’t count every bean.

  4. michlib says:

    Speaking from the automtive design side of the spectrum, cars too have lost their signature looks over the past 30 years. Other than silly grille facelifts, a Ford is a Chevy is a Honda, ad nauseum. Looks like Hollywood, Nashville, New York and Detroit have reached the end road of focus group driven offensive to none, inspiring to none design. The New Politburo rules.

    • cocktailhag says:

      Believe it or not, I used to be able to identify every make, model and year of every car in sight. Not because I cared that much, but they were distinctive and interesting, how rapidly they changed but remained recognizable as “family.” You could always tell a Pontiac from a Buick, or a Ford from a Mercury, even if they were the same thing underneath. Unfortunately, the really bad designs of the late 70′s killed off the idea of people wanting cars that were, well, too distinctive. A bland Japanese box that wasn’t oversized and dripping with such lovely details as exterior vinyl looked like a better investment. Finally, the Americans saw something to emulate in the Japanese: boring design that only changes every five years.

  5. Ché Pasa says:

    One of my childhood “performance” skills was the ability to name make, model and year of any car on the road, which for some reason adults thought was adorable. “That’s a 1937 Buick Roadmaster! ’35 Studebaker Dictator! ’53 Nash Ambassador! Packard! 1942 Packard Clipper! Ponnieack! Ohdmobile! Cal-lac!”

    The scary thing is that I can still do it for cars up to about 1980… and then, ???.

    I’m convinced it was the Japanese that killed the notion of distinctive cars… their cars all looked alike, and pretty soon, all cars looked pretty much like Japanese cars that all looked pretty much the same.

    • cocktailhag says:

      Did Studebaker really make a “Dictator?” That’s ballsy. It’s better than Jonathan Franzen’s name for the Explorer, the Stomper, but that was fictional.
      My expertise only extended back to the late 50′s, but stopped at the same time yours did. Coincidence?

      • dirigo says:

        Back in the day when I was an honest laborer, I occasionally drove a truck called: Brigadier. I felt a spring in my step when I jumped jauntily from that sucker alright.

        At first blush, I felt like ordering people around for some reason, but then I thought better of it.

        • cocktailhag says:

          My last car was an ’88 Bronco II with four wheel drive and huge chrome wheels and tires. Red, naturally. Damn thing about tipped over in a strong wind and routinely broke down and caught fire, but it was flattering, in its youth. (and mine…) When I got rid of it, I moved downtown and got a bus pass.

          • dirigo says:

            Broncos were rolling death traps fer sure, with a high probability to flip. Bad news.

          • cocktailhag says:

            It tried to kill me several times, but never quite succeeded. I was too wily.

          • dirigo says:

            Glad you’re here to tell the tale.

          • dirigo says:

            Thinking of tales, tall and short, I’ve been checking on the new story about the release of recordings on Air Force One just after JFK’s assassination. Seems one mystery’s been solved, and that has to do with the whereabouts at the time of Gen. Curtis Le May, the cigar-chomping Air Force chief of staff and critic of JFK (undoubtedly the character model for Gen. Buck Turgidson in “Dr. Strangelove”) – as officials came back to D.C. from Dallas. All these years no one’s been sure where ol ‘ Curt was as JFK’s body was being escorted back to the capital. Hint of conspiracy and all that. Until now. Seems the general was flying around at the time, like lots of other confused officials, and eventually made his way back to Washington, perhaps to jump into an old, dull, blue-gray Studebaker Dictator gummint car parked on the tarmac, and from there whizz off to an undisclosed location for a high-alert consult with bomber command. But, we’ll never really know the whole story, will we? – just as we’ll never know which bunker W disappeared into shortly after the 9-11 attacks. Thankfully though, W didn’t have a Dictator at his disposal at the time.

          • cocktailhag says:

            Really? We’ll never know? I thought this was going to be the most transparent administration in history… Guess I didn’t read the fine print; the geezer glasses were in my other purse.

        • cocktailhag says:

          Wow, you can almost see that trademark ‘stache. My dad had a ’49 Studebaker, the one with the rounded rear window, when he met my mom. Evidently it worked as designed.

  6. Teddy says:

    For autos, we can also blame government bureaucrats — Europeans, mostly — for the similarity that’s tyrannizing the styling studios. Apparently something called “pedestrian safety standard” is sweeping Europe and resulting in the sloped-hood/huge-shield-grille (think Audi & Ford Focus) look everywhere at this weekend’s auto show.

    I too used to be able to distinguish cars from afar — right down to the difference between the midrange BelAir and low-end Biscayne among big Chevys in the sixties. It’s hard to tell if cars have grown more similar over the years, or my caring or ability to distinguish has declined.

    I was amazed at the Audi exhibit last weekend at the Auto Show: almost all the cars were white, and I couldn’t tell an A4 from an A6 from an A7 from an A8. They were packed together, and all the same color. The window stickers told the tale, of course, but they were very similarly sized and shaped.

    • cocktailhag says:

      You went to the Auto Show? Maybe you’re really a lesbian and just haven’t found the right girl yet. I heard about it from my CHNN Auto industry correspondent, who works for Daimler and got paid to go. Boring, I heard, to no surprise.

      • Teddy says:

        I did get to see the new Dodge Dart, which is some kind of gussied-up FIAT that looks sorta like a Hyundai Sonata. And I realized that a Cadillac CTS is, as I thought, too small for me to get into or out of. A Cadillac!