Thursday, March 18, 2010

Playing Us Off The Stage

As an aging Baby Boomer, I'm acutely aware of both my generation's outsized influence on American culture over the last fifty years and on its inevitable passing. It strikes home at events like the Oscar ceremonies where I found myself familiar with more faces in the "In Memoriam" tribute than with faces of the young presenters of the awards. Symbolically, I pictured the whole Baby Boom generation, standing on the stage, giving its acceptance speech for the "lifetime achievement" award, when the first faint notes of the orchestra begin to be heard, signifying our time is up, it's time to leave the stage.

After the jump, other signs of approaching obsolescence.

One sign that's hard to ignore is the greater frequency of such cultural cluelessness. There's a school board election in Richardson coming up. Now, I didn't expect that being slightly out of touch with modern musical tastes would be a serious detriment to being an informed voter. Maybe if I ever was tempted to text my vote to "American Idol", sure, but not to vote for a school board trustee, right? Well, one of the candidates has a personal web site on which he lists his personal interests. Among those is music:

"Right now, I am listening to a great band called The Willis, but I've been getting back into classic hardcore like Minor Threat and the Bad Brains. Alway can listen to James Brown, Van Morrison, Psychedelic Furs, Clash, Pistols, Keith Jarrett, Rhys Chatham, loads more."
I recognized only two of the names there. I won't say which two, but I assume they are the oldest musicians in the list. The rest of the names could be completely made-up and I wouldn't be the wiser. I admit I don't try very much any more. I Tivo "Saturday Night Live" and watch only about ten minutes of the ninety minute show. I always watch the opening political satire, then fast forward to the musical guest, who I give about 30 seconds to reinforce my prejudice that I'll never listen to anything by this artist again, then I fast forward to "Weekend Update." That's it. MTV? I think I've heard they no longer feature music videos, but I wouldn't know from watching it myself. And after shelling out money for the same songs on 45s, LPs, eight-track tapes, cassettes and CDs, I decided to skip mp3's altogether and wait for the next big thing. If anything, my musical tastes are regressing. Growing up, I wouldn't have been caught dead listening to Tony Bennett, Frank Sinatra and Shirley Horn, but my appreciation of them has grown enormously as my interest in listening to modern music shrinks. None of this is anything I'm necessarily proud of. I know it's a sign of approaching obsolescence, if I haven't already blown through that stop sign without even slowing down. That's just the way it is.

"And that's the way it is." Walter Cronkite, 1962. See, my memory is still sharp. Thankfully, on the plus side, the other sign of obsolescence, besides cultural cluelessness, happens to be more frequent cases of deja vu, a feeling that you've seen and heard it all before.

For example, talented twenty-something Destiny DeLaRosa blogs about her despair over "the way society seems to glorify mistresses, porn stars and morally bankrupt pop tarts." Because her personal memory goes back only as far as Monica Lewinsky, she acts as if this is a new phenonemon. "We no longer shun; we celebrate! We've gone from a scarlet 'A' to a neon blinking 'A.'" I won't claim that my memory goes back as far as Hester Prynne, but DeLaRosa's reference to The Scarlet Letter gives a hint that we're not dealing with a modern phenomenon here. Nathaniel Hawthorne's classic was an instant bestseller in 1850 and hasn't been out of print since. Americans have always had an insatiable appetite for scandal. JFK and Marilyn Monroe. Wilbur Mills and Fanne Fox, the "Argentine Firecracker." Gary Hart and Donna Rice on the yacht "Monkey Business." And Bill Clinton and Gennifer Flowers before Monica. The decades change, the names change, but the story is an old one. DeLaRosa's sentiments are on the mark, but any hopes she might entertain of "turning back the tide" are probably doomed. We've always been at high tide. It's human nature.

So, there you have it. Incidents of cultural cluelessness balanced by feelings of deja vu. As long as I can keep the two in balance, I feel like I'm holding my own. And that's the best any of us can hope for.

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