The End of Culture?


In 2006, Adam Sternbergh wrote a memorable and snarky piece in New York magazine, “Up With Grups“, disparaging “40-year-old men and women who look, talk, act, and dress like people who are 22 years old”:

“This is an obituary for the generation gap. … It’s not about a fad but about a phenomenon that looks to be permanent. It’s about the hedge-fund guy in Park Slope with the chunky square glasses, brown rock T-shirt, slight paunch, expensive jeans, Puma sneakers, and shoulder-slung messenger bag, with two kids squirming over his lap like itchy chimps at the Tea Lounge on Sunday morning. It’s about the mom in the low-slung Sevens and ankle boots and vaguely Berlin-art-scene blouse with the $800 stroller and the TV-screen-size Olsen-twins sunglasses perched on her head walking through Bryant Park listening to Death Cab for Cutie on her Nano.”

But, while there are certainly some ‘grown-ups’ whose undying affectation of youth culture comes from some pitiful Peter Pan complex, I think the explanation often has more to do with this phenomenon. As Kurt Anderson observed recently in Vanity Fair, popular culture simply may not have changed that much in the past twenty years or so:

“Think about it. Picture it. Rewind any other 20-year chunk of 20th-century time. There’s no chance you would mistake a photograph or movie of Americans or an American city from 1972—giant sideburns, collars, and bell-bottoms, leisure suits and cigarettes, AMC Javelins and Matadors and Gremlins alongside Dodge Demons, Swingers, Plymouth Dusters, and Scamps—with images from 1992. Time-travel back another 20 years, before rock ’n’ roll and the Pill and Vietnam, when both sexes wore hats and cars were big and bulbous with late-moderne fenders and fins—again, unmistakably different, 1952 from 1972. You can keep doing it and see that the characteristic surfaces and sounds of each historical moment are absolutely distinct from those of 20 years earlier or later: the clothes, the hair, the cars, the advertising—all of it. It’s even true of the 19th century: practically no respectable American man wore a beard before the 1850s, for instance, but beards were almost obligatory in the 1870s, and then disappeared again by 1900. The modern sensibility has been defined by brief stylistic shelf lives, our minds trained to register the recent past as old-fashioned.” (via kottke)

It seems to me that this isn’t across the board, of course. Music and casual dress seem to have changed less than, for instance, literary style, cuisine, automobile design, or film, off the top of my head. It is no accident that Sternbergh focuses mostly on what his so-called ‘grups’ wear and listen to.

2 thoughts on “The End of Culture?

  1. I find it difficult to find clothing styles that are not geared to teens and twenty-somethings. I’ve heard that products are mostly marketed to capture them as they have the most disposable income. Not sure if that’s factual. But it is frustrating to go to clothing store after clothing store and find most styles are for that age group, especially stores that are on the mid to lower end of the price range.


  2. Yeah, and advertisers continue to hound the 18-35 age range even though those over 50 spend way more money (and have just as malleable preferences, etc.). Part of it is that they feel that group is the taste-setters that others will follow, and part of it is that advertising creators, fashion designers, and buyers for retail stores all tend to be very young…

    But seriously, you think that car styles have changed a ton in the last 20 years? I think they became… lozenges in the 1990s and never went back. I basically can’t tell a late model car from one that’s long in the tooth, except for the slight increase in hybrids and the recent entry of SmartCars, etc. SUVs showed up in that 15-20-years-ago era too. Would also be curious to know what you think has made film much different, style-wise (not, say, 3D technology) from 1992; again, I don’t really see it, except for a continuation of the gradual 50-year evolution toward faster pacing and assuming a savvier audience.

    Part of what makes fashion seem to be changing more slowly is that the originally slow mode of “reimagining” fashions from previous decades sped up to such a rate that everything is pretty much present simultaneously right now (flared pants and skinny jeans, hipster drab and techno-funky, fuzzy sweaters and guaged ears) such that real discontinuous innovation would be hard to pick out without a crazy change to something like spacesuits. Also (or because of that?) tastes have fragmented to such a degree that I can’t really see a universally recognized new Style sweeping the country — some would love, some hate outright, blah blah. Rejecting the norm is a well established norm, to several levels of self-aware iteration…


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