Statistics on violent crime, property crime, promiscuity, child abuse, and even wearing seatbelts and bike helmets show that starting around 1991 (and in the late '90s for drug use) the culture became steadily more domesticated across the board. Most people have an inherent bias to perceive the world as always getting more dangerous and depraved, which makes it hard to believe these statistics, as unambiguous as they are.
So as a reminder (or as a report for those who don't have personal memories of wild times), here are a few snapshots of the vast gulf separating the everyday culture of then and now. I could've picked examples of the riskier and more dangerous culture from anytime between 1959 and 1990, but I'm sticking with the '80s just to show how abrupt and total the shift was in 1991. The examples come from chart-topping pop music, popular kids' cartoons, and the social lives of the unpopular kids. We wouldn't be too surprised to see violent themes in the heavy metal genre then vs. now, or in animated shows for adults then vs. now, but these pictures show just how pervasive the carefree feeling was -- it even showed up in places where we don't expect things to get too wild.
In the late summer of 1986, the #1 song on the Billboard charts is a first-person view of a pregnant teenager whose made up her mind to keep her baby, as tough at it may be for her father to accept it. The ensuing controversy even makes the news in the NYT. Ten years later its successor features unintelligible lyrics and a lame beat that gives white people who can't dance a somewhat easy-to-follow series of moves. Ten years later still we find an even less fun dance song in which the female lead does not sing about how vulnerable or hopelessly out-of-control she feels, but instead about how coldly in command of life she is, underscored by her aloof attitude of "I'm too hot for you." (Odd coming from a horsefaced transvestite.) Our culture now is goofily juvenile and annoyingly self-conscious, which is antithetical to just letting go and maybe getting into trouble.
The correct perception that crime was so out-of-control that it required unorthodox solutions was not confined to R-rated action movies like Beverly Hills Cop or Lethal Weapon. During the mid-1980s an incredibly popular children's cartoon show -- not one intended for adults like Looney Tunes -- starred an outsider crime-fighting trio who would foil the plans of a criminal organization to blow things up and kill people in pursuit of grand theft. Several episodes featured leggy, large-breasted femme fatales who provoke a visible and exaggerated horndog response in the main character. (At the previous link, watch the episodes "Movie Set" and "The Amazon.")
By the mid-'90s, kids are more likely to watch a cartoon about cute monsters who try to scare humans, and by the mid-2000s one about some undersea dork who looks like he'll never get into a fight in his life. It is unimaginable that a crowd-drawing children's cartoon today would star a pugnacious prankster cat or hordes of hell-raising neighborhood kids.
Even if we accept that wild behavior was more common before, surely that was only confined to the high-ranking ones among young people. You know -- the football captain, the head cheerleader, etc. It must have been miserable to be a low-status young person back when everyone else was so carefree and happy, right? Actually, even the outcasts were outgoing, had a life, and were getting laid. In 1987 when an independent (or "college rock") band wanted to skewer their brooding goth rivals, what was the main stereotype they brought up? That the dark arty kids were addicted to partying in dance clubs and sleeping around! In the music video for a song that's derided in the previous parody, we see some old school goths in Danceteria (also mocked in the parody), where, if we are to believe the video, they stood a chance of dancing with someone who looked like Madonna.
This true stereotype about the tortured souls lasted through 1989's Pretty Hate Machine -- a dance pop album with some minor screaming -- and 1990's Violator, the last great dark arty album to still contain a lot of groovable doing-it music. Already by late 1991, apathetic and alienated young people were more interested in angry navel-gazing screaming. And while the anger level had subsided by the 2000s, the dark arty kids were still correctly perceived as anti-social shut-ins who were afraid of the opposite sex. When you're locked in your room alone with the headphones on, stewing in rage, you're hardly in the right location or the right mindset to be getting into any kind of trouble. You need to be out and about, losing your self-consciousness while you're surrounded by peers enticing you to join in the fun. Today's portrait of a loser scene kid may not be very shocking, but when the culture is wild it enhances the social lives of all people -- even the brooding artfags.
We should always go with what reliable statistics tell us (the key word being "reliable"), rather than assume that our particular experiences trump those of everyone else. But I realize that can be a hard sell to most people. Fleshing out the numbers, putting a human face on them, telling a story, bla bla bla is also necessary to convince the everyday (not the intellectual) skeptic. Here we've seen that by looking at even our simple popular culture, we get a clue that maybe things are a lot less dangerous and hellbound these days. Our culture has never been as safe, harmless, and boring as it has been for about the past two decades.