It is common in many interpretations of history for discrete events to become place markers, separating the experience of one decade from its neighbors. For instance, the ’90s began with the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989, and ended 11 years, ten months, and two days later, when the first plane hit the World Trade Center.
Those in the future may be able to pinpoint with equal clarity when the 2010s began, but at the moment the starting line seems fuzzy (as does the question, with less than two weeks left in the calendar, of whether we are actually still in them). The best I can figure is, they definitely kicked off somewhere in a 26-month stretch: beginning with the Wall Street collapse of September 2008, continuing through Barack Obama’s election that November, the Tea Party protests of the subsequent spring, and ending with the Republican capture of the House of Representatives in the 2010 midterms. This two-year period saw the birth of the trends that would define the decade. The postcrash economic landscape birthed a culture of precarity; in this age of austerity, some retreated into momentary pleasure-seeking, while others found a new class consciousness. The brief period of hope and change set in motion by the 2008 election quickly soured into political gridlock, kicking off a low-grade culture war. Pop culture became the new battleground, as celebrities from Beyoncé to Taylor Swift found themselves transformed into ideological signposts. All the while, constant technological change sped up the pace of life, as the proliferation of smartphones created a new image-powered sphere where information spread further, faster, and with less context than ever before.
What follows is a three-part attempt to explicate the cultural dynamics of these years, to figure out what made the ’10s the ’10s. As a recap of the decade, it is by nature incomplete — the view from 30,000 feet leaves all sorts of details out. Just as those who read the early medieval historian Bede must account for the fact that he spent most of his life in a Northumbrian monastery, I must likewise note that this record is being written by a white, male, millennial journalist who lived in New York City for the entire decade, and was only unemployed for one four-month stretch at the beginning of 2011. The author also spent way too much time on Twitter, which has given him an intimate knowledge of byzantine social media feuds, but has also possibly destroyed his prefrontal cortex. With the acknowledgment that all history is inherently subjective, let’s dive in.
Keep on Dancin’ Till the World Ends
The age of EDM, Four Loko, and a little place called the Jersey Shore.
We’ve Come Too Far to Give Up Who We Are
Obama’s second term was an era of new voices, new controversies, and new shades of pink.
Illustration key, clockwise from top left: Thor’s hammer from Avengers; Ned Stark from Game of Thrones holds his sword; zombies from The Walking Dead; Pauly D from Jersey Shore; Miley Cyrus grinds Robin Thicke; deer skull from True Detective; a green juice; a machine gun and pink ski mask from Spring Breakers; Ariana Grande; Donald Trump; the logo for Sebastian’s jazz club in La La Land; the tea cup from Get Out with Daniel Kaluuya’s face on the surface; the guinea pig from Fleabag; the stars of Crazy Rich Asians walk on top of mahjong stones; Beyoncé in her yellow dress from the “Hold Up” video; BoJack Horseman; Kim Kardashian uses a selfie stick; the doorbell from the Book of Mormon logo