Perfect Sound Forever

Cyclorama: The 20 Year Rule

Celtic artwork ©1995-2002, Cari Buziak

By Gregg Juke (June 2002)

There is a time-worn adage that says "everything old is new again." How true it is. Especially when applied to the subject of popular culture, and specifically, popular music.

 In a recent Perfect Sound Forever article, author Richie Unterberger decries the resurgence of 1970's AOR music. It's possible to see where he, as so many who have gone before him, has missed the bigger picture; the causality behind the '70's redux that would have allowed us to predict its coming ahead of time.

 As everyone who has been at least tangentially involved in the "culture business," and specifically, the music industry (even the astute outside observer) is aware, many aspects of the music business are cyclical. Certain business and aesthetic areas of popular music experience this death and rebirth phenomenon on a regular basis reminiscent of the timeless struggle between Vishnu and Shiva in some lost Hindu epic (characterized in the Led Zeppelin classic "The Battle of Evermore"). General cultural phenomena (hipsterism, fat ties, skinny ties, Star Trek) and specific musical styles and artists ("Classic Rock," Country, Blues, Jazz, and the perennial Beatles) enjoy recurring popularity. Let's look at a few of these recurring cycles, before examining exactly why the '70's/Retro craze should have been so predictable.

 Cyclical phenomena in the music business include several varieties. The "Indie Company/Major Consolidation" cycle in the recording and publishing businesses (whereby market and cultural factors entice entrepreneurs to start independent record labels catering to a new or under-represented style of music, which leads to commercial success, which leads to major labels and corporations purchasing the independent companies and the cycle starting all over again) is a well established paradigm that was probably documented first by Charlie Gillet in his book The Sound of the City: The Rise of Rock and Roll. The cycle that drives the Indie-Major machine is often perceived as no cycle at all, but actually could be called the "New Decade/Next Big Thing" cycle- somewhere, in some small town in the U.S. or abroad, something is brewing that none of are expecting, but nonetheless will emerge to become the next wave in the pop music continuum (think of the '20's as the "Jazz Age," '30's and '40's as the "Swing Era," '50's as the birth of Rock & Roll, the '60's as the era of the emergence of Motown, Soul, the Beatles, and "Hard Rock," the '70's as the incubator for Disco and Punk, the 80s as the New Wave, Heavy Metal, and later the Hip-Hop era, the early '90's as Grunge, etc., etc., and you will begin to understand this cycle). There is what one could call the "Anomaly Cycle": the recurring (but unpredictable) popularity of Swing, Ska/Reggae, Country, Blues, and the Beatles. There is also a "Cover Song Cycle," in which various "standards" and popular songs of bygone days are "rediscovered" and performed and recorded as new versions, often to great acclaim.

 All of these recurring phenomena are well known and documented through disparate sources; but is there a predictable cadence? What, if any, could be counted as a unifying or over-arching factor? Is there a cycle that drives or impacts the others?

 Perhaps the most cyclical, the most predictable, and maybe the most influential (yet somehow most overlooked) of all the cultural/musical cycles is something that we could call the "20 Year Rule." In simple terms, the 20 Year Rule expresses the concept that something that is popular now (a style of music or particular artist, a fashion or a "look") will be popular again 20 years from now, give or take a few years either way (a possible range of 15 to 25 years, the mean cycle averaging almost exactly 20). There are always two main waves of popular music moving through the mainstream at any given time-the "new"/currently popular, and the "retro" (generally music that was initially popular 20 years, or two decades, earlier). This also seems true, perhaps to a somewhat lesser extent, for non-musical but related cultural trends.

 In the '70's, we saw the initial rise of the "Oldies" radio format, seemingly creating an unstoppable groundswell of interest in everything "'50's"- music (of course), leather jackets, poodle skirts, diners, and motorcycles. The '70's were the '50's: Happy Days, American Graffiti (ostensibly a movie about the '60's, but featuring "greasers" and '50's music), The Buddy Holly Story, Grease, and an incredible explosion of '50's cover bands on the local and national scenes (led by television darlings Sha-Na-Na), along with attendant use of '50's style music in radio and TV commercials.

 In the 1980's, along with the then popular New Wave (and later "Hair Metal") bands, we experienced a major '60's rehash, spurred on by films like The Wanderers, Eddie and the Cruisers, and The Big Chill, which helped to re-popularize Motown and Soul music, along with a related explosion in the marketability of bands like the Doors, and more cover band activity and advertising use of '60's music.

 By the time the '90's rolled around, along with the high profile and huge record sales attained by R&B, Hip-Hop, Grunge, and Alternative artists, we also saw a major trend towards retro-'70's music and culture- "Classic Rock" radio formats, the second "Disco explosion" (with movies Studio 54 and Boogie Nights, and the traveling party "The World's Largest Disco"), the proliferation of networks such as VH1, with their then Behind the Music/'70's-centric focus. The '90's also saw the "jam band" phenomenon (which could plausibly be argued is a rehash of '60's and '70's psychedelia), the return of Punk and the "D.I.Y." movement, and such culturally barometric movies and TV shows as The Brady Bunch and That 70s Show. In the ultimate double-whammy 20 year redux example, the film Grease enjoyed a renaissance in the late '90's, 20 years after its initial release, creating a unique 40 year effect (1959-1979, 1979-1999).

 And in the 2000's? Someone who has been predicting for several years that "In 2002, 1982 will be the next best thing since sliced bread" would not be disappointed by early indicators of the tried and true transformative power of the 20 Year Rule. Examples include, in no particular order, the unmitigated sampling, covering, and general mania in the Hip-Hop community for anything "Old School," the return of Break-Dancing, the re-release of films such as E.T. and new, made-for-TV movies like The Gilda Radner Story; television exhibiting an 80s focus with SCTV and Hill St. Blues reruns, and VH1 becoming '80's-centric... the resurgence of popular 80s bands such as Blondie and the Go-Gos, comeback attempts by artists like Vanilla Ice, radio and TV commercials with a decidedly "'80's feel;" an obvious '80's influence espoused by currently popular bands like Korn (their latest single "Falling Through Time"), jazz cover versions of '80's hits like Roxy Music's "More Than This," a renewed interest in touring by '80's New Wave and Hair Metal bands alike; "That 70s Show" morphing into "That 80s Show," and the leading indicator that any musical era is experiencing a marketable resurgence, the ubiquitous Time-Life "80s Package" ("where else could you find so many great songs from the '80's in just one collection?!?").

 The Time-Life collection is a strong (and curious) indicator for a few reasons. Of course, each preceding decade of the Rock/Pop era had its Time-Life retrospective treatment-the '50's, '60's, and '70's. But what is more interesting is the packaging itself; music and cultural innovations do not necessarily occur in neat, decade-long epochs. The popular music of 1962 has a lot more to do with the music of 1955 than say, that of 1967 or '69. The R&B of the early '90's is much closer in style to that of the late 80s than it is the late '90's. Innovation in music occurs at much less regular intervals than marketing and promotion people would have us believe, usually across artificially imposed chronological boundaries like "decade packaging." What decade packaging of pop music does do, however, is make it easier for our aging minds and memories to grasp some element of time-based recognition, for nostalgia to have its simple way-"Ah, I remember how great the '80's were..."

 Which leads us to some clues as to why the 20 Year Rule works. Every 20 years or so, a new generation collectively comes to terms with adulthood, reassesses itself, its culture and achievements, and pines for the "good old days"-high school fun without the responsibility of family and career. At the same time, a younger generation "discovers" the music and trends of 20 years past; popular music from 10 years prior, even 5, is "old" and "corny," while vintage 20-year old music is "retro" and "cool."

 Still unconvinced? Ian Whitcomb, in his monumental pop music tomb After The Ball, documents (without comment, and perhaps unknowingly) the effects of the 20 Year Rule reaching back into the 19th century, the dawn of what we now call "popular music." Through this and other sources (Ben Sidran's Black Talk, for instance) you will find all the precedent you need-the resurgence of various early pop music forms (Barbershop Quartet/"Gay '90's," Ragtime, so-called "Dixieland" Jazz, and more) almost to the date 20 years after their greatest initial cultural impact (not necessarily the period of their creation or innovation).

 So what of the future? If I were you, I'd lose a little weight and see if those spandex pants still fit, and looking ahead slightly, I'd say keep those M.C. Hammer and Nirvana discs in good shape-the original pressings will be fetching a pretty penny somewhere between 2010 and 2020...

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