Are There Alternating Cycles of Hot and Cool in American Cultural History? (Part 2 of 2)
In the first half of this essay, I suggested that historical eras (like styles of music) are either hot or cool.
I even offered a checklist—which you could use to find whether you are living in a hot period or a cool period.
I grew up in a cool culture. But that era has now ended. Right now, we are clearly sizzling in the hot zone.
The Honest Broker is a reader-supported guide to music, books, media & culture. Both free and paid subscriptions are available. If you want to support my work, the best way is by taking out a paid subscription.
Many generational differences are actually the result of these shifts in cultural temperature.
My parents, for example, came of age during the hotter era of the Great Depression and World War II. They were tough people raised in tough times. So when the cool ethos arrived in American culture during the 1950s—while they were entering middle age—they found it incomprehensible, much like I do with today’s hot, angry culture.
But even if I don’t like it, I recognize the reality of our current situation. By my measure, we are currently in the middle of a hot cycle that started around 9/11—although the groundwork for it was laid in the 1990s.
Google Ngram Viewer allows us to track the frequency with which certain words are used. As you can see from this chart of the entire cool-and-hot cycle, the hot words did start to gain momentum in the 1990s—although the trend has gained more traction in the last 10-20 years.
In the first installment, I tried to explain why these shifts happen. I drew on a range of heuristic models—such as Soros’s theory of reflexivity, or Girard’s theory of mimetic desire. These theories explain how entire societies move to extreme positions—which often make no sense from a rational or pragmatic perspective.
Each of these extremes—hot and cool— feeds on itself, until it reaches an unsustainable extreme. Eras of hot anger get too angry. Eras of cool passivity get too passive—and thus reach an unstable breaking point. This creates a turn in the cycle.
Maybe we are already seeing people fed up with hate, anger and contempt. I’m watching the culture for signs of this—wondering whether we are more aligned with Squid Game or Ted Lasso. Are we grooving to death metal or dream pop?
I’ve added my own twist to the concepts I’ve borrowed from other thinkers. My additions boil down to three things:
I’ve demonstrated that these cycles also apply to music and popular culture, as well as other forms of creative expression—not just economics and sociopolitics;
I define the cycles as alternating between periods of hot or cool;
I’ve tried to estimate the duration of each cycle—and have concluded that, once a new hot or cool phase begins, it tends to last for around 40 years, more or less.
So each shift happens slowly. If you’re living in a hot, violent cycle, it can feel like forever.
My conceptualization of hot-and-cool cycles started when I tried to write a book on the history of coolness. And I discovered—to my great surprise—that what I thought were timeless values (coolness, togetherness, laid back attitudes, tolerance, humor) had just been a passing phase in American culture.
They came. Then they went. They did not conquer.
If I had space, I’d make the case that the current alarming metrics of self-harm—suicide, depression, cutting, eating disorders, etc.—rise in tandem with the cultural temperature. Sad to say, people channel this cultural hostility at themselves. And this happens despite all the rhetoric about how much we care, how much we spend on programs, please call this hotline, etc.
The rhetoric is just that. The numbers tell the real story.
To understand why this was the case, I began examining other shifts in cultural history. I studied previous hot and cold cycles, going back to the Civil War.