The Extending of our Pop Culture Memories

Has pop culture stopped evolving?

This has been an observation I’ve been mulling over lately and I cannot tell if is because I’m a 43-year-old man who’s gotten old or if there really is a phenomenon worth observing.

I'm 30-ish, and I also have the feeling that something's been different about the last 20 or so years, and my theory is that around the mid-90s the old stuff stopped going away, largely due to two key technologies reaching maturity around that time: VCRs and Cable TV.

For a long time, the best you could do in terms of recording TV shows was recording the audio with a tape recorder and trying to remember the accompanying visuals when you play it back. Then VCRs went on the market, but they were expensive and most people couldn't afford a lot of blank tapes, so they would just record one tape over and over until it wore out and had to be replaced. By the mid-90s, just about everyone had a VCR and you could buy 4 blank tapes - 24 hours of recording on EP - for something like $20. This made it really easy to accumulate important pop culture and news moments for posterity, as long as you could keep track of which stuff was on which tape.

Cable TV allowed shows and movies to be rerun essentially indefinitely, especially once the aforementioned VCRs opened up all hours of the day to virtually all TV viewers that had a subscription to TV Guide. Once a critical mass of the population had Cable in the 90s, even moderately popular shows stuck around in a way that the most popular shows of the 70s or 80s never could. I totally missed the initial runs of Boy Meets World and The X-Files, for example, but spent plenty of time watching their reruns on Basic Cable as a teenager during the mid-2000s. Cable TV also introduced me to a whole bunch of fairly obscure 90s movies that I doubt that I would have ever heard of otherwise.

Both of these trends got compounded by later advancements in tech. When online video sharing first became a thing, people picked the best/most notable clips out of their tape collections to upload, then those uploads became popular online, then eventually they all ended up on YouTube. The TV shows that were most successful on Cable reruns were the first to be released on DVD, and the shows that sold best on DVD were the first to get picked up by Netflix, and then the first to get poached by Hulu.

Go ahead and try to find a popular 90s show to watch: there's a better than even chance that it'll be on one of the Big 3 subscription streaming services. Now try to find one from the 80s: there's a good chance that your only option will be to buy a DVD box set.

The result is that the bulk of 90s and onward pop culture has been immediately available in a way that only the music, and after video rental became a thing the major movies, from previous decades ever were. This has an impact on people's formative years, resulting in fashions not changing quite as much and so on.

I think that this has impacts beyond pop culture and fashion trends. A while back, funereal-disease did a Tumblr survey that found that people's ideas of "middle aged" and "old" names are roughly 20-30 years out of date. Ever notice how often in debates over the Incel issue people talk about "the Sexual Revolution" as if it was something that happened within living memory, even though most people who were adults before the 1960s are now dead? Why did the issue of illegal immigration over the Mexican border became more prominent in politics than ever in 2016, after nearly a decade of net-negative illegal immigration? Etc.

Granted, it's still largely the popular stuff that has stuck around, and if you really take a close look by watching old recorded VHS tapes in their entirety including the commercials or reading old news articles or just searching for more obscure shows, you'll find plenty of stuff that has not only gone away but been largely forgotten in mainstream discourse. Remember "X, my anti-drug"? Remember "dial down the center, 1-800-C-A-L-L-A-T-T"? Remember that brief moment in the early 2000s when everyone thought that female teen pop stars trying to be/pretending to be rock stars was the Next Big Thing in music, only for the trend to end spectacularly when one of them got caught lip synching on Saturday Night Live? But that's the thing: they're no longer around because they've faded from pop culture memory. There's comparatively little that's well-remembered but not immediately accessible the way that, just to pull an example out of a hat, Miami Vice is. And that, in turn, makes the past 3 decades seem somewhat less distinct in hindsight than the ones before them do.