Cyclic National Fascination
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
- 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).
- In the 1970s came the trucker and CB radio fad, kicked off almost singlehandedly by the CW McCall song "Convoy" and the movie Smokey and the Bandit. The cultural momentum it gathered was so substantial that it actually forced changes in the way the government licensed CB radios. For a few years in the late 1970's, some US-made cars even had CB radios as factory-available features. And to this day, practically every trucker character in TV or movies is a direct descendant of the Rubber Duck.
- Blaxploitation in The Seventies, 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 For The Straight Guy 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"... not that those things don't exist.
- 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 Seventies, Sinister Russians again during The Eighties and The Nineties (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.
- Disco. America spent twenty years trying to forget.
- For a time in The Sixties or so, biker culture became a fad.
- In the late '80s through the '90s and the early '00s, many suburban white kids became fascinated with Gangsta Rap and "urban" culture, most likely because their parents weren't. It ended in the mid-late '00s once Moral Guardians stopped caring about rap music, Glam Rap became part of the fabric of pop music, and pre-2000 "old school/golden age" hip-hop started passing into nostalgia territory.
- In the 1980s, films like Crocodile Dundee made Australia quite visible in American pop culture, putting the "National" in Cyclic National Fascination. As an episode of The Simpsons notes:
As I'm sure you remember, in the late 1980s the US experienced a short-lived infatuation with Australian culture. For some bizarre reason, the Aussies thought this would be a permanent thing. Of course, it wasn't.
- 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.
- Francophilia. Speaking French was required in the high levels of the Mexican government, and many Russian aristocrats (especially women, who didn't have to deal with politicians or business concerns) spoke only French. For a time, French was the Lingua Franca of the western world, so speaking French implied that you were worldly.
- American interest in ancient Egypt peaked with both the discovery of King Tutankhamen'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.
- Glee and High School Musical seem to be doing this for glee clubs/choruses.
- 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 Seventies (Star Blazers) and The Eighties (Robo Tech) 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.
- Thanks to The Sopranos and especially Jersey Shore, the state of New Jersey and Italian-American culture (which apparently means "every guido/Mafia/party kid stereotype known to man") have "enjoyed" this, with reality shows like Jerseylicious, The Real Housewives of New Jersey, and Jersey Couture cashing in. Actual NJ residents and Italians aren't too happy about it.
- 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.
- The release of The Fast and the Furious in 2001 created an obsession with tuner culture, in which people took seemingly "uncool" compact cars, turned them into high-performance machines, and (at least in the movie) used them to competed in illegal, high-stakes races on crowded city streets. Hollywood cashed in with films like Biker Boyz and Torque (as well as turning F&F into a franchise that is still going strong), while the video game industry likewise responded with the Midnight Club series and by shifting the focus of the Need for Speed franchise from exotic cars to souped-up, modern-day hot rods. And to say nothing of all the wannabe "boy racers" out there...
- 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, the Dawn of the Dead remake, 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 Eighties. 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 Seventies 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 a 'Twilight Zone' episode), 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.
- Hackers in The Nineties, thanks to the rise of the internet and the dot-com bubble.
- In the early years of the 21st century, Texas Hold 'Em Poker experienced a huge boom in popularity thanks to the rise of online poker sites, the invention of the hole-card camera (which made poker entertaining to watch as a spectator sport), and the 1998 film Rounders, which at least a few poker champions have named as having gotten them interested in the game. Virtually overnight, casinos started adding poker rooms (in prior years, poker rooms had been done away with to make room for more slot machines) and hosting tournaments, people started having poker nights at their homes with groups of friends, and ESPN's broadcast of the World Series of Poker became a highly-rated television event. In 2003, accountant Chris Moneymaker worked his way up from a $39 online tournament to a WSOP Main Event title, taking poker's popularity to yet another level and ushering in a wave of young hotshots. Casino Royale even had its iconic baccarat scene changed to Texas Hold 'Em for the film adaptation.
- The BDSM subculture/lifestyle in the early 2010s, largely thanks to the erotic novel Fifty Shades of Grey. Many couples started buying fetish gear and trying out the kinky sex moves from that book, stores like Spencer's Gifts started carrying handcuffs and ropes in their lingerie/sex toy sections, and women's lifestyle magazines such as Cosmopolitan came up with their own Shades-inspired moves.
- The early 2000s marked the beginning of the pop cultural fascination with forensic science. Shows like CSI: Crime Scene Investigation started the trend, followed by many others. Once these shows started to become popular, schools offering education in forensic science actually saw an upswing in young people registering for such courses. Unfortunately, since most of these shows are very highly dramatized, they also saw a huge drop-out rate, once many of the students realized that actual forensic science is quite difficult, involves very few car chases, and has almost nothing to do with wearing sunglasses.
- Thanks to cold war intrigue and the success of the James Bond franchise, The Sixties 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!.
- 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 40 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.
- The American surfin' craze of the early-mid '60s influenced everything from music (The Beach Boys, Surf City, Surfin' Bird, Jan & Dean, Surfin' USA, etc, etc, etc) to film (numerous "beach party" movies and the Beatles' second movie Help!) to lingo (hang ten, big kahuna, etc) to comic books (Stan Lee's Silver Surfer in the Fantastic Four being most prominent among them).
- After World War II, the return of American servicemen from the Pacific produced an infatuation with South Pacific (particularly Polynesian/Hawaiian) culture that lasted through the '50s and into the early '60s.