October 31, 2011

Sub-generations within the Millennials?

Even long generations like Baby Boomers and Generation X tend to have sub-divisions within them. The earlier Boomers were the ones who took all the counter-culture stuff seriously, while those born from about 1958 to 1964 couldn't have cared less then or at any time since. The Gen X-ers born in the later '60s and early '70s didn't spend as much of their young adulthood during the fagged-out period from about 1992 and after, while those born in the mid-late '70s were more exposed to it.

Millennials seem to be another long generation, so there might be noticeable differences between earlier and later born ones. On some level, it's comparing the heights of pygmies, but you know what I mean. In my real-life experience and online, the cut-off for Generation Y feels like 1984 (and starting in '79). Those born in '85 and '86 are almost recognizably human, and after all they do have some memories of the culture before it went down the toilet during the '90s. But if forced to choose, they'd still side with '90s rather than the '80s nostalgia and revival, so I put them with Millennials, whose first clear birth year is 1987.

These sub-generations don't seem to span much more than 5 years, which suggests that the Millennials born since the mid-'90s should be different somehow. Almost all my experience has been with the earlier ones, born in the late '80s and early '90s. Not being a tutor anymore, I don't know how high school kids in 2011 are different from those in 2005.

Anyone reading this have a decent impression? Behavior, culture, beliefs, whatever.

My hunch is that the earlier Millennials won't turn out as dorky as the later ones because as adolescents they got to imprint on a period of exciting culture during the housing bubble euphoria of the mid-2000s. There was a revival of new wave music, colorful clothing, and an overall optimistic spirit. It was brief and highly anomalous for the post-'92 period, but it may have served as a shot in the arm (perhaps too little too late) for Millennials' social and cultural development.

The ones born in the mid-'90s and after didn't experience that period when their social antennae were hyper-sensitive and when they start to pay close attention to cultural trends (i.e. as teenagers).

October 30, 2011

Halloween, from communal rite of rebellion to egocentric business as usual

You couldn't pick a worse time to try to socialize in a night club, bar, house party, etc., than the Saturday around Halloween, when everyone goes out.

Before the great wimpification of the '90s, it used to be a "rite of rebellion," where the normal order of things is inverted for a little while, until everyone goes back to life as usual. We all recognize the need for the occasional break from our routine roles, and these rites allow us to all coordinate on the same time, place, theme, and so on, to make it a communal affair. Plus it helps to level ranks and distinctions, which makes for a closer feeling of community, though without greatly upsetting the social order, since it's only temporary and since the "rebels" are not directly accusing or confronting their superiors. Something just came over them, they couldn't help themselves, etc., but don't worry because now it's out of their system and they'll go back to their normal roles.

In the case of Halloween, it was mostly females and young people who indulged in a little rule-bending. Children and adolescents pursued greater independence than would normally be allowed to them, and girls behaved more sexually than usual -- meaning behavior that leads toward getting it on, not attention whoring.

Stepping outside the boundaries of their usual roles requires a loss of self-consciousness; otherwise their internal alarm will sound, reminding them what their proper role is. Today Halloween parties show the opposite: nobody is so self-conscious as during the implicit contest over whose costume is the most clever, meta-ironic, just plain kitschy, or slutty.

Guys are bad enough, laboring to signal how long the conception and execution took. They're more like salesmen making a pitch than revelers getting lost in the crowd-vibe. Girls, however, don't even show that level of extraversion. They're just there to soak up a lot of free attention without having to interact with anyone. Their costumes don't serve as a disguise in order to pursue what they normally could not, but instead as a "this is why I'm hot" broadcast. It only amplifies girls' basic tendency toward egocentrism and frigid attention-whoring.

As for young people, children hardly go trick-or-treating at all anymore, and adolescents (which now includes anyone through their mid-20s) have no impulse to seek out greater independence when opportunity knocks. They'd rather fart around someone's basement watching TV or playing beer pong, probably the most snore-inducing activity ever invented, and one that prevents anyone present from pairing off to make out, listen to music, or do anything else exciting. Why helicopter parents are so paranoid about their kids getting into trouble these days is beyond me -- this generation of passive, cocoon-loving dorks only knows how to rebel by whining on Facebook or pretending to be a girl in a video game.

I harp on these changes about Halloween every time it rolls around, mostly because it they were so fast and so great. Other things just kind of faded away, like cars with T-tops, but this holiday was turned into its polar opposite. I still go out to the parties because I can't resist a crowd around Halloween, but I don't expect much carnivalesque fun anymore. That's more for '80s night, which (at least here) is more of a standard rite of rebellion.

Still, there's usually at least one colorful episode at Halloween parties today. I never thought I'd get the chance, but tonight I got to dance to "Goodbye Horses," aka Buffalo Bill's theme song from Silence of the Lambs. Although hardly my favorite, it's a fun groovy song, especially played around Halloween, that I've never heard in a club before. It's also a treat to hear some of the very late New Wave songs, which got lost in the shuffle. The drag queen out on the dance floor only added to the slightly unsettling vibe that the song gives anyone who saw the movie.

October 24, 2011

Greatest actors came of age in rising-crime times (data)

Having gone over the motivation last week, let's look at when great actors were born, and so what kind of world they came of age in. I'm using AFI's nominations for their 100 stars list, which includes 250 men and 250 women. I don't care who ranked where, just whether or not they made the nominations. They're all classical Hollywood stars, so no one is born after 1950. Perhaps they didn't want to take a stand on more recent actors, whose achievements may not be clear yet. It's also nice because it allows us to look at the pre-1950 history of America, something we're pretty blind to.

Here is the distribution of their birth years, smoothed using the average within a 5-year window around a particular year. The top shows men and women combined, the bottom with men in blue and women in red.

The production of future great actors takes off around 1880, peaking around 1918 after a 10-year plateau, and falls off after. There is however a brief upward blip around 1925.

In the last post, I'll discuss and interpret these patterns. For now, I'll just note the near absence of the Silent and Greatest Generations. Since roughly 60 years separates two similar points in the zeitgeist cycle, the actors born during the peak period in the early 20th C. correspond to Generation X from later on.

October 19, 2011

Greatest actors came of age in rising-crime times (background)

(I'm chopping this up into a short series of posts. In the next couple days I'll present and analyze some data. Today is just the motivation.)

To be truly convincing in their roles, actors must both have a wealth of emotions and personal experiences to draw on (or else they could only play themselves), and they must be comfortable enough in stepping out of their ordinary persona and assuming that of another (otherwise it looks forced or wooden).

An era of rising violence rates makes both of those traits more common. First, people are more out and about in a world that's getting more dangerous, so they're getting exposed to a far broader range of experiences than the more sheltered people of safer times. Tougher times also mean we have to make tougher decisions, so they explore places in the emotional spectrum that more insulated people do not have to.

For instance, in a world where rape is more common, there will be more borderline cases as well. You will therefore see and hear about more of these hard-to-call cases -- how should you respond? It's not clear, and you feel a wider range of emotional responses, not to mention the conflict between them at various points in your reflection.

And second, the steady rise of disorder during rising-crime times reveals the old ways to be broken -- at least for now -- so that new solutions must be sought. Not just for crime control, but across social life broadly. So people become less conformist -- a little at first, when they still hope the old ways can be easily repaired (like during the '60s and early '70s), and then really kicking off during the apocalyptic second half of a crime wave. Now that people are less on-alert for whether they're stepping outside the boundaries of their proper role, they find it easier to slip into another persona.

Falling-crime times have the opposite effect: the trend toward cocooning leaves people with a shallow pool of emotions and experiences to plumb, and their conformity makes it tough to behave differently without setting off their inner shock collar.

We undergo our major social development during puberty, and our basic worldview gels into place by around 30. So it's really how much of that "critical period," and especially the earlier part, you spend in rising-crime times that affects how cut out for acting you'll be. Even when less powerful movies are being made during falling-crime times, you'll still have had that different formative experience that will last and serve as inspiration.

I think this applies more broadly to any creative, step-outside-of-yourself endeavor, such as making music. For now I'm sticking with acting, and the next post will present birth year data on the actors of classical Hollywood to illustrate the points made here.

October 17, 2011

The Art Deco revival during the New Wave Age

The post below on changing car shapes during rising vs. falling-crime times got me thinking about design in general. Later I'll write up something more detailed about how architecture changes as the violence rate swings up or down. For now it's enough to note that when people see the world getting more dangerous, they want and make visual art that has more color, ornamentation, and allusions to figures from popular legends and mythology. When the world gets safer, their art becomes more drab in color, stripped of ornament, and cynical or dismissive of Romantic allusions.

Art Deco exemplified this pattern during the early 20th C. crime wave, which began no later than 1900 and peaked in 1933. It belonged more to the second half of that wave, the Jazz Age, when the apocalyptic zeitgeist had set in. Here are a few examples from graphic design and architecture:

As the violence rate fell after 1933, the movement fell out of fashion and was replaced by its antithesis, Modernism or the International Style. This change in building and urban planning dovetailed perfectly with the ideology of the New Deal, corporatism, and managerialism of the mid-'30s through the late '50s.

During the '60s and '70s, the crime rate started shooting up again, and immediately people began grumbling publicly about Modernism and looking back to the earlier 20th C., when color, ornament, and Romanticism were not considered crimes. As then, though, it wasn't until the second half of rising-crime times, the apocalyptic period from the mid-'70s through the early '90s, that Art Deco was fully resurrected. *

Notice the similarity between the cover of The Great Gatsby above and the poster for Chinatown below, and between the Vogue cover and the album art for Rio by Duran Duran. The look of the new wave music scene in general borrowed a lot from Art Deco, consciously or not (again some of this is just due to similar impulses expressing themselves in similar environments). You even see it in campier places, like the unforgettable giant wall stencil of Billy Idol, accented with neon lights, from Jules' apartment in St. Elmo's Fire.

Although not a perfect example of the revival, the styling of the Pontiac Firebird Trans Am in its later second generation is worth mentioning because it was so popular, immortalized by the 1977 movie Smokey and the Bandit. It's all there, from the geometrically stylized snowflake rims to the mythical creature on the hood (compare the detail from the Oviatt building above). They came in probably the widest variety of colors in the history of cars.

And of course there was the new Art Deco movement within architecture, sometimes a more straight-up revival and other times the basis for a wackier project within Postmodernism of the '70s and '80s. Not that I've seen any of these in person, but my favorite is the NBC Tower in Chicago:

After the 1992 peak in the violence rate, there would still be some buildings in the pipeline conceived during rising-crime times, so the mid-'90s weren't so bad for architecture, unlike music, movies, and other industries that rely on creativity even in the execution, not just the conception, of their works. But over the course of the '90s the Deconstructionist movement became dominant, and things really got rotten during the 21st C.

The fanboys of Frank Gehry, Rem Koolhaas, Zaha Hadid, and Santiago Calatrava claim that this trend is part of the Postmodernist reaction against the previously mentioned Modernism / International Style of the mid-20th C. In fact we've gone back to the time when there was minimal or no color or ornament, a cynical view of mythical or other allusions, and a haughty dismissal of the needs of human nature, including aesthetic ones. The only difference is that Corbusier v.2.0 is shinier and sometimes curvier.

If the current period of falling crime rates lasts as long as the last one did, society will get more violent around the beginning of the next decade. It could take 15 years after that before the apocalyptic zeitgeist sets in again. Perhaps by the '40s, then, we'll have finally removed this Deconstructionist tumor and see the third flourishing of Art Deco. First it was jazz, then new wave -- I can't wait to find out what the next new music style will be to provide the soundtrack.

* Two similar points in the zeitgeist cycle are separated by about 60 years, for example the peaks in the homicide rate in 1933 and 1992. So we should not be surprised by the similarity between the Roaring Twenties and the Go-Go Eighties.

October 15, 2011

Car shapes during rising vs. falling-crime times

There is almost no picture of pre-1950 life in the popular understanding, causing us to be blind to the cyclical nature of society. In an earlier post I showed that an easy rule-of-thumb to cross that border is to subtract 60 years from a more recent year, since that's how long it was between the same points in the cycle.

But to get a more vivid feel for it, it may be easier to just watch Sunset Boulevard. It's set in contemporary 1950, but opens up Hollywood history from the Jazz Age of the later 1910s through the early '30s. See if a lot of the descriptions of the '20s don't remind you of the '80s, like movie stars building palatial mansions, and everyone wanting a pool in their back yard. See if the cynical tone from 1950 about the '20s doesn't remind you of today's Puritanical dismissal of our own recent "decade of excess," the '80s.

To take a more specific example, one image that jumps out of the 1950 setting in that movie is Norma Desmond's 1929 Isotta-Fraschini car. Its proportions reminded me more of a Stingray Corvette than the boat-sized cars I associated with the '40s and '50s. Browsing through pictures of cars since 1900, I notice some fairly strong similarities among the shapes of cars made in rising-crime times, or in falling-crime times.

Obviously lots of other things affect the changes in car shapes, but here are some that appear to be closely tied to whether people see the world getting safer or more dangerous (pictures below). Rising-crime era cars --

- Are more elongated, relative to the surface area of the front-on view. Not the absolute length, but how pulled-out vs. squashed-up it looks. They look more like projectile weapons such as an arrow or spear.

- Have seats that are located far from the front of the car, and there is little space behind the seats, e.g. for a trunk. From inside, this gives a view like you'd see if you were riding a horse or a chariot, with the thing that's pulling you clear out in front. When the seats are close to the front, and more of the car behind the riders, it feels more like the car is a beast of burden pulling a cart in tow, rather than a joyride machine.

- Scrunch the passengers into the seating area. They're closer to each other, making for a cozier atmosphere, and with the windows and windshield so near them, they feel less cocooned from the outside world. The frame of the car is more like a skin than a buffer, and you feel more like you're zipping through space.

That's easy enough to see from cars made during the rising-crime period of 1959 through 1992, compared to the falling-crime period since then. Cars started getting sleeker, longer, and cozier, then that sputtered out in the late '80s, and since the early-mid '90s they've aren't as narrow, don't have as much of a coupe-like placement of the seats, and have massive amounts of space inside. Added: just put up some pictures from the recent cycle, where you can see the difference on either side of the 1992 divide.

Here, though, are some pictures of typical car shapes from before 1960. We see the same rough pattern during the rising-crime period of 1900 to 1933, and the falling-crime period from the mid-'30s through 1958. For these aspects of car shape, there has not been a steady move in one direction since 1900 -- there have been cycles, and those match the cycles of violence rates. I included two pictures for the '30s since the early part was rising-crime and the later part was falling-crime, and you can tell that from the car shapes. Certainly more quantitative research would make a better case, but it really is something visible to the naked eye.

October 9, 2011

Songs that "embody the '80s"

That's a question in the comments to the post below. I take it to mean which songs embody the general feeling in the air. Well the '80s were part of the apocalyptic phase of the zeitgeist cycle, which began in the mid-'70s and lasted through the early '90s. That new worldview brings along all sorts of other changes in people's thinking, feeling, and behavior.

Those features are what really set that period apart from the cult of curability from the 1960s and early '70s, and from the glib nihilism of the '90s through the mid-2000s. Here are the most important pieces of the zeitgeist, as I see it, with one or two songs that capture that feeling. There are lots to choose from, though, because any truly important part of the atmosphere will have a pervasive influence.

- The initial revelation that the apocalypse is coming:

"I Know There's Something Going On" by Frida, one of the singers from ABBA. Despite the menace in the song, she doesn't sound panic-stricken or paralyzed. "In the Air Tonight" by Phil Collins works here too (and so would the average new wave song), but I give the edge to Frida for the electric guitar that makes it feel more charged up.

- Broadening the group that you feel solidarity with, beyond your nuclear family:

"Man in the Mirror"
by Michael Jackson for class and economic status. "Born in the USA" by Springsteen for patriotism (nobody cares what the lyrics "really mean" when we're talking about capturing a feeling).

- Intenser relationship bonds:

"Summer of '69" by Bryan Adams for buddy-buddy relationships. For male-female, "Like a Prayer" by Madonna and "Livin' on a Prayer" by Bon Jovi. Surviving larger threats requires building a broader and tighter social network.

- Looking to the supernatural for redemption or salvation:

"Higher Love" by Steve Winwood. There were some other religious pop songs, but none anywhere as great as this one. The exotic rhythm and instrumentation, plus the guest vocals by Chaka Khan, underscore the cross-racial focus of the religious revival.

- Hedonism:

"Flesh for Fantasy"
by Billy Idol takes an accepting though ambivalent look at the pleasure-centered culture. The insider addict's view is better conveyed by Depeche Mode's "Strangelove." Hedonism was of course a minority choice in the face of a seemingly unstable future, but it did become a larger minority then than during other times.

October 6, 2011

"You've given me, given me, nothing but shattered dreams, shattered dreams"

The other day I heard that song for the first time in over 20 years, and haven't been able to get it out of my head since! You try to after a couple listens:

This was probably the last big hit from a new wave band -- 1988, a good 4-5 years after the peak in '83-'84. And since so many new sounds were coming out back then, five years was a long time. Of course the differences are apparent too: the wild times of the '60s, '70s, and '80s are starting to wind down, so it's not quite as body-moving and danceable, even compared to the mellower new wave classics like "Save a Prayer" or "Saved by Zero." The bassline is still smooth and syncopated, but not as groovy, and the synth just voices a crying motif every now and then, instead of steadily building tension to keep your body in a state of suspense.

Still, it's an infectious song, and every Amazon review of the album it's from, Turn Back the Clock, says the rest of the songs showcase the band's talent for catchy melodies and toe-tapping rhythms. I can't say, since I plan on buying it (remastered with bonus tracks in 2008), and don't want to spoil the first listen by hearing it in degraded form first on YouTube.

Usually an album review from a one-hit wonder doesn't read that way. Johnny Hates Jazz must have slipped through the cracks as pop music was shifting toward the emphasis in the '90s and after on sheer emoting during the performance, with the basic composition not mattering anymore.

October 4, 2011

Ideal female body shape during safer vs. more dangerous times

One of the biggest changes I've noticed in my own lifetime is the shift away from more slender females and toward more fleshy ones. We see this at the level of the average girl, celebrity sex symbols, porno chicks, phrases that guys use to describe what they like, and so on.

Now I don't mean BMI, waist-to-hip ratio, etc. No existing measurement captures the intuitive sense of whether a girl has a small or large amount of fat primarily on her boobs, ass, and thighs. BMI only tells you how fat or skinny she is, ignoring body shape. Waist-to-hip ratio only tells you how hourglass-shaped she is, ignoring how much meat she's got on her bones. I'm talking what distinguishes Marilyn Monroe from Paulina Porizkova, both of whom are a healthy BMI and with hourglass figures, but where one is clearly more buxom and bootylicious than the other.

The first in-your-face signal for me was in 1992, when Sir Mix-a-Lot released "Baby Got Back". The video was in frequent enough rotation on MTV, it hit #1 on the Billboard charts, and even us fifth-graders were buying the single on tape. Since then the popularity of big ol' booties and fake tits has only skyrocketed. Later in the '90s there was J.Lo, then Beyonce in the mid-2000s, and now... I don't know, who's the reigning booty queen these days? Lady Gaga or Shakira, I guess. Or Kim Kardashian?

I'm aware that certain female celebrities have been going in a more 12 year-old boy direction, like fashion models and butt-kicking babe characters in movies. But when it comes to who the average guy is thinking of or looking at while he jerks off, it's more likely Nelly Furtado than Uma Thurman.

Was there another time when fleshy girls were in high demand? Yep: the heyday of pin-up girls from the later 1930s, '40s, and '50s. What does that period have in common with the present age of curvy-mindedness, which began around 1992 with "Baby Got Back"? Falling violence rates.

Is the other correlation there, between rising violence rates and desire for slender girls? Looks like it. As crime rose during the '60s, the fleshy girls began to give way to the more waifish ones like Audrey Hepburn and Jean Shrimpton. They were basically gone by the '70s, when Farah Fawcett and the chicks from ABBA got the most attention. I can't think of a single '80s sex symbol who was fleshy... unless you count Jessica Rabbit, but she was a conscious throwback to the '40s. Even during the first couple years of the '90s, the parade of babes on Twin Peaks were all slender.

Going back to the previous rising-crime period, ca. 1900 to 1933, I'm not sure about the first half of that period, but my impression is that they were slender too. During the Jazz Age, though, the demand was definitely for slender girls, including the original "It Girl" Clara Bow. Lithe flappers who taped down their breasts probably were an extreme form, but still their popularity shows that what men wanted was more in the slender direction. That lasted at least through 1933, when Fay Wray represented beauty in King Kong.

While acknowledging the variation we see in any slice of time, the swing of the fleshy-or-slender pendulum over time does appear to track the cycle of violence rates. Most of this evidence is from male preferences, but there could be a female supply-side effect too -- maybe women's bodies respond to their perception of whether the world is getting safer or more dangerous. That would require a large representative sample of women throughout the past 100 years, though, so I'm restricting things to the demand-side of male preferences.

My interpretation of this pattern is that a fleshier woman is seen as an investment into the far and stable future. Those fat reserves are a kind of energetic savings account, and why would you bother saving unless you believed the far future would be reachable? Men planning their family formation on the assumption of a safer future will want a woman with extra flesh just in case something goes wrong now and then.

But when the world is getting more dangerous, you don't care what extra value she might have into the far future -- you just want her to be able to pump out some kids now and hope they make it, perhaps on their own. You also might count it against her if her body shape suits her to hanging around the house mothering her children, when she may have to be on-the-go -- not in the sense of being a careerist or breadwinner, but simply not being able to stand still while so much commotion is going on in her environment.

If they don't look so maternal, the rising-crime-era chicks do look much more adorable. You see it in still pictures, movies, and books. Fitzgerald is always going on about how expressive, soulful, and hypnotic the girls' eyes were in the Jazz Age, and it was no different from the '60s through the '80s, from Audrey Hepburn to Kelly Kapowski.

It's not primarily a neotenous thing. It's more the look of an abandoned puppy who's trying to win over a prospective owner with its cuteness. The pin-up dolls didn't look like that, and neither have girls of the past 20 years. The connection to rising vs. falling violence rates is straightforward: when times are more dangerous, you need to rely on others more, especially male protectors, so girls have to put on a sweeter face. When they're getting safer, girls don't need to recruit as many male protectors into their social circle, and so don't have to crank up the wattage in their eyes.