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Trends vs. Fads

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For most people, the terms “trend” and “fad” are used interchangeably. When the media tell us “what’s hot” they label them as trends. Someone who wears the latest fashions or has obscure new music on their iPod is called “trendy.” But maybe they should be “faddy.” This could be just a discussion of semantics, but perhaps there is a difference.

For that, we need look no further than sociologist Dr. Dre on “Encore,” the title song from Eminem’s latest album:

I’m a trend, I set one every time I’m in/ I go out and just come back full circle again/You a fad that means you something that we already had/ But once you’re gone you don’t come back/ Too bad, you’re off the map now radar can’t even find you.

In other words, fads are short-term fanaticisms; a blip in culture time whereby it seems the whole world is joined in the same craze. Exciting and electric as they are, they burn out fast. Witness the short-lived era of the Trucker Hat (2001-2003, depending on who you ask). Or Rubik’s Cubes, virtual reality, grunge, day traders and countless others.

As Dre points out, fads are generally not missed once they are gone. We want fad amnesia, to forget them and bury them away. At least until the next generation revives them as retro goofs. That’s because they stand for a certain point in time that we have moved past. Such as that third week in June two years ago when wearing a striped sweatband on my arm was the illest thing I could do. (Note: The term “illest” went out about that same time.)

Trends, though, may represent long-term changes or movements that are substantial to society. They become part of our DNA, even though they may begin with just a few people, the trendsetters. Trendsetters like the first geeks who began file sharing on the Internet in the mid-90s. They led to the digitalization of music, which has built new industries and changed the way most of us consume music. Or JFK, a trendsetter in many ways, who was credited with influencing men in the early 60s to go hatless. Since then, practically no one outside of a costume party, swing band or mafia film wears a Fedora.

Trends have staying power. No matter how long since their initial popularity, they still matter. Take hip-hop music, which could have been labeled an early 80s fad given its centrality on the streets of NYC. Now it’s at the foundation of our popular culture. From Billboard and Total Request Live to ad jingles, with the look and fashion adorned by most every mallrat in Iowa. Hip-hop and urbanization of culture was a trend that took hold over the last 20 years.

Real trends have depth. There is a cause for their popularity and acceptance. In the example above, a reason why hip-hop fused itself to our culture. Understanding that is the job of sociologists, trendwatchers, market researchers and other professionals who are sought to analyze society and forecast the trends that will change the game.

Their trend reports need to be more than lists of what’s in at the moment. That is only spotting trends or fads, something I do on this site admittedly, which is a valuable skill to hone. But to aspire to more, analysis must come into play to understand what is behind the fad, why is it here, and what are its prospects for trend-hood. They need to be weary of the latest hype and media spin, which often portray minor movements as national sensations.

That is at the heart of the criticism voiced by Daniel Radosh, contributing editor for The Week , in his piece “The Trendspotting Generation.” He notes the death of hard news and rise of trend stories where today more people can tell you last weekend’s box office numbers than how many soldiers died in Iraq. According to Radosh, the myriad of stories on what people are buying, wearing or gossiping about used to be called “small talk,” it was never news.

But, perhaps thanks to the media, we have become very astute pop culture experts, hungry to stay current, which all of our 24-hour news channels, style magazines and millions of bloggers are only too happy to satiate.

Radosh’s most scathing criticism is aimed at trendwatching journalists, who routinely make the facts fit the spin they seek. He says it is possible to write a trend story by little more than scanning a few articles or by observing friends. The fabled “rule of threes” is in effect whereby three hipsters are all it takes to make a trend. He writes that, “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.”

Here Radosh is referring to trends that are better labeled as fads, but the point is made all the same. This “trendy-trend trap” as it’s been called, is what researchers, writers and marketers must avoid. Be careful in bandwagoning fads or seeking the approval of extreme trendsetters. The look of the ultra hipster may of the moment, but how long will it last before they move onto something else? After all, nothing is as lame as what was cool last week.

When there is the potential for a fad to become mainstream this is when a trend is identified. It is linked to societal moods and the mindset of the masses. Otherwise it is just part of the revolving door of fads, crazes and hype.

More good stuff on my site, Culture Drift.

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  • chavela

    this info was very useful thanks mtv for pinping my ride

  • Christina

    It’s kinda fucked up how everyone who is belongs to these weekly trends, they all look the same. Same boots,hair,shirt,pants…etc do they notice this? Whem the emo look was ‘in’ they all looked the same, they all wanted to be different and prove a point, well they all looked identical, and didn’t prove anything. Trying to be different is really moving away from trends.

  • steal

    what ever i dont care