The Genteel
February 25, 2021


Although I don't usually reflect on the words of Daphne Guinness, when I read her thoughts on the current era, I couldn't help but be satisfied that someone finally voiced an opinion that has long been stewing in my mind (11 years to be exact). When asked about how this time period would be referenced, Guinness responded, "Corporate… There hasn't been anything real since grunge. That was the last movement led by music or an art form." 

This is a gross generalization, of course, but there is more than a grain of truth in it: we are indeed in the midst of an era with no real cultural signifier. The closest we may come to an overarching cultural theme is the advancement of technology, and that characterisation is questionable at best. When compared to decades past that have had strong cultural markers, there is something literally inhuman and unsocial about being exemplified by technology. But if not technology, then what? Are we a generation that just feeds on the cultural innovation of generations past?

The 90s had grunge springing from Reagan-era disaffection. The 80s had self-indulgent hair metal and New Wave to rid the hangover of the socially-conscious 60s and 70s. The 70s were about psychedelia and disco and channeled the darker escapist sides of the stubbornly optimistic 60s. The 60s were defined by change-the-world hippies and Mods who wanted to break away from the practical conservatism of the 50s. That middle-class normalcy of the 50s understandably sprang from very raw memories of the horrors of World War II. The list goes further back, but the pattern remains the same. Socio-political circumstances directly affected the spirit of the following generations: art, music, fashion - none were left untouched. Cultural "trends" emerged as societies experienced social phenomena collectively and gave definition to an era.

Are we a generation that just feeds on the cultural innovation of generations past?

It is ironic that, as the world becomes increasingly interconnected, the collective experience seems to have diminished, and has done so largely at the expense of innovative cultural movements. Since 90s grunge, there has been little to define society except increased commercialisation brought by the internet and the advancement of technology. Technology alone is not much to identify with. Although it is possible that how we use technology could be a way to define a generation on the social-emotional spectrum, what is it exactly that we've done with the wonder of the internet? We've made it the best way to sell not only our wares, but also ourselves. Start a blog or make a YouTube video of yourself eating, sleeping, or doing the most basic things one does to live, and you might just find yourself having a successful career, something that was previously reserved for people who actually achieved things beyond surviving.

It can be argued that today's rampant commercialisation has not been commercialisation for the sake of it, but an unintended consequence of increased democratisation. Everyone, everywhere, can be involved in the political, artistic, and social conversation at any given time, so no one voice quite ever congeals. All voices are represented equally. It is the ultimate triumph over the trend. There is no one "fashion" to follow one season to the next. No defining music scene - rap, country, pop, "indie" rock, metal all co-exist. No one type of art reigns - post-modern, classical, surreal, etc., are equally accepted. No need to choose. No need to elect "one voice" of a generation.

1970 or 2010?
(Source: Creem Magazine

As alluring as the demise of the trend may seem, in theory, it may actually be the result of something less appealing. The current "trendless" era, with its multitude of options, might just be the result of a lack of focus by the creators of the product and of a social environment that has been convinced that more choice is better. Quantity trumps quality and external socio-political stimuli that once spurred innovation, growth, and identity have become irrelevant. Why put in the effort to create something meaningful, when you can farm meaning shorthand from eras that came before?

Instead, the creative void is being filled with a surfeit of nostalgia. We have become cultural vampires, sucking the context and integrity from the movements before and reducing them to meaningless fads that we rehash every year. Yes, you can buy a brand new Katherine Hepburn 40s style suit at the same time as a plaid flannel shirt and Doc Martens, while listening to 60s soul a la Adele or 80s Madonna a la Gaga, but in the end, these are all just references that never add up to the sum of their parts. The increased "choice" is meaningless. While there is no problem with being able to identify references - no one will say you can't hear Chuck Berry in the Beatles, or the Pixies in Nirvana - the key is to transcend those influences.

Nostalgia shouldn't be used as a shortcut to replace the emotional resonance and sense of reflection that cultural movements have expressed in the past. This is especially true because nostalgia is, in and of itself, a secondary expression of an emotional moment. It only exists in reference to something else that preceded it - and does not exist further than that. It is a limited and uninspiring medium of expression that should not be equated with the vivid intellectual and emotional inspiration of a true cultural zeitgeist. The primary source of such inspiration is authentic first-hand experience. Nostalgia, on the other hand, is a facsimile of such an authentic experience. To then harvest the nostalgia of earlier generations for ourselves is to make our current collective experience no better than a facsimile of facsimile. This low level mimicry is how commercialisation has gained its hold - not through democratisation, or anything as benign sounding as that. Once we're comfortable exploiting others' memories as our own, there's nothing to stop companies from exploiting them for profit.



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