Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History (32 page)

BOOK: Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History
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W
ow, it’s actually happening, the year 2000, a
new century
! A new
millennium
! Computers, videophones! The
future
!

But on second thought? Let’s try as hard as we can to make sure everything else, the culture and the economy, doesn’t change at all.

The earliest work of American fiction that’s still famous, published exactly two hundred years ago, is a story of how quickly and radically everything can change in America. In Washington Irving’s “Rip van Winkle,” the eponymous hero is kind of a hippie—“a simple, good-natured fellow” with an “insuperable aversion to all kinds of profitable labor”—who lives in upstate New York near Woodstock in the early 1770s. Fantastical Hobbitish creatures he meets in the woods give him a magical druggy drink that puts him to sleep for twenty years, until the 1790s. He wakes up to find that the British colonies are now the United States of America and that “the very character of the people seemed changed”—more politically polarized, working too hard, noisier, a bit manic.

As I’ve written this book, I’ve kept thinking of that story. And I imagined a modern reboot about a descendant of Rip van Winkle’s who slips into a recreational-drug-induced coma in the early
19
70s and awakes from her two-decade sleep in the
19
90s, confused and amazed by the transfigured America. Except in the modern version, while this Rip is struck by all the new gadgetry—cellphones, PCs, the Internet—she’s even more freaked out by how America had also somehow
gone back in time.
It is life in the early 1900s redux—organized labor impotent, big business and Wall Street idolized, wealth flaunted, taxes on the rich low, Washington corruption rampant and shameless again. (Plus there is a new venereal disease more fatal than any had been before penicillin, our immigrant population is growing again to early 1900s levels, and primitive Christianity is as loud and angry and even bigger that it was back then.)

Neo-Rip in the 1990s is likewise astonished to discover that the yesteryear schticks that emerged just before she passed out—the Beatles’ Olde England outfits and lyrics, the Old West evocations of the Band and the Dead, Sha Na Na’s nostalgia act at Woodstock—have turned out to be the prototypes and harbingers for the whole cultural future, that every medium and genre is now filled with reiterations and permutations of the familiar past. And
Ronald Reagan
from
Death Valley Days
was elected and reelected
president of the United States
?

In 1988 in
Spy,
we published a love-hate cover story mock-celebrating the bygone 1970s, subtitled “A Return to the Decade of Mood Rings, Ultrasuede, Sideburns and Disco Sex-Machine Tony Orlando.” One of its comedic premises was that the new compulsive nostalgia had gotten so out of control that people might start feeling nostalgic for a decade that had ended only a hundred months before. In the 1989
Spy
essay I mentioned earlier, we wrote about the new phenomenon of our curated, air-quoting, stylishly nostalgia-centric lives. We imagined a couple named Bob and Betty who lived a 1980s everything-old-is-new-again
lifestyle,
the first hipsters, a decade before anyone used that word the way it’s used now:

Bob is wearing a hibiscus-y Hawaiian shirt that he purchased at a “vintage” clothing boutique for approximately six times the garment’s original 1952 price. He also carries his lunch in a tackle box and wears a Gumby wristwatch, Converse high-tops and baggy khakis. Bob describes his look as “Harry Truman mixed with early Jerry Mathers.” Bob assumes we know that Mathers played the title role on
Leave It to Beaver
. Betty wears Capri pants, ballet flats and a man’s oversized white shirt, along with a multi-zippered black leather motorcycle jacket imprinted with Cyrillic letters. She is “Audrey Hepburn by way of Patty Duke as James Dean’s girlfriend waiting on the dragstrip.”

Betty and Bob have a child, a two-year-old who they call “Kitten.” The child is probably too young to catch the reference to
Father Knows Best,
even though she sits with her parents when they watch Nick at Nite, the [new] cable TV service devoted almost entirely to the isn’t-it-ironic recapitulations of shows from the early 1960s. The invitations to Betty and Bob’s wedding were printed with sketches of jitterbugging couples; for their honeymoon they rented a station wagon and drove south, visiting Graceland, Cypress Gardens, and the Texas School Book Depository. Betty and Bob buy souvenirs from the 1964 Worlds Fair and “atomic” furniture from the 50s—“real
Jetsons
stuff.” Bob has taught the family mutt, Spot, to do the Twist. Bob works in advertising, “like Darren on
Bewitched
.”

In other words, by the 1990s, a generation after the first widespread outbreaks, nostalgia and cultural recycling were fully industrialized. Hollywood never used to remake old TV shows, let alone produce feature films based on them. Most Broadway musicals would now be revivals or a kind of reproduction pseudo-revival that stitched together old songs—
jukebox musicals,
even the name was from an obsolete old-timey machine. The one genuinely new pop cultural genre, hip-hop, made an explicit, unapologetic point of quoting old songs. Science fiction, the cultural genre that is all about imagining the future, got a new subgenre in the 1990s that was considered supercool because it was set in the past—steampunk. And commercialized futurism also became oddly familiar and nostalgic. Apple devices of the twenty-first century and glassy, supersleek Apple stores feel “contemporary” in the sense that they’re like props and back-on-Earth sets from
2001: A Space Odyssey,
the 2000s as they were envisioned in the ’60s, the moment before nostalgia took over everything.

The nostalgia division of the fantasy-industrial complex began merchandising in precincts beyond entertainment, from fake-old cars like Miatas and PT Cruisers to retail chains like Restoration Hardware selling stylish fake-old things. “Lurking in our collective unconscious, among images of Ike, Donna Reed, and George Bailey,” the promotional video for Restoration Hardware’s initial public offering of stock in 1998 explained to investors, “is the very clear sense that things were once better made, that they mattered a little more.”

Americans were finally so immersed in nostalgia, they stopped registering it as nostalgia. The frequency of the word
nostalgia
in American books steadily increased during the twentieth century, spiked in the late 1980s, then peaked and began a steep decline in 1999. A century ago engines made horses economically useless in the United States and reduced their number by 90 percent. But nostalgia (and wealth) have caused their remarkable comeback: since the 1990s, America’s horse population has doubled to 10 million, growing faster than anywhere else on Earth.

The Bob and Betty hipsters who brought back vinyl records at the turn of this century consider it an act of authenticity and audiophilia, not
nostalgia,
God forbid. From 1980 to the early 2000s, annual vinyl album sales decreased by 99.7 percent to just a few hundred thousand. But these days they’re selling 20 million a year, a sixth of all albums sold—two per American horse. It’s a nostalgic medium for nostalgic music: in 2018 nine of the top-ten vinyl albums consisted of pop songs from ten, thirty, or fifty years earlier. The term
reboot,
borrowed from digital technology, replaced
remake
and
revival
to disguise the fact that stylish young people were now indulging in what used to be the exclusive pastime of uncool old people.

Toward the end of the 1990s, I had my very first inkling that we were entering the curious next phase of cultural time-warping. After the big shift to feasting on the reassuringly familiar
past,
the arts and entertainment and design now seemed to be shutting down production of almost anything that was truly, startlingly
new,
that might usefully nudge us into some uncharted, unknowable
future
. Stasis had begun.

In an article in
The New Yorker
about a show of the late Keith Haring’s work, I wrote that the exhibit might
seem
to be heralding “an eighties revival”—because an artist who typified the previous decade was getting a retrospective at “the Whitney Museum, an ur-eighties cultural institution.” However, I concluded by suggesting that in fact, we weren’t experiencing “an eighties ‘
revival,
’ ” but rather that the supposedly quieter, compassionate “early nineties were just a hiatus” and that in fact,
“the eighties never ended.”

I was half-joking, but from then on I occasionally noticed signs that the 1980s, unlike previous decades, were just…continuing. I’d lived through several American decades—the 1950s, ’60s, ’70s, and ’80s—and each of those earlier ones, like the ones before I was alive, had its highly distinct cultural character, identifiable as a stereotype even before it was finished. In that
New Yorker
article in 1997, I’d defined the character of the American 1980s as “manic, moneyed, celebrity-obsessed, shameless.” None of that really changed in the 1990s or in the 2000s or in the 2010s.

Yes, of course, the September 11, 2001, attacks and the financial and economic meltdown of 2008 were traumatizing, and right after each, I thought obviously
this
will finally change
everything,
and that I’d finally have to stop pointing out to family and friends every new bit of evidence that the 1980s never ended. Instead, immediately after 9/11, the president instructed us all to
shop
and to have fun as if nothing had happened, get over it, which we quickly did; apart from airport security and a disastrous war and a new focus for bigotry, the main lasting result was to amplify the overcompensating
“USA! USA!”
belligerence that had swelled up in the 1980s. In 2009 I imagined that the near-death economic experience of the crash and recession might scare us straight, prompt us to reform the reckless laissez-faire casino economy, as our forebears did after the Roaring ’20s. I even published a hopeful little manifesto to that effect. But no, instead we were like a nation of Wile E. Coyotes: having sped off a cliff into midair after the 1980s, looking down for a reality check, and plummeting to Earth in 2008, we then returned to crazed business as usual on Wall Street, which continued to dominate the economy. Not much really changed.

Sure, technology was changing everyday life around the edges, at least for the first decade of the new century—the Internet scaled, and new world-changing devices (iPod, iPhone, Kindle) and platforms (Netflix, iTunes, Facebook, YouTube, Spotify, Twitter, Grindr) appeared. But the digital revolution had very clearly
started
in the 1980s, when every yuppie bought a personal computer, and many of us, by means of CompuServe or the WELL, got on the Internet, and some early adopters even had mobile phones. When Pixar’s short
Luxo Jr.
appeared in 1986, I realized I was seeing the future of movies. And by the mid-1990s, when we’d all seen
Toy Story
and had cellphones and a browsable, searchable Web, on which we were buying books on Amazon and cool
old
things on eBay, the digital revolution was a done deal.

Around the time I first read one of my novels as an e-book and looked forward to buying my first iPhone, I had that wrinkle-in-time epiphany I mentioned in the introduction—how after three decades marinating in nostalgia, something even weirder had happened to Americans and American culture. Reading the
Times
one morning in 2007, I came across the revelatory photograph in an article about Ian Schrager and Steve Rubell, the supreme New York discotheque impresarios who then became inventors of the boutique hotel. The picture was from twenty-two years earlier, 1985, when they’d posed with some of the young staff at Morgans, their cool old-fashioned-but-cutting-edge Manhattan prototype.

Schrager’s collarless dress shirt looked somewhat retro, but I was otherwise struck by the fact that none of the dozen people in this very old picture appeared obviously, amusingly
dated,
not their clothes, not their hairstyles, not the women’s makeup. If any of them had walked by me on the street that afternoon, I wouldn’t have given him or her a second look. They could’ve all passed for contemporary people. Which as I thought about it seemed very weird, particularly given that they were all professionally required to appear cool and au courant—and weren’t short shelf lives intrinsic to fashion and style?

I kept thinking about it. I imagined the stylistic changes that would have appeared over any comparable chunk of historical time. Suppose in 1997 I’d looked at a similar photo taken in 1975, or watched a 1970s movie or TV show…the jangly music, the luxuriant sideburns and hair, the bell-bottoms and leisure suits, the cigarettes and avocado-colored refrigerators and AMC Matadors and Gremlins—everything and everyone would have looked so different, so dated. Or if back in 1975 I’d looked at images or shows or movies from twenty-two years before then, 1953, before rock and roll and Vietnam and the Pill, when both sexes wore hats, and only women had long hair, and no adult wore jeans or sneakers in public, and cars were massive and bulbous; again, unmistakably different. Rewind back another generation, from 1953 to 1931, absolutely distinct looks and style…and again, 1931 versus 1909, ditto. A man or woman on the street dressed and groomed in the characteristic manner of somebody from twenty-two years earlier would look very odd. A twenty-two-year-old car always looked
old
.

BOOK: Evil Geniuses: The Unmaking of America: A Recent History
9.77Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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