March 28, 1990 12:00 PM

Everybody knows the difference between style and content. Style is light and fancy-free; content is weighty and bristling. (Gene Kelly is style; Jeane Kirkpatrick is content.) Style bats its eyelashes; content wags its finger. (Diana is style; Charles is content.) Style goes high; content goes deep. (Cher: style. Streep: content.) Style is fleeting. Content endures. (Style is Madonna. Content is the Virgin Mary.)

A neat division. Too bad it’s totally false. Forget about style as just a set of poses and accessories, a lot of hair mousse and hemlines and models pouting at a camera. Think of it instead as a language. Things that people wear, watch, eat, and hum in the shower give voice to the deeper preoccupations of the day. To understand the divided yearnings of Americans in the ’50s, you only had to note the contradiction between their “colonial” coffee tables and their “aerodynamic” toasters. And just a glance at their cars could hip you to their dreams—they wore their hearts on their tailfins. Likewise for the ’90s. The trappings of the decade will provide the clues to its longings. And the people who embody its styles will be the nerve endings of the communal consciousness. They’ll speak its language.

So, okay, style is important. But after the relentless personal displays of the ’80s, no one would blame you if you were sick of the whole idea. Punks and skateboarders, preppies and new wavers, quarterbacks with dangle earrings, every species of wanna-be: prisoners of style. You imagine them marching past you in ranks, like the Red Army on May Day. If that’s style, you might say, let’s all be nerds.

Now, now. That’s not style, it’s hapless affectation. (You know how it is with some people: Apply overheated marketing to a tepid imagination and their brains boil over.) And, sure, the ’90s will have its fads too. But by all indications it will be far harder to dictate style from a few ad offices and merchandising headquarters. In the global village that we’ll all call home, the options will come pouring in from too many sides. Meanwhile, advances in assembly-line robotics are making it possible to custom design products at the factory to suit the specifications of individual customers, who will be reached via catalogs and will order through home computers. A setting that diverse and fizzy is apt to encourage some real style, which is the sum of a thousand borrowings, each a little pledge of allegiance to some idea or attitude, each adapted and customized by the borrower

So, what will these styles be, and who’s gonna shape them? Anyone who ever visited a World’s Fair knows that prognostication is a tricky business. (“As Dad touches down at the family helipad, we see Mom in the kitchenarium with her nuclear Crock-pot!”) But in these early days of the decade there are some tantalizing harbingers. Just consider the diminished prestige of wealth. (Ask Leona Helmsley about that one.) Or consider the big car. It has been making an undeniable comeback. Will the Alaskan oil spill change that? It came along to remind us of what it will take—and what it can cost—to support a nation of gas-guzzlers. To top it off, Washington may be eyeing a new gas tax. (Uh, make that “revenue enhancement.”) Look for the big-car comeback to go back. Small will be beautiful again.

Just wait for the ’90s to dress itself too. In recent years kids have taken to sporting the regalia of the late ’60s. But even when the stuff was worn with the best of intentions, the peace-sign earrings and tie-dyed T-shirts could look like mere trinkets of concern, signs that conscience itself had become the object of nostalgia. (A grim thought, that.) Maybe we’re seeing the ’90s beginning to bloom in those ’50s-pattern neckties that have been showing up at work—a bit of resistance to the corporate uniform of stripes and foulards.

Then there’s the simple fact that the population is getting older. Baby boomers are turning fortysomething. Bad news for the nightclubs and downtown scenes. Everyone’s gone home to the microwave, the VCR and the alarm clock. Trendy stores like Bloomingdale’s are shifting their sales strategy—less cutting-edge fashion, more of the comfy and durable. Restaurants are going bistro, meaning meat and potatoes with atmosphere.

It’s not just that people will be coming home after work. More and more, they won’t leave home in the first place. Aided by technologies like home computers and fax machines, we’ll become a nation of home offices, as we were once a nation of family farms. It’s one partial solution to the problem of who’s minding the kids. By lowering the number of commuters it will also reduce pressure on traffic and the environment. Yet the very independence that the new arrangements will afford may send us running once more to forge links with a larger community. Bunkered in our home offices, won’t we feel the itch to get out and mingle? “Only connect,” urged the British novelist E.M. Forster. He didn’t mean fax me in the morn.

With home comes family, a baby boomlet already discovered in movies and television: Three Men and a Baby, Parenthood, Look Who’s Talking. Is it a coincidence that CBS has revived The Brady Bunch’! (“Honey, I marketed the kids!”) As thinking about the next generation becomes a habit of the heart, it tends to translate into a concern for the future generally—and that means taking acid rain as personally as acid indigestion.

Gradually, we’ll be at home in the world. The emerging America is more than ever a multicultural place. The 1990 census will show that the Asian and Hispanic populations of the U.S. have grown sharply. In the past, overseas influences were sometimes dismissed as a passing pinch of spice. They can’t be now. The varied nationalities of the U.S. will give them a permanent slot. They’ll be as American as pizza.

Meanwhile, the U.S., like much of the rest of the world, will take part in a wholesale internationalization of cultures. Even before the Berlin Wall came down, physical barriers among nations had become irrelevant—brick and mortar are no match for satellite TV. This is now a world in which I.M. Pei, a Chinese-born architect who lives in New York, flies to Paris to design a new entrance for the Louvre in the style of an Egyptian pyramid—and then goes on to plan something similar for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Museum in Cleveland.

The result of these interactions will be a border exchange of products and hybrid creations, like world beat music and Japanese haute couture. But if we want a global village, and not just a global shopping mall, we’ll open ourselves to a subtler trade in sensibilities too. Example: the nations that were once the Soviet bloc. From Franz Kafka to Milan Kundera, the supple ironies of Central European film and literature have been the very measure of intellect and wit. (Check the sly films of Ernst Lubitsch and the sinuous plays of Ferene Molnàr. They’re recommended to anyone whose idea of a sex comedy is Animal House.) Now their talents are truly free to beguile us again. And we need their abiding spirit no less than they need our cheeseburgers.

It’s the human touch generally that we’ll be looking for. In music too. The ’80s came in with a flurry of beeping techno-pop. (Remember Devo?) They went out on a wave of machine-tooled dance music and all-too-heavy metal. Somewhere between the dry ice and the beatbox, the vocal cords got lost. If a corporate logo could sing, it would sound like Debbie Gibson.

When the ’90s finds its voice, expect it to be just that—a voice—full-throated and altogether human. It could be as smooth and ample as Anita Baker’s, as charged as Whitney Houston’s (when she’s not covered in treacle), or as flip and quizzical as Edie Brickell’s of the New Bohemians. Patsy Cline and Roy Orbison may be gone, but we hear their sound—deep, delicious and wise—welling up in k.d. lang. And count on music to think again, to engage the brain and not just the hips. The B-52s prove that you can be smart and danceable, nutty and profoundly sane. Rap has both the spiky individuality of the spoken word and the communal power of a drumbeat.

Style can be helpfully subversive. The imagination is nimble. As fast as the merchandisers catch up with it, it moves on to its next provocation. If we do it right, that’s what style will be in the years to come. Not just buzzwords and sharp moves at the microphone. (Though let’s hope there’s some of that too.) Not just Spandex bike shorts or Day-Glo orange sunscreen. (Though they’ll always be welcome.) If we do it right, style will be a language that gives voice to the deepest feelings we have. Because in the ’90s, style will be content.

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