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The Twenty-Teens: The Most Sort-of Decade of All Time

All around us, we see the effects of living without a real decade

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Rob Sheffield Jan 02, 2020

The twenty-teens: the most sort-of decade of all time.

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So: We need to talk about the Teens. The decade that’s about to end. The one that began with Katy Perry doing an unironic Kenny G revival and is ending with Kanye West doing an unironic Kenny G revival. A decade full of iconic stars: Beyoncé, Taylor, Rihanna, Kendrick, Kacey, Robyn, Cardi, Lorde. But there’s a question haunting the Twenty-Teens: Was this a decade or not? It’s certainly been an era — no question about that. The Teens were loaded with eras, trends, moments, stories, generations, heroes, villains. Nobody’s saying the 2010s lacked identity — way too much identity, if anything.

But was it a decade? Did we live it as a decade, dream it as a decade, love or hate or define it as a decade?

People didn’t really talk or sing about “the Teens” while they were happening. Is that weird? Definitely. In a typical decade, people can’t shut up about it. Seventies people loved to ponder the Seventies, and how different they were from the Sixties. Neil Young was singing “look at Mother Nature on the run in the 1970s” when the decade was just a few months old. On the other end of the calendar, the Ramones shut down the Me Decade chanting, “It’s the end, the end of the Seventies/It’s the end, the end of the century!”

Eighties folks were absolutely obsessed with their grody little decade, especially since it rhymed with “ladies.” The Nineties — has any decade ever been so in love with itself? The Teens did not have any version of the Living Single theme (“In a Nineties kind of world, I’m glad I got my girls”), or Blur (“love in the Nine-taaaays, it’s para-noooooid” — no shit, Sherlock), or MTV’s hard-hitting documentary series Sex in the 90s.

Life in the 2010s has meant getting constantly bombarded by moments that warp your whole sense of time. Like we used to say back in the halcyon days of 2012, everything happens so much. It’s the decade when Peak TV abruptly dumps entire seasons into your binge queue, when your phone flashes this morning’s nightmarish news headlines right next to anniversary posts reminding you how your ex smiled three years ago today. Everything comes back around, all the time. This year, even “OK boomer” became a thing again, 25 years after Gen X already squeezed every last drop out of the boomer-mocking tube. (Those who cannot remember “Territorial Pissings” are doomed to repeat it.)

Living without a decade makes it tougher to get a grip on where the hell “right now” is. It would be one thing if decades were passé as historical markers, but au to the contraire: Paradoxically, they’re more popular than ever. It’s never been easier to browse Decades Day drag at your local Party City or Costume Super Center. (“Whether your fascination is the Roaring Twenties or the tie-dye trends of the Sixties . . . turn your millennial style into a blast from the past!”) People love the whole idea of decades, yet are acutely conscious of not living in one. What does it mean to exist in a decade gap? How does that affect our sense of time?

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So much of it comes down to the name. It never got one. The Twenty-Tens? The Ten-Spots? The Hamiltons? That’s a key reason why astrology enjoyed such a boom in the 2010s — we don’t have a decade to mark our “You Are Here” dot on the cosmic timeline, so we turn to the zodiac.

We don’t know what the Twenties will bring, but we know they’ll come preloaded with a catchy handle. The Teens didn’t have that, just as the 2000s didn’t. People are still stumbling over the “oughts,” “aughts,” or “noughts,” even though nobody uses these goofball words in any other context. Ten years ago, many commentators wondered why the 2000s were ending without a name, and the bizarre lack of “decennial nomenclature,” as Rebecca Mead called it in The New Yorker.

Whatever else they’re good for, decades serve to remind us we’re living in a transitory moment that will pass and get replaced by other moments. Back in the Eighties, under the Even Worse President, we knew it would end — we didn’t know if the planet would still be here, but the calendar would flip with or without us. Decades end — that’s their main job. Unlike eras, moments, or regimes, they stop right on schedule. (Nobody knew how Y2K would hit civilization — but we knew when.)

That’s why people like living in one. And all around you, you can see the effects of living without one — that near-constant sense of historic dislocation (“Was that two weeks ago or 10 years ago?”). It’s not just you. It’s not just social media. It’s not just algorithms. It’s the decade gap, a hole in history. It’s not having the Teens to kick around.

Hence the overwhelming grind of outrage fatigue. The vertigo of decadelessness adds to that feeling of being lost in the time swamp, stuck in a moment you can’t get out of. There’s a constant barrage of urgent crises that every good citizen feels obliged to get hot about right now, then forgets. That has to take some kind of toll. It invades your soul, kind of like the 30-50 feral hogs we all had feelings about for a few hours in August.

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I had a moment this fall when I realized I’d missed a couple of weeks of social media, so I decided to catch up on the Conversation. I noticed something odd: For about 48 hours in mid-September, everybody I knew had intense emotions about “Yale plates” and “pencil stores.” It traced back to an excellent article about the secret life of an Instagram influencer. People went nuts for this story. (Oh, that Amsterdam Airbnb!) But then a week later, it was like it never happened. You know who’s had feelings about Yale plates in December 2019? Nobody. Right this minute, the influencer’s mom is probably eating off of those plates and not even noticing.

The 2010s have been a constant rush of moments like these. And as Mick Jagger would say, it all tends to destroy your notion of circular time. The bar where you’re reading this: Ask anyone about the Roaring Twenties, the Swinging Sixties, the Gay Nineties. Maybe nobody was alive for those decades, but they can spout a few clichés. The 1920s? Yeah, sure, flappers and Gatsby and the Charleston, then the stock market crash. The 1930s? Wearing barrels; selling apples; brother, can you spare a dime?; FDR; fireside chats; we’d like to thank you, Herbert Hoover.

But consider the 1910s: A decade lost to the cultural memory hole. It was so self-conscious of itself as a “modern” era, defined by the 1913 Armory Show that shocked America into noticing modern art. President Theodore Roosevelt publicly attacked Duchamp for his obscenity, because of “Nude Descending a Staircase.” (Teddy called it “Naked Man Walking Down Stairs,” but close enough.) Ezra Pound spoke for his era when he declared in 1914, “For the softness of the ‘nineties’ I have different degrees of antipathy or even contempt.” An archetypal 1910s star was Mina Loy, poet and artist and feminist, the newspapers’ icon of the “New Woman.” As she proclaimed in her “Aphorisms on Futurism,” “TODAY is the crisis in consciousness.”

But when World War I ended and the Twenties roared, the Teens slipped out of sight — Gertrude Stein called it the “lost generation.” (A century later, noted cultural theorist Vanilla Ice used this same phrase to describe the 2010s.)  Will the 2010s fade like the 1910s? “The crisis in consciousness” is what decades are for — a way to process the past, but also a way to fit the present into something bigger. So it makes sense we’re only starting to notice the Teens as they’re ending, now that we can see the upcoming click on the odometer. In a way, coming to an end is the most crucial job the Teens could possibly do.

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