LETS TALK ABOUT: THE 2000S!
BY TED POLHEMUS
While the ‘90s had been a decade in which technology changed everything, the ‘Noughties’ as some called them would be a decade when not new technology but rather the uses to which it was put(Web2.0, ‘consumer generated media’) would spark an unexpected and unprecedented revolution.
But above and beyond even this, this has been a decade which, at least so far, has been dominated by political, military and economic events. The American elections of 2000 saw the world’s only remaining ‘superpower’ shift markedly to the right – almost enough to give George W. Bush enough votes to grasp the White House. When the counting of the votes in too-close-to-call Florida looked like carrying on indefinitely (or, some said, when it looked all too like Gore would win) the American Supreme Court stepped in and announced that the son of the previous President Bush would become the 43rd President. Congress was also now in the hands of the Republicans. Soon tax cuts and a further de-regulation of financial institutions as begun under Ronald Reagan (and, it should be said, continued under the Democratic President Clinton) would pull back on the throttle so that the rich could get really rich and, it was argued, wealth would ‘trickle down’ to the less than rich. That was the theory.
However, despite this, ‘W’ wasn’t proving all that popular. Then came 9/11 which would have been shocking anywhere but was particularly so in a country which (with the single exception of Pearl Harbour) had not been attacked on its own soil in the world wars. Arguably doing exactly as Bin Laden had hoped, Bush’s indiscriminate ‘War On Terror’ drove a wedge between America and its allies and the Islamic Fundamentalists’ real enemy, moderate Muslims throughout the world. Although specifically seeking to show that America was too tough to tangle with, once bogged down in old-fashioned urban gorilla combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, as in Vietnam, what the world saw instead was the limitations and impotence of even a superpower when it fails to win hearts and minds.
Meanwhile, even as America’s house prices and the Dow Jones reached new, dizzying heights, limitations on the world’s supplies of oil and other vital natural resources, the successful introduction of the Euro and the phenomenal growth of China and other ‘developing’ nations began to cast a shadow over the undisputed supremacy of the American economy. And then the bottom fell out as the risks which had been taken with the US ‘subprime’ housing market became all too evident and the extent to which these dodgy dealings had infected the entire American – and then the world – financial system became a nightmare. In the process, George W. Bush’s standing crashed even further than the Dow Jones and, as had happened in the ‘30s, a Democrat was elected in the hope that he would bring back the ‘Happy Days’ which the Republicans and ‘Greed is good’ economics had put at risk.
The fact that the swing of the pendulum back (a bit) to the left also saw the election of America’s first Afro-American President would seem to suggest that nothing which has so far happened in the 00s could match the significance of events in politics, economics and international relations. Perhaps, but if one takes a really long view it is just possible that the present decade will come to occupy a very special place in history because of a unique cultural revolution - the true significance of which has not yet fully been appreciated in our own time.
For centuries the rise of ‘civilization’ has entailed the parallel rise ofspecialist professionals who create and critique the arts, learning and entertainment – all of which were seen as beyond the capacities of and in need of mediation to the mass of ‘ordinary’ people. In the early days of the World Wide Web in the ‘90s it seemed that this extraordinary technological development would facilitate and extend – but not fundamentally interfere with – this ancient relationship between professional writers, film-makers, artists, political commentators, entertainers, academics, etc. and the great unwashed, the ‘ordinary’ people who, together, constitute the masses and the public. (In point of fact, if anyone had looked carefully at the new breed of Internet porn websites which emerged from the mid ‘90s onwards, they might have noticed that, in amongst the old school, originally print-based pornographers, were a bunch of kinky amateurs who, typically with very little money, filmed and photographed in their living rooms the bondage, foot fetishism, rubber fashion or whatever which they themselves got off on. Arguably, such early ‘narrowcast’, amateur porn websites (many of which would go on to make big bucks) might have been seen as indicative of what was to come more broadly in Web2.0).
While slow to realize the import of what was going on, the traditional media and its professional analysts did finally grasp the nettle whenTime magazine announced that its ‘Person of the Year’ would be none other than ‘You’. Joe and Jane Doe who, no longer satisfied to be passive input receptors of information, entertainment and ideas, decided to output their own information, entertainment and ideas. Suddenly that centuries old barrier between the ‘professional’ and the masses was under threat and, as many saw it, no longer needed. Some called it ‘Web2.0’; some called it ‘CGM’ (consumer generated media).
What qualifications does one need to write a blog? Answer: None – all you need is enough interest in what you’re writing about to keep at it. Whether in politics or porn, cooking or comedy, suddenly the barriers were down and absolutely anyone who wanted to could give it a go. Of course that didn’t mean that anyone would necessarily be interested in seeing what you’d done – but, perhaps the most curious thing about our current decade is that people have been having a look and even downloading things which old school media or entertainment gurus would have never in a million years have considered of interest to anyone. So the real revolution is perhaps that, at least in theory and things are certainly moving this way, a whole strata of editors, producers and so forth have been pushed aside so that people themselves decide what they want.
Naturally, as one would expect, there has been a loud chorus of complaint and caution from the professionals who, perhaps, will find themselves on the outside looking in. This has in particular been the case with regard to what is arguably the most audacious Web2.0 project of all, Wikipedia. For hundreds of years previously encyclopaedias had been written by academics and long-established experts in their respective fields. How can quality control be maintained with all sorts of people – including unaccredited amateur enthusiasts – having a go? Obviously there are legitimate concerns about this problem (and the fact that facts, even if absolutely accurate, do not in and of themselves add up to a cohesive, thought-provoking analysis) but there has also dawned the long over-due realisation that the old system of accredited experts often failed to get it right and – with no one to dare challenge them or their ideas – kept on failing to get it right year after year after year. As the 2008 American election with its competing armies of bloggers demonstrated, Web2.0 has in many ways a greater capacity to question assertions and identify falsehoods than the old ‘expert’ media.
And as with facts and ideas, so too with music, art and style: today everyone can have a go. The effects in what used to be called ‘fashion’ (but which in the 21st century is more accurately described as ‘style’) are particularly striking. Across the globe photographers are going out on the streets of their own city and photographing stylistically interesting looking people and then posting them on websites likethesartorialist.com (which focuses primarily on New York City),facehunter.blogspot.com, streetstyleaesthetic.com (London),streetfancy.com (San Francisco) or hel-looks.com (Helsinki). Indeed, there are already hundreds of such street photography sites covering hundreds of different cities and countries. Immediately we see just how global 21st century style has become and, equally, how the old ‘trickle down’ approach to fashion (in which new ‘directions’ started life on the most exclusive Parisian catwalks and then trickled down to us plebs) is being overthrown by a ‘bubble up’ approach whereby new looks (lots of them!) may be initiated by creative, adventurous amateurs as well as industry professionals. Nor is this creative consumption revolution to be seen only on the Internet: increasingly the print media is featuring ‘real’ people who, though not fashion industry professionals, have exciting new style ideas to contribute.
And so it has come to pass that (once discredited, suspect and downright dodgy) streetstyle has arguably elbowed aside its more upmarket relative, fashion. Yes – not that the ‘fashion industry’ is likely to change its name any time soon. But let us note that this 21st century bubble up from the street style creativity has a very important difference from its 20th century predecessor: namely, while once streetstyle was formed from strong, easily delineated subcultural groups – Beats, Bikers, Mods, Rockers, Punks, Goths, etc. – today’s streetstyle is a celebration of unbridled individuality. Tom Wolfe once labelled the ‘80s as the ‘me decade’. Arguably it was in that decade that this marked shift away from ‘tribal’ groups and towards individuality first began but it is clearly today in the 21st century that we see the full effect of this engine of difference. Or as Time magazine would have it, it’s not about me, it’s you, you, you and, yes, you too.
What was once ‘fashion’ is in the 21st century more accurately described as ‘style’: there is no specific ‘direction’ which all will follow, no over-riding presumption that new looks must replace the classics and new style ideas are now as likely to ‘bubble up’ from street level and sports as to ‘trickle down’ from High Fashion. The relationship between appearance style and popular music is extremely close – with pop stars increasingly important as style models and new visual ideas swinging between the stage and the catwalk. Brands continue to predominate – especially in the case of ‘idea brands’ which are as much about what the choice of brand has to ‘say’ about the wearer as it does with aesthetics. While once all new looks came from Paris (then, in the ‘60s, also London, Milan and New York) today’s new looks come from absolutely anywhere and everywhere in the
While the media gets all excited about ‘Chavs’ and ‘Emos’ and any other new ‘cult’ which can be spotted (if not invented), the truth is that subcultural identity and allegiance like that found amongst, for example, Mods and Rockers in the ‘60s is hard to find in the 21st century. Especially hard to find in America and UK – the two countries from which the great subcultures of the 20th century sprang. Even in Japan where so many exciting (mostly female) groups like the Ganguro Girls, Manba and Gothloli blossomed at the end of the last century, one now sees – as throughout the world – a shift towards unique, unclassifiable individual identity.