For a brief time, a decent minority left their silly lifestyle centers and soulless big box centers, heading back to enjoy some lost-in-the-crowd excitement -- at the mall.
Patriotism came back a little, admittedly in the service of a foolish and pointless war. You didn't see that during the Clinton years, during Bush's campaign or during the early days of his administration. It had already cooled off sometime in 2007, and of course the Republican candidate who tried to whip us up into taking a stand against, well, the whole world was defeated in 2008. Since then it's been the Clinton Years, Uncensored Extended Version. Although not within the mainstream of the GOP, the anti-immigration movement seems to have been at its peak during the mid-2000s.
Live 8, a multinational benefit concert, raised money for poor countries somewhat like Live Aid did back in 1985. When patriotism is high, we're also most charitable toward other nations, provided we don't see them as a threat.
Colors exploded throughout large areas of the visual culture, primarily in clothing but also to a lesser extent in home and retail decoration. I don't recall what graphic design of the mid-2000s looked like. Product design had much less color, the Apple look being exemplary. Architecture had even less. Movies didn't offer a very lush color palette either -- it was mostly washed-out CGI junk, like video games.
Guys were still pretty covered up (long shorts, baggy shirt), but girls started showing more skin. The uniform was low-rise jeans and a mid-riff-baring top with spaghetti straps, showing off a several-inch band around her lower torso, as well as her shoulders, collar, and upper back. Mini-skirts popped back into style, including the new "ruffle" mini-skirt (usually white, though occasionally the more eye-catching yellow). After the mid-2000s, they've returned to the trend toward covering up, with higher-rise jeans, tops that drop far below the waist and hips, "baby doll" tops that obscure more of the shoulder and collar area than spaghetti straps, and tossing out their mini-skirts.
For the first time in a long while, rock music stirred awake. Albums by The Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The White Stripes got the driving sound started in the spring of 2003. By the end of the year it was clear that contemporary bands were going to revisit an earlier, more satisfying sound when The Raveonettes released their easy-going surfer take on Psychocandy by The Jesus and Mary Chain, while No Doubt took the direct route by covering "It's My Life" by Talk Talk.
The rock revival was everywhere in 2004 and '05, and I'm incredibly grateful to have had the chance to go out dancing to it twice a week when I lived in Barcelona. After those two jam-packed years, things already began stalling out during 2006. The only things that come to mind are the self-titled album by She Wants Revenge and The Black Parade by My Chemical Romance. That's stretching it, but you can't even manage that with the guitar-based music since then.
That same timing shows up in R&B and dance music too. In 2003, OutKast released their carefree, get-up-and-move song "Hey Ya!" The last likable album came in summer 2006 when Nelly Furtado's Loose took a stab at counteracting the self-consciousness and self-aggrandizement of recent R&B and dance music -- Spice Girls, 50 Cent, The Black Eyed Peas, etc. Overall the "black music" genres weren't as lifted out of the quagmire as white music was, although I do confess that one of my guilty pleasures (at least when I can dance to it in a club) is "Get Low" by Lil Jon.
People sensed that the zeitgeist wasn't barreling ahead in the direction of the '90s and early 2000s, but moved at least a little bit backward toward more exciting times. VH1's I Love the '80s series ran in three installments from December 2002 through 2005, and '80s nights sprang up across the country. Some of that is still going on, but the nostalgic dance parties just ain't what they used to be. Since I started going in 2007, I've noticed much less socializing at '80s night, though thankfully this one continues to draw a crowd.
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It may not have touched all areas of the culture, and even where it did it was not a total throwback to the good old days, and it certainly didn't last very long. Still, this anomaly in the zeitgeist calls for an explanation. Of course, it may be just a fluke, but I think it may have been a response to 9/11. It looked less typical of a falling-crime era, and a bit more like a rising-crime era. Crime rates were steadily down, so it couldn't be that.
The only other source of such great harm is external, and 9/11 sure made us feel more threatened by violence than we'd been used to. It was unexpected, visually powerful, and brought a high death toll. Plus, who knew what they'd escalate to next time? There was a feeling that the worst wasn't behind us just yet, so that the near future would be a period of rising risk of violence.
Why didn't it have an immediate effect on the culture? A little over a year went by before the shift in the zeitgeist. It's probably because we can't be thinking about the threat too consciously, as we were in the aftermath, trying to make sense of it. There's a vast literature in psychology called "terror management theory" that shows how differently people think, feel, and behave when you prime them with thoughts about death. They tend to respond in the way you'd expect from my rising-crime posts.
One broad finding is that the effect is stronger once you give the subjects a longer time for it to sink in and affect them unconsciously. Something similar might have gone on after 9/11 -- for awhile we were thinking about violence and death on a very conscious level. Only after we'd moved on past that stage did it begin to affect us unconsciously.
The presence of the Iraq War in the popular mind served to remind us of the threat off and on through the mid-2000s, but after no more terrorist attacks struck us like the first one, we became aware that the threat had probably gone away. We didn't jump to that conclusion right away in 2003 or '04, since maybe it would happen next year. Still, after 5 years, it seemed that the future was not going to be as increasingly violent as we'd thought, and we returned to the zeitgeist more typical of a falling-crime period.
Why did it affect more than just America? Most places had no 9/11 of their own; even the bombings at Madrid and London were not as deadly or visually arresting as planes crashing into skyscrapers. Given that the attackers were from outside Western civilization, the West in general likely felt threatened. Who knew who would be next?
Why didn't it affect some parts of the culture? The national Youth Risk Behavior Survey doesn't show a jump in drug use, joyriding, or sexual activity among high schoolers during the mid-2000s. Young girls were definitely more flirtatious, but on the whole they must have been holding out for a clearer sign of rising violence to conclude that they needed to start earlier and mate with more partners. Overall it was still part of the attention whore trend of the past 20 years.
Movies, TV shows, and video games didn't see much of a change from the prevailing spirit either. These are narrative media, whereas those that showed the change most strongly were popular music and personal appearance. Narratives take a long time to weave together, so a major change in storytelling must take longer to respond to rising crime rates. That was true for the last real crime wave that began in 1959: there were a handful of good movies from the '60s, but the bulk of spellbinding new movies come from the mid-'70s through the mid-'80s.
The lack of change in architecture is similar -- it takes so long to plan and erect major buildings that they won't respond so quickly to a brief rise in crime rates. Again it was like that in the last real wave -- the International Style took longer to fade during the '60s and early '70s than did styles in music from the mid-century.
Popular music and personal appearance are far quicker to plan and execute, and they don't involve any narrative component -- more of a raw emotional expression. So they'll be more responsive to other social changes, such as in the threat of violence.
Could the euphoria have been due to the housing bubble? I think the housing bubble euphoria was just part of this larger euphoria, a spillover effect. The two major real estate crazes that come to mind are from the 1920s and the 1980s, both periods of soaring crime. People are just more willing to go for it, at least in some ways, when their physical security seems less guaranteed into the future. The already-inflated housing bubble just provided one more outlet for the general euphoria to express itself.
All of the other pieces of the housing bubble were in place by the early-mid 1990s, plus the wider belief that everyone is a smart investor, that the real rise in prosperity during the '90s would only go up, etc. Yet there was no general euphoria then, as I've described it above. Those pieces of the bubble are still there -- despite a brief gasp when the recession first struck -- and again the euphoria has been gone for at least 5 years.
Also, I've detailed all sorts of links between rising crime and the zeitgeist changes above, and possible reasons why they're linked. The terror management people in psychology have done something similar in a brief lab setting. But why would a housing bubble make girls show more skin, or young people move their tastes more back toward rock music? Again it's not worth generating just-so stories there since the euphoria only lasted a few years, while the housing bubble got going well before, and large pieces of that economic and political environment are still in place.