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Has Pop Culture Stopped? Or Are Pop Culture Writers Getting Too Old?



Has pop culture stopped? Is Lady Gaga Cher and Madonna in disguise? Is Cee Lo Motown without swearing? James Parker thinks so. In a recent article for The Atlantic, Parker describes how pop culture – pop music in particular – seems to be more about the past than the present. Along the way he endorses the thesis of British music critic Simon Reynolds’ new book Retromania, which asks: “Could it be that the greatest danger to the future of our music culture is the past?”

Along similar lines, Kurt Anderson, in an upcoming article for Vanity Fair, believes that “fashion, art, music, design, entertainment” have changed less in the last 20 years that any other twenty year period in memory. As he explains, “anyone can instantly identify a 50s movie (On the Waterfront, The Bridge on the River Kwai) versus one from 20 years before (Grand Hotel, It Happened One Night) or 20 years after (Klute, A Clockwork Orange).” But what about a movie from the 1990 versus the 2010? Likewise with music. Just think about the difference between Duke Ellington (1932), Buddy Holly (1950s) and The Bee Gees (1970s); could you “spot the big, obvious, defining differences between 2012 and 1992?” Anderson asks. Like Parker, he believes that “Lady Gaga has replaced Madonna, Adele has replaced Mariah Carey [and] both [are] distinctions without a real difference.”

So, is it true? Has pop culture stopped? Let’s look at some psychological data before we answer this question. In particular, I want to describe what psychologists call the “reminiscence bump.” The reminiscence bump is the tendency for older adults (+35) to have a disproportionate amount of autobiographic memories – memories of events – from their adolescence and early adulthood. That autobiographic memories are not equally distributed across a life time is a well established finding in psychology and it is of significant interest to psychologists who study how personality and identity are formed over a lifetime.

Wikipedia Commons

Explanations for the reminiscence bump vary. In a 2008 paper Clare J. Rathbone et al explain that “one broadly cogntive theory is that this period is permeated by novel experiences and that it is this novelty preserved in memory in some way, that ensures their enduring memorability… [but other findings] show that of the experiences recalled from the period of the reminiscence bump, only a small proportion are of novel events.” Her paper suggests that “an explanation of the reminiscence bump is the grounding of an individual’s self… times of identity formation are central to reminiscence bump formation.” It is likely some combination of both theories; the reminiscence bump forms from experiences that are novel and contribute to identity.

(Also, it’s difficult to tell if people form their memories when they do because there is a genuine change in their brain plasticity or because their lives get busier (i.e., careers, kids etc) shortly after this “critical period.”)

The reminiscence bump not only reflects when most of our memories come from, but it illustrates when most of our preferences are formed. Here’s one example. A recent paper from Steve M. J. Janssen, David C. Rubin and Martin A. Conway, which was highlighted on the always insightful BPS Research Digest blog, demonstrates that participants tend to have a bias towards athletes (football/soccer players in this case) who played during the participants’ young adult life. Here is what BPS says:

Six hundred and nineteen people (aged 16 to 80) took part in the study online, conducted in Dutch and hosted on the website of the University of Amsterdam. Participants were presented with the names of 190 all-time leading football players and asked to name their judgment of the five best players of all time. They could either select from the list or choose their own.

The researchers calculated the mid-career point of the 172 players named by the participants and compared this against the participants’ age at that time. Participants overwhelmingly tended to name players whose career mid-point coincided with participants’ teens and early twenties. The modal age (i.e. the most common) of the participants at their chosen players’ mid-career was 17 years.

In terms of sports, our preferences are formed around the same time our reminiscence bumps peak.  This is also true in terms of music, and this is exactly what a study done by Adrian North and David Hargreaves suggests. North and Hargreaves wanted to know how people developed their music preferences. To do this they gathered 275 participants between the ages of 9 and 50+ and gave them a list of 200 pop music artists who had a #1 single in the UK between 1955 and 1994. Next, they asked the participants to select up to 30 eminent artists, which they defined as “those who in your own personal opinion have performed music that most deserves to be called to the attention of others.”

The first thing they found is that there is a significant amount of agreement on what constitutes good taste within pop music. This means that while nay sayers certainly exist, most people would agree that bands like The Beatles and the Rolling Stones and singers like Bob Dylan are in fact, “good.” But they also found a strong correlation between the age of the participants and the period of time their favorite artists existed. In other words, people tend to like music that they grew up with more than music their parents grew up with. Surprise, surprise. Why? North and Hargreaves hypothesized that this pattern exists because there is a “critical period in the determination of musical taste that occurs in late adulthood and early adolescence.” Like our favorite footballers, our music preferences are strongly influenced by what and who was popular during our late teens and early twenties, which, not coincidently, corresponds to the reminiscence bump.

Back to Parker, Reynolds and Andersen. What I am suggesting is not that these authors are wrong – who really knows if pop culture has “stopped” or not – but rather that their arguments are post-hoc justifications that stem from preferences that formed during the eras they grew up in. To be fair, Parker is somewhat conscious of this: “We might of course be old farts” he says, “…with old-fart ears and old-fart memories, freaked out by the world that is blossoming at our old-fart fingertips. It may be that to complain… of feeling ‘splayed and stuffed’ when you go online is merely to say: Yes, I am middle-aged.” I am also. I frankly have no idea what these authors are talking about, but I am well aware that me being 23 might have something to do with it.

So to really get a sense of where these guys are coming from – aesthetically and chronologically – I created a graph that plots the authors’ reminiscence bump over the last 60 years. The graph shows when most of their memories were stored and, given the correlation between preference forming and the reminiscence bump, when their favorite pop culture trends formed.

(Year of Birth: Andersen – 1954, Reynolds 1963, Parker, 1968)

What can we deduce? Recall that Andersen, in his Vanity Fair article, claimed that pop culture has experienced less change in the last twenty years than any other twenty year period. Notice where Andersen’s reminiscence curve hits rock bottom – 1990, just over twenty years ago, right around the time he was least prone to form new preferences.

Reynolds shows a similar pattern. In his book Retromania, he argues that, “instead of being about itself, the 2000s has been about every other previous decade happening at once.” Again, notice that Reynolds was least likely to form new preferences in 1998, just before the first decade of the 21st century, which he says is the ‘Re’ Decade: revivals, reissues, remakes and reenactments. Parker, a slightly younger Reynolds, jumps on the same bandwagon.

There is clearly something to be said about Parker, Renolds, and Andersen’s arguments in context of psychological literature which clearly shows a connection between our age and preferences. I am not sure if what I’ve said undermines their arguments, but it does shine a new light on their perspectives. I think it is not a coincidence that all of these authors are over forty years old. Would someone in their young twenties ever make the same arguments? If nothing else, I think Parker is right: our pop culture writers are old farts.

  • Special thanks to the WSJ Ideas Market for posting the articles by Parker and Andersen and leading me towards the study highlighted in the BPS
13 Comments Post a comment
  1. Justin #

    I’m not a 20-something kid, but I’m also not quite as old as these authors. I’ve been following the reaction to ‘Retromania’ since I heard Simon Reynolds on a podcast late last summer. I generally agree with his argument that music culture, in particular, has stagnated for the last 20 years. When I was a kid in the late 80s, I remember an almost constant barrage of 1960s nostalgia from the Baby Boomers. The idea that I would listen to something 20 years old in 1988 was almost unthinkable. Now, if you turn on any “alternative” radio station, you’ll regularly hear stuff from the early 90s. You’ll still hear “Loser” by Beck and “Creep” by Radiohead on the radio much more often than you’ll hear anything that those guys put out in the last 5 years.

    December 16, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      In doses you’ll hear that stuff. But let’s not forget that it’s Rihanna, K$sha, Katy Perry, LMFAO, Kelly Clarkson, and Lady Gaga who are dominating the radio.

      December 17, 2011
  2. Sam,

    Very interesting post. Intuitively, I’ve felt that people tended to have a biased nostalgia for tastes laid down in their formative years. It seemed too coincidental that everyone’s music from their youth trumped the “junk being played today”. This is the first time I saw a scientific analysis of the subject. Speaking unscientifically, the author’s assertions that current pop culture is simply derivative seems simplistic. Popular music has always been derivative, with a line from the Blues to early rock and roll to psychedelic rock. R and B led to Disco and on to Rap. What seems to have happened is that there is a splintering of endless subgenres instead of a dominant sound of 2011. The internet, with 1000’s of streaming stations has made this possible. Additionally, there has never been a more extensive and diverse group of live performances, from neighborhood clubs to Woodstock scale festivals. Before the internet, the Pop music scene was driven by Top 40 radio and major acts touring in support of an album. This was a limited group of performers selected by record labels and promoters. This limited number of acts was bound to create a more identifiable sound for that era. Back to science for a moment, another factor at play here could be the mere-exposure effect. This psychological phenomenon holds that people will like something more, simply from exposure. I wonder how that ties in to preferences formed as an adolescent.


    December 17, 2011
    • sammcnerney #

      My intuition agrees – It does seem too coincidental that everyone’s music from their youth trumps the “junk being played today”.

      Also, great point about pop music always being derivative. I hadn’t thought about the relationship between the Blues to early rock, R&B to Disco etc., but it makes sense. If I wanted to write more about this subject I would like to study these patterns more. Now, as you say, pop culture is very diverse – thanks to the internet I suppose.

      I can’t believe that didn’t think of the mere-exposure effect. I am sure that could definitely inform this debate.

      December 17, 2011
  3. sammcnerney #

    BTW Dan – speaking of the mere-exposure effect. Have you read the study having to do with Chinese symbols? i.e., people (English speakers) prefer Chinese symbols they’ve seen prior. I think it’s in Kahneman’s book.

    Anyways, incredible study.

    December 17, 2011
  4. Could you possibly be an American? If so this would explain your attempts to reduce sociology history, politics and critique of postmodern culture down to psychology. You are wrong my friend, precisely because you are not a specialist in the field you are talking about, but instead attempt to collapse four different fields into your own limited view. Almost anyone can see that culture has ground to a halt, this was predicted by Guy Debord (in his twenties) in the 1960s, and by Frederic Jameson (in his sixties) in the 1980s. Quite simply advanced capitalism doesn’t require anything new to be made in culture and since it floods us with images of the past and re-sells them to us, we lose the ability to create anything new.

    February 11, 2012
    • Anonymous #

      Besides saying I am a reductionist, I’m not sure what your point ins.

      February 11, 2012
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