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The Decline in American Popular Culture: 1990’s to Present

Posted by LoneWolf , 19 July 2013 · 4,583 views

Although the phrase is a well-worn cliché, things just aren’t the way they used to be. This could be described as a matter of opinion, but through use of statistical evidence based on all forms of entertainment media it is possible to trace a decline in the quality, originality and audience reception in four main forms of American entertainment; movies, television, video-games and music.

Our most artistic and groundbreaking ideas seemed to have burned brightly in the late 1980’s through the end of the 1990’s, spawning entire new genres (such as the lavishly detailed period piece film, e.g. Dances with Wolves, Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Legends of The Fall, etc…) and setting the mold for what had once been an avalanche of world-wide entertainment which has now devolved into tired trends. Certain milestones seem to have been set in this decade. In fact the roots of most patterns of scripting seemed to have their origins clustered in a span of a few short years. The reasons for this decline and our apathy towards our current crop of visual and audio sensations can be blamed on several factors. Among them are corporate greed, undiscerning and oblivious consumers, the finite number of actual workable plots of musical patterns and last but not least, a new form of media itself born in this fertile decade – The Internet. The points that shall be proven are the fact that a majority of high-grossing features are derivative of successful archetypes from the late 80’s to late 90’s, and that equivalent sales (remember the price difference due to inflation is large from the 20 year time difference) and ratings have dropped.

One of the most significant events to have occurred was the creation of the cross-over between the previously limited mixing of the music and television media forms in the aptly named Music Television (MTV). With it came the simultaneous use of animation as a medium for expressing mature or dramatic themes, previously used only for children’s shows. The genre of Anime hit its heyday in this era as well with all the classics (Akira-1988, Ninja Scroll-1993, Ghost in the Shell-1996) running from late 80’s to late 90’s. The seminal and long-running animated sitcom The Simpsons was born in the early 90’s and has spawned several imitators. Likewise the mature-themed (but highly-immature) South Park brought its vulgar, low-brow laughs to those who would watch. It would be impossible to find an animated humor series that was not influenced to some degree by these series.

Generation-X as it was known also gave us the root of all supernatural drama series (Supernatural, Grimm); The X-Files. The musical and dramatic style, involving aliens, the supernatural and government cover-ups as they are explored in depth by the contrasted main characters (strictly rational Sculley and conspiratorial-minded Mulder) has been used time and time again. In the field of purely dramatic television we had the series E.R. in which George Clooney found his cinematic breakthrough. The spin-offs in this genre are also numerous (Nip/Tuck, Grey’s Anatomy, House, etc…). MTV brought us another pioneering television series, one that would become so prolific that it would change every genre of television and now bring stagnation and redundancy in the same way that the 70’s brought us Game-Shows; the series was The Real World. With it came what is now known as Reality Television, a dead-horse that studios cannot stop beating whether it is based in teen drama, martial arts, cooking, music or romantic nightlife.

The lifestyles of the young, hip and rich were brought to our attention with the dramatic series’ Melrose Place and Beverly Hills 90210, which have been expounded upon in similar Southern-California set shows as The Hills, The O.C., Laguna Beach and the NYC based Gossip Girl. Children’s cartoon pilot series were numerous in the 90’s (The DC and Marvel animated X-Men and Batman, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Sailor Moon, Dragonball Z and several of these live on today), in fact if one were to turn on the television on a Saturday morning, many of the features are between ten and twenty years old. Have the studios run out of ideas or are they going with what they know works?

According to an article by Yahoo News television viewers have plummeted since the 90’s. In 2011, 19.4 million viewers tuned in to the top-rated (based on number of viewers) sitcom “Two Broke Girls”; in 1997, 35 million viewers (nearly double those of the extremely similar modern equivalent) were watching the widely-dismissed sitcom, “Veronica’s Closet” (1). A show that would be cancelled due to lack of ratings such as the case of 1994’s My So Called Life which was cancelled with 9.8 million viewers, would now be considered a hit-show such as the modern New Girl whose mere 9.2 million viewers cemented its place as first pick in the 2011 FOX fall line-up. Compare this to the 41 million viewers for the “not-at-all special” (2) third-season of the odious and unfunny sitcom Home Improvement in 1994, the fan-base is a mere fraction. The hard, indisputable fact is that people are becoming less and less satisfied with television. Factor in the technological appeal of viewer-dispersing gadgets such as the DVR which eliminates the need to be anywhere at a certain time to catch your favorite episode, and we can see how television is a withered shell of its former glory.

Just as film shares the visual medium with television, it has also experienced a similar decline in quality, originality and viewership. It seems as though all the seeds were strewn in the late 80’s and flourished into crops of bountiful and flamboyant trend-setting works of art in the 90’s, finally once again following the agricultural analogy by withering into dried husks picked clean of all worth by the birds and scavengers. The exceptions to this are present, as far as pure dollar-value (Avatar, Avengers), but when inflation and the price of tickets are factored in, we will find that there is also a decline in this arena as well. In 1998 the film Saving Private Ryan sold 13.6% more tickets than 2011’s biggest hit Harry Potter and The Deathly Hallows, despite the 3,198,100,000 dollar gross sales increase in the latter (3). The true decline cannot necessarily be depicted in purely mathematical statistics, but rather in the much-harder-to-gauge global attitudes towards Hollywood’s latest fare.

I would like to start this topic by saying originality in Hollywood is like foresight in a teenager or profound verbal wisdom from a reality T.V. star – it is rare. Even though most films, like musicians, have stolen many ideas from their predecessors, we now live in an era characterized by mind-numbing repetition. Many genre-defining pieces came from the 90’s, arguable more than any other generation. The phenomenon of reboots and remakes in movies series are a nearly unique occurrence anchored in modern times. Let’s take a look at what I mean with a few examples of the progenitor/offspring relationship in cinema over the last two decades.

The Quentin Tarantino films Pulp Fiction and Reservoir Dogs dealt a stunning coup to the independent film world (as witnessed by Tarantino’s nomination to head the Sundance Film Festival committee as president). The mix of hard-boiled dialogue, black-humor, shocking violence and gritty realism was a recipe often repeated across the crime and action genres with so many offshoots it is truly difficult to name them all. The influence of the medieval saga of Scottish independence, Braveheart, can be seen in countless films whenever there is a depiction of two opposing armies being roused for battle with an epic “pre-game” speech (Lord of The Rings, 300, Troy, Kingdom of Heaven, Avatar, etc…).

The highest grossing film of the 90’s, the romantic tragedy Titanic with DiCaprio and Winslet, set a new precedence for historic tragedies being reinterpreted as star-crossed, fate-destined romances (Pearl Harbor is one blatant example). The chic Scream and Wild Things both had a hand in the developing of the now ubiquitous “hot-leads outweigh substantial-story” school of film-making. The high-grossing (for its time) Jurassic Park established certain queues that have now become cliché (derived respectively from the science-fiction adventures of Journey to the Center of the Earth and 20,000 Leagues under the Sea; and now seen in countless family-friendly action/adventures). Forrest Gump and Philadelphia brought political topics of the day into the spotlight with their respective themes of the mentally-handicapped (also explored in Rainman, to a less encompassing degree) and homosexuality and AIDS.

Toy Story heralded the onset of the now commonplace medium of computer-animated children’s tales and elevated Pixar to a media giant to rival Disney’s status in the 90’s (with their top-grossing Aladdin and the Lion King). Point Break and its offspring the pandering Fast and The Furious established the “outsider/newcomer to a trend-tie-in” (e.g. Never Back Down). The “Gangsta” parody Don’t Be a Menace to South Central While Drinkin’ Yo Juice in The Hood (the name comprised of all films being parodied) began the trend that has led us to such dismal displays as Scary Movie and Teen Movie.

A major trendsetter was 1996’s Independence Day which has inspired the “American Military fights city-destroying Extraterrestrial menace” sub-genre containing films from Battleship, Transformers, Battle of L.A. and Avengers (also a Superhero genre mainstay) among others. The Matrix brought us computer generated “bullet-time” action sequences, which now won’t raise an eyebrow due to their overuse. The Blair Witch Project brought us the “found-footage” (and 1st person horror) genre which has been taken to its limits in Contagion, Day of The Dead, Paranormal Activity, ad nauseam.

The current “plot gold-mine” for Hollywood is the translation of a previously untapped script source with a conveniently built-in fan base; comic-books. Starting with 1989’s Batman starring Jack Nicholson and Michael Keaton (based on 1986’s graphic novel The Dark Knight Returns, a source of inspiration for the newer Batman reboot series as well) the super-hero craze was set in motion. It sputtered through some mediocre moments with Blade, Spawn and the Joel Schumacher Batman travesties, before catching fire with Sin City, 300, Iron Man, Spider-Man and X-Men. Marvel had strongly taken the lead as far as most popular film source-universe by the mid 2000’s. DC was barely keeping their head above water with the exception of Christopher Nolan’s Dark Knight reboots. The X-Men, Spiderman and Punisher all received reboots to their story lines after one or more flops made the prospects of continuing in a single unbroken continuity unfeasible. In order to retain certain movie-making rights, studios were pressed for time to throw together a lack-luster slap-dash feature, or else be forced to relinquish the trademark rights.

In 2013, a record 31 sequels and 17 reboots will be shown on the big-screen (4). Originality has been disposed of in favor of sure-fire sequels or stories that have established fan-bases and the coveted “name recognition” so prevalent in the iconography of the corporate world. Studios are no longer willing to take risks on unknown names as they were in the 90’s, today box office numbers mean far more than a breath of fresh air in the stagnating stew of spin-offs and sequels.
Several archetypes for successful music models were generated in the creative frenzy of the 90’s. Techno (with its roots in Industrial of the 80’s), Gangsta Rap (derived from just plain old hip-hop, also in the 80’s) and Extreme Metal (bringing the angst of Korn, Marilyn Manson and Linkin Park to young audiences) all made their first appearances into the musical scene in the 90’s. Hardcore, the illegitimate child of Extreme Metal includes the aurally-anguishing As I Lay Dying, and is now enjoying a popularity surge which is in fact based on underground bands from the past two decades, such as AFI and Sepultura.

The popularity of music itself never diminishes. Therefore the only measure of progression and regression can be found in artist popularity based on tour ticket sales (since album sales fluctuate too much from piracy, peaking trends, use in film soundtracks, etc…). I will show how major rock tours have become all but extinct and how rap faces a similar slide from its plateau of yesterday into modern irrelevance.

Only one band in 2010 was able to sell over one-million total tickets for their world tour; the rock pioneers AC DC (5). Compare this number for an entire world tour, with the numbers from Metallica’s *single* performance in which they played to 1.6 million fans in 1991 for Monsters of Rock Tour, in Moscow's Tushino Airfield (6). The fact is that there is no new “next big thing” in music, no amazing band “you just have to hear” to sell tickets and fill arenas. Look at a list of the top five tours and then compare that with the year in which that band experienced their highest album sales (i.e. peak of popularity). Is the reason for this massive decline in new bands to replace the aging classic due to record-industry difficulties, illegal down-loading or does it stem something far more bleak – has the pool of ideas has run dry? Has every musical pattern and every emotion that is possible to convey to an audience through the medium of sound already been exhausted? It could be. What are we to do about it? Forget the old and reuse what they have done once it been erased from memory seems to be the only solution.

The fledgling interactive entertainment industry is not in danger of any kind of financial decline, however it is my intent to show that I believe this will come after the precursor occurs; a decline in originality. Upon inception, there were no real genres of video-games - each game was different with a few common characteristics. Save points, levels, difficulty setting and point-of-view (overhead or side-scrolling). With technological advances in the 90’s came the true innovators of the genre. Doom and Wolfenstein 3D created the 1st person shooter, which has now become the template for a majority of all games produced (e.g. the best-selling Halo, Call of Duty, Battlefield, Half-Life and Gears of War series).

The open-world role-playing game, derived from the 1970’s pen and paper phenomenon, Dungeons and Dragons, was established with the Dragon Quest, Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy series. During this same period the 2D fighter was born with such classic titles as Street Fighter and Mortal Kombat (also starting respective film franchises, both terrible). New genres of games were exploding left and right in a flood, which the teen consumers were eagerly lapping up as fast as they could. Duck Hunt started the light-gun arcade-style shooter with later titles such as House of the Dead. Grand Theft Auto began the open-world exploration saga. Blizzard Entertainment’s Warcraft and Starcraft titles began the city-building real-time strategy, while Maxis’ SimCity allowed players to act as a deity over their own developing metropolis.

Blizzard’s Diablo started the eponymous “diablo-style” dungeon-crawler RPG, which has grown and merged with the company’s own Warcraft to become the bane of the socially challenged with World of Warcraft. Sales of the refined templates derived from these early models have continued to increase year after year. The only decline that can be seen is in that of new games with original ideas. Like that of Hollywood, the pool has run dry and the competition is between virtual clones of each other. For proof of this one need look no further than all-time sales of games on the top modern platform - The Xbox 360. The top 15 include Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 3 with 14.23 million units sold, Call of Duty: Black Ops with 13.39 million, Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 with 12.81 million, Halo 3 with 11.54 million, Halo: Reach with 9.06 million, Battlefield 3 with 6.06 million and Gears of War with 5.95 million (7); these are ALL the same genre of game – First-person shooter! Moreover they are all first-person shooters with the player assuming the role of a military-style protagonist fighting one of two varieties of adversary; hostile alien invader or nefarious terrorist soldiers. Contrast this ubiquitous theme with that of the recent wave of “U.S. Military fights city-destroying alien invaders” genre and you can see that this tired plot seems to be the only thing going as far as scripts from the big screen to the home console.

Once a society has the food, the resources, the infrastructure, the jobs, the housing and the education to fulfill all the needs of the populace, what then do they turn their energies of creation toward? Quite simply it is the same from high-tech Tokyo to the ancient arenas of Rome. The people must be entertained. Does this decline in our entertainment prophesize an eventual fall of the American empire? That I cannot say, only that in the last twenty years it is undeniable that we have fallen far below what was indisputably our most significant decade in the creation of entertainment – The 1990’s. These years were our best and brightest, when the whole world was in awe and America was bestowed its larger-than-life instant pop-culture recognition. How long will they continue to see us in this light? With recent and unpopular foreign wars giving us bad press and showing us as an oppressor or “world cop” and the ostensibly obvious deteriorating quality of our entertainment, how long will it be before the rest of the world “changes the channel” on America as if we were just a re-run of last week’s show?




December 2017

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