Two decades later, is history repeating itself?
"Star Wars: Episode One" will arrive next year -- in a post-Zippergate, post-grunge, post-"Seinfeld" world, when 18-to-49-year-olds are waxing nostalgic for childhood symbols of innocence and simplicity, be it John Travolta, the VW Beetle or "Star Wars" -- that wholesome intergalactic shoot-'em-up fantasy from their childhood.
WEARY OF CYNICISM
Pop culture is growing weary of its own cynicism. Out: bad boy Dennis Rodman. In: good guy Kobe Bryant. Out: "Just do it." In: "I can." From movies to comic books, music to mixed media, pop culture is pining for change, seeking something to believe in -- or at least a fun, frothy party.
Will consumers belly up to the bar? In titanic numbers, judging by "Titanic." The movie has grossed more than $600 million in the U.S. Its soundtrack has sold 12 million units. Books about the movie and the disaster on which it is based hit best-seller lists.
"Here we are in the midst of a deeply cynical, pre-millennium age . . . and the country is losing its heart to a movie that's 100% cynicism-free," observed Newsweek in March. "Titanic" is the mere tip of the iceberg.
You want romance teens won't laugh at? In the wake of teen faves "Titanic" and "Good Will Hunting," the creator of "Scream" is now plotting a deconstruction of the romantic comedy that reaffirms the power of the genre, just as "Scream" dissected horror flicks while scaring the bejesus out of viewers.
You want religion? This Christmas, DreamWorks gets biblical with "The Prince of Egypt," an animated musical about the life of Moses (sans a blasphemous Happy Meal tie-in). You want superheroes who don't brood in darkness? Next summer sees Disney's earnest, irony-free "Tarzan" and the aforementioned "Star Wars: Episode One."
COMIC BOOKS LEADERS
The movies are playing catch-up to comic books. Until recently, the superhero genre was preoccupied with mythic deconstruction and pulp fiction. Good guys were fascist vigilantes, motivated by sexual insecurities or obsessive vengeance -- and often barely distinguishable from the bad guys.
Yet more traditional archetypes have made a comeback. "Astro City" rehashes 50 years of superhero lore into a wholly original mythology. The protagonist in "Starman" is a punk-spirited, retro-minded slacker who takes up Dad's super hero gig and learns to love truth, justice and the American way. "Kingdom Come" tells the story of an old guard of heroes who quash a revolt of reckless, self-destructive young wannabes -- a neat summary of the past decade of comic books.
POP MUSIC TRANSFORMED
Pop music is pining for transformation as well. Out: durable acts and artists as generational spokespeople. In: one-hit wonders and party pop. Bubblegum acts Hanson, Spice Girls and Celine Dion chew up the charts. Grunge mopers like Pearl Jam have lost much of their relevancy.
Alternative rock now bubbles with pop-tinged ska and swing. Tragedy and excess have weakened the vitality of the gangsta trope in hip-hop. The genre's current godfathers -- Puff Daddy and Master P -- are ditching the Mafia don motif for that of mogul/CEO. 1970s soul is back, via re-energized R&B; '80s pop is back, via rap samples and radio's hot "modern rock" format.
The Next Big Thing, electronica, is populated by clever practitioners who specialize in dense dance music and loopy self-consciousness. But the more familiar brand names have appropriated techno yearn for something to believe in. On "Ray of Light," Madonna owns up to the vacuousness of her past ways and boasts how Eastern mysticism and a daughter have filled her up. U2's "Pop" seeks salvation in rock 'n' roll, but finds only paradox and emptiness; it concludes by pleading for the second coming of Christ.
TRANSITION FROM MEANINGLESS
In other media, culture is transitioning from meaningless to meaning. The love affair with angels has yet to subside, evidenced by this spring's surprise movie hit "City of Angels." All genres, not just literature, are preoccupied with historical fiction, playfully revising the past or concocting new mythologies to create meaningful histories. TV's post-"Seinfeld" touchstones are about frustrated yet truly heroic quests for objective truth ("The X-Files"), human decency ("ER") and romantic love ("Ally McBeal") in a post-modern world.
Consumers are sick and tired of being betrayed by false promises. Advertising understands this too well. So irony has become media's colloquial language, employed like oven mitts to hold that which we fear will burn us. The problem with irony is that it can obscure meaning; the anti-cynicism trend demands clarity.
Recently, a marketing executive at Saban Entertainment, discussing whether youth culture contributed a small part to the schoolyard slayings in Arkansas, noted that parents seem to be searching for entertainment that's "less morally ambiguous." If Hollywood is to feed that, better for it to serve up more nutritional myths. Saban will position its own "Power Rangers" franchise in that way.
Therein lies the reason the entertainment industry will boldly try to save our souls: money. Sure, there will be a market for dissent, stoked by the marketers that control alternative-culture; extreme sports and "South Park" generate big bucks for ESPN and Comedy Central, respectively. (But both are chump change compared to the mythologies of the National Football League and "The Lion King.")
There will inevitably be a backlash against this iteration of anti-cynicism. Johnny-come-latelys will ruin the whole thing for everyone with formulaic product that tars as phony the whole movement. Some real-world politician will bend the law; some role model will screw up; and a generation will put down superheroes, give Dad the finger, sing angry songs and suddenly discover "Catcher in the Rye."
To quote a new song from the clever techno lads in Propellerhead: "Newspapers shout, `A new style is brewing!'/But it don't know if it's coming or going/There is fashion; there is fad/Some is good; some is bad/And the joke is rather sad/That it's all just a little bit of history repeating."
Or maybe I'm just cynical.
Jeff Jensen, a reporter in Advertising Age's Los Angeles bureau, covers entertainment marketing.