The Edgy Decade

Article excerpt

How it has happened is something that only future historians will be able to explain: somehow we have traveled halfway through the current decade without giving it a name. The absence of such a tag line is, apparently, sorely felt. The editors of the mass-circulation USA Weekend recently held a "Name That Decade" contest, but the best that 700 respondents could come up with was "the Whiny '90s."

This business of naming decades is relatively new. We've just left the Decade of Greed behind, having already survived the Me Decade that preceded it. It makes you wonder why we bothered to give them separate names. Before these twin decades of selfhood, with a few exceptions (the Roaring '20s), we were content to let decades speak for themselves.

Decades used to be eponymous. Two words, "the 1960s," conjure up a larger world of allusions than the entire text of the average modern novel--sexual revolution, political upheaval general Dionysian riot, you name it. Need an antidote? Try "the 1950s." It was the thesis for which the '60s became the grand Hegelian antithesis. Or, to put it in lay terms, "the 1950s" is a kind of verbal saltpeter.

To agree on a name for a decade is to agree not on its meaning but on the rules of an interpretive game about the state of American culture. Thus, "the 1950s" once had the quality of an expletive, containing in a way that even the most egregious swear word could not intimations of all that is oppressive, dull, and ordinary. Recently, however, the decade has undergone an intellectual facelift. Nobody is suddenly claiming that we didn't settle down, move to Levittown, and raise a family with Mom staying at home while Dad went off to work. The revisionists are not, in other words, contesting the essential character of the decade. Nor are they mere sentimentalists. They are saying that perhaps that character has a little more to recommend it than we have been willing to recognize.

Indeed, elsewhere in this issue Alan Ehrenhalt goes further, arguing that precisely those things that made the decade seem oppressive, dull, and ordinary to some--its restricted menu of personal and consumer choices, its willingness to take direction from authority--were two of its greatest virtues.

To name a decade rather than let it name itself is often to launch a pre-emptive rhetorical strike. If we really have just lived through the Decade of Greed, what's left to argue about? I believe, however, that these last days of the 20th century have already named themselves. There is a word that runs through the American consciousness today like the endless "omm" of the uber meditator so ubiquitous that we are only barely aware of its presence. The word is edge. We are living in the Edgy Decade.

"Edgy" has become decade's adjective of choice. It is everywhere. Heaping praise on a novel in the New York Times recently, reviewer Michiko Kakutani saluted the writer's "idiosyncratic vision and his ability to articulate that vision in wonderfully edgy, street-smart prose." The success of a new rock band is explained by a newspaper critic in terms of the group's "edgy but ethereal" sound. Edginess is apparently de rigueur in music: "Flutist To Bring Her Edgy, Progressive Sound To Town," promised a Houston Post headline recently. Edge is desirable even in children's entertainment. Casper, a movie based on the old children's cartoon and comic series, was panned the other day by a critic who explained that it just wasn't edgy enough. Scholars might say that the term exerts a kind of edgemony over popular criticism.

The edge is the place to be. In Washington, D.C., devotees of bondage, discipline, and other quaint sexual endeavors gathered this spring for a "Fetish Fest" at a nightclub called you-know-what. Edge is, if at all possible, the thing to be. …