By Ashly Moore Sheldon • January 01, 2020
Heading into a spanking, new decade has us wondering about what is coming our way in terms of trends, historic moments, and cultural touchstones. It also has us looking back at the past several decades in America and remembering some of the fads, milestones, and books of these tidy, historical chunks.
A time of war and activism, the seventies were marked by dramatic social change. Carrying over from the sixties, calls rang out for women's liberation, environmental protections, and racial equality. It was something of an awakening for many. Disco emerged as an edgy new sound. But it represented more than just catchy tunes. In Hot Stuff: Disco and the Remaking of American Culture, Alice Echols reveals how the pulsing rhythms of the genre transformed the American music scene propelling emerging artists into the beginnings of rap, techno, and trance.
Disco was also emblematic of society's growing acknowledgment of sexuality. The bestselling classic The Joy of Sex by Alex Comfort represented a sort of antidote to the repressive attitudes about sex that had dominated previous decades, reminding us that sex is natural, acceptable, and even fun! And for younger readers, Judy Blume's novel Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret was a thrillingly real portrayal of a young girl's emerging sexuality.
During the eighties, sometimes known as the greed decade, popular culture continued to break new ground, with extreme fashions like "big hair" and riotous music like punk. For a history of this genre, which has its roots in the sixties, check out Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil.
Coming out in 1982, The Color Purple by Alice Walker broke down barriers in its portrayal of an impoverished black woman, domestic abuse, and lesbianism. Adapted into an award-winning 1985 film by Stephen Spielberg, the story opened eyes and offered new perspectives.
Many popular stories of the era focus on the disillusionment and aimlessness of young people growing up during this time. The Secret History, Goldfinch author Donna Tartt's debut novel, is about a group of clever, eccentric misfits at an elite private New England college who fall under the questionable influence of a charismatic classics professor.
For many, the nineties represent a period of relative peace and prosperity in recent eras. Much of this has to do with the dot-com boom. For the story of a man who was at the center of this frenzy, pick up a copy of The New New Thing: A Silicon Valley Story by Michael Lewis.
And for a nostalgic look back at the music of the era, as well as heartbreaking romance, music journalist Rob Sheffield's memoir Love is a Mix Tape tells the story of finding the woman of his dreams, only to lose her to cancer.
This period also preceded the demise of television as we knew it. Do you remember having to watch shows at their regularly scheduled time? With hit shows like Cheers, Seinfeld, Friends, and The Simpsons, the nineties featured a sort of golden age in TV. Read about the making (and unmaking) of the NBC juggernaut in Top of the Rock: Inside the Rise and Fall of Must See TV by Warren Littlefield.
The events of September 11, 2001, changed America forever, propelling us into the "war on terror" and deepening many cultural and political divides. Mohsin Hamid's brilliant novel The Reluctant Fundamentalist tells the story of this time from the perspective of a Pakistani immigrant living in Manhattan.
This decade also ushered in the do-everything device that most of us now rely on for everything from driving directions to dinner reservations to every kind of entertainment (not to mention communication). While the first smartphones were released in the nineties, they didn't really hit the mainstream until the aughts with the Blackberry, Samsung, and iPhone. Read about how these clever devices are altering our culture (and us!) in 12 Ways Your Phone is Changing You by Tony Reinke.
As for music in this decade, boy bands proliferated like never before with new bands like B2K, Westlife, and The Jonas Brothers and comebacks by the likes of the Backstreet Boys and 'N Sync. This fun Stage Dive series by Kylie Scott imagines the romantic escapades of each of the members of a fictional boy band.
What about the decade we are just leaving? It may be hard to know exactly how this era will be remembered as we depart it. One thing may be the rising popularity of hipster culture. Artisanal food, bespoke garments, and a return to analog are a few of the markings of this quirky population. The award-winning How Should a Person Be by Sheila Heti has been called essential hipster reading.
The rise of social media has represented a huge shift in our culture during the last decade. Read the bestselling The Facebook Effect by David Kirkpatrick to learn more about the inside story of the company that gave rise to this cultural phenomenon.
As for the music scene, the dominance of hip hop has also marked the 2010s. From the artistry of Kendrick Lamar to the flash of Nicki Minaj, rap stars have been crowding playlists and reaping rewards. Learn more about the proud legacy of this industry with The History of Hip Hop by Eric Reese.
As we head into the new decade, it's fun to imagine how the world may change over the next ten years. What new inventions will impact our lives? What kinds of music, movies, books, television will be capturing our imagination? What will be the character of this era and how will it shape us as people. What do you think? Let us know in the comments!