As early as 2006, well before the reverse chronology of blogs and the early Facebook gave way to the algorithmic soup of Instagram, Spotify and TikTok, Winehouse sensed that the real digital revolution in culture would not be in production, in the machines that artists used to make music or movies or books. It would be in reception: on the screens where they (where we) encountered culture, on which past and present are equidistant from each other. One upshot of this digital equation of past and present has been a greater disposability of culture: an infinite scroll and nothing to read, an infinite Netflix library with nothing to watch. Though pop music still throws up new stars now and then (I do really like Ice Spice), the market for new music fell behind older music in the middle of the last decade, and even the records that sell, or stream, cannot be said to have wide cultural impact. (The most popular single of 2022 in the United States was “Heat Waves,” a TikTok tune by a British alternative-pop group with little public profile called Glass Animals; and what’s weirdest is that it was recorded in 2020.)
Outside of time there can be no progress, only the perpetual trying-on of styles and forms. Here years become vibes — or “eras,” as Taylor Swift likes to call them. And if culture is just a series of trends, then it is pointless to worry about their contemporaneity. There was a charming freakout last year when Kate Bush’s 1985 single “Running Up That Hill” went to the top of the charts after its deployment on yet another nostalgic television show, and veterans of the big-hair decade were horrified to see it appear on some 2022 playlists alongside Dua Lipa and the like. If you think the song belongs to 1985 in the way “Young Lady in 1866” belonged to 1866, the joke is now officially on you.
Down at the baseline where cultural innovation used to happen, in the forms that artists once put together to show us something new — in the sounds of the recording studio, the shapes on the canvas, the movements of the dancers, the arrangements of the verse — something has stopped, or at least slowed to such a lethargic pace as to feel stopped. Such a claim may sound familiar if you were around for the postmodernism debates of the 1980s. The philosopher Arthur Danto averred that art ended with Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes, while the literary critic Fredric Jameson declared in 1984 that the whole of modernity was “spent and exhausted,” that there was no more style, indeed no more self, and that “the producers of culture have nowhere to turn but to the past: the imitation of dead styles.” As for the influence of digital media, as early as 1989 the cultural theorist Paul Virilio identified a “polar inertia” — a static pileup of images and words with no particular place to go — as the inevitable endpoint for culture on a “weightless planet” constituted of ones and zeros.
And yet looking back now, the “postmodern” turn of the later 20th century looks much more like a continuation of the modernist commitment to novelty than a repudiation of it. John Cage’s noteless composition “4’33″” was no last music, but flowered into the impostures of Fluxus and the ambient experiments of Brian Eno. The buildings of Frank Gehry and Zaha Hadid did look like nothing that came before, thanks in part to new rendering and fabrication technologies (CAD software, laser cutting machines). The digitally produced music of Massive Attack and even, I hate to say it, Moby did sound different from what was on the radio 10 years before. No one style could be called the true vanguard anymore, sure — but that did not preclude the perpetual discovery of new ones. The forecast at the end of the 20th century was a plurality of new images and sounds and words, powered perhaps by new, heavy desktop production machines.
Since the start of the 21st century, despite all recent digital accelerations of discovery and transmission, no stylistic innovations of equivalent scale have taken place. The closest thing we can point to has been in rap, where the staccato nihilism of drill, deeply conversant with YouTube and SoundCloud, would sound legitimately foreign to a listener from 2000. (When the teenage Chief Keef was rapping in his grandmother’s Chicago apartment, he was following in the tradition of Joyce and Woolf and Pound.) In fact, the sampling techniques pioneered in hip-hop and, later, electronic dance music — once done with piles of records, now with folders of WAV files — have trickled down into photography, painting, literature and lower forms like memes, all of which now present a hyperreferentialism that sets them slightly apart from the last century’s efforts. In the 2010s, hip-hop alone seemed to be taking the challenge of digital progress seriously, though it, too, has calcified since; having switched from linear writing and recording of verses to improvising hundreds of one-verse digital takes, rappers now seem to be converging on a single, ProTools-produced flow.