Green Day's Dookie and the Peak of Western Civilization

From a historian's perspective, it's probably impossible to pinpoint the exact year humanity — or at least the rich, Western portion of it  — peaked. There are thousands of related theories out there, many even offering up the zany possibility that it hasn't yet.

So maybe it's unfair of me to make a grand pronouncement by cherry-picking points from a few theories offered by various branches of the academy. I'm not post-graduately qualified to discuss such theories.

It seems pretty clear to me, though: Popular culture peaked in 1994.

Green Day, as they looked in 1994.
Green Day, as they looked in 1994.

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First, I guess I should back up and explain that humanity has, in fact, peaked. Sadly, humans are getting dumber. By the late 1990s, The Flynn Effect — a phenomenon whereby each generation had a steadily increasing IQ — no longer was in effect. Sure, SAT scores are on a steady upswing, but psychologists seem to be concluding that intelligence quotient (the best available measure of our raw intelligence) is slipping downward.

So, if these kids are dumber than we are, what chance have they to move things forward? Technology helps, of course, but a quick spin around YouTube or MySpace demonstrates that Final Cut or Pro Tools does not a Martin Scorsese or John Lennon make. Though I'm generally impressed with Creative Commons founder Lawrence Lessig's theories about how culture builds on itself (if you haven't seen RiP!: A Remix Manifesto, a.k.a. the Girl Talk documentary, you really should; it's the most important film I've seen in years), I don't think Lessig's theories are the answer here. While the process of perfecting the cultural artifacts left by previous generations with the assistance of technology may be the only reason pop culture didn't peak in 1969, I don't see this generation mastering that skill. Chances are, increasingly dull kids are just going to develop dumber and dumber premises for reality shows, eventually creating a culture something like what we see in the movie Idiocracy.

So, as I said, at this point, it's more a matter of identifying the peak.

Most generationologists (made-up word, real area of expertise) say that I, born in September 1980, am among the last of the X-ers, though a few lump me in with the Millennials, a.k.a. Generation Y. I don't feel much allegiance to either, to be honest, so I hope what I'm saying here isn't construed as a salvo in a generation war between Gen X and the much larger (three times larger, actually) crop of Millennials. Either way, the point remains: Cultural artifacts most associated with Gen X likely represent the pinnacle of Western Civilization. And the production of such artifacts reached its zenith 15 years ago.

It was the year Kurt Cobain killed himself. It was the year the grunge generation threw itself a huge party (Woodstock '94) that very nearly matched what its parents had done. It was the year that saw the release of over a dozen records so legendary I don't need to list the artist that made each one for you to understand their significance: Smash, Illmatic, Parklife, Superunknown, The Downward Spiral, The Blue Album, Definitely Maybe, Too High To Die, Mellow Gold, Far Beyond Driven, Southernplayalisticadillacmuzik, Bee Thousand, and Under the Table and Dreaming. If the rest of the 1990s had never happened, 1994 alone would have made for a good decade of music. Perhaps better than the first decade of this century.

It wasn't just music, either. A great many of the films that defined the 1990s came out in 1994: Pulp Fiction, Clerks, Forrest Gump, Reality Bites, Natural Born KillersThe Crow, Dumb and Dumber, The Shawshank Redemption, and Speed.

A crop of TV shows that debuted that year was also pretty impressive: Friends, My So-Called Life, Ellen, Party of Five, and ER.

Reading over those lists it's obvious: There may well have been a year that matched 1994 sometime in the '40s, '50s or '60s, but there sure hasn't been one since. I, for one, seriously doubt there will be again. The Internet has made popular culture too diffuse, making it impossible to gather the sort of critical mass necessary to launch an all-encompassing mega-trend like grunge. And, like I said, kids are dumber now, so they'd probably fuck it up, anyway.

So, for me, it's all about 1994. For all those reasons and one more, my personal favorite artistic product of the year: Green Day's Dookie.

Released on February 1, 1994, with little fanfare, the Grammy-winning third album by a Berkeley trio made up of Billie Joe Armstrong, Mike Dirnt, and Tre Cool was 39 minutes of pure pop-rock bliss. Fresh, catchy as hell, and filled with 14 great songs, it likely would have been a hit no matter what was going on in the culture at large. But when, two months after Dookie came out, Kurt Cobain's shotgun blast murdered the genre he'd inadvertently started, it became an essential record. Speaking as a highly impressionable seventh-grader at the time, I know that after Kurt killed grunge, listening to my cassette copy of In Utero was bittersweet. I needed to latch on to something new, something less nihilistic but no less potent. Dookie was it.

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This is just absolutely one of the most inane things I've ever read. This drivel makes it clear that you're at least six or seven times less qualified to write about music than Sarah Ventre, with or without the Beach Boys.

the REAL s. gnash
the REAL s. gnash

this is the most stupid fucking bullshit i have ever read in my entire life. and at 72, i've seen a lot of bullshit, from the fall of saigon to the carter administration, the discovery disaster to viagra, but this tops it all.

martin cizmar, you are fucking out of your mind.

Mike R. Meyer
Mike R. Meyer

I don't hold Green Day in as high regard as you do, but I certainly agree with the basic premise that pop culture peaked from about '91 to '94.

Even more great albums from 1994:GraceBettyChocolate and CheeseWelcome to Sky ValleyIll CommunicationMagnifiedSelflessStoner WitchTicalDummy Under The PinkDo You Want More?!!!??!

It was a helluva year...

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