Best Decades of the Decade

During the ‘00s, some decades of the 20th century gained cultural capital, while others lost ground. The Bureau Editors take a look at the winners and losers.

Winners

Darryl on the ’20s…
The decade began with a pro-business, anti-tax president known for verbal gaffes and vilified for near-incompetence, and ended with a once-in-a-century economic crisis; in between, the country teetered on the brink of an ecological disaster, the government weighed in on social issues while it shut out the rest of the world, the Midwest came under assault from critics on the East Coast, and an economist saw crisis looming when no one else could.

Such, such were the 1920s, of course. Instead of George Bush, the Great Recession, global warming, gay marriage and flimsy “coalition-building,” Frank Rich, and Nouriel Roubini, they had, respectively, Warren “I am not fit for this office and never should have been here” Harding, the Great Depression, the Dust Bowl, Prohibition and post-World-War-I isolationism, Sinclair Lewis, and John Maynard Keynes. Phew!

But who wants to wallow in political missteps and economic crises? Instead, let’s remember the 1920s as the Jazz Age, the time of flappers, gangsters, the Cotton Club, and a free-wheeling, damn-the-torpedoes attitude toward debt. Thanks to installment plans, a new financial innovation of the ’20s, people felt free to go into debt in order to buy the latest luxury — a car, a string of pearls, a new radio, or anything else that smacked of upward mobility. The historian Frederick Allen, writing in 1931, said of the Roaring Twenties that “people were getting to consider it old-fashioned to limit their purchases to the amount of their cash balance; the thing to do was ‘exercise their credit.’ “. Plus ça change…

In other words, I think we’ve done a better job of bringing back the 1920s than we probably wanted to. Instead, maybe we should have remembered our Fitzgerald:

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgiastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter — tomorrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther…. And one fine morning — So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.

…and the ’30s
Obama. FDR. Need I say more?

Nick on the ’60s
The mid-to-late ’60s did not merely receive a reputation boost over the past ten years. No, that era ascended into Nirvana as a mythological Golden Age of America. Just consider how the the Beatles fared in the new millennium: they had the top-selling album of the decade; their entire catalog was remastered and rereleased as, like, a twenty-disc set you have to buy twice; Let It Be was rescued from Phil Spector’s sonic prison; Cirque de Soleil’s Love was a giant hit in Las Vegas; and the fab four was digitally resurrected in their Rock Band game. Also, George died.

But the trend extends beyond large media companies using nostalgia to wring cash from aging hippies; the younger generation has taken up the freak flags left behind by their parents. Indie artists like Animal Collective, Devandra Banhart, and Fleet Foxes blended psychedelia and acoustics to create the surprisingly tolerable “freak folk” movement. Bonnaroo revived the dirty, drug-fueled music festival. And, thank Christ, Woodstock ‘99 took place last decade, so let’s just pretend that never happened.

(If you insist that events occurred in the ’60s that were not music-related… well, okay: we started another horrible quagmire of a war; the gay rights movement righteously adopted the rhetoric of civl rights; Barack Obama produced perhaps the most visible realization yet of Dr. King’s Dream; a bunch of Joseph Kennedy’s kids kicked the bucket; and pot has finally achieved de facto legalization in a couple of states. Viva flower power.)

The big surprise this decade, however, was not the further glorification of the utopian late ’60s. What no one expected was that a single cultural artifact could glamorize the dreary, suburban early ’60s. Though Mad Men is basically one big argument against everything America stood for at the turn of that decade, its startlingly attractive cast and impeccable art direction turned those years into fetish objects. The best minds of our generation (sorry) have taken to chronicling the show’s detritus, and the viewership gets its vintage knickers in a twist at the slightest misplaced detail. Of course, Mad Men uses the seductive power of those years as a deliberate counterbalance to their myriad injustices, but it’s still a little shocking how easily and thoroughly we’ve been seduced. Probably because, as much as we’d all like to start a revolution, we don’t want to look like idiots while doing so.

Kevin on the ’80s
The ’80s were grotesque, and I mean that in the literary sense of the word. We usually bask our memories in the warm light of nostalgia, wherein we remember the good, forget the bad, and take a semi-reactionary view of the “good ‘ol days.” But it wasn’t quite that way with the 1980s. In fact, that may be what separates the resurgence of the ’80s from other the decades we celebrated during this decade.

There are synths in our music, and Hollywood just can’t stop making money from twenty-year-old franchises that were never even good to begin with. We don’t love trends or ideas from the ’80s because they’re better than what we have now. Instead, we discuss the ’80s with irony or a sense of homage to the “awesomely bad” (I phrase I’m pretty sure was never uttered before the ’00s).

Take, for example, the fact that there’s not a single outfit from the ’80s that doesn’t look stupid today. Yet, you see the decade’s New Romantic fashion ever-present in the modern hipster wardrobe — high-waisted jeans, spandex, anything from American Apparel — clothes that are dated and ugly by any standard. And let’s not forget that the ’80s marked the height of popularity for Lacoste, whose pastel polos and popped collars adorn the hipster’s nemesis, the bro.

Whether hipster fashion is a reaction to preppy fashion, or vice versa, I have no idea. But the point in either case is to look completely ridiculous. Maybe it has something to do the fact that we’re culture hungry and now empowered with the ability to know everything about everything (the internet, duh). You can look up the answer to any question immediately on your smartphone. In the same vein, there’s no excuse for dressing poorly if you can google what looks good — unless you’re trying to dress poorly. Maybe our adoration of the ’80s best reflects the self-conscious reaction to our post-modern era.

Or perhaps I’m over-thinking it. Judging from the number of ’80s-themed parties I attended in college, maybe sorority girls just wanted an excuse to wear spandex.

Losers

The ’90s
The apotheosis of old media gets dragged to Earth.

The ’50s
Squarest decade ever continues its long decline.

The 1900s
The turn of the century fades into antiquity as the 2000s claim the vernacular “’00s.”