US pop culture, 1990–2020, a theory

How, if at all, does culture evolve? Why was Tarantino big in the 90s and Game Of Thrones big in the 2010s? What’s the difference between The Simpsons and The Good Place? Is pop culture just one damn thing after another or is there a pattern to its changes?

I aim to ask and propose an answer to these questions here. More specifically, I want to present a unified theory of (some) US pop culture from roughly the last thirty years, from 1990–2020. I will argue that despite the seeming difference between, say, the hip postmodernism of Pulp Fiction and the tits-and-blood high fantasy of Game Of Thrones, we can tell a unified story that explains how they came to be definitive of their eras, and how the latter can be seen to be continuous with the former despite their big differences in style.

The retro-postmodern 1990s

In David Lynch’s early 1990s series Twin Peaks, we find ourselves in a small town in the Pacific Northwest, a world of leather clad teen bikers, of sentimental parents, a world far from cell phones and Pizza Hut and Nintendo and Yuppies. We also find ourselves in a world of child abuse and drug smuggling and sleazy strip clubs, all accompanied by an other worldly jazz soundtrack.

It is a world other than ours, and while some of it defies neat categorization — it is, you think, the product of Lynch’s strange vision of the world, which is that of a sex-obsessed child who remembers his dreams vividly — some of it, along with Lynch’s other works of the time such as Blue Velvet of 1987, is easy enough to pin down: Lynch’s world is the 90s mixed with the 50s. As he himself says:

it’s a fifties thing. Banal in a way. But it’s kind of removed from that also. Misplaced, almost. A fifties/nineties combo was what Twin Peaks was all about’ p134, Lynch on Lynch, ed Chris Rodley.

In The Simpsons, whose high point comes roughly in the mid 90s, we see something similar. Homer and Marge are high-school sweethearts, Marge doesn’t work and cooks dinner like pork chops or meatloaf every night; they have an old fashioned TV with an aerial on the top of the set. They shop in convenience stores and not megamarts, go to church, and Homer congregates in a local bar with his friends from work. There are very few black people and few Latinos. There is no Starbucks, no SSRIs, no stagnant economy. Again, there is something highly 50s-ish about it, about the dynamics of a small town that the trappings of late 20th century life have to some extent avoided.

(Only to some extent, admittedly: The Simpsons more than perhaps any other show ever portrays life in the age of the television, from grizzled cop McGargangle to Kent Brockman’s (sometime) rolling news channel to Krusty, and much more.)

In the work of Quentin Tarantino, such as 1994’s Pulp Fiction, the early post-war decades also intrude. Here, to a large extent, it is the soundtrack, which veers towards a particular sort of early 60s music which my lack of knowledge about music prevents me from describing adequately but which undeniably create the effect, like the other works mentioned above, of a sort of spliced reality, of a world with one foot in the early 60s and one in the 1990s.

These are, of course, three of the most esteemed works of the 1990s, and so it is worth asking: why so much retro? What is it about the early 50s/60s that proved so compelling to the artists of the time? I want to take these questions seriously, proposing some answers and testing them to see if they lead to an overall satisfying narrative about recent pop culture.

A Clue: Postmodernism

Postmodernism is of course a very contentious term, with as many meanings as theorists (I describe some of the meanings here). It’s worth noting that each of the above creators/artworks are not ill-described as postmodernist (Lynch is a marginal case). And one theorist of postmodernism, Fredric Jameson, proposes a helpful gloss of the notion that, I think, sheds light on their work.

Central to Jameson’s thinking is the notion of pastiche. Pastiche is a way of incorporating or alluding to works of the past. But it is a very particular way. Abstracting from artistic contexts, we can note that the most straightforward way of expressing past work is by quoting it. In quoting something, one, as it were, holds it apart: even stylistically, quotations get set off with quotation marks to make it evident that the words inside them are not the author’s own words. Pastiche differs from quotation.

Here is what Jameson has to say. He probably has in mind postmodern fiction writers like Thomas Pynchon when he writes:

They no longer ‘quote’ such ‘texts’ as a Joyce might have done; they incorporate them, to the point where the line between high art and commercial forms seem increasingly difficult to draw’.

(quoted in Leitch ed, Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, 2001, p1961)

Let’s change the example from Joyce to his fellow modernist Eliot to see the point. Consider this passage early from the Wasteland:

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water. Only
There is shadow under this red rock,
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock),
And I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
Frisch weht der Wind
Der Heimat zu
Mein Irisch Kind,
Wo weilest du?

Eliot begins by speaking with his own voice. Towards the end another voice intrudes, that of someone from Wagner’s Tristan And Isolde. But it is clear that it is intruding — that it is introducing a voice other than the narrator’s.

The key thing about pastiche is that this latter part doesn’t hold: it doesn’t assume the existence of a ‘normal’ narrative voice:

Pastiche is, like parody, the imitation of a peculiar or unique style, the wearing of a stylistic mask, speech in a dead language: but it is a neutral practice of such mimicry…without that still latent feeling that there’s something normal compared to which what is being imitated is rather comic. (ibid., p1963)

We just about get the sense with Eliot that there’s an underlying voice; for postmodern arts, Jameson says, this isn’t so. And what is particularly relevant is that Jameson links this back with our orientation towards the past. Writing in the early 1980s, he was talking about films (Body Heat, for example), that I haven’t seen, so let’s just concentrate on what he says about them:

It seems to be exceedingly symptomatic to find the very style of nostalgia films invading and colonising even those movies today which have contemporary settings: as though, for some reason, we were unable today to focus our own present, as though we have become incapable of achieving aesthetic representations of our own current experience…we seem condemned to seek the historical past through our own pop images and stereotypes about that past, which itself remains forever out of reach

So we have two things: we have pastiche as a means of alluding without distancing, and as a particular instance of that a particular attitude to the past. This, Jameson suggests, is typical of some postmodern art. This, I think, is a perfect description of the half 50s/60s half 90s world of Twin Peaks, The Simpsons, and Pulp Fiction.

That begins us to give us a theoretical apparatus to understand some of these artistic works. But a lot remains to be understood. Can we say why some of the best work of the era adopted this style? And can we say why it seems like this style has, to a large extent, gone by the wayside? Recent works like Game Of Thrones or The Good Place, rather than retreating to a pastiche 50s, go even further to a world of fantasy. (We see this in fiction too, as postmodernism (of the sort associated with Pynchon, Barth, David Foster Wallace, and others) has gone out to be replaced by ‘new sincerity’ works that are more straight, but that’s a topic for another day.)

I think I have an answer, and my answer is the 1970s.

The 1970s

Let me say in a sentence my theory, before presenting some data to back it up. In the 1970s, the position of women advanced while most of the rest of the world went to shit. Women began to get freedom at work and in their private lives, while the economy started going downhill and political institutions became objects of suspicion. By contrast, in the 50s/60s, the economy was doing well while women were comparatively disadvantaged.

My theory is the following: the creators of the 1990s, who are after all mostly male and white, were yearning for a world before things changed for the worse for them and for the better for women. That is to say, I think that the artistic postmodernism of the 1990s is a reflection of (perhaps unconscious, perhaps institutional) misogyny on the part of the creators who saw their status rapidly changing, and perhaps even felt fear of sexually liberated working women.

(A certain type of reader might be put off by this sort of explanation; for what it’s worth, it took me by surprise. I had always been at least mildly suspicious of explanations that relied to heavily on the patriarchy, thinking the concept a bit unclear. The theory presented here partly changed my mind.)

Let me just briefly run through some of the — probably familiar — data. There was an economic boom post-war that ended around 1973. Consider total factor productivity (economic output divided by input (labour and capital — how exactly to define these, and do the sums, is beyond the necessity of this work)). The ten-year average growth of TFP for the 1940s, for example, was almost 3.5%; for the 50s, about 1.5% and similar for the 60s, before languishing since then at around half that figure, or the same as the tfp of the 1890s (figures from Robert Gordon’s The Rise and Fall Of American Growth, p547). America grew massively in the period around the war, and by the end of around the 50s what we would recognize as the modern house had come into being, with the white goods and plumbing we come to expect.

Not only that, but the post-war growth was fair, or at least fairer. Again following Gordon, we can note that the income growth for the top 10 percent, the bottom 90 per cent, and the overall average, for the period 1948–72 were almost equal (2.46, 2.65, and 2.58 per cent per year growth respectively). By contrast, for 72–2013, the top 10% income grew by 1.42%, the bottom 90% fell by -0.17% (p609).

More vividly, perhaps, the 70s are known as the era of stagflation, the combination of inflation and high unemployment that was thought to be impossible at the time. In 1978, for example, prices rose at 12%, and inflation was a visceral fear, something (most) millennials like myself have no way of thinking about, having never experienced it.

So: the economy was bad in 1970s, after having rocketed after the war. The political situation, of course, was also bad, with faith in government firmly undercut by Watergate and the lingering shame of Vietnam.

By contrast, things seemed to be going pretty well for women (at least, and this is a very important proviso, middle-class white women; things improved also for the poor and for people of colour, but to a lesser extent. Discussing that is beyond the scope of this article, though). Some numbers: 34.9% of women aged 25–54 worked in 1948; 44.5 in 64; 69.9 in 85 and 76.6 in 1999, decline to 73.9 in 2014 (Gordon again , p506). Although women continued, and indeed continue, to be underpaid relative to men (earning 77.4 % of men in 2010, compared to 58.8% in 1975, per Gordon), the number of high status jobs occupied by women has also changed. Gordon tells us (507) in 1960 94% of doctors were men, 96 lawyers, 86 managers vs 63, 61, 57 in 2008. We see a similar increase in the number of female members of congress.

If that were all, it would still be impressive. By there was more. Cultural mores were changing to enable women to live lives that are more recognisable as lives we expect women to be able to today. In 1965, for example, the supreme court ruled it was unconstitutional for the government to prevent married couples from using birth control. And then a flurry of important legislation came along just as OPEC and Watergate did. In 1972, SCOTUS went further, announcing ‘Everyone, including unmarried minors, had a right to use contraception’ (quoted in James Patterson, Restless Giant, p47). Opinions and habits changed too. In 1970, about half a million unmarried couples cohabited; that figure more than doubled in 8 years. in 1979, 55% of americans thought premarital sex was fine; ten years ago, the figure was half.

In 1972, the Equal Rights Amendment, according to which men and women should be treated equally under the law in all domains, was sent for ratification, and was ratified by a good majority of states, although it remains stalled to this day. And finally in 1973, Roe vs Wade was decided in the Supreme Court, which invalidated states’ laws illegalizing abortion, which it argued was a privacy thing. (Patterson, p52).

Women made use of the new found abilities. From Patterson (p47), we learn that unmarried white girls aged 19 engaging in sexual intercourse had been around 20–25; it reached nearly 75 by 1990. From David Frum’s How We Got Here, we learn that in 1972, a survey of attitudes revealed that 56% percent of women thought premarital sex was always or almost always wrong. Ten years later, about the same percentage thought it was wrong only sometimes or never wrong. The same thing held for parents: in 67, 85% of parents of college age kids condemned premarital sex; by 79, only 37% did. Only a shade more than 2% of women who came of age in the 1950s had slept with 5 or more men by 1950; 22.5% of those who came of age post-Vietnam did. (Frum p191)

The 1970s, then, were an era when things went badly for many but when women enjoyed more power and liberty than they had before. That ‘more’ is of course important: with the wage gap still here, and #metoo, not to mention the position of non-white women, much hasn’t changed, but certainly that at least white women’s lives changed for the better in the 70s seems hard to question.

Back to retro-postmodernism, and forward to today

Now my theory is easy to state. The reason the creators of the 90s are ‘unable to focus on the present’, in Jameson’s words, is because the (then) present wasn’t comfortable to them. As children or young adults of the 70s, Groening, Tarantino, and Lynch grew up in a world that was changing rapidly and seemingly for the worse for them, and so in their art they sought to retreat to an earlier era when the economy was okay and women’s role was traditional. The postmodernism of the best 90s art is the reflex of (to repeat, perhaps unconscious) sexism. That’s my first theory.

But what about today? In another post on this site I’ve made the case that in the period since the 90s, we’ve witnessed a gradual depostmodernifying of pop culture, as one by one the styles and themes of postmodernism are replaced in favour of more straightforward forms of art.

I think particularly interesting is the case of contemporary sci-fi and fantasy. Take Game Of Thrones. It is the sort of epic fantasy that formerly would have been the preserve of, for want of a better term, geeks. But it is wildly popular and mainstream. Westworld, as heady philosophical sci-fi, is also arguably not the sort of thing that would have been mainstream in previous decades. And so I think investigating their popularity is worth the time.

And two immediately interesting things pop out: first, I said that the creators of the 1990s retreated from then contemporary reality into a pastiche 90s/50s world. On one way of understanding it, this trend has just continued: we’ve retreated further from reality in moving to Westeros and Westworld (or the Good/Bad/Medium place).

But the really interesting thing for me is the attitude to women. Westworld gets away with presenting its hosts as sex objects, literal sex objects. But note that these hosts are humanoid, indiscernible (more or less) from humans and played by humans. My read of this is that the premise of Westworld is a way to express sexist attitudes about women while maintaining a shred of deniability. It can present women as sex objects while still saying, “No,no, these are merely robots, this isn’t what we think actual women are”. Just as postmodernism is a strategy for portraying traditional gender roles (Marge the housewife, the upstanding doctor Mr Haywood, the (somewhat) naive and girlish Donna) in 90s art, so sf/f is how we do it today.

The same thing applies all the more to Game Of Thrones. It contains a ton of gratuitous female nudity and, almost unbelievably in fact, a somewhat lovable main character who says things like ‘You’ve forgotten the most important thing about whores. You don’t buy them, you only rent them’. Now just imagine a character — a main protagonist — in something set in the contemporary world either expressing that sentiment, or even using the word ‘whore’ as opposed to ‘sex worker’.
It can’t be done. It would never happen; if it did, people would be very upset. And herein, I think, lies the trickery behind much contemporary (television) pop culture: it manages to sneak antiquated attitudes about women in through the back door, by any artistic means necessary, and the recent history of the best televised pop culture is well-understood as the study of the various strategies one can use to that end.

Of course, there’s more to it than that. I didn’t talk about Sex And The City; more pertinently, I think, I didn’t talk about the massive popularity of the novels of Sally Rooney, or Lena Dunham’s Girls, or Hanna Gadsby’s standup ‘Nanette’. Each of these latter, I think, ought to be front and centre in recounting the pop culture of this era. And I think the thing to say is: times change. Gradually culture is becoming more diverse, albeit slowly (and still with the ever-to-be-repeated-proviso that the changes affect white middle class people before others). It might be that in a couple of decades Game Of Thrones and Westworld will be beyond the pale unacceptable, as many think Lynch’s treatment of women, or The Simpsons’s treatment of Apu, is already. What I have hoped to show is that sexism or misogyny plays out in different ways in recent pop culture, and viewing that culture in those terms helps us understand why it is what it is, and trace continuities that might otherwise be opaque.

Novella "Coming From Nothing" at @zer0books (bitly.com/cfnextract). Academic philosophy at: http://mipmckeever.weebly.com/

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store