Much has been made by any number of commenters, from Steve Sailer, to John Derbyshire, to Spengler, to Mark Steyn, to in particular, Ed Driscoll, about the pathetic state of popular culture. Blogger Ed Driscoll in particular is fond of reminding us that in popular culture it’s always 1968.
Which got me thinking. Why is it always 1968?
The answer is complex, but as always, depends on demographics. The Demographics of the Youth Culture, and the creators of culture in general. The short version is that America ran out of young people. The long version is that technological stasis and a frozen ideology have put popular culture in amber. Though there are signs that might be changing.
In the short version, Americans stopped having kids, in sufficient numbers, to sustain a critical mass of young people. The Census Bureau provides enough data from the online 2000 and 1990 census to produce the following graphs.
As you can see, there’s a story there. The Depression made children expensive, and the war years removed most young men at home, with the remainder in great uncertainty. Not until 1947 did people have kids in greater numbers, which is why the huge jump in 20 year olds from 1966 to 1967. Lost in the nostalgia for the Sixties is the demographic reality that underpinned most of it (and it’s predecessor the 1950’s). First the shadow of the Depression, which produced understandably relatively few children, and then the uncertainty and chaos of the War years. People started having more and more kids, steadily, until 1960. At which point, birth rates declined. There is a big drop from 1965 to 1966, and bottoming out in 1969.
My hunch is that this temporary drop in babies, which recovered somewhat in 1970, and thereafter dropped even lower in the following decade with only a slight recovery in 1979, was due to social changes (likely the widespread availability and effectiveness of the pill and condom, along with lack of social stigma associated with same), combined with bad economics. Regardless, people had fewer kids in the late 1960’s and 1970’s, compared to the peak years of 1947-1965. About half a million less, never really recovering, and the cumulative effect of the decreasing birth rate had a huge effect.
Fewer young people hungering for a different Youth Culture than that of 1968.
[Yes, the numbers don’t agree in the two graphs. I assume it’s due to mortality, the 2000 Census is used for the Year 2000 20-year olds, while the 1990 Census was used for the # of 20-year olds in 1990, 1980, 1970, and 1960. Mortality tends to increase after age 50 or so, so the older census is probably more accurate. Unfortunately, the Census Bureau does not have older Census online, but the important thing is that the trends in both graphs agree. Not the absolute numbers. For convenience, I used the 2000 Census to produce the year-by-year graph of 20-year olds. Since it plugged into Open Office Calc easily.]
For whatever reason, around 1966, people stopped having children, in America. Without an ever increasing number of Youth, there is much more risk in the Youth Culture. This makes the popular culture stagnant. Since there’s no ability to gamble, as there was in the late 1960’s, when the number of Youth just kept increasing year by year. It’s telling that very few new products for kids have been introduced since the 1950’s-60’s, no Hula-Hoops (1957), no Frisbees (1957), or Slinkies (1948), or Superball (1965), or Silly Putty (1957). All notably introduced when there were lots and lots of ten year olds around, increasing every year. There’s been nothing like them since, sadly.
This is particularly important when even the cheapest movie, or hit song, costs a lot to market. Lack of a payoff will guarantee risk avoidance. Which coincidentally, is just what we have.
As Ed Driscoll points out, in 1968, the world of 1928 was forty years old and far distant. No twenty year olds shared the musical tastes of the generation of 1928. A twenty year old and a sixty year old that year would have little in common. They would not dress alike, they would not listen to the same songs (indeed music from 1928 would rapidly propel a twenty year old in 1968 as rapidly outside of hearing range of said song as possible). They would not eat the same food. They would certainly not hold the same social attitudes, on much of anything.
Yet as Ed Driscoll points out, consider how a twenty year old and sixty year old today would share almost all the same attitudes. A twenty year old would listen to the Rolling Stones, just like a sixty year old would. Or the Beatles. They would dress alike, in Jeans and T-shirts, mostly. They’d eat the same food, and share the same social attitudes. Far from repelling a twenty year old out of hearing range, the music of 1968 would not seem “old fashioned.”
Moreover, a sixty year old fan of say, Louis Armstrong or Al Jolson in 1968, would have difficulty even comprehending the music of the Beatles, or Rolling Stones, much less enjoy them both as simple continuation of the music of his youth. No such adjustment need be made by today’s sixty year old, who can listen to say, Arctic Monkeys or the Killers and enjoy both as natural progressions of the music of his youth.
In some ways, this heralds a return to the Nineteenth Century. A twenty year old in 1828, and a twenty year old in 1868, would probably share the same attitudes, manner of dress, taste in food, and music, in 1868. It’s tempting to pencil in the rapid social changes of the Twentieth Century as “normal” but History suggests that century was atypical. It’s quite possible the frozen in amber nature of our culture, with all it’s negatives will remain with us for a long time.
What stands out in the Twentieth Century is the role of technology in “breaking” the popular culture of the past. Radio enabled youth to stay up late, even in rural towns, and be connected to the Swing Bands of the 1920’s and 1930’s, even up through the 1940’s. Including bands that were all Black. There was no color line in the radio broadcasts, and bands like Duke Ellington, to artists like Miles Davis found fans around the nation based on their radio broadcasts. To say nothing of Glenn Miller or Tommy Dorsey or Artie Shaw.
This was followed by Television, which allowed people to skip the movies, and cheap recorded music, first on 45 rpm singles, and then 33 and a third rpm “long playing” records. Playable on cheap phonographs that produced acceptable, to later excellent stereo sound. FM “College” Radio helped promote unknown bands, and the availability of cheap electric guitars, sound systems, and crucially, cassette tapes (to pass the music along from friend to friend, of unknown bands) helped form an infrastructure that allowed fringe acts to play cheap dives to polish their performance skills, if for little pay. Gain exposure in better clubs with tapes passed around and College Radio taking the place of the late night AM Radio broadcasts. Get featured on major radio and television programs, to reach a mass audience (of young people) who could be relied upon to buy the records in large numbers.
For a while, cheap “youth exploitation” movies from AIP and other outfits allowed directors and writers like say, Steven Spielberg to hone their craft and progress up the same ladder or experimentation to mass market appeal in movies. Sam Raimi, for example, was a director in the horror ghetto before he moved up to Spider-Man. Sadly, that path is gone now.
While the lack of an upwards path for movies is understandable, given the expense of making movies, that of music is not. After all, today’s modern technology allows bands to make their own MP3s, freely available, on their own website. There are still plenty of clubs to play in, College Radio, with ever-new DJs, looking for new bands and sounds to make their mark with listeners. Equipment has become cheaper than ever. One might even argue that the availability of ITunes on nearly every computer makes it the equivalent of the Ed Sullivan Show in 1965. With cheap video compression and greater availability of high-speed internet, one wonders why more people like Felicia Day are not constructing their own websites to sell their own productions, made cheap and fast and good, like AIP or Hammer Horror films, on DVD or ITunes (since Apple will sell videos as well as music). [Check out the link, her project “the Guild” is hilarious and free.] Heck YouTube allows “free samples” in the way that radio airplay on AM radio drove the hit singles of Elvis ,the Beach Boys, and the Beatles.
My guess is that it’s due to a culture that avoids risk. This culture, like the minor aristocracy of Jane Austen’s day, is obsessed with protecting status and prestige against any downward spiral. Ever present in Austen’s books is the looming threat that all could come crashing down, to catastrophic poverty. For much of today’s culture, that same fear, animates most everything creative people do. It’s not as if there are enough opportunities in a huge pool of young people to overcome that stasis anymore. No reward to make the risk worthwhile. There’s also something about the men who create popular culture in and of themselves that makes them risk averse, something for my next post.
Risk avoidance is made worse, of course, by a culture of Politically Correct Multiculturalism. If American creativity, among Whites and Blacks, was animated by huge amounts of cultural borrowing, today’s insistence on separateness, makes that impossible, and a violation of the cultural aristocracy’s unwritten but powerful rules of etiquette. Elvis, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet, Miles Davis, Mark Twain, and Little Richard all borrowed across racial and ethnic lines. Particularly in places like along the Mississippi River, or New Orleans, or Chicago, Kansas City, and New York, with exposure to different people using different concepts and tools, musicians, writers, and artists would borrow all the time from people of vastly different races and backgrounds, simply because they saw the devices and tools working, effectively and sought to combine them with their own tools for their own uses. Popular music has particularly suffered, as Black artists no longer borrow freely from White artists, as say Marvin Gaye or Otis Redding did (from Frank Sinatra), and White artists no longer find anything of value in the sterile grounds of uber-macho Rap.
But possibly the most influential factor in accounting for why it’s always 1968 is who are the key culture shapers, and just when they came of age. A subject for my next post.