Cyclic National Fascination
"Superheroes have always flourished in the times of greatest American adversity. During the depression era, we were afraid of not being able to put food on the table. We were afraid of becoming involved in a great world war that would take our freedom away. In the atomic age, we were afraid of radiation. Now, we're afraid of terrorist attacks. In all of those eras of history, that's when superheroes have enjoyed their greatest resurgence."
— Mark Waid
, Superheroes: A Never-Ending Battle
A curious phenomenon in which, every decade or so, some aspect of American society which is not normally in the public eye becomes the subject of fad-like levels of interest, which both leads and is led by media coverage of the topic. Curiosity about the day-to-day workings of the group or subculture begins at a minor, almost cursory, level — but over the course of months this interest gets driven to a frenzy pitch as it suddenly becomes necessary
for every person on the street to know everything
they can about it. Often, features of the subculture become embraced by society at large, including but not limited to copying elements of their lifestyle, absorbing their jargon, and creating culture heroes.
This obsessive interest often lasts long enough for stage plays, TV shows or movies on the subject to be made, which usually appear just as the cycle of interest peaks or is dying away. Marketers usually jump on the bandwagon as the cycle reaches its zenith, trying to profit from the vast amount of public interest; it's likely that the sudden commercialization actually contributes to the subsequent, and perhaps inevitable, downturn in that interest.
As the subculture falls "out of style", there is sometimes a backlash against it. Either way, it is followed by a fallow period, which itself is followed by a more relaxed reacceptance of some or all of the co-opted subculture elements. The culture at large then usually remains quiescent for several years before discovering some new subculture to obsess over, thus beginning the cycle anew.
Cycles are frequently triggered by some innocuous entry into the meme pool, like a popular song or book. See also Follow the Leader
, The Red Stapler
, Popularity Polynomial
- In the late 1950s and early 1960s, the previously secretive world of advertising agencies suddenly became the focus of immense cultural interest. The inner workings of Madison Avenue became the fodder for books, plays, TV shows, and movies (The Man In the Grey Flannel Suit, How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter, Bewitched, Lover Come Back). Its unique internal jargon, often focused on CYA and consensus building, briefly flooded American speech; some bits of it still remain (for instance, "run it up the flagpole and see who salutes", which was a well-worn cliche decades before it appeared in Harvey Danger's 1997 song "Flagpole Sitta"), and the TV series Mad Men seems primed to revive much of the old adman slang. (As a nod to the old fad, Mad Men casts Robert Morse, the leading man in the original 1961 Broadway production of How to Succeed in Business..., as the eccentric Bert Cooper).
- Blaxploitation in The '70s, which came back in the early 90's in the form of urban gangster films (Boyz N The Hood, New Jack City), and several times in the last twenty years thanks to Quentin Tarantino.
- The success of Queer Eye gave us a period of infatuation with "gay culture" (in other words, every gay stereotype possible). This period even gave us "metrosexuals", men who, despite not actually being gay, spoke, dressed, and acted as much like flaming queens as possible. It also led to the replacement of fop with this neologism; a literal reading of the word would mean either "one who is sexually attracted to moderation", "one who is sexually attracted to cities", "one who is sexually attracted to mothers", or possibly "one who is sexually attracted to a subway system"...
- The post-World War II villains du jour in American media have been: Sinister Russian Commies during the postwar period, Sinister Muslim Oil Barons during the energy crises of The '70s, Sinister Russians again during The '80s and The '90s (with a transition from commies to gangsters and arms dealers after around 1990), and Sinister Muslim Terrorists during The War on Terror. Vladimir Putin is alleged to be working hard to maintain the cycle. The alleged perpetrators of the April 2013 Boston bombing turning out to be Sinister Russian Muslims probably indicates this perception isn't going away anytime soon.
- Older Than Radio: Japonisme.
- Older Than Japonisme: Chinoiserie.
- Orientalism in general, really. The Western world was unhealthily fixated on "genuine" Indian culture at the turn of last century, and still is to a degree.
- American interest in Ancient Egypt peaked with both the discovery of King Tutankhamun's tomb in the 1920's and the touring exhibit of his relics in the 1970's.
- The relics are on another exhibition tour now. Whether this will spark another such fad remains to be seen.
- In the early XIXth century, Napoleon Bonaparte's Egypt campaigns and the subsequent popularisation of ancient Egyptian culture also generated a fad for all things pharaonic.
- Anime may fit this. Outside of Japan, it was an underground subculture that made its first inroads in the West with Astro Boy and Speed Racer, then percolated in The '70s (Star Blazers) and The '80s (Robotech) before bursting into mainstream in the mid-1990s, peaking in the early 2000s when 85% of people under 35 watched at least one hour of anime a week. It hasn't faded away completely, but it has declined in popularity since the mid-2000s. Much of this may be due to declining quality as production houses, looking to exploit the new American market, focused on making shows that were either fast and cheap or overly filled with injokes for anime fans.
- Reportedly, what we currently know as the "Tea Parties" have long since existed, emerging every fifteen years or so.
- For the confused, we mean right-wing, anti-Washington (neo-) populist movements in the US, not parties where people drink tea, which emerge every fifteen minutes (at least in the UK). It tends to reach a fever pitch of media attention every fifteen years, manifesting itself as the "Reagan Revolution" and the "sagebrush rebels" in the late '70s and early '80s, the "Contract with America" in the mid '90s, and the Tea Party movement today. The left-wing version appears as well, but less frequently: recent examples include the craze over Barack Obama and the "Occupy" movements fitting this trope.
- From about 1985 to 1990, Heavy Metal music became hugely popular. Everywhere you looked kids were growing their hair long, buying leather jackets, and throwing up the devil horns hand gesture. Heavy Metal's popularity reached such high levels that the Moral Guardians of the day even held Senate hearings trying to force record companies to put warning labels on albums with explicit lyrics. When Grunge killed Hair Metal in 1991, many record companies as well as MTV also forgot about heavy metal in favor of the newest trend. As a result public interest in heavy metal dropped significantly but still managed to maintain a devoted fanbase, with bands like Pantera managing to become very successful during the 1990s despite receiving little attention from mainstream media sources. In the mid-2000s heavy metal experienced a resurgance in popularity due to the highly successful Guitar Hero video game franchise, although metal still doesn't have the mainstream popularity that it did in the latter half of the 80s.
- Zombies — or rather, zombie-related survivalism — is an example of a subculture that developed with the craze. It started in the early-mid '00s, when a number of highly popular zombie films (Resident Evil, 28 Days Later, Dawn of the Dead (2004), Shaun of the Dead) came out within two years of one another, helping to bring back from the grave a genre that had been lying stiff since The '80s. From there, the infection burned through film, books, comics, games, music videos, television, and especially the internet, where the Zombie Apocalypse mutated into a meme.note Shows like Community, The Simpsons and Degrassi had zombie-themed Halloween episodes, communities the world over staged zombie walks and games of Humans vs. Zombies, and everybody had at least considered "a plan". Preparedness groups and even the Center for Disease Control jumped on board, using the pop culture's obsession with zombies as a way to tell people to be prepared for disasters and emergencies.
- For that matter, survivalism in general tends to ebb and flow depending on the times. It first flourished in The '70s due to fear of economic collapse and social unrest, and appeared again in the mid-'80s due to fear of World War III and in the late '90s thanks to fear of Y2K. Currently, it's at another high point due to both the economic crisis and, to a lesser extent, the alleged Mayan doomsday prophecy, with reality shows like Doomsday Preppers and scripted series like The Walking Dead and Revolution all rooted in survivalism. Needless to say, companies selling gold, canned foods, and guns and ammunition love this trend.
- The widespread worry about nuclear war in the late 1940's and 1950's should count as an even earlier example of survivalism, although there were no zombies. Bomb shelters were a popular home-improvement project in some circles (even inspiring The Twilight Zone (1959) episode "The Shelter"), the sci-fi and comics of the time practically LIVED on tropes related to nuclear apocalypse and radiation mutations, and many of Baby Boomer age still chuckle about the deadly-serious suggestion given in educational filmstrips that hiding under one's school desk was a viable way of avoiding a city-melting fireball. Science-fiction author Robert Heinlein deliberately fed the hysteria in a series of essays (see his collection "Expanded Universe") meant to scare people badly enough to get nukes banned. Didn't work, obviously, but a case could be made that he accidentally "created" survivalism.
- Vampires, the other undead monsters, at roughly the same time as zombies. While the zombie obsession was largely born out of geek culture, the vampire craze came from teenagers, particularly teenage girls, beginning when Twilight romanticized the creatures to a degree that Anne Rice and Joss Whedon could scarcely have imagined. It truly took off once the Twilight movies came out, with vampires becoming the symbols of romance for an entire generation of women born between 1985 and 1995. Shows like True Blood and The Vampire Diaries only fed the craze.
- Thanks to cold war intrigue and the success of the James Bond franchise, The '60s produced a fascination with spies and spy culture. Shows such as I Spy, The Man from U.N.C.L.E., The Avengers, Mission: Impossible, and the parody Get Smart, films like The Ipcress File (along with parodies like Our Man Flint and The Beatles' spoof Help!), spy movie-influenced songs like Johnny Rivers' "Secret Agent Man" and Edwin Starr's "Agent Double-O-Soul", books by John le Carré and Len Deighton, and spy undertones in Rocky and Bullwinkle and Secret Squirrel abounded, and spy toys were popular with young children. The craze died out as the Cold War fizzled, but its influence can be found in The Bourne Series and the Austin Powers movies and cartoons like Kim Possible and Totally Spies!. The genre has experienced a new lease of life in the wake of 9/11 and the subsequent War on Terror.
- Association Football, a.k.a. soccer, became highly popular in the United States during the late 1970's with the New York Cosmos's signing of several big name international stars such as Pelé and Franz Beckenbauer. After Pelé's retirement, the game's popularity declined and the league folded. Interest revived somewhat with the 1994 World Cup, when the U.S. hosted the event and the men's team reached the knockout stage for the first time in over 60 years, and again in the 2010 World Cup when the men's team won their group on a stoppage-time goal. The establishment of Major League Soccer, and more recently the National Women's Soccer League, may eventually make soccer less of a fad and more of an ongoing niche interest.
- Dinosaurs enjoyed a period of popularity in the 1990's thanks to Jurassic Park, to the point that the movie singlehandedly made the Velociraptor a Stock Dinosaur. They seem to be coming back in 2014 and 2015, with the Jurassic Park franchise getting a revival, Transformers and Power Rangers getting dinosaur-themed installments, and the release of a few other dinosaur-focused works.
- Returning American servicemen from the Pacific War brought home a fascination with Polynesian culture that flourished from the late '40s well into the '60s. "Tiki culture" took off with the 1947 Kon-Tiki expedition and the 1948 James Michener short story collection Tales of the South Pacific (loosely adapted the following year into the musical South Pacific), and continued with the pseudo-tropical "exotica" music genre and a slew of "fun in the sun" movies set on Pacific islands. Hawaiian statehood in 1959 and the rise of cheap air travel gave it a second wind, embedding Hawaii in American pop culture as a pleasure resort (before that, it was a distant colonial outpost known for plantations, Pearl Harbor, and little else), a status that managed to outlast the Polynesian craze. The trope of the former GI running a tiki stand in paradise can still be found in some works.