Best Decades of the Decade

Everyone seems to be coming out with “Best of the Decade” lists recently. Best books, best movies, best songs, best political scandals, best masturbatory practice. Turns out it’s masturbation. For the millionth decade running.

The decade isn’t over for another year, but whatever. I thought we had finally figured this shit out in 2000. I know we like the big round numbers in our base-ten system. But last time I checked, it’s base-ten because we count from one to nine.

The 2010s are coming to an end this week, not the decade. So all of these numbnuts should be making their “Bet Food Recipe of the Teens” instead of “of the Decade.” But then we wouldn’t click on it because we’d assume it’s a list of recipes the writer liked when they were a teen. And if they’re a Baby Boomer, we already know that the first two ingredients will be bacon fat and cocaine.

But I don’t have a “Best of the Decade” or a “Best of the Teens” list, primarily because my short-term memory is a sieve. Crap, I can’t even remember what my last post was about. When I was wrapping Christmas presents, I found a birthday present I was supposed to give Wife back in July. I thought about wrapping it for Christmas, but it really is more of a summer gift. Anyone want to take wagers on me finding it again next December?

So if I were to create a list of items from the past ten years, it would be a nightmare. Who the hell remembers what TV shows they watched nine years ago? Do they jot things down as they go? This blog technically could serve as notes on what I was interested in at any given moment, but it’s not like I’m going to go read all my old shit just to curate my decade. Heck, I keep threatening to put some of my best blog posts together to self-publish, but I can’t get my head around looking through my old posts for the sake of cutting-and-pasting, much less gleaning what year they canceled “Selfie.”

(My blog post about them canceling “Selfie,” btw, is one of my most viewed posts. I doubt it has anything to do with the tv show. Just that when you google “Wombat selfie,” there aren’t a lot of options.)

I’ve actually perused some of those lists, because dammit, they’re called click-bait for a reason. But every time I do, I see things to which I react, “That was 2011? I could’ve sworn that came out in 1985.” It’s one of the problems of growing older. When I wrote about “All I Want for Christmas is You” last week, I didn’t have to look up what year it came out, because I was in college. I can remember who my roommates were, which told me it came out my junior year, and I backfilled from there. But if a song came out in 2004 or 2014, it’s all the same to me now. Imagine my shock when my students had no idea who the Black Eyed Peas were. What do you mean, “Let’s Get it Started” didn’t come out two years ago?

So, let me see… Best TV Show of the 2010s: Quantum Leap. Best Song: Yesterday. Best Movie: Casablanca. Best blog post? Certainly not one of mine.

But hey, I’m an amateur historian and my long-term memory’s doing perfectly fine. So maybe I should use the last days of this decade (the Teens, dammit!) to list off the best decades.

2010s. Ha ha, just kidding. This decade has more or less sucked. Not necessarily from a stuff happening standpoint, but from a historical perspective, this decade will pale in comparison to its predecessor. The 2Ks had 9/11 and a “Great Recession” and the first black president. This one had Marvel movies. We might have topped off the decade with a newsworthy impeachment, but it’s the second one in the past twenty years. And the Republicans might be right when they say this will become the norm going forward. Thirty years from now, when we’re following the seventh impeachment in the past fifty years, we’ll probably trace it back to a blow job in the 1990s, not a snow job in the 2010s.

So yeah this decade might not be as shitty as, say the 1930s or the 1970s, but it ain’t gonna make any “Best of…” lists. Even if I do love me some Mumford and Sons.

Wait, Sigh No More came out in 2009? Wow, this decade really can’t get a fucking break.

3rd Place (Tie). 1980s/1950s.

These two decades are more or less interchangeable. Each started a half-decade after the end of a war that most of the population was trying to forget about. In the fifties, it was the World War II vets looking to hide their own experiences in a world of conformity. In the eighties, it was the draft-dodgers and other hippies realizing that peace, love, and understadning are great, but they pale in comparison to junk bonds. Each decade was marked by an alleged conservatism championed by a doddering old president parlaying his pre-politics career. And when we’re busy sweeping turmoil under the rug, the society really gets to thrive! Optimistic music, advancements in television (color in the 1950s, cable in the 1980s). And can you really rank leather jackets and day-glo sweatshirts against each other? If one of those is wrong, then I don’t want to be right.

Each decade has one huge year from a historical perspective.  In 1957, you had Sputnik and the Little Rock Nine and the Dodgers and Giants moving west. In 1989, you’ve got the fall of communism in Eastern Europe. I’d probably take 1989 in that toss-up, but the rest of the decades were no slouch, either. Hungarian uprising, Suez crisis, and Kitchen debate in the 1950s, Challenger, Iran-Contra, and MTV in the 1980s. At least the signature moments of the 1980s weren’t fraught with the fear of nuclear annihilation. Unless you count a “WarGames” scenario. We’d traded “Duck and Cover” for “99 Luftballons.”

Goodness gracious, great balls of fire.

And both decades helped in the whole freedom,  standard-of-living thing. The Civil Rights movement and the aforementioned fall of communism. Not that things were wonderful for African Americans in 1960 or Eastern Europeans by 1990, but I’d rather be in either of those situations than a decade before.

Beyond that, we’re splitting hairs. I’ll take “I Love Lucy” over “Family Ties,” but I’d listen to Billy Joel in a heartbeat over Elvis.

And if I had to choose between Marilyn Monroe and Christie Brinkley, could i just have both?

2nd place. 1920s

This seemed to be a pretty kick-ass decade. No war, and at least from an American perspective, the last war was relatively easy to get over. The flu was substantially worse, but if your best friend died of the flu, you’re probably not walking around with the 1,000-yard stare for the next ten years.

So when you’re not whining about the war and you have no clue that the worst economic calamity of modern times is knocking on your doorstep, what are you going to do with yourself? Well, there’s a whole bevy of things to choose from.

Everything was new and exciting and approachable by an emerging middle class. You could go watch Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig play some baseball in the Bronx. Sports not your thing? How about checking out this emerging movie industry? Over the course of the Jazz Age, movies became longer and more intricate, with fully formed plots and rising stars., like Rudy Valentino, Mary Pickford, and Charlie Chaplin. By 1927, you’ve even got talkies. It can’t get any better than that! Seriously, I show silent movies in my US History class, and you’d be surprised at how often they keep modern teenagers’ interests. The comedies are legitimately funny and the horrors – I mean, holy crap, have you seen Nosferatu? Off the screen, Hollywood also had its fair share of unsolved murders and scandalous producer/engenue affairs that would make Harvey Weinstein blush. Seriously, Mary Miles Mintner was like 16 when she started banging William Desmond Taylor, and she was all of 19 when she might or might not have murdered him. And I’ll let you Google the Fatty Arbuckle Trial.

What else was there to do? Well, I called it the Jazz Age, so you know, there’s jazz! The most genuinely American music might have existed before 1920, but this was the decade  it hit the masses. Under the guidance of Duke and Satchmo and Jelly Roll, it transitioned from quaint Dixieland to fully-orchestrated swing. Whatever music you listen to today, from rock to hip-hop to country, owes its lineage to 1920s jazz.

And you could listen to it on the radio, a technology that hit its saturation point in the 1920s. Same with electricity and telephones and refrigerators and vacuum cleaners. It’s not quite TV On Demand or the Internet, but I imagine it would’ve been a fun decade to live through.

Of course one glaring problem prevents this decade from reaching number one: Prohibition. The fact that, out of any decade in history, this is the only one you couldn’t get a goddamn drink when you wanted one is a definite black eye. It’s like picking the one George Lazenby movie as the best James Bond flick. Or the 2000 Baltimore Ravens as the best Super Bowl champion. Seriously, how can you be the best football team if you didn’t even have a starting quarterback?

Although, to be honest, even the worst part of the decade is one of it’s cooler aspects, right? After all, none of us would be able to single out the 2000 Baltimore Ravens if it weren’t for Trent Dilfer.

Speakeasies and bootleggers and Al Capone. And bathtub gin! Who’s with me on the alcohol-induced blindness!

The magic and the mysticism of the Roaring Twenties all stemmed from the lengths people would go to get illegal booze. It’s like a decade-long high school party. As long as you live in a big city. For everyone else, you were shit out of luck. Have some bathtub gin and a smile and shut the fuck up.

And for that reason, on general principal, the 1920s cannot be the best decade.

First place. 1890s

Ah, you didn’t see me going here, did you? Thought I’d stick with the 20th century? Maybe pick some random obscure debate like the 1650s? Great time to be a Puritan. Not so much if you enjoyed sinful things like Christmas or theater.  Or if you were a witch.

But a turn of the century that didn’t include a Y2K scare that turned us all into hoarders who felt very foolish the next day? That totally sucked. It’s bad enough when you wake up next to someone whose name you don’t remember on New Year’s Day. It’s so much worse when you wake up in a sea of Vienna sausage tins.

The 1890s were generally an optimistic time. The gilded age, le belle epoque, the fin de siecle. How the hell were they supposed to know they were less than twenty years from the self-imposed hellscape of trench warfare?

The Nifty Nineties were the birth of the modern age. I often start my Industrial Revolution unit by asking students the most important invention in their lives. Most of them say their phone (invented in 1876). A few try to go highbrow by picking electricity (light bulb invented in 1879). Then I ask them how their day-to-day live might be different without, say, a toilet. Thomas Crapper perfected the S-bend and the ballcock by 1880. And sure, the toilet might not be as useful if I couldn’t play Bubble Witch on my phone while sitting there, but if I had to take one…

You’ll note that none of these inventions actually came about in the 1890s, but the saturation point of inventions used to take much longer. The key is that most cities underwent redesigns in the 1880s to make use of things like telephones and electricity and sewage. Street cars and subways could get you where you needed to be. The Eiffel Tower popped up in 1889, and the Ferris Wheel came a few years later. Parks and spectator sports and newspapers. And think about the impact of the bicycle, invented in 1885. All of a sudden you didn’t need to buy a horse in order to get somewhere faster than a run.

And keeping with the themes of cable tv and jazz radios, impressionist art really started the whole “indivualism in art” thing. It might be fun to catch an art show or artist’s party. Just go easy on the absinthe and leave as soon as Van Gogh gets there. Dude was whack-a-doodle.

Oh wait, he died in 1890. So much the better.

Whenever my students ask me the “if you had a time machine” question, I always set the clock at 1890. Not that I would necessarily go back to that precise point, but I wouldn’t go any earlier. I think, with a little bit of practice and concentration, one coming from the 21st century could fudge their way though the 1890s. There would still be a number of differences, but we’d at least be able to recognize certain things. It might be tough not being able to google everything, but again… flush toilets!

Most of these descriptions could fit the 1900s as well. Plus the first decade of the twentieth century sprinkled in a first flight and the best president in our history for good measure. And if I could cheat as much as those saying the decade ends this week, then sure, I guess I could just bullshit 1890-1910 as a decade. Or really, 1896-1908. But if I have to split hairs, I’m taking the first half of that era.

After all, there was just a tad bit more historical going on in the 1890s. It had one of the worst economic depressions up to that time, and maybe second only to the 1930s. Not saying depressions are fun or anything, but it was the first depression with skyscrapers that businessmen could throw themselves out of. Nothing like a thoroughly modern suicide.

And if you go to the end of the decade you have that “splendid little war” between the United States and Spain. Sure, there was a war in the 1900s, too, but it featured Japan and a Bloody Sunday. Plus I’m American, so huzzah! Oh, and Teddy Roosevelt, the one main draw of the next decade, got his rise to fame in that war. Heck, he had a much more dynamic nineties than aughts. Civil Service Commission to police chief to San Juan Hill to Governor. And if you extend the decade to 1900, as you should, all the way to Vice President-elect.

Oh, and Wizard of Oz wouldn’t exist without the election of 1896.

Pretty impressive for a decade to have both a depression and a war, but still be seen as an optimistic time. The Nifty Nineties, the first decade to earn a nickname. The first decade that was, well, a decade, at least as we think of them today. When the approach of a year with a magical zero at the end makes us all try to define the previous ten-year span and make stupid predictions for the next one.

Except I have one prediction that I know will come true, at least for me. Expect the next 24 hours, 365 days, and possibly even more, to listen to a hell of a lot of Barbara Walters impressions.

Tonight! On Twenty-Twenty!

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