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The Trendspotting Generation
The word is out: God is back, lesbians are cool, memoirs are hot, and biting is in. Trends are all the rage
By Daniel Radosh

IT WASN’T SO long ago that big news meant Great Men and Major Events. IKE INVADES NORMANDY. DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN. Big news was concrete. It was dramatic. It involved action and information—who? what? where? etc.—and if the reporting was wrong or incomplete, as it sometimes clearly was, the story remained moored to events. Big news, in other words, did not entertain or indulge our modern concept of social "trends." There was simply no room or imagination for exposition along the lines of, Lately there is a vague sense that more and more people seem to be doing or thinking or buying something or other that might possibly reflect the mood or psyche or spirit of the nation as a whole. That wasn't news; it was small talk.

Now consider some more recent headlines from the nation's premier periodicals. "Lesbian Chic" (New York). "Religion Makes A Comeback" (The New York Times Magazine). "Growing Pains at 40: Baby Boomers Struggle to Have it All" (Time). "The Simple Life: Goodbye to Having it All" (Time). No longer is news a matter of who did what? These days it's what are we doing? What are we smoking? (Cigars!) What are we eating? (Soup!) Where are we moving to? (Small towns!) What spiritual pap are we embracing? (Angels and kabbalah!) And, most importantly, what does it all mean?

In pursuit of these questions, and with a desperate assurance that there are answers, American media have become obsessed with deconstructing the nation’s social and personal habits, revealing their hidden patterns and reading them, entrailslike, to divine our fortunes. Call it trendspotting fever. While you’re at it, call this the Trendspotting Generation.

YOU ARE MOST likely familiar with some of the above trends. You are almost certainly familiar with the type of article in which such trends are reported and scrutinized. Trend stories are everywhere. Already common 20 years ago, they have become ubiquitous in the last five or ten. The Nexis database lists fewer than 4,000 articles with the word trend in the headline in 1990, compared with more than 14,000 in 1997. This is especially impressive when you bear in mind that most trend stories don't actually have the word trend in the headline. They have phrases like "The ___ Generation," "The New ___," "The ___ing of America " or "And now, ____." To wit, phrases that make lousy search terms. In fact, a more accurate way to perform a Nexis search for trend stories is to look for occurrences of that trend-story standby, the Nexis search. Sure enough, in 1990 there were only 300 references to the Nexis database, compared with nearly 2,300 in 1997. That's hard data.

Naturally, crafting a trend story is more difficult than doing a Nexis search and slapping on a portentous headline—just not much. Over the years, a formula has evolved that is so foolproof it is possible to write a trend story based entirely on a handful of news clippings or casual observation of friends and acquaintances. The principal guideline in this formula is known among journalists as "the rule of threes." For years a closely-guarded secret, its existence has leaked out as trend writers, endeavoring to stave off fatigue, have become more self-referential. Earlier this year a New York Times columnist launched a squib by informing readers: "An old newsroom joke is that three examples make a trend." It's funny, but it's no joke. American readers whould not have been subjected to so much hype about alternative medicine last year if it hadn't been for the magical equation: Andrew Wyle plus Deepak Chopra plus Dean Ornish equals trend. The rule of threes is revered and so readily called upon that it trumps common sense: No matter how many mouths were involved, Mike Tyson, Christian Slater and Marv Albert do not indicate, in any meaningful sense, a trend in biting. But that didn't stop The Philadelphia Daily News from gushing, "Everybody's doing it."

An amendment to the rule of threes is that if parties are sufficiently famous, two examples will suffice, while major celebrities carry that much more weight. Kabbalah was a charming fad when its biggest boosters were Sandra Bernhard and a bunch of old men with bushy beards, but when Madonna signed on it became an absolute monster. When Madonna threw a kabbalah cocktail party it was like the trend harmonic convergence. Indeed, celebrity and pop cultural references (anything that goes "beyond real life," as one trend story puts it) carry a lot of weight in trendspotting articles. When Newsweek recently declared that "soup is hot," the dispatches from upscale soup kitchens and testimonials from nutritionists were far less persuasive than repeated invocations of Seinfeld's Soup Nazi.

In terms of journalistic legwork, the rule of threes is hardly oppressive. "In a large, diverse urban population, you can probably find three people who are doing just about anything," admits a former Time stringer who contributed to several trend stories in the 80s and early 90s. Science writer Natalie Angier echoes this is a recent New York Times promotional brochure; the pamphlet comes free to Times subscribers and is meant to give readers an inside look at the craft of the newspaper of record. It does not inspire confidence. "If there isn't a trend," Angier says, "and you still want to write about a subject, you can almost always find scientists who are thinking about what you're thinking about, and start a trend of your own."

If that's too much trouble for reporters, a growing cadre of professional trendspotters means journalists are never more than a speed-dial from an authoritative, accommodating voice on trends. "If you can't prove you've got a trend any other way, call Faith Popcorn," advises the Time refugee.

Another way to confer reality upon a trend is to give it a name, any name. In 1965 Time began reporting on "the cybernated generation." In 1978 the newsmagazine opted for "computerniks." In 1982 it trumpeted the birth of "microkids." Today, of course, young people who use computers are called "screenagers," unless they're just called "young people." Often, a coinage is preceded by a plea urging the reader to adopt it: "Call it the dawning of the age of the giga-ego." "Call it the Nicer Nineties." "Call it thrifty chic." "Call it 'do me' feminism." Call it a night.

It would be cynical to suggest someone could write a trend story without any evidence whatsoever. It would also be true. Last June, for example, with typical trendspotting conviction, a Knight-Ridder columnist blithely pronounced that "the newest trend in fashion accessories is going to be the cane."

As if. Yet the article is almost convincing, and why not? It employs tactics proven to beguile the brain into acceptance. First there is the celebrity sighting ("JFK Jr. was recently spotted in Central Park with a walking stick"). Then a professional trendspotter—in this case, Larry Samuel of the hipster market-research firm Iconoculture—confirms the trend and takes a stab at its provenance ("It could be a backlash to workday casual"). A cane retailer is quoted, and the columnist links the emerging trend to an already familiar one ("The walking stick fits in well with...fedora hats, jazz clubs, martinis and cigars"). Finally, a demographic rationale is offered ("As [Baby Boomers] grow old, the accouterments of aging will be newly avant garde"), which elicits some equally rote faux-caustic irony ("Along with the cane will be other designer accessories: Ralph Lauren oxygen tanks, Anne Klein drool cups"). Aloof derision shows up here, as it frequently does in trend stories, because the writer knows that smart readers won't take her article seriously, and she needs to let them know that she doesn’t either, even if she did, you know, write it.

Because trend stories are chiefly about perception—a quality beyond the scope of fact-checking—the standard of evidence is well below what journalism normally demands. The New Yorker asks, "Why, if prenuptial agreements are so universally hated, does it seem that everyone now wants one?" Catch that word "seem"? While the article dwells on Donald Trump and others in his circle and maintains that "the rest of the country is following" their lead, nowhere will you find an actual statistic, which would, after all, prove that the vast majority of newlyweds don't want prenups, thus making the trend so small as to be nonexistent.

The furthest-reaching trend stories often predict their own superannuation. "As soup mania spreads...there will, of course, be a backlash," warns Newsweek, and a 1994 Time article asserting, "Everybody's Hip," ends with a poet arguing that "hipness today is people not being hip." In this way, the trend writer inoculates himself against looking like a rube when the trend fizzles. A sharp writer will predict not merely a backlash (with talk of a pendulum swinging back) but a specific counter-trend. A 1985 Time essay on "the water generation," a.k.a. "the new temperance," notes that one dissenter "even gives nostalgic martini...parties, complete with Peggy Lee music."

The big problem in all this is trend writing's tendency to oversell itself, possibly out of lingering doubts about its newsworthiness. A trend is never reported as an interesting but ultimately insignificant preference of a handful of people; it must be a revolution sweeping the country or a generation or at least some vast subset, such as women or young people. Language like that gets trend stories into print, and maybe even sells magazines, but it soon leads to trouble. With too many trends, each claiming an absolute cultural right-of-way, freeway pileups are inevitable. In its 1991 "simple life" feature, Time discerned that "love stories, melodramas and family films have taken over Hollywood." The next two seasons brought Terminator 2, Basic Instinct, Reservoir Dogs and Thelma and Louise. Not that this mattered to Time, which quickly declared that Thelma and Louise itself evinced a trend—or rather, "tapped into a wild-rushing subterranean stream of inchoate outrage." Which tapping was almost immediately forgotten, so that Time could be astounded all over again when, five years later, The First Wives Club "dipp[ed] into a bottomless well of shared female rage."

It sometimes appears that editors don't read—or perhaps believe—their own publications. After decades of splashing religion and spirituality across its pages ("The New Missionary," "The Jesus Revolution")—Time saw fit, in 1993, to call baby boomers, "The Generation that Forgot God." Last December, the New York Times Magazine devoted an entire issue to the country's passion for religion. A week later a Times Magazine columnist, writing a trend story about the trivialization of evil, laid the blame on "our secularized age."

But then readers can expect nothing so consistent as contradiction from trend reporting—a maddening stream of claims and counterclaims. Because with the flexible rules of trend journalism, reporters can have things any which way they like.

NONE OF THIS is to say that trend stories are inherently spurious or inane. There are reasons that publications, including this one, engage in trend detection and dissection. When turned on a well-selected target, the trend article can be a powerful tool for illumination or criticism. In the 1980s, Spy honed the formula into genuinely caustic social satire. The surge in trend journalism since then can be partly traced to Spy's success, as admirers and numerous Spy writers have gone on to write trend stories elsewhere (though rarely to the same effect).

And even if trend stories can be individually misleading, there is something more insidiously deceptive about the hoary notion that real news must be made by Great Men engaged in Major Events. The better, more intuitive examples of trend journalism act as a progressive counterbalance to that. Elizabeth Austin, author of a forthcoming book on women's history, contends that "the trend story is a way to include people who are not 'newsmakers,' but who are in fact having a real impact on the face of America...It's a way for the news magazines to confront and analyze daily life in a way the women's magazines have for a century."

Indeed, trend writing has a surprisingly long history, stretching back at least to the turn of the century when it was a staple of publications for the modern woman. (A typical article from a 1907 Ladies Home Journal was headlined, "After Business Hours, What?") Trend writing's incorporation into mainstream news was slow but inexorable. An analysis of Time cover stories, arguably the most accurate gauge of what the nation considers newsworthy, is revealing.

From 1923 until 1952, virtually every Time cover was devoted to an old-fashioned newsmaker. Only twice in the 1930s did Time flirt with a trend cover, when previews of the football season were preceded by essays on the sport's increasing democratization. The magazine's first bona fide trend cover came in 1953, when "third-dementia" swept the nation and Time opined that the 3-D movie Bwana Devil "may prove to be the most important motion picture produced in Hollywood since The Jazz Singer." The following year, a cover story on the do-it-yourself craze (call it "the shoulder trade"), lifted the trend genre to the status of cultural barometer it enjoys today. More than ticking off celebrity participants (Perry Como! Jane Russell! Dean Acheson!), the essay fingers "the therapeutic value of do-it-yourself" and links it to "a complex change [in] the whole character of U.S. life."

On April 8, 1966, Time published the most famous trend story in history. The headline was "Is God Dead?" and the magazine's effort to answer that question still stands as proof that trend journalism can be every bit as weighty and informative as any other kind. The floodgates opened. By the 1970s, trend stories were a regular feature of Time, as the magazine charted the sweeping changes being wrought by the baby boomers. The trend-cover rate remained steady through the 1980s. And then, in the 90s, it soared again.

HOW DOES A trend story come to be? At Time, insiders say, the custom is for writers and editors in New York to sketch trends at editorial meetings in their offices, then call on reporters in the field to document them. Sometimes the initial idea can be traced to a story in New York or The New York Times. Otherwise, editors extrapolate national trends from their own small world of other writers and editors. "I'm surprised they haven't done a trend story on working late and sending out for Chinese food," quips the former stringer, "because everybody they know does this."

Another ex-Time reporter says, "it happened pretty frequently that people [who did field research] disagreed with the spin of a story." But in trend journalism, spin is the essence, and facts mean what the writer says they do. Is it really significant if a Washington, D.C. Domino's sees a one-day spike in sales of meat toppings? It is to The Boston Herald if it's the first day of the new red-meat Republican Congress.

If the facts plainly don't fit the narrative, reporters can always find new facts. In an atypically egregious instance at Time, the former stringer was asked to look into a story that appeared in New York on a dramatic rise in lawsuit awards (for a Time package alleging that America is a nation of "busybodies and crybabies"). Instead she found more-reliable information disproving the increase. "I sent in my file saying, ‘Hey, the numbers that are in the article you mentioned don't seem to have any relation to reality,’" she recalls. "When the story came back, they had taken the numbers out of the New York magazine story and asked me to confirm them."

Back in Manhattan, the writer who devises trends and pitches them to editors is under pressure of his own. "You put together this suggestion," explains the stringer, "and everybody says, 'Oh yeah, that's great! Polka-dot dresses really say something about Americans embracing the yin and the yang.'... [But if] you get back a bunch of files that say women in Atlanta are wearing khaki, women in L.A. have chosen tartan this season, fake fur is big in Minneapolis...and you get one little file from a stringer in Indiana that says, 'There's a store here in Belleville that's selling a lot of polka-dot dresses,' you have a choice: you can go back to all the editors who thought your query was so great and say, 'I made a mistake,' or you can fall on that Indiana file and say, 'We've got it!'"

Once a trend article has been published, various quirks of the genre can conspire to keep the story alive. With traditional news, if another news organization runs your story first, you've been scooped. In trendspotting, playing catch-up only means you have more material; what is a rival publication's feature story if not further evidence of a trend? And once a trend is announced, journalists feel obliged to keep readers updated on its status. The five-year torrent of "riot grrrl" rhetoric finally eased up, only to be followed, last fall, by dispatches on its transmutation into "girl power."

Sometimes an aspect of American life is reported as a new trend when in fact it is part of a long-standing condition. In this case, the media weigh in again and again as the condition "worsens," forging a generation of trend stories. The eternal return of heroin chic is a good example, as is the mainstreaming of pornography. Madonna's Sex was startling evidence of the nation's utter lack of shame in 1992, but somehow we managed to keep the shock going with the arrival of Showgirls (Newsday, 1995), The People Vs. Larry Flynt (GQ, 1996), Boogie Nights (Time, 1997) and Janet Jackson's Velvet Rope (Newsweek, 1998). America, it appears, will always be deeply ashamed of its own shamelessness.

More often than not, a story about what may or may not be a legitimate trend builds by a steady process of media affirmation. Consider one trend I have alluded to several times—cocktail culture. It originates with a handful of adherents in the late 80s. It is noted in a few minor publications (Paper, L.A. weekly), attracting more people to the scene. The growing scene means wider and larger coverage, drawing in yet more people, leading to yet wider coverage (the Los Angeles Times), inspiring a film (Swingers), creating an excuse for more articles (Entertainment Weekly, Playboy), sucking in more people. The cycle continues and continues, until, tired, battered and reeking of death, the story ultimately washes up on the cover of Esquire.

WHAT’S BEHIND THE unchecked growth of trendspotting? Demographics, for one. This becomes obvious when you realize that few trend stories fail to mention "the 76 million baby boomers, whose sheer numbers can turn a whim into a trend." After all, boomers are fascinated with everything they do, so boomer editors want to publish stories about their habits and boomer subscribers want to read them. And since boomers’ whims are also what drive the consumer economy, trend stories can often read like marketing reports. It's no accident that journalistic trendspotting grew in tandem with the market forecasting of Faith Popcorn and her progeny. In fact, Popcorn posits that many entrepreneurs use general-interest trend articles the same way large corporations use her services: "The smart readers see these articles and say, 'What can I do to leverage this trend?'"

Blurring the lines further between media trendspotting and the consumer variety is the former’s burgeoning fascination with the latter. Trendspotters have become not merely sources but subjects. Last March, The New Yorker profiled two "coolhunters" on the cutting-edge teen beat. Within months, other magazines marveling over coolhunting included Utne Reader, Fortune, and the ever-hip Modern Maturity. A movie is in the works.

Another trendy growth factor: the general transformation of the media. The Internet and twenty-four hour television news have forced newsmagazines and even dailies to redefine themselves. Having largely ceded the task of breaking stories, print publications have concentrated on their strengths, which include the marginally longer attention span necessary to track trends. The flip side of this is that with so many media outlets dipping into the same nonbottomless well, news can dry up before everyone has gotten his share. The result is increased reliance on concept stories that don't require solid material like sources and new developments.

Yet no rationalization of the trendspotting vogue can disallow the larger issue: the way these stories speak to readers’ uncertainty in a fast-changing age—or, in the buzzwords of trendspotters, our fin-de-siècle Zeitgeist. "Trends are trendy," confirms Larry Samuel of Iconoculture. "A lot of it has to do with millennium fever and the end of the century. [People are] trying to see what's around the next curve." The Utne Reader revealed last month that "future trends" are among its most popular editorial subjects Asked from what the obsession with trendspotting stems, editor Hugh Delehanty replies, "fear."

Believe it. Note the topics that occasion the most intensive trend stories: sex, money, religion, family, technology. We turn our anxieties into narratives, complete with deeper meanings, and thereby hope to conquer or at least soothe them. "It's almost therapeutic," says Samuel. "That control-your-own-destiny thing." At a minimum, trend stories give readers the safety of numbers. "I am comforted," a baby boomer struggling to have it all told Time in 1986, "that this is happening to a whole generation."

The question now is what will happen at the début de siécle. Yes, trendspotting is going to increase as we wrap up the 20th Century and tremble before the 21st, and momentum will sweep us at least through the first few years of the new millennium. After that, however, the pendulum is likely to swing back (that’s what pendulums do). Won't we, finally, need to take a break from our exhausting self-interrogation? And then, with the fresh start available to us, we will be ready to live our lives without worrying whether everybody else is living the same life or what that life says about us. We will be ready to concern ourselves not with the trendy but with the enduring. "Actually," confides Utne's Delehanty, "the people that aren't interested in trends are the people that interest me. Because nothing really changes, fundamentally. There's nothing that really changes."

Originally appeared in GQ, April, 1998