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USA Creative Culture – Stagnant, Traditional, or Niched?

American Creative Culture — I am sitting in a theater in Flagstaff, Arizona. I am watching a Grateful Dead cover band playing Grateful Dead cover songs. (Entrance was free — and, well, free is free.) But what is interesting is not the band, nor the music, but the fact that the crowd spans three generations: [...]

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American Creative Culture —

I am sitting in a theater in Flagstaff, Arizona. I am watching a Grateful Dead cover band playing Grateful Dead cover songs. (Entrance was free — and, well, free is free.) But what is interesting is not the band, nor the music, but the fact that the crowd spans three generations: people the age of grandparents, children, and grandchildren dance to the same music in, for all intensive purposes, the same manner. I would have to say that the oldest people dancing must have been in their 60’s — their long white beards and bald heads gave them away — and the youngest people could have been no older than 12 or 13.

I momentarily enjoy the scene before me. So rarely in the America that I grew up in could I observe multiple generations of people enjoying the same entertainment in the exact same way. Even the goofy dancing of the multi-generational crowd was nearly the same. The 20 year olds flung their arms about in the air and wiggled their hips in the same un-rhythmic way as the dancers who are 40 years their elder.

Phoenix, Arizona, Southwest USA, North America
Sunday, October 25, 2009
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As I watched three generations of Americans dancing all together to the same music I had to question the direction of USA culture. What has happened? Did we stop evolving, creating new material, new music, new motives, new subculture, new culture, new ways of dancing, new forms of entertainment? Has this culture become stagnant, comfortable with itself, perfectly adapted to its environment? Or has our culture solidified, grew thick, and matured to the point that we, again, pass down music and knowledge from one generation to the next?

Is America again becoming a folk culture? A traditional culture? A strong culture? A thick culture where kids once again listen to the lessons and music of their grandparents and share a lifestyle that is in common with their parents? Are we loosing our fickled identity crises and are again becoming comfortable acting within the same cultural fold as our grandparents once did? Or has American creative culture grown stagnant?

And, as anyone who has studied anthropology, history, or geography knows, a stagnant culture is a dead culture. A species that becomes perfectly adapted to its circumstances is doomed.

What is going on here?


A couple of months ago I went to the Bangor Folk Festival with my wife, her parents, and her grandparents went a day or so before I did. My daughter Petra was also in tow, though I cannot say that it was of her own volition: she was stuffed inside of a papoose. Again, parents, and grandparents, and great grandparents were at the same place enjoying the same entertainment in the same way. There were no generational barriers. The young and hip rubbed shoulders with the old and use-to-be-hip.


I was walking through the early nighttime streets of Flagstaff, Arizona. I was going towards the local mission on the scent of a free meal. I walked past a group of young kids standing in a parking lot near a club. They were standing around a van, and appeared as if they were in hardcore/punk bands. I recognized them easily as I too once played in touring punk bands, and as I got closer to them I noticed that they were wearing the same black hoodies, had the same band patches (Nausea, Aus Rotten) sewn into their black stretch jeans, and had the same stupid hair that I did ten years ago.

They also stood around their vans in a tribe feeling much too cool about itself — as I once felt, too.

In ten years time this subculture has apparently not gone very far — at least in its fashion sense — and it is my impression that it has stay this stagnent for the past thirty years.

I asked a group of them if they were in bands. They said that they were. I looked into their fresh and sparkly white faces — was my face this fresh and sparkly once too? — and realized just how young these kids were. There could not have been a single one of them of drinking age.

They asked me if I was going to their show. I asked them how much. $12. I laughed and walked on towards the free meal at the mission. “Maybe,” was my only reply.

On my way back, I walked down the same street and in front of the same club. A mob of these fledgling humans were in a big globular ball in the streets outside of the doors where one of the bands were playing. I listened to the music, and, yup, it was the same unmelodic loudness that I once played. One kid was inside on the stage beating up his guitar and another was growling into a microphone so loudly and incoherently that no one could understand what he was saying — perhaps it was better this way.

I use to do that too, scream and run around. People actually use to watch me do this, and they would even clap and cheer when I would momentarily cease screaming for a moment to gain my breath before the next song of screams. But I was in no mind to listen to this audio cluder any longer, I had had a youth full of it.

I cut through the mob of baby faced teenagers with mohawks and black hoodies in front of the club and walked on into the night.

I chuckled as I thought about how cool I once felt 10 years ago standing in front of clubs with my band, wearing patchwork pants and trying not to bash my nicely groomed mowhawk into anything. With a great sigh of relief, I relished the fact that I no longer feel very cool anymore. I am happily too old for that shit.

Perhaps, if the me of then could look face to face at the me of now I would kick my own ass. Perhaps I would have called myself a sell out. Though, more than likely — the male pattern baldness aside of course — I would look myself up and down and nod with approval. I would like to think that the me of then would be glad that life would prove to be far more dynamic than the bounds of a stagnant subculture.

As I walked out of range of the music away from the club I could not help but wonder if the creative impetous and drive behind American culture and subculture has dried up.

A stagnant culture is a dead culture. An overly specialized species is a doomed species.


As I drove across the USA from Maine to Arizona I listened to the radio the entire time. I wanted to hear the modern beat of my country. I wanted to hear what was new and if people were still listening to the old songs that I grew up listening to. It turned out that nothing has changed.

Country music stations played country music. Classic rock stations played classic rock. Pop stations played pop music that is constantly being made by new muscians but always suspiciously sounds the same. It was a pretty gruesome ride. I gave up looking for the new in American music — it simply hurt too bad, as listening to songs about love which rhyme “door” with “floor” are difficult to listen to — and reverted to the music of my youth: classic rock.

It still filled the bill. It was just as good as it always was, but, when compared to the new music, it did not only seem classic but timeless.

My mother warned me about this when I was young. At 10 years old I wanted to diverge from my parents. I did this by listening to different music. I think I listened to MC Hammer. I remember telling my mom that rap was here to stay and that I would always listen to MC Hammer.

My mother, who would do her morning aerobic exercises listening to John Mellencamp would always say with an intentionally wise smile, “That stuff that you are listening to is here today and gone tomorrow, but John Mellencamp will still be here.”

This annoyed me. It annoyed me so much that John Mellencamp became the bane of my early adolescense. I would wake up and cringe each morning as my mother would begin her aerobic routine with a “thump, thump, thump” of her feet on a mat and “I was born in a small town” blaring over my entire home.

But as I drove across the USA nearly 20 years later “I was born in a small town” came over the radio over and over again. I think I listened to friggin’ John Mellencamp in every state I drove across except Texas. It was my youth revisited. But rather than cringing, I enjoyed it. My mother was right.

Where the f’ck is MC Hammer?


If music can be viewed as a direct lens through which to view the heart of a cultural (or a segment of such), then looking through this lens at my own country I must ask: Is American culture growing comfortable with itself?

Or has it run out of ideas?

Have we topped off the apex of vibrant change and cultural upheaval of the late 20th century with pasty faced reenactments? Or perhaps there is no longer a real impetus for change; perhaps any subcultural upheaval that rears its head is quickly bought, sold, and gentrified.

Perhaps the young no longer “believe” in the future. Instead they talk about health insurance, jobs, and retirement. We know that Peter Pan is a petite woman, we know that Santa Claus is a fat drunk in the mall with a fake beard, we know that the future is a straight white hallway that just leads to other straight white hallways unto death (perhaps another straight white hallway — “go towards the light”).

Perhaps the warnings of our parents’ generation have been actualized: we have been processed down the assembly line and mushed into hamburger.

It is my impression that this culture has become comfortable with itself: comfortable with its cubicle jobs and 40 hour work weeks, spoiled by its ease of commuication (the fact that we can carry a device in our pockets through which we could talk to someone on the far side of the planet no longer blows our minds), unsurprised by its extremes — “seen that, done that”, jaded by its environmental movement — “buy eco-friendly plastic water bottles, lets all use cars that use less gas” — made weak by its inactivity — the pencil neck wimps of society are no longer beaten into submission but rise to the top.

Perhaps this is a culture that has plateaued. Perhaps the path through the white hallways have monopolized the creative impetus.

What has happened to USA creative culture? Has American culture solidified? Have we stopped creating?

Or is there no longer a thing known as American popular culture? Perhaps there are no more pan-generational unifiers — like music, like the Rolling Stones or the Beatles. Perhaps USA creative culture been segmented into 10,000 niches, which, in and of themselves, are relatively mediocre. Perhaps the common cause/ the common experience of youth culture is no longer held in common.

Perhaps the rope of creativity has just been frayed, and there are now a thousand small strings jetting out in all directions where there was once a few big ones.

Or perhaps my culture, in all of its IPOD office chair sparkle and dust, is growing creatively dead — friziling out on a thousand paths that peter out of their own volition deep in the woods.


Filed under: Arizona, Art and Music, USA

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3691 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: Trenton, Maine

15 comments… add one

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  • Emery October 25, 2009, 3:45 pm

    I don’t know, I tend to think there’s something of capitalism gone awry in radio, movies and television. But the independent movie trends and independent record labels prove there is a real desire for creativity outside of the white-washed main stream. And the rising popularity of Internet and satellite radio combats the boredom brought on by Clear Channel and the like. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not opposed to capitalism. It’s just nice to see money going into more creative hands.

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com October 26, 2009, 10:26 am

      That’s right Emery,

      The financial issue probably has a lot to do with this. It is interesting. People need to eat before they can play.



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  • Bob L October 25, 2009, 8:45 pm

    “Or perhaps there is no longer a real impetus for change; perhaps any subcultural upheaval that rears its head is quickly bought, sold, and gentrified.”

    Great post. You said a lot in this post, and the above statement really binds some of it together. In nature if the environment is stagnant, then often evolution is stagnant. I am of the opinion that if the earth had stayed the same, with no seasons, no catastrophes, or anything else, life on earth would not have developed past algae, if even that far. Maybe cultures are the same?

    Bob L

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com October 26, 2009, 10:25 am

      Right on, Bob,

      Perhaps creativity needs impetus, a driving force, and if there is to be a sort of pan-cultural sort of creative output, perhaps there needs to be a pan-cultural sort of impetus. American society is comfortable now. We are a land without much of a real cause. I do not think that USA creative culture is dead, but rather that it is just in hibernation, waiting for the next upheaval of cause and impetus.

      Perhaps the last place to find creativity is inside of a four walled room searching for it. It ain’t there, it is outside. Out in life. But when life resembles a four walled room, creativity will lay dormant — waiting to be explode forth. It is my impression that their is still a lot of gusto left in America.


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  • Andy HoboTraveler.com October 26, 2009, 12:46 am

    This is an interesting question, I would guess there are many smaller niches, almost clannish cultures now. I was thinking about Slang, is there new slang? The only new slang I hear of is LOL – Laugh Out Loud – that is used on the Internet.

    Music took a horrible turn when it went towards rap and hip hop. I think this is the age of this type of music, but I think it will pass. I believe all songs are about love, rap and hip hop to me are rage.

    No culture disappears, they just are assimilated into another, so in the end the question is do we want the American culture to disappear and become Chinese? I kind of wish the European culture would shut up, but they hang on as they become American.

    To me there is a negligible difference between an American and a German, if I want a big difference I go for Chinese, Arab, they are not trying to copy as much.

    I guess this all started because you wanted to listen to some good music…

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com October 26, 2009, 10:27 am

      Haha, Andy, you are correct, I did just want to listen to some good music. Something new perhaps. It just amazed me that the classics are not only just the classics but are still the best.


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  • baron October 26, 2009, 12:20 pm

    I blame television – opium for the masses…. but I could be wrong.

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  • WOW November 2, 2009, 5:55 pm

    I believe that in the history of art and of thought there has always been at every living moment of culture a ”will to renewal.” This is not the prerogative of the last decade only. All history is nothing but a succession of ”crises” — of rupture, repudiation and resistance. When there is no ”crisis,” there is stagnation, petrifaction and death. All thought, all art is aggressive.

    Eugene Ionesco, 1912-, Romanian-born French Playwright

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com November 4, 2009, 11:14 pm

      The last part of this quote is right on, artistic upheavals and crisis are perhaps intangible.

      Thank you for sharing,


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  • Matthew May 11, 2011, 6:21 am

    Compared to Europeans: Artists in Germany are well paid in every feild but often do not have the freedoms of American artists. For example a small theater or dance troupe can exist in America and get some recognition while in Germany if you are not Pina Bausch and nationally recognized you are nobody. America is hard on it’s artists but if you can endure the fact that only a few give a crap you have fantastic freedom here but the starving artist paradigm is an American reality, huge sacrifices. But then again 50% of the country are suffering the effects of the recession and I have noticed artists thriving in an economic downturn precisely because we are already use to it!

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    • Wade | Vagabond Journey.com May 11, 2011, 8:18 am

      Hello Matthew,

      Very well framed. Europe has a much higher bar as to what constitutes the professional artists. Though there is something special in the USA in that artists with even modest talents can chip out a living if they keep at it. There is a culture here which surrounds the starving artists, and few, or so it seems to me, are doing it as a way to make a lot of money, but to enjoy what they do. You can still survive in modern America in a niche artistic market, and if you can live off dimes you can find some measure of success.

      Like the line about artists being able to better deal with economic recession because they are already use to the frugal lifestyle. Right on.

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  • Nigel December 19, 2011, 12:47 am

    As an Australian observer, its quite clear looking from the outside, that the entire American empire has finally ground to a halt and is now stagnant as the author fearfully asks (but perhaps he and his fellow Americans can’t or don’t want to face such is their emotional ‘investment’ in their ‘belief’ system), hence a number of ‘regrouping’ claims posited by some based on nothing more than more belief that magically the U.S can somehow ‘bounce back’.
    Culturally, if one looks at past trends in style such as; ((some examples) ‘new romantics’ of the early ’80’s (British) or the ‘Glam rock’ movement of the early/mid ’70’s (again British), they all seem to last no more than five years at best, yet this current youth trend characterised by American style hoods, rap, baseball caps and ‘gang style’ clothing etc has basically been around now for about 20 years (certainly when it arrived in Australia from the U.S in the early 1990’s) and spread around the world as an outgrowth of American triumphalism (and arrogance) post cold war and 1991 Gulf War.

    However the ‘fruit’ as dreid up and has now putrified such that only the feckless youth here and globally are the only ones who still ‘subscribe’ to Americanism via their dress code.
    Its amusing to see the sneers of adults toward youths who dress like Americans here in Australia in any town or city often closely followed by said adults crossing the road to avoid the blighters too!.
    I’m repeatedly reminded here and in talks with friends in Europe, Britain and other nations, of how fed up people are now as the world has gone sour of dangerous and stagnant Americanism, awaits a new fashion, style and approach as well as a model in life.
    One thing is certain in that it won’t emanate from the U.S as like Doctor Who once remarked when referring to the Cybermen; ‘You’ll just stop, no imagination, no progress and forever locked in the same thinking’, as he referred to the mechanical and emotionless lives of these cyborgs.
    Similarly, the American empire is drunk on militarism and its own( declining) power where it increasingly conflates its continuity with the interests of everyone else in the world, ever resorting to greater extremes and then pretending that these measures are ‘justified’ (the classic wife beaters argument) eg, systematic torture, kidnapping, murder by drones, wars of aggression based on lies and plunder of the world….. and these are the flaws mostly touted by any outside observer.
    Oddly like the Cybermen in Doctor Who, the American empire exists only by plunder of the world’s talent and resources and then once acquired exploits it at home and pretending its ‘yankee knowhow’, starting with the morally dubious plunder of Nazi Germany from 1945 and continuing the same policy ever since.
    This has lead to a stagnant ‘monoculture’ in the U.S where it is a large melting pot of external cultures, but with an overidiing ‘waveguide’ where these external cultures are then co-opted by the American culture that dominates do that over time one ends up with people form other nations losing their own national identities until a cliche only remains as the dominant American mindset replaces that which was formerly had by the person or migrant group. (Pick an ethnic minority or nationality and see how many after a while gain the local accent or pretend their white anglo- saxon Americans).
    So yes, the U.S is now stagnant, discredited as an entity and an idea that doesn’t work and its morubund monoculture where the current trend is now some 20 years old, tells any fair minded observer quite plainly that time has finally caught up with the American empire and its all over as decline and stagnation will dominate the rest of its existance.
    Its actually very good its happening at last as it allows new ways and people to make advances and jolt start the world.
    Perhaps many sources will result now the tyrannical American empire has stagnated and is dying. Good riddance to it anyway.
    Thanks for your time and posing the question, long overdue actually.

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    • Wade Shepard December 19, 2011, 11:34 am

      It seems as if you have never actually been to the United States — it is truly one of the least mono-cultural countries on the planet, a fact with is pretty obvious to anyone who has traveled extensively there.

      The “stagnant” aspects of American culture can be extended to include the UK, Western Europe, and, yes, Australia. It is my impression that almost all of the old guard of “developed” countries are facing the same obstacles.

      Other than that, your comment seems to reek of little dog syndrome, which is more typical of Western Europeans than Australians.

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  • Nigel December 19, 2011, 9:00 pm

    I’ve noticed Americans contrary to their self romantic notions of themselves, are actually the most intolerant sorts in the world when it comes to criticism so your reply Mr Shepard is expected but quite transparent.
    Americans often claim to be diverse, yet the tendency to dismiss outside criticism is redolent of a wider monocultural mindset whatever their origin.
    Indeed, I repeat my observation of ‘the American’ which absorbs other cultures, drains away their essence until they are assimilated such that their original culture is but a caricature of that they had previously.
    Your own national motto ‘epluribus unam’ (one from many) encapsulates my point.
    Suffice to say, I’ve encountered more than my fair share of Americans, which has lead to my own conclusions about you, sufficient that one doesn’t need to go to your country to discover that which I’ve already observed.
    Revealingly, similar meetings with people from other nations apart from Americans results in friendly and fruitful outcomes, only Americans are the troublesome ones.
    Still one can only take others (or not) as they choose to present themselves to others.

    As for stagnant culture, well Mr Shepard, you’ve raised a self explanatory point in that the stagnancy in Australia, Britain and Europe etc is indisputably the imposed American culture that has swept the world since the rise of the American empire espcially after WW2.
    As many observe, this is currently characterised by the noxious and abusive ‘rap’/hip-hop style which is notorious for its hateful and abrasive ethos.
    As stated, we’ve had to endure this ‘anti-life’ trend in other nations now for near two decades, often perpetuated by a self interested co-opted Americanised media and propped up by American ‘free trade’ agreements that undermine local cultural content in other nations and indeed emplace limits on a sovereign nation from curbing the influx if U.S cultural products in favour of local content.
    Australia is a good example where a ‘free trade’ agreement a few years ago with the U.S saw limits placed upon us in terms of Australian content on our television programmes and a quota of American programmes.
    Same with other cultural imports with the end result being Australian sovereignty is diminished and if we ever exceed local quotas imposed upon us by the U.S then we face U.S legal action and other retaliation.
    Cultural imperialism is another term for it.
    Suffice to say, there are plenty of innovative people and ideas here in Australia and elsewhere, but we’re all restricted by diktats imposed by American imperialism.

    Finally, your characterisation of ‘little dog syndrome’ if I understand your meaning is erroneous.
    People suppressed by American tyranny globally and struggling for independence including here in Australia is a thematic fact of these times.
    Indeed I again repeat that the American empire only came about via a weakened and compliant Europe post WW2, while the U.S emerged unscathed industrially, which then plundered Germany for technology and skills which where then used to boost the U.S technically and has done so ever since as it plunders other nations of their resources and talent (what we in Commonwealth nations call ‘the brain drain’.
    So spare us the fraudulant and tendentious belief of supercilious Americans who choose to not look too hard at their own nature and the effects they’ve had on other nations over time.
    Australians as a whole are similar to Europeans (and especially British) or any other exploited and suppressed nation by the American empire.
    Americans just have an unsurpassed ability that deifies themselves and their empire while denying any wrongs they’ve done.
    You Mr Shepard may dismiss criticism as ‘little dog syndrome’, but that conceit is redolent of the problem with Americans and why you’re stagnating both culturally, economically and technically, from wars of aggression based on lies to the insane gun culture you have that invariably results in more massacres in civilian life than any other nation.
    Why should I leave Australia to visit a dangerous nation like the U.S, as I have no confidence I’d return home alive or assaulted in some manner, such is the aggression and intolerance I can already see such as here on these pages?.

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    • Wade Shepard December 19, 2011, 10:12 pm

      Please don’t blame me because the government of your country/ culture is either too weak to fend off what you call American Imperialism or the fact that the folks at the top of your economic food chain benefit personally from it. YOUR country imports American culture by choice, people in your country watch television and movies from the USA because they like it, whether you like this about your countrymen or not truly has nothing to do with me.

      But, really, you should visit the United States before you make comments on US culture, or else you just look a little ignorant here. You call me conceited, but I made no over-zealous generalizations about your culture, nor would I attempt to insult an entire country of people. You say that Americans have a self romantic notion of themselves, but it seems more as if YOU may have a romanticized notion of Americans. As you say, this is cultural imperialism perhaps.

      Right on about Europe and Australia being too culturally/ politically/ economicall weak to stand up to US cultural/ political influence, but is this the problem of people from the USA or your own weak cultures/ countries? What I meant by the little dog comment is that you blame your own weakness on a culture you perceive as being bigger/ greater than our own so you try to take petty, passive aggressive bites out of this culture’s heels by leaving insulting comments on blogs or whatever.

      If you don’t like the influence of the USA in your country, then don’t watch American movies, don’t listen to American music, don’t wear American clothes (whatever they are???), and don’t read websites authored by Americans. It’s simple, you have the power here. Just don’t try to force yourself over me in conversation because you suffer from some sort of cultural insecurity.

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