I remember reading an interview with East Bay Ray just a few years ago where he commented that more time had passed between the original formation of Dead Kennedys and the day he was giving that interview than had passed between the debut of Elvis Presley and the original formation of Dead Kennedys. The reason that’s worthy of commentary is because there had been entire epochs of music rise and fall in just a short twenty years between the birth of rock and roll and American punk. Now, it seems, entire decades can go by without anything that feels as revolutionary as what The Beatles or The Clash or Miles Davis did on an annual basis.
Comics journalist Tom Spurgeon recently said this about DC Comics canceling the long-running Vertigo title Hellblazer:
“John Constantine is one of the few later-period characters they have — which means he’s still 27 years old, but still.
“Here’s something I noticed when I got that 27-year-old number. That means that more time has passed between John Constantine being created and now than between the creations of Hal Jordan and John Constantine. That is… I don’t know if that’s depressing or astonishing or what. These characters aren’t young. An era of comics that many of us think of as still ongoing is really receding in the rear view mirror.”
I mention Spurgeon’s comments about contrasting the 1950’s era Green Lantern with the Vertigo-era John Constantine right next to East Bay Ray’s similar comment about Elvis and the Dead Kennedys to illustrate that this is largely pervasive in most forms of culture and the arts. Think about movies: Imagine the staggering amount of innovation that went on between the Frank Capra era and Kubrick’s 2001 versus the lack of innovation that’s occurred since the latter (with the exception of rendering animation through digital means rather than ink on paper). We think of the “old” school as being absolutely ancient and the “new” school as being totally current and still relevant but the truth is that the advent of the new school was now longer ago than the advent of the old school was to them when they were tearing it down and building up something fresh. So what have we been doing in the interim?
It makes the younger generation seem lazy or stupid or lacking an impetus for creation but none of those things are true. My theory: We’re compiling and our generation’s creative output will be based on that compilation. This change is brought about, predictably, by technological innovations and, specifically, their archival capabilities.
In the past, the creative output of previous generations was either not available to you or just a brief consideration. You could watch movies in the theaters but there was no home media. Television programs aired then disappeared. Comics and pulps were periodical, word meant literally. Books were the only things with staying power because books had libraries but then, only academically valid material was kept in a library. Now, everything is available to everyone all the time so my generation’s tendency to look backward and be obsessed with the past is a function of the way we absorb the art and media made available to us. Now, for the first time ever, everything anybody created in the past is available to you instantly as quickly and easily as you can think of it. Where previous generations had a burning desire to move forward and innovate due to their tremendous boredom (they had no internet!) we are more comfortable soaking up the past, dwelling in it and studying it. This is the first time we as a global society have had a chance to do so this thoroughly.
So bands sound like their parents bands. We use digital media to create music that sounds like shit from the 60’s because we care more about it and have more exposure to it than young people did in the 70’s, where you had to burn down the remnants of the previous decade every decade. We use digital media to read old books, to look at old photos, to experience culture vicariously and that obsession with the past is reflected back out again when it’s time for us to create. This actually got started before everyone was online, it got started in the 90’s. Tarantino is this generation’s grandfather, he was an internet geek before the internet, the massive library of pop culture ephemera contained in his mind, cultivated via trips to the VHS video store instead of Tumblr, has been the basis of his entire body of work, where every shot is an ode to some obscure movie from 30 or 40 years ago. Everything backwards-looking and romantic, everything an homage, everything a tribute to beautiful trash because that’s much more important than capital-A Art. Now, it’s the 10’s and we are all little Tarantinos, shoring up huge collections of nuggets of pop culture aesthetic and then turning them into reflexive art that serves only to hold a mirror up and remember what came before, across a wide variety of media.
We don’t feel like a revolutionary generation because we aren’t. Instead, we are curatorial, we are the curators of previous generations and our creations reflect that librarian mentality. I don’t think this is necessarily a bad thing, it seems a bit sluggish because we are comparing ourselves to the late 20th century. Late 20th century America is entirely unique in history in that society’s idle middle class had enough money to be comfortable and therefore just spent time making up cool shit in their imaginations. Now, we are quieter, we are using this opportunity to study what came before.
Thank you Dorian for writing a special, insightful reflection on modern pop culture.