As with the prevailing generational models themselves, cultural eras defy easy sorting into neat and tidy boxes. What we tend to think of as 1960s culture, for instance, didn’t really gain steam until 1968 and lasted into the early 70s.
With this in mind, I set out to map the contours of the post-malaise, morning in America high pop culture that gives so many of us nostalgia pangs.
And because this was the time when visual media triumphed, I’ll present my findings in pictures.
First up, the Early 80s
The period from roughly 1980-1983 introduced several new IPs and technologies that would shake up pop culture for decades. Video arcades, pulp-influenced movies, and pop rock all rose to prominence. But these nascent cultural touchstones were still in their infancy. Holdover fashions, attitudes, and aesthetics from the Carter era still exerted great influence.
What we think of as the 80s vibe came into its own in the years from 1984-1986. The launch of the Nintendo Entertainment System resurrected the video game industry from the crash of 83 and set home consoles on track to overtake arcades. On, TV, the aftershocks of the Rural Purge subsided, clearing the field for a new generation of family-centered sitcoms. The pulp adventure film revival started by George Lucas hit its stride under guys like Spielberg and Zemeckis. In music, the final death of punk opened the floodgates for hair metal and synths-for-the-sake-of-synths dance music.
The High 80s
Looking back at the 80s, you get the strong impression of an era when new art forms and genres gradually worked out what they wanted to be. There was a clear upward curve evident across all popular media as the explosion phase led to higher degrees of refinement.
The span of years from 1987-1989 yielded the decade’s definitive fruit. The Sega Genesis heralded the 16-bit console generation, giving kids an arcade-quality play experience at home. The wholesome but rather twee sitcoms of just a few years before were eclipsed by edgier, more topical fare.
Yes, I realize that “edgy” is a tainted term nowadays. But the context is America ca. 1989, before all comedians became cowards. It was still possible for comedy to have genuine edge and hit controversial subjects hard from both sides. It’s hard to conceive of now, but the gay rights agenda that was the first shot in the now-ubiquitous social justice offensive, hadn’t yet taken off.
Meanwhile, in music, some bands were starting to figure out what synthesizers were for.
The Early 90s
1990-1992 was when the cracks really started to show in the convention of categorizing cultural eras by decade. Just as late 70s aesthetics persisted into the early 1980s, High 80s culture still dominated the early 90s–much to the latter’s benefit.
In video games, consoles continued their triumphal march. The 16-bit generation began its meteoric rise from the introduction phase toward the explosion phase that would mark the next era. Even the 8-bit consoles enjoyed a memorable swan song as veteran developers who’d mastered the last-generation hardware squeezed impressive performance out of the old systems.
On TV, gritty and edgy programming took the next step into weird and quirky. This trend represented a mini-explosion phase that’s still reverberating today.
Hollywood assumed its canary in the cultural coalmine role as the retro-pulp adventure genre began to falter. The first strains of creeping wokeness sowed confusion that resulted in a mixed bag of revisionist blockbusters that don’t hold up and anomalous flops that are now hailed as underrated gems. Of course, Canon Films saved the era with their rapid-release action schlock masterworks.
Music, too, was rent by the conflict between conflicting visions. On the corporate side, record labels collectively decided to let popular but expensive hair bands’ contracts lapse and dredge the gutter for new, exploitable talent. Opposing the gray-brown grunge flood stood new bands with fresh sounds and established acts who successfully reinvented themselves. Rock reached a crossroads, and given the choice between continuing to develop authentically in harmony with its roots or cynically mashing up punk and metal, it took the easy way leading to inevitable death.
But that wouldn’t come until after the brief renaissance of …
The High 90s
Millennials who argue for the 1990s as the best decade almost always have the period from 1993-1996 in mind. It’s no wonder, because during that time pop culture saw one of those dramatic resurgences that are as brief as they are rare.
The expectation instilled in gamers that each new release would surpass the last reached its climax. 2D gaming attained perfection. Science fiction retook television by storm with landmark installments of classic franchises and newcomers that punched above their weight. A crime genre revival treated audiences to smart, slickly produced movies that still hold up. In music, rock & roll made a valiant last stand before Auto-Tune and Cakewalk delivered the coup de grace.
Past experience led everyone to expect that things would only get better, but the mid-90s turned out to be the decade’s high point. What followed can only be called …
The Low 90s
Further argument beyond this picture would constitute beating a dead horse, but this is one horse I can’t get enough of beating.
With cultural ground zero hitting in 1997, the high culture that had begun in the 80s came to an abrupt and ignominious end. The triumph of 3D turned video gaming into a digital wasteland of interactive movies rendered in jaggy polygons. Television became insufferably feminized. Hollywood plunged headlong into the IP milking phase. With the grunge gravy train long since run out, the record labels inflicted nu-Metal upon our unsuspecting ears out of spite.
Video games, TV, movies, music, and fashion have all been stuck in a hip-hop-scored celebritard loop ever since. The only difference between 1998 and 2020 is that all the zombie IPs have been overtly weaponized against normal people.
What can men do against such reckless hate? Start by not paying people who hate you.
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