What were the Oughties? What are the Teens?
One of my old mind game compadres once devised an intriguing ‘wave’ theory of American popular music. In his system, the main thrust of American popular song moved through a cycle of three decades; the cycle began with a decade of folksong-based protest music, continued with a decade of romantic ballads, and concluded with a decade devoted to novelty songs which featured goofy sounds and rhythms. And his system worked handsomely between the 1910’s and 1990’s. When I saw him last, I asked him whether he had fit the oughties into his scheme, or if indeed he had found a dominant pattern there at all. No, he said, to both, and neither had I. For good measure, he mentioned that he had taken an internet quiz wherein he was assigned to name the top twenty songs from a few years back, and he had gotten exactly one correct. I probably couldn’t even do that, though I’d like to think that I could do a lot better on, say, 1970.
Then again we had a little game where we assigned each decade a trademark city, and that worked as well, though he held out for Los Angeles for the 1950’s whilst I said it was New York. But, yes, the forties were Washington, the twenties Chicago, the nineties Seattle and so on. But, again, we never could pin down the oughties; we made a try for Portland based on the fact that there were a couple of TeeVee shows set there, but it was half-hearted: we couldn’t think of a band from there or a sports championship going there. Clearly we’re well on our way to experiencing a century with featureless decades.
I suppose I should have seen it coming; each decade of my life became a little less distinct. The fifties were, of course, suburban conformity, though I didn’t spend them in a suburb and my parents were not the most pliant conformists. The sixties quickly got filed under ‘peace and love’ with a dollop of political activism—though some spoilsport was always ready to point out that more than half of those sixties took place in the seventies. As for the seventies, things got a bit hazier, but they seemed to be sort of like the sixties except that nobody thought that stuff was so great any more, and some of the activism was elbowed out by political scandal. Then the eighties, the ‘Greed is Good” decade, and it seemed like the pigeonholed decade was back to stay.
People always had trouble with the nineties, though, and I could see it coming. There was the infancy of online culture, alterna-pop, and a flamboyant president, but none of that quite added up to a stereotype. Cable’s VH1, which was then a music channel, had presented series on the seventies and eighties which were popular enough to be shown marathon-style every holiday weekend. Their nineties series was awful, and I’m not sure that it was ever shown twice. Perhaps someday there will be a series about the years of the noughties, but are each year’s new smartphone or video game controllers going to be a source of wide-eyed nostalgia and fascinationin future years? That’s hard for me to see.
Humorist Jim Mullen once commented that for someone who had grown up on TeeVee and movies depicting an episode from WWII’s Battle of the Bulge where the Wehrmacht had infiltrated Allied lines with imposter GIs, reducing security personnel to asking pop culture trivia such as “Who won the 1941 World Series?” to find the imposters, the idea of having to answer those sorts of questions now was pretty scary. His punchline was that he couldn’t tell you who won the World Series three years ago, and he’d watched it. Things happen, and then recede instantly. And maybe that’s what this decade’s about after all.