2018/01/23

Ground Zero

Ground Zero

Often of late this blog has turned an unflinching eye to the rapidly accelerating meltdown of popular Western culture.

By now we all know that movies are watered-down retreads mostly produced for overseas markets by people who neither understand nor care to understand their former core audience.

Top 40 radio is a wasteland of overproduced, oversampled prefab corporate drek that's aggressively empty of substance but is designed by behavioral psychologists to get that nothing stuck in your head.

Comic books--one of only four original American art forms--shamble on long after the speculator crash that killed them: useful to their multinational conglomerate masters only as movie IP farms. For now.

The decline has been underway for a long time--at least since the Commie infiltration of science fiction back in the 30s. But ongoing discussions with others who've noticed pop culture's terminal descent have led me to ponder when the West's cultural decay reached critical mass.

In the 80s, only pearl-clutchers blustering about satanic messages hidden in Ozzie records thought civilization was going downhill. The 90s began with a fresh influx of optimism when the wall came down and for a minute it looked like we might get our bright shiny Star Trek future after all.

The speed with which the optimism bubble burst must have set some kind of record. I won't get into the possible causes here--though the Bush and Clinton dynasties almost certainly bear some of the blame. My purpose today is to identify Ground Zero: the exact point where Western pop culture exploded to leave us picking up the shattered pieces ever since.

Obtaining the answer required only a moment's reflection. It occurred to me that I knew exactly when, as commenter JD Cowan phrased it, the culture "froze" before melting into a stagnant puddle. I lived through it, and in retrospect, I knew the moment when it came--even if I didn't want to admit it to myself at the time.

Pop culture ground zero was 1997.

That was when the sputtering engine of creativity stalled, and it happened almost exactly at the beginning of that year. The dividing line between the last semblance of a healthy culture and the subsequent smoking crater is that sharply defined.

Let's recap.

Music
U2 - Pop

The fascinating--and now tragic--career of Irish rock band U2 serves as an effective microcosm of unfulfilled 80s optimism. After the band came within a hair of producing the next Sergeant Pepper's in 1991 (appropriately enough, inspired by a trip to post-wall Berlin) the music world eagerly anticipated what would surely be U2's earth-shattering redefinition of rock music as we knew it. The fans held their breath and waited.

And got a half-assed offering of scraps from the prior album.

And waited.

And got a bizarre collection of ambient tracks written for real and fake movies.

And waited...

...until early February of 1997 when the first single from the band's forthcoming album Pop hit record store shelves.

And it was OK. While Pop is hardly the disaster that tin-eared critics make it out to be, the rushed, unfocused effort fell far short of the musical revelation that many had been expecting for six years. Since then, U2 has fallen into the trap of trying to be what they think everyone thinks they should be--which pretty much sums up the crisis in popular music.

Comics
The American comic book industry had already been moribund for a while when 1997 rolled around, but that year in comics is remarkable for being a time when nothing worthwhile happened.

Superman Blue
Seriously, Supersmurf was the closest thing to a comics "event" that 1997 could muster.
On the business front, 1997 was the year that Diamond cinched its monopoly over comic book distribution. The resulting mini command economy has forced more and more comic book shops out of business with each passing year.

The formerly dominant Batman film franchise slumped to an inglorious end with the atrocious Batman and Robin. Despite occasional rumblings of James Cameron's involvement with a nebulous Spider-Man project, the industry would have to wait five more years for the next film franchise that would reignite public interest in superhero movies. And leave comic publishers forever beholden to Hollywood.

Speaking of which...

Movies
Special Jabba

1997 began with a film event that would portend an even more ominous trend than the aforementioned Batman and Robin. The Star Wars Trilogy Special Editions were released starting in January and continuing monthly through March. Thus began the cynical strip-mining of a 70s space opera that until recently was the only remaining cultural touchstone that bound the atomized American populace.

Everybody likes to point out how the warning signs of what awaited us in the prequels were all there in the Special Editions. But now another, more distant, red flag pops into focus: the fact that George Lucas doesn't particularly care about the iconic saga whose artistic success he personally had little to do with. If he was willing to shoehorn in Special Jabba the Hutt and a CG Muppet dance number, we should've known he'd eventually sell out to the highest bidder.

In short, the bastardization of Star Wars that plagues us to this day began in 1997.

Video Games
FFVII box art

On the exact same day that moviegoers first saw Greedo shooting first, a video game that drew more than once from the Star Wars well was also released. That game, Final Fantasy VII, would go on to become the most overrated JRPG of all time.

I realize that FFVII has a whole generation of staunch adherents who take deep umbrage at the merest suggestion that the RPG which, for many of them, was their first (condolences), ain't the best thing since indoor plumbing. To them, I have one question:

Have you played FFVII lately?

Not the mobile version, not the remake, and not the international PC version. The original North American Play Station release.

If so, did you make it all the way to the end?

Me, either.

FFVI - Kefka final
FFVI; Still gorgeous and eminently replayable to this day.

FFVII
FFVII has suffered the fate of all early polygon-based games.
Final Fantasy VII spawned the unfortunate trend of JRPG-as-Hollywood-blockbuster that gave us interminable cinema scenes that gobbled up disc space while the games themselves stagnated. The bursting of that bubble killed JRPGs for a generation. Gee...that sounds familiar.

Also familiar: FFVII is about to become fodder for a series of remakes.

Conclusion
There can be no doubt. Western pop culture froze as solid as a gas station burrito on the summit of K2 at the stroke of midnight on January 1, 1997. The corpsesickle has since blasted into the ground like a Siberian comet strike. It's up to artists like the up-and-coming generation of creators I proudly stand among to build something new in the ruins.

...a way out of the filth and nihilism that seems to plague so much of modern fiction.

23 comments:

  1. MegaBusterShepard here...

    Admittedly I am a fan of the older Final Fantasy titles and the Star Wars prequels but I cannot deny that they are inferior to what came before.

    Although I will say I personally believe the cut off date is a bit later in the future. Maybe its just me but I believe the death of pop culture happened around 2006. The seventh generation of consoles, the rise of microtranactions and dlc, the beginning of the rehash/reboot era, dnds fourth edition, the lack of any breakout music trends etc. Though I am only twenty eight so my view might be skewed.

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    1. Video games were the one medium that lasted a decade longer than everything else. It might have been because no one took it seriously until the PS2 and Wii broke so many records, but they were allowed to flourish much longer than anything else.

      By 1997, comics were irrelevant, pop music had eaten itself, movies were forgettable, and television was swallowed by reality TV dross.

      I remember it at the time because it felt like things had changed overnight.

      1997 is a terrible year in pop culture, and it's only gotten worse since.

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    2. MegaBusterShepard here....

      Yeah that's probably true. Didn't pay much attention to things outside of video games back then. I really only started noticing the cultural rot since 2015. Most of my free time was done hiking, kayaking, camping etc. Not much time for movies or shows back then.

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    3. The Frisky Pagan pointed out one reason why you guys may have caught something I overlooked. Video games did indeed get a stay of execution thanks largely to the PC market. At my house, we didn't get our first PC that you could actually play games on until around 1998, so I never got into PC gaming. Apparently that sector enjoyed a ten-year stay of execution.

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    4. And part of the reason was due to the sheer the technical challenges to overcome. So no time to waste on snowflake blizzards.
      xavier

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    5. I actually did play Final Fantasy VII to completion for the first time just a few months ago (I had sort of fiddled with it when it was originally released but didn't go far). It is indeed too long and inferior in nearly every way to its 2D predecessors. Much like most franchises that originated in 2D and migrated to 3D (you want to know another that's aged poorly? Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It's so SLOW compared to the 2D games).

      PC games in retrospect did have an extended golden age in the 90s. It's not a coincidence that sites like RPG Codex identify The Decline with the 00's and after, when the higher forces in the industry repeatedly tried to murder PC gaming and dumbed everything down.

      1997 is as good a pick as any, I think. I definitely started noticing sometime around the mid-00's that things seemed to have just ground to a halt. Everything was so bland. I think it's a reason why there seems to be an enduring fascination with the 80s - it's the last time things seemed to be really happening in American culture and the last time people were actually happy and comfortable with being American (I can't speak for how things were in other countries).

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    6. "Zelda: Ocarina of Time. It's so SLOW compared to the 2D games"
      *nods* As was normal at the time, we were a one console per generation family. That Christmas, I had to choose between the N64 and the PlayStation. I got the PS1. Didn't play Ocarina of Time until a couple years ago when a buddy who loved it suggested we play through it together. My reaction: "This isn't Zelda." We made it to the dungeon in the drained lake and gave up.

      "it's the last time things seemed to be really happening in American culture and the last time people were actually happy and comfortable with being American"

      I remember that popular sentiment, and how the zeitgeist changed for the worse in the 90s. Like the OP said, the Bushes and Clintons had more than a little to do with it, but so did Reagan's 86 amnesty.

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    7. I enjoyed Ocarina of Time but it is indeed slow compared to 2D Zelda. Take a 2D game and a 3D game from the same series and the 3D game is almost guaranteed to be slower.

      I think the tendency towards less melody and more ambience in modern game music might be related to that. Older games generally move quickly so you need punchy tunes that get to the point to keep up with the action.

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    8. Ocarina of Time is just Link to the Past in 3D. Wind Waker was far closer to how I pictured 3D Zelda, though everyone hated the art style except me.

      Chip tunes had to hook the player to the game. That's why the default sound of real retro music is '80s and early '90s pop music. Because that's what they were trying to recreate back then.

      The loss of that for modern snoozefest film scoring is a total shame. I couldn't name you a single Xbox 360 game that has a memorable soundtrack aside from Blood Dragon. That's because Blood Dragon used a Retrowave artist to do the soundtrack.

      The use of dull soundtracks to match modern dull gameplay says a lot. AAA games are boring.

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    9. "The loss of that for modern snoozefest film scoring is a total shame."

      Remember when each console had its own sound? I can still tell a Genesis game from a SNES game by the soundtrack audio quality alone.

      These days every manufacturer uses the same digital home theater sound standards.

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    10. I think it's kind of hilarious that the Commodore computers had such godly sound chips that you often had mediocre games with utterly amazing music.

      Don't get me wrong about OoT. I don't deny its place in history and I don't like it when classic works, especially games, are dismissed just for being old (I've still got games from the 70s in my regular rotation). But I've been re-playing it over the past year and it feels like a slog in a way that I didn't feel when I played it in the 90s. That whole first generation of 3D consoles was a very awkward time for the industry, sort of gaming's equivalent of the silent-to-talkies transition.

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    11. "gaming's equivalent of the silent-to-talkies transition."

      Good analogy.

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  2. Han shooting first absolutely opened to the door to total character destruction that occurred to Luke. One minor revision that completely changed the character set precedence.

    I won't really weigh in on FF7 since I'm a little biased against the whole genre.

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  3. Excellent case you made, Brian.

    The cultural strip mining was done in other generations as well, but the cynicism of the late 90s, coupled with the dearth of new content to sow the fields ... .

    Yes.

    I accept your survey marker of cultural decay.

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    1. Thanks, I try.

      You also made a solid point in the comments on that first linked post about the 50s being the last decade for truly original movies, music, etc.

      What really blew my mind was how many of these markers hit the theaters/shelves/airwaves at the same time--a couple of them on the same exact day, even.

      Almost like it was orchestrated.

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  4. Funny thing about Final Fantasy is that when I beat 6 I got a hunch that was the end of the series. It felt, well, final.

    My guess is they had already decided to take the series in a different direction at that point.

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    1. Absolutely. The half-hour long ending sequence provided excellent closure.

      As for Square's post-FFVI plans, that's an interesting story.

      Development on FFVII had already begun as early as 1994. It was originally conceived as a 2D game for the SNES. Sakaguchi and his team had already written a first draft of the plot--a detective story set in a fictionalized version of 1999 New York--when the decision came down to make the game 3D instead.

      Here's where some interesting twists and turns come in.

      A short tech demo was produced on a Silicon Graphics work station, almost certainly in expectation of programming for the N64's SGI processor.

      But Nintendo threw Square a curve ball when they announced that the N64 would stick with a cartridge-based format. The game Square wanted to make would require optical storage media, so they broke off their long relationship with the Big N.

      Square's split from Nintendo was itself part of the fallout from an even bigger fracas between the Big N, Philips, and SONY. As early as 1988, Nintendo had been working with SONY on a CD drive for the Super Famicom. Nintendo unilaterally broke the deal at CES in 1991 when they announced they'd be pursuing a partnership with Philips instead. Getting publicly snubbed by Nintendo pissed off SONY enough that they went and created the PlayStation.

      A few years later, the aforementioned Silicon Graphics decided to expand beyond the high-end computer market and get into video games. They almost sold their next-generation chip to Sega of America president Tom Kalinske for use in the Saturn, but Sega of Japan nixed the deal. The chip ended up in the N64 sans optical drive.

      That twisting intersection in video game history gives rise to several "what-ifs" that have kept me up on more than one sleepless night. What if the Nintendo PlayStation had been released? (They made a few prototypes. You can find videos of nerds messing around with rediscovered consoles online.) What if the Saturn had gotten the far superior SGI processor? Where would Final Fantasy have ended up?

      Anyway, Square went with SONY. Unused concepts from the original 2D version of FFVII went on to appear in Chrono Trigger, Parasite Eve, and FFVIII. Final Fantasy has been on the Play Station ever since.

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  5. You guys are depressing the bejesus out of me. Because what you say is true.

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    1. MegaBusterShepard here....

      The first step in righting a problem is figuring out the cause. That being said the situation is far from hopeless. Right now we have content creators from across all artistic mediums pushing back against it. Whether people are pushing back against social justice or just tired of the status quo and wanting to create fresh new ideas there is a coming reckoning waiting in the wings.

      Hell there are even some bastions of the arts, such as the Heavy Metal scene that proved unable to be infiltrated by cultural marxism and never fell to political correctness. Maybe I'm just an optimist in this regard but I believe the future is a bright one because it is always darkest just before dawn.

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    2. The bitterest truth is better than the sweetest lie.

      Now shake off that depression and get mad.

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    3. All you can do is either create what you want to see or expect better from those already creating. The reason the culture has been able to crumble is because we've all been complacent with it.

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