Monday, December 28, 2009

Reflections on a Decade of Dorkiness

It's all over.

In mere days, this disappointing decade will come to a close. I say "disappointing" because I am still waiting for my flying car. Maybe the futuristic-sounding 2010s won't let me down.

I've been alive for around a quarter of a century (it's scary when I put it that way, right?) and the 2000s--or the "'00s" (pronounced "Ohs"), as I prefer to call them--would be the first full decade I can remember with any sort of clarity.

I wasn't around for all of the '80s, and my memories of the early '90s are patchy, and even during the mid-to-late '90s I wasn't paying much attention to affairs beyond my own. Politics? Climate change? War? Please. I have a princess who I need to rescue from another castle.

The '00s, though... Well, I can't say I'm completely in touch with what's going on in the world these days, but at least now I can tell you with moderate certainty that Bernie Madoff was not, in fact, the title character of Weekend at Bernie's.

Rick Dees Weekly Top 40 logoIt wasn't until I heard part of the Rick Dees Weekly Top 40 countdown this weekend, in which all the top songs of the decade were played in a row, that I started to think about what the '00s were like as a whole. I heard songs that I thought were released in the '90s; I can scarcely remember a time when Creed's "With Arms Wide Open" wasn't playing on the radio somewhere, but it was released in the '00s.

Maybe it's too soon to tell, but I feel like the music of this decade hasn't had quite the same distinctive sound that music of earlier decades has. Pick almost any song from the '50s or '60s; if for no other reason than the quality of the recording, you can probably guess the general time period when the song was made. The '70s are pretty identifiable to me, and the '80s even more so, especially where electronic keyboards are involved.

It's a little trickier for me to define a distinctive sound for the '90s because a wider variety of instruments and genres seemed to appear on the airwaves, but the '00s really started to spiral away from classification thanks to Coldplay, Jason Mraz, Kelly Clarkson, Maroon 5, Evanescence, 50 Cent, Nickelback, Britney Spears, Snow Patrol, Dido, Shakira, Michael Bublé, Colbie Caillat, The Killers, Tenacious D, 'N Sync, Guns N' Roses, Kanye West, Lady Gaga, and the Jonas Brothers. Or, maybe I just started listening to music other than oldies and classic rock.

Oh, and that doesn't even begin to cover all the indie and instrumental and not-in-English music that's out there. That's just a starter list for the sake of comparison. I admit that I could be totally off-the-mark about being unable to track down a distinctive sound for the decade, but judging solely by what has endured on the radio and in my own music collection, this decade has been rather varied in terms of music, perhaps more so than any previous decade.

The same goes for movies, video games, and television; the offerings have been quite diverse. Undoubtedly that's due to technological advancements--CGI lets lazy filmmakers do things more hideously than they could ever do with a little bit of puppeteering, for example--but the state of visual entertainment has changed monumentally over the past ten years, without a doubt.

CGI HulkA decade ago, people were playing Final Fantasy VIII on the original PlayStation, in all its pointy polygonal glory. Now people are playing Final Fantasy XIII on a PlayStation 3, and the graphics have just about caught up with the best of what Hollywood has to offer. Whereas controller vibration was a fancy new feature back then, dedicated Nintendo gamers such as myself now have soon-to-be-industry-standard motion-sensitive controls that they use almost exclusively to play old-school, non-motion-sensitive Mega Man games.

Final Fantasy 8 screenshotFinal Fantasy 13 screenshotBack then, at the turn of the century, we had TV shows like Boy Meets World and The Drew Carey Show and That '70s Show--we had sitcoms. Alright, so we also had 7th Heaven and Touched by an Angel and the very first season of Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, but unless it's funny or sci-fi or has Alex Trebek, I usually don't care to watch it.

This time around, we had shows like America's Next Top Model, Extreme Makeover: Home Edition and Jon & Kate Plus 8--we have reality shows. However, we also have/had Mad Men, Dexter, True Blood, 30 Rock, Scrubs, Lost, Castle, Heroes, and whatever the heck else other people apparently watch on TV, plus reruns of Firefly, Deadwood, Arrested Development, etc. Most genres have had at least a little representation on mainstream stations, and I assure you there's a slew of good examples that I'm missing because I don't watch TV.

Moreover, "Mainstream" became a lot harder to classify over the course of the decade, in part because of all the genre-crossing within shows and networks, and I think also because this confounded recession has caused us to be pickier about our entertainment; one person tries something different and creative or spectacular that proves to be very popular, and then suddenly we're flooded with the offerings of people trying to cash in on a proven success, thereby causing this thing that is different and creative to be mainstream because everyone is doing it.

Zombies, vampires, and comic book heroes immediately come to mind.

That's right: Comic book heroes--and comic books by association--have become mainstream, or at least a few of them. Joe Moviegoer bought his first graphic novel this year, a copy of Watchmen, or maybe the latest X-Men comic. Jane the Political Junkie found out through her favorite online news source that some fictional character, Captain America, had been killed off.

Death of Captain AmericaI don't even need to paste a *SPOILER ALERT* here because everybody knows about it. Cap's death is like Darth Vader's secret identity--at this point, everybody knows that *SPOILER ALERT* he's Luke's dad.

Hang on; I just had a spoileriffic thought: Cap's death got regular non-comics people buzzing about an actual comic book, and as a result, said people actually picked up the issue/story arc where Cap died. People were buzzing about The Dark Knight, in huge part because of Heath Ledger's death. If my sources are correct, Final Crisis started up around the same time that movie was released; perhaps DC recognized a trend and killed off Batman to get more people to buy Final Crisis? Please tell me I'm not the first person to think of this.

Anydarkseid, a multitude of once-nerdy niches became a little more mainstream and socially acceptable over the past decade, but that's not necessarily a good thing. Valerie D'Orazio wrote an interesting post over on her Occasional Superheroine blog about how Sci-Fi, a television station dedicated to exactly what you'd expect, rebranded itself as "SyFy" and vanquished much of what made it unique in favor of mainstream programming that was more digestible for the masses who weren't diehard sci-fi fans.

So now where do the diehard sci-fi fans go?

That was my same frustration with the motion-sensitive controls of the Wii (a topic about which I've ranted not once but twice, at least). Sure, easy-to-pick-up controls invite a much broader audience, but I felt like I, a longtime diehard fan, was being alienated because these new control styles were highly contrary to my playing style.

Star Trek 2009Continuing on that train of thought, there's the new Star Trek movie that rebooted a 40-year legacy, garnering a legion of new fans while alienating a great many longtime fans in the process. I've written about my fears, my immediate reaction, and the aftermath about/to/of the new film, but the bottom line is that Star Trek has gone mainstream.

Suddenly we're living in a world where the school bully and the snotty popular girl and the little pocket-protected boy stuffed in the locker can all agree that they like Spider-Man or Star Trek, at least to some extent. In a way, this decade brought about an understanding between geeks and non-geeks with hardly any effort on the part of the geeks.

On the one hand, I think it's fantastic that Grandpa Somebody is playing Nintendo with his grandchildren and that Little Suzie Someone can pick Doc Ock out of a police lineup. On the other hand, that widespread appeal comes at a price: some of the things that make certain fandoms appealing are inherently unappealing to a mainstream audience.

Star Wars--a fandom that is rather mainstream if it's enjoyed in moderation--made a huge comeback into the public consciousness this decade, for better or for worse. In this case, it can be argued that Star Wars' return to mainstream popularity is in part because of the emphasis on appealing to children--the toys and TV shows especially have begun to seep into the minds of a younger generation, which means that in another decade, Star Wars might be just as socially acceptable as Duck Tales and Looney Tunes.

There were other fandoms this decade that gained popularity, though these were already mainstream--the difference was that they had been dormant for quite some time. The '00s were host to more sequels, remakes, and franchise reboots than you can shake a Wiimote at; in fact, I'm not sure that the term "franchise reboot" even existed until this decade.

Bionic Commando RearmedFrom Terminator to Die Hard to Indiana Jones; from Batman to Superman to James Bond; from Chrono Trigger to Metroid to Bionic Commando; everyone and their prototype robotic brother got a fresh coat of paint.

Out of the blue, there were sequels to things that had been put away on the shelf at least five years ago, whether they needed sequels or not. New life was breathed into franchises that may or may not have needed resuscitation. And I already talked about remakes in a relatively recent post, so there's no need to rehash that.

All this talk of variety and diversity, yet everything new was really just something old in disguise. Go figure.

I'll continue to look back on the decade as the minor details melt into the bigger details that will feature more prominently in the history books and people's minds. I'm even considering looking for a copy of Consumer Reports' 2010 Buying Guide so that, in another decade or two, I can look back on the present the way I did with the year 1988. I'm sure it'll take more time to process the trends and hallmarks of this decade; after all, we've still got a few days left--anything could happen.

For starters, there's still time for that flying car.

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