I have another half-assed theory about how to evaluate a period’s history: Pop culture.
This is hardly new in itself — there are historians whose entire specialty is pop culture (and an entire “discipline,” so-called “American Studies,” where dorks who couldn’t cut it in a real history program write long jargony “dissertations” about comic books and South Park). But their productions are of limited value, because as you’ve probably guessed, it always turns out that CisHetPat Capitalism is at the root of everything.
Instead, I think you can get a pretty good line on a culture by looking at its most escapist entertainment forms, and assuming the opposite. Take horror movies, for example. Stephen King floated this idea in his weird, self-indulgent, obviously cocaine-fueled nonfiction book on horror, Danse Macabre. You don’t have to be Marshal McLuhan to see that the “big bug” movies of the 1950s were, like Godzilla, responses to our anxieties about nuclear technology. And techno-anxiety in general is one of the wellsprings of horror, starting with Frankenstein, both novel (1818) and movie (1931). But King takes it a step further in his discussion of The Amityville Horror movie (1979). At the depths of Carter’s stagflationary malaise, King heard an audience member behind him gasp “think of the bills!” as the demon wrecked the house. What an odd reaction!
But it makes sense in the context of the times. And watch what happens next — Carter’s out, Reagan’s in, and all of a sudden horror movies are about unstoppable spree killers: Friday the 13th (1980); A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984). Notice the overlap, too — an early spree killer movie in the last of the Carter years (Halloween, 1978), and a bill-busting haunted house movie in the early Reagan years (Poltergeist, 1982). And a few techno-horrors as the nuclear clock stays set at 11:59 — The Thing (1982); The Fly (1986). Even Romero’s zombie movies Dawn (1978) and Day of the Dead (1985), though usually read as critiques of consumer culture, are just as much about social breakdown — a whole world overrun with Jasons and Freddie Krugers.
Fast forward to the War on Terror years (notice how few true horror movies there were in the nice, safe, prosperous 1990s!). It’s either torture porn (Saw, 2004; Turistas, 2006) or demon possession (The Conjuring, 2013; Drag Me to Hell, 2009), or social breakdown (28 Days Later, 2002). They’re all about mere survival, against evil entities with no motivation except pain for its own sake, who strike anywhere, anytime, for no reason. Sound like anything in the Bush years? And they’re still going strong — cf. It Follows (2014).
Pop music follows a similar pattern. When there’s war, either actual or likely, you get nice bright shiny happy music – rock in the 50s and 60s, disco in the 70s, techno in the 80s, hedonistic tween pop now. But when things are great — as in the 1990s — you get songs about how awful everything is (grunge, nu metal). The only caveat here is that you have to look at what’s actually on the charts, not just what you think is going to be there — Hendrix and Jefferson Airplane never sniffed the top 10, and the only Doors songs to do so were treacly pop crap like “Touch Me.” Acidy stuff was there, but most “Sixties” music shared chart space with, and usually lost out to, crap like “Harper Valley PTA” and “Sugar Sugar” (the top song of 1969, the very year of Woodstock!).
It’s not perfect, but it’s a decent metric.