One of my favorite things in culture are the odd little pockets of music and television and books that pop-up now again. Some theme or topic will see the light for a few years, fueled by something in the water. One of these is the teenage death songs from the 1960s. Filled with aching and/or hilarious stories of young love cut short by catastrophic car accidents, songs like Last Kiss, Tell Laura I Love Her,and Teen Angel are wonderful little time capsules of a world that had finally started to travel too fast. Literally.
Then you have the nuclear monster movies of the 1950s coming both from here (Them!) and not surprisingly from Japan (Godzilla). These movies were so overt in their reaction to the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki that it’s almost incorrect to call it a collective unconscious. The fear of the nuclear age (and of being eaten by giant ants) was on their sleeve.
These were things from my parents’ era though. From a personal stand-point, nothing touches the songs of nuclear annihilation that filled the radio waves in the early 1980s. It’s perhaps a bit hard to remember * just how real the Cold War tensions were back then when the USSR existed. But having just walked through an exhibit of 1980s art I can tell you that it (along with AIDS) was one of the main themes of the decade.
* It’s less difficult for me. Personally, the threat of nuclear annihilation was probably the most lasting fear I had as a child. In 1983 I somehow ended up watching The Day After (a made-for-TV movie about Kansas being blown up) and after that point lived in a near-constant state of anxious worry about our geo-political relations. I did not want to flash out of existence like all those people on the TV. It finally went away after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the dissolution of the Soviet. So… when I was seventeen.
Sting, in his usual hit-the-nail-on-the-head way, wrote “Russians.” But the shadow of nuclear war echoes through tons of other popular music, too. U2’s “Seconds.” Nena’s “99 Red Balloons” (or 99 Luftballons if you prefer the German version.) Prince’s “1999.” Europe’s brilliant hair-metal rock anthem “Final Countdown.” “Leningrad” by Billy Joel, which is right up there with Sting for its overt literalness. And finally, my favorite from the era, Alphaville’s “Forever Young” which, weirdly enough became my senior year prom theme. Because who doesn’t want to celebrate the closing of their youth with an ode to being blown up before you can get old?
We often don’t take the time, but I do think it’s possible to point out the weird quirks of this generation. What’s fueling them may be somewhat harder to pin down.
The biggest shadow over our current world is obviously life after 9/11 with the rise of terrorism and the emergence of radical Islam as a threat. That’s at the heart of what Vince Flynn and a lot modern political thriller writers are doing. Throw in the role of the Israel in end-times prophecy and you have Left Behind and Joel Rosenberg as well. (One of the more interesting analogies for me, are the Jason Bourne films. A trained killer who now questions his orders and is trying to find meaning for the violence is one of the better metaphors for our time in Afghanistan.)
The second lingering shadow is the crash of our economy and the fear that the world as we know it somehow isn’t on a trajectory toward “better and better” anymore. So it’s no surprise that this anxiety can fuel dystopian fiction.
It’s not a surprise that in a world whose problems seem massive and completely unsolvable that superheroes might re-emerge. The Avengers aren’t solving our health care crisis, but isn’t it nice to see someone on the screen fixing things that seem impossible?
The vampire thing, I’m less sure about. We’re scared of getting old, I guess. We’re always scared of dying. Immortality used to be offered by religion but that seems passe, even offensive, now. So perhaps that makes sense.
And it’s clear as a bell that in a world falling deeper into technology, planting itself more often in front of a screen (he says, while planted in front of a monitor) that one of the most appealing worlds might be one without any of that. No cords. No need to re-charge anything or find 4G service. Heck, no zippers. Just dirt and a horse and a shoo-fly pie. Beverly Lewis was writing massively successful Amish fiction since 1997. Some folks hadn’t even gotten email addresses back then. It didn’t explode as a genre until the world fully went digital . . . and it’s among the great ironies that Amish fiction hit its peak just as ebooks and Kindle emerged. Talk about a society saying two different things.
These things aren’t manufactured. (At least not at first. Later, when everyone jumps on, yes, they’re manufactured.) Rather they emerge because artists are taking the fears of the age giving them voice. Or the anger of the age. But usually the fear. Because one of the things that art can do, is it can help us face what scares us. It can place it in context, it can show us we’re not alone. It gives us courage that there are answers.
So what are people talking about? What concerns them? And how can that fuel your writing? It can be the stakes of your story, or you can twist and play with it until it’s just there under the surface. Nuclear annihilation packed into a tight chorus and three minutes of pure pop.