April 14, 2010

Scenes from the wild pre-'90s culture

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.


  1. What do you say about adult TV shows now? I don't think anything before the 2000's (except on HBO maybe) came even close to The Shield's level of profanity, violence and dark themes.

    There were great shows like 24 (first five seasons) and Battlestar Galactica which developed with our collective fear of terrorism in the 2000's. Don't get me wrong, after 9/11 those threats never materialized, but all the fear and suspense we had was palpable in those shows, which are similarly darker than shows I've sampled before the 2000's.

  2. Already by late 1991, apathetic and alienated young people were more interested in angry navel-gazing screaming. And

    I wonder how much of Grunge had its authentic folk roots in adult realities of lower-working-class white Pacific Northwest, and how much of it was then steered by the recording industry toward morose middle class "angst."

    I remember Eddie Vetter's radio pitches for pro-choice feminist politics. But I can't imagine Kurt Cobain giving a damn one way or another.

  3. would you consider unmoderating the comments? I like your music posts but it's hard to get a discussion going wiht the mod.

  4. "...but when the culture is wild it enhances the social lives of all people -- even the brooding artfags."

    It's trickle-down sociology (or supply-side sociology if you prefer)! Even Reagan didn't think of this.

    Also, I don't remember any femme fatales from Inspector Gadget; guess I was too young to notice.

  5. "What do you say about adult TV shows now?"

    Cable TV wasn't very mature until somewhat recently, probably signaled by The Sopranos. Before then it was just beginning, and network TV had a govt-protected monopoly, so TV wasn't as good at giving viewers what they wanted as movies or music.

    "I wonder how much of Grunge had its authentic folk roots in adult realities of lower-working-class white Pacific Northwest"

    Could be, but those same adult realities of lower-working class whites rocketed Bon Jovi to superstardom just 5 years earlier, yet it didn't get turned into anything mopey.

    And Kurt Cobain grew up digging The Vaselines and The Pixies, which are fairly upbeat. It seems like it was part of a larger shift toward angry and inward-looking music to me.

    "would you consider unmoderating the comments?"

    I had a stalker / vandalizer here for awhile, but maybe I'll try and see if it's gone.

    "Also, I don't remember any femme fatales from Inspector Gadget; guess I was too young to notice."

    I didn't notice either. Just goes to show how paranoid people are about birds-and-the-bees themes in kids' cartoons. That stuff isn't even on their radar.

    I just watched another episode where he enters a NASCAR race. He gets slipped a mickey by M.A.D. agents and spends a lot of time driving around and speaking like a funny drunk. You'd *never* see that today in a cartoon!

  6. What about the Simpsons, Beavis & Butthead, Family Guy and South Park? Also, music has gotten much more sexually explicit.

  7. Movies turned a little darker in the early 90's. Take a look at the 1991, 1992, 1993, and 1994 top movies: http://movies.toptenreviews.com/list_1992.htm




    Go back and contrast those dark movies, serial killer movies, pulpy-murder-gangsta movies, and historical-masterpiece-theater-movies-that-make-the-past-look-dreadfully-repressive, and anti-western-Western's like Dances With Wolves and Unforgiven, feminist romps like Thelma&Louise, and gangsta-propping apologetics like Boyz-in-da-Hood with the movies we seen during the mid 1980's, during the Cold War like these:

    Its as if we were being programmed to be unhappy and especially self-critical looking at the 90's fare compared to the happy-go-lucky 80's fare. We became the "bad guys" on the TV news internationally post Berlin Wall also, especially on the environmental front, which is comic considering the communist eco-record.

    Grunge music, pumped by the execs at MTV, where radio got its cues from in this era, was a perfect compliment to the dreary movies, and dreary newscasts-that-now-depicted-the-west-as-the-world's-bad-guy-post-Berlin-Wall. A large segment of youth during this time got their "news" via Tabitha Sorenson and Kurt Loder via MTV News, which was very lefty and anti-American.

    These were MTV's glory years. It was pre-internet and that network had more cultural power then than it ever had before (kids growing up on rock video's in the 1980's were addicted to it) or since. The Network TV news was still very prominent and newspapers had quite a bit more readers. This was during the time that talk radio was rising and pre-internet. Its unfortunate that a really intelligent conservative couldn't have been talk radio's great voice instead of a country-club-shareholder-conservative like Rush Limbaugh. For a few years (1991-1996) Limbaugh really had the nation's attention, but squandered the opportunity in my opinion.

  8. "What about the Simpsons, Beavis & Butthead, Family Guy and South Park? Also, music has gotten much more sexually explicit."

    I think this is a difference between wild and offensive. Although I wouldn't lump Simpsons w/ B&B, Family Guy, and South Park... the latter are about a bunch of dorks with no lives sitting around swearing in order to try to shock people, not about having a wild time.

    Same w/ more sexually explicit lyrics. It's mostly there to shock and offend, not to whip people up into wildness. For that, just look at what they were listening to at Studio 54 or Danceteria. Prince, Rick James, Vanity 6, etc., are very sexual but aren't very explicit at all. Aside from the line in "Little Red Corvette" about girl you've got an ass like i've never seeeeeen

  9. Characters in high culture books have certainly gotten noticeably less carnal (e.g. Katie Ropie's recent piece in the New York Times).

    I see the early 90s as a kind of peak in entertainment wildness, perhaps abruptly declining soon after Tarantino brought thrill-killing to mainstream tastes in Natural Born Killers (1994).

    The early 80s to the early mid 90s was also when extreme metal genres were developed, with a much more aggressive and angry sound than previous kinds of rock. Mainstream music probably peaked in violent and sexual explicitness in the early 90s with gangsta rap. The intensity decreased, and music during the late 90s and 2000s was relatively inoffensive.

    There has been a shift in mores on television, perhaps starting in the early 90s with the Fox network and shows like Married...With Children and The Simpsons, and on cable with Beavis & Butthead. Sexual themes and language became much more explicit. Howard Stern contributed to shifting sexual norms on both the radio and television throughout the 80s and 90s. (This doesn't mean there are more "wild" characters, just that sexual themes are more explicit. This is why, e.g., Charlie Sheen's sitcom is so popular. A "wild" character on television has the freedom to express that wildness more now than in the past).

    I think this is probably a good indication of where things are going. Men are becoming more "Swedish" and DAD-like. Promiscuous values are on the decline as females gain more social status. At the same time traditional religion is in decline and sexual taboos are weakening. So "wild" entertainment has increasing latitude, even as its mass appeal wanes.

    So, for example, Family Guy and South Park push the boundaries in sexual reference even while being fundamentally asexual.

    (MTV, I should note -- the network geared to those at the ages of prime mating-effort -- continues to have popular "wild" shows. Jersey Shore is basically the Real World stripped of all content but fucking and fighting. Jackass was a celebration of male self-destructiveness -- itself a form of mating effort.)

  10. "I remember Eddie Vetter's radio pitches for pro-choice feminist politics. But I can't imagine Kurt Cobain giving a damn one way or another."

    Cobain was a feminist weenie. If he were born 25 years later, he'd just be another loser on Tumblr.


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