The concept of generations, as we currently use the term, would have made no sense to people living throughout most of human history. “Before the 19th century,” writes Sarah Leskow at The Atlantic, “generations were thought of as (generally male) biological relationships within families—grandfathers, sons, grandchildren and so forth.” The word did not describe common traits shared by, “as one lexicographer put it in 1863, ‘all men living more or less at the same time.’”
The theory was thoroughly ingested into mass culture, as anyone can tell from social media wars and the fixations of newspaper columnists. One such correspondent weighed in a few years ago with a contrarian take: “Your generational identity is a lie,” wrote Philip Bump at The Washington Post in 2015. (He makes an exception for Baby Boomers, for reasons you’ll have to read in his column.)
All this debunking is to the good. While scholars routinely investigate the origins of contemporary ideas, too often the rest of us take for granted that our present ways of seeing the world are timeless and eternal.
Yet, whether generations are a real phenomenon or a cultural construction, globalized mass media of the past several decades ensures that no matter where we come from, most people born around the same time will share some set of near-identical experiences—of listening to the same music, watching the same films, TV shows, etc. Given the way our thinking can be shaped by formative moments in pop culture, we’re bound to have a few things in common if we had access to Hollywood film and MTV. Maybe what most defines generations as we know them now is culture as commodity.
Take the video series featured here. Each one cuts together 50 songs released in a single year, beginning in 1979, along with video montages of some of the year’s most popular artists. Created by The Hood Internet, “a DJ and production duo from Chicago, known for their expertise in mashups and remixes,” the series could serve as a lab experiment to test the emotional reactions of people born at different times. We may have all heard these songs by now. But only those who heard them in their youth will have the nostalgic reactions we associate with generational memory, since music, as David Toop writes at The Quietus, is “a memory machine.”
Everyone else could stand to learn something about what the 80s looked and sounded like. As a historical period, it tends to get cast in a fairly narrow mold, with synthpop and hair metal defining the extent of 80s music. The pop music of the decade was fabulously diverse, with genres cross-pollinating in what turn out to be surprisingly harmonious ways in these mashup videos. The creators of the series worked their way up to 1987, and we get to see some dramatic shifts along the way that further complicate the idea of 80s music, even for those who heard these songs when they came out, and who have nine years of formative moments to go with them. See all of the videos on The Hood Internet’s YouTube channel.