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.
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 Killers, The 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.
Like Nevermind, Dookie has gone platinum 10 times over. The only "rock" records that have matched or topped that in the 15 years since are Hootie & the Blowfish's Cracked Rear View, Alanis Morissette's Jagged Little Pill, Santana's Supernatural, Matchbox 20's Yourself or Someone Like You, Creed's Human Clay, Kid Rock's Devil Without a Cause, and No Doubt's Tragic Kingdom.
To me, that makes Dookie the last massively impactful rock record of the music-selling era. Now, if you want to argue that Hootie, Rob Thomas, or Alanis are worthy of discussing alongside The Beatles, Metallica, and Pink Floyd, I won't bother to argue with you. To me, it seems pretty clear: Dookie was the last true splash rock 'n' roll has made in a way that's artistically, culturally, and commercially significant. It was the final cairn along a trail of mythologized rock albums that began with Rubber Soul and Pet Sounds.
I'm just thankful I was there to experience it. Like a lot of people, I got my first real exposure to Green Day watching their incendiary Woodstock '94 set on pay-per-view, seeing a purple-haired Billie Joe Armstrong throwing, catching and, finally, eating the mud a raucous crowd tore from the upstate New York earth. I wasn't there, but I got a taste of it that September when Green Day played at Blossom Music Center (Cleveland's version of Cricket Pavilion) three days before my 14th birthday.
Tickets were $5 — a steal even in those days — and the show was sold out. I had purchased early and ended up in the 13th row. It wasn't Woodstock, but it was the little taste of anarchy I appreciate in a great rock concert: Pot was smoked openly; a trip to the bathroom meant hearing the sound of sex in the nearby woods; the lawn of the gorgeous wood-shelled amphitheater was torn to shreds after a light rain made it soft enough to pull up and throw. The barriers keeping the lawn people back were overrun, stretching the pit back into the seats. The band, of course, was amazing.
I've gone to nearly 1,000 concerts since and, with a handful of exceptions, few have come close. I'm chasing the dragon.
But, like I said, we all are. We can argue about the exact dates, but human intelligence and pop culture have been on an obvious downward trend since sometime in the mid- to late 1990s. Happily, however, Green Day has continued on, releasing several classic records in the years since. They could do a three-hour set at U.S. Airways Center without playing a bad song. No, they've never topped Dookie, but no one else has, either.
And, if I'm right, no one ever will.