Popular Culture and the Baby Boomers
One more thing we’ve ruined.
Jan 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 16 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
Did the baby boom wreck popular culture? “D’oh,” to borrow from the subject in question. On the other hand, consider the source. A generation ago was there anything with as much brains, sly cunning, human comedy, and broad public appeal as The Simpsons?
There was Nixon, with his landslide reelection and hilarious one-liners. But that’s politics. Politics is easier to measure qualitatively than popular culture. Failures of quality control are more evident in politics. The president of the United States surprised by Pearl Harbor versus your mother surprised by the Village People.
Popular culture is hard to qualify, and the baby boom is hard to quantify. Definitions vary. I choose a strict interpretation—people born from 1946 through 1960. You’re not a baby boomer if you don’t have a visceral recollection of a Kennedy and a King assassination, a Beatles break-up, a U.S. defeat in Vietnam, and a Watergate. (Unless you were stoned for a decade, in which case bring a note from your drug dealer.) Plus, and I rest my case, Barack Obama was born in 1961. What a typical frustrated, cynical, over-educated, under-informed member of Generation X he is, with his slacker attitude toward institutions, specifically the Constitution.
Then there’s the matter of time frame: In comparing then and now, when’s the then? It’s a popular (as it were) misconception that the baby boom’s influence on popular culture began—and maybe ended—in the 1960s. But while there was a great deal of “talkin’ ’bout my generation” (Pete Townsend, b. 1945) back then, my generation didn’t actually have much to do with “What’s Going On” (Marvin Gaye, b. 1939). We were the tailgate party, not the team on the field, during the “Youthquake” (a coinage from Punch, a magazine edited by people who were young when mastodons roamed the earth). A birth year checklist proves the point:
The most influential sixties scene-making baby boomers were Donovan (1946) and Twiggy (1949).
We are not the generation of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, expanded consciousness, the New Left, Black Power, or Women’s Lib. We are the generation of the fanboy (Jann Wenner, 1946), Grand Funk Railroad (all born in the early 1950s), and Ben and Jerry (both born in 1951).
The baby boom begins to produce, rather than consume, popular culture in the mid-1970s. As Year Zero, I’d pick 1974, when the youngest baby boomers are in high school, the oldest are in their mid-twenties, and Bill Clinton is running for Congress, so there’s ample sexual tension, a key component of popular culture. Stephen King (1947) publishes Carrie. Steven Spielberg (1946) makes his big screen debut, Sugarland Express, with its eerie prefiguring of the highway pursuit of O. J. Simpson (1947). And Spielberg is working on something that will demolish the intellectual pretensions of an entire art form—Jaws, the movie that killed cinema.
Demolishing pretensions, especially worthy ones, is a hallmark of the baby boom. Note the lack of artistic pretensions—or art—in Patti Smith’s 1974 “Hey Joe,” supposedly the first example of punk rock. Uncoincidentally, that same year, “Rock the Boat” becomes the first disco release to hit Number 1 on the pop charts. National Lampoon’s circulation peaks. And Saturday Night Live is being planned at 30 Rock. “Irony” has begun its long march to pandemic.
Some aspects of baby boom popular culture are not yet evident. Bill Gates is still cutting classes at Harvard. And Steve Jobs is knocking around India looking for transcendental iPhone apps. But Pong machines are showing up in the bars, and electronic darkness is starting to fall.
Now we baby boomers are 50- to 65-year-olds, the age cohort upon which everything always can be blamed. No matter what happens in the world, somebody over 50 wrote the check for it. And how are we doing? Obviously we’ve screwed up love, marriage, the dress code, the economy, politics, and the brief hope, when we were in our forties, that there would be a peaceful, cooperative New World Order (Vladimir Putin, 1952). But popular culture has thrived in our hands.
Popular culture has become engorged, broadening and thickening until it’s the only culture anyone notices. Name a living poet, playwright, novelist, serious composer, artist, or architect who holds the place in public esteem once occupied by Robert Frost, Arthur Miller, Norman Mailer, Leonard Bernstein, Pablo Picasso, or Frank Lloyd Wright.
But also admit we’re well rid of some of the above (all of Miller, most of Mailer, a lot of Bernstein—score for West Side Story excepted—and the decorative influence if not the indecorous output of Picasso). And did highbrow culture really used to be so high? In fact the aesthetic and intellectual atmosphere of 1974 was already stupid. Gerald Ford’s sideburns. Gerald Ford.
Popular culture is all about stupid. Popular culture is democratic, majoritarian, decided by the people. Fifty percent of people are below average in intelligence, mathematical fact. The popular culture of the distant past seems more intelligent because only parts of it survive—As You Like It, not bear-baiting. The popular culture of the recent past seems more intelligent because we were younger, hence stupider, when it was in vogue. My working hypothesis is that stupidity in popular culture is a constant. Popular culture cannot get more stupid.
The part of contemporary popular culture that I know best, because I have kids and can’t avoid it, is music. Music pounds on the ride-to-school car radio, blares beneath doors from teen and tween bedroom speakers, and leaks out of iPod earbuds. And the music’s not too bad—melodically complex, rhythmically inventive, with a use of studio recording effects that make Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound into a plywood room divider by comparison.
Billboard’s pop picks are not to my taste, but, at age 64, nothing is. I can’t make out the lyrics, probably a good thing or I’d be washing my kids’ ears out with soap. Particularly, I’m told, for listening to Foster the People’s “Pumped Up Kicks.” It’s about a mass schoolyard shooting. But then so was 1979’s “I Don’t Like Mondays” by the beloved Boomtown Rats.
The thoroughly idiotic “Sexy and I Know It” by LMFAO contains at least a hint that the rappers are kidding. And I can hardly object to rap, having once claimed to be an avid fan of the talking blues. Meanwhile there’s one young lady named Adele who seems to be genuinely talented. Her recent hit “Rolling in the Deep” is quite pleasant.
Pitting the Top 10 of 1974 against what’s being listened to at the moment gives 2011 little, except blatant language, to be ashamed of. “The Way We Were” is a scientific experiment to test whether saccharin causes cancer. Worse, it causes a Barbra Streisand/Robert Redford movie. “Seasons in the Sun” by Terry Jacks is the world’s worst popular song. Although 1974’s No. 1 hit, Paul Anka’s “(You’re) Having My Baby” could mitigate that rating. “Dancing Machine” does more to tarnish the memory of the Jackson 5 than Michael did. “Bennie and the Jets” is the most annoying song ever written by Elton John, though not for lack of trying. Exempli gratia baby boomers Grand Funk Railroad, in their cover of “The Loco-Motion,” subtracted what modest charm there was from Little Eva’s 1962 original. I confess to a sentimental fondness for “Love’s Theme” by Barry White and the Love Unlimited Orchestra, but that’s because it was playing on the stereo 37 years ago while I was doing something I shouldn’t have been. And then there’s “The Streak” by Ray Stevens, a rare example of a popular tune that provokes the opposite of nostalgia—notstalgia. Goodbye 1974, and don’t let the door hit you in the butt on your way out.
Whether the stupidity standards of popular culture are being upheld is less clear when comparing bestselling books. To be found in the Barnes & Noble report of 2011 bestsellers, the New York Times bestseller lists, and Amazon’s record of its most-sold books of the year is a bunch of junk.
At Amazon.com Bill O’Reilly brings us the news that Lincoln is dead, ditto Chris Matthews and (separately) Stephen King about Jack Kennedy, and likewise with Joan Didion’s whole family. Walter Isaacson notes that Steve Jobs didn’t used to be dead. But he is now, with excellent timing from a publishing point of view. One serious novel made Amazon’s top 20. “Challenging” is, I believe, the polite critical term for Haruki Murakami’s IQ84. And there’s one worthy item of nonfiction, Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption. Well-written, no doubt, but off-putting in the bathetic, very 21st-century last word of its title. The rest is the customary midden of imagination-minus-thought for juveniles, self-helplessness, unmemorable memoirs, and gift books never to be opened.
Information from the prestigious newspaper and bookstore chain about purchases by readers who actually can read indicates that fiction is now mostly thrillers. The etymological root of thrill is “to pierce,” from the Old English thryl, meaning hole. What kind need not be mentioned. These are the works of James Patterson, James Patterson, and James Patterson plus The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet’s Nest with its implicit subtitle Because It Makes as Much Sense as Anything that’s Done in a Stieg Larsson Book. Meanwhile good novelists—Julian Barnes, Jeffrey Eugenides, Nicholas Sparks—have created a gosh-we’re-getting-old genre that’s as depressing about age as Ann Beattie was about youth. And there’s the book-clubbed-to-death The Help arriving a little late at the Civil Rights Crusade Ball.
In nonfiction we can add gossip gal Jackie Kennedy to the Important Dead People pile. And I guess we can add everybody in America judging by the “we’re doomed” stuff from Michael Lewis in Boomerang, Pat Buchanan in Suicide of a Superpower, and Thomas Friedman, human slop bucket of received wisdom, in That Used to Be Us.
The memoir, literary guarantee of a place in hell for the baby boom, seems somewhat on the wane. Thank you, God, for baby boom memory loss. Scrap paper from the floors of rooms where clever young writers do the work for famous comedians abides with Bossypants and Seriously . . . I’m Kidding. And Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother is full of excellent advice about how to treat your children if you hate their guts and want them to grow up to be like Howard Schultz, who founded Starbucks and wrote a bestseller about, I presume, why his coffee costs like sin and tastes like paint.
To go from this to the 1974 New York Times bestsellers is to throw your Kindle in the trash and step through the doors of the Bodleian Library. Here are novels by Joseph Heller, James Michener, John le Carré, and Frederick Forsyth, and books about history, politics, and current events such as The Gulag Archipelago, All the President’s Men, A Bridge Too Far, and Alive by Piers Paul Read (survival and resilience, yes, redemption, no).
Look closer at the 1974 bestseller list and you see a musty corner in the Bodleian with the ghost of J. R. R. Tolkien scribbling about hobbits. Not that hobbits were topping sales in ’74. The series disease of youth fiction was not yet chronic and still curable. But worse than hobbits are the rabbits in Watership Down, where the anthropomorphism is so strong you wouldn’t try it on humans. All Things Bright and Beautiful is almost as twee. Lovable critters are the happening thing in the mid-’70s. The Pet Rock would arrive the next year, and it could not have been worse to curl up with on a rainy afternoon than Cavett by Dick of the same name, which outsold Solzhenitsyn. My favorite 1974 bestselling animal protagonist appears in Jaws by Peter Benchley, who was, I’m sure, aware that most people who have visited Long Island were rooting for the shark. My least favorite are the rats in The Woman He Loved, Ralph Martin’s biography of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor.
The best writers of 1974 were not necessarily in their best form. Michener’s Centennial became the miniseries it deserved to be. In Heller’s Something Happened nothing does. The Dogs of War does not withstand rereading. And, while Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy is good le Carré, the moral relativism is getting relatively irksome and will soon be joined by less attention to craft and more anti-Americanism in The Honorable Schoolboy.
There’s pulp, some clever—The Seven-Per-Cent-Solution—some not—The Pirate by Harold Robbins. And one novel is godawful, The War Between the Tates by Alison Lurie. Bulletin to all authors making satirical attacks on academia: Lucky Jim was published in 1954. Cease fire.
The Times had not yet begun to winnow the chaff from the other chaff on its nonfiction list. Included are You Can Profit from a Monetary Crisis (surely ripe for reissue), The Memory Book by . . . I forget, and the sequel to The Joy of Sex called More Joy, or, as it should be titled in my case, Sleep. Plus, of course, All the President’s Men, a valuable study of Nixon and politics the way The Satanic Verses is a valuable study of Muhammad and religion.
While book publishing is different in its stupidity than it was in 1974, television has changed out of all recognition. Cable, satellite, pay-per-view, TiVo, video streaming, and I-know-not-what other technological marvels have brought modern television to a perfect state of unlimited variety: innumerable Punches and countless Judys walloping each other with infinite sticks.
Therefore television can’t tell us what it used to about popular culture. We’re not all watching the same thing at the same time, and we’re lying to Nielsen about what we are watching, which is porn. Between episodes of post-depilatory Grey’s Anatomy, the imbecilic are gaping at “Billy the Exterminator” or Ken Burns documentaries, while a more discerning audience has found its own niche with a total of nearly nine million viewers for Nickelodeon’s two daily broadcasts of SpongeBob SquarePants.
But though the TV market is splintered, the most popular TV shows remain popular indeed. As of this fall (before the annual fresh hell of holiday specials skewed viewing patterns), 24.5 million Americans are watching NBC Sunday Night Football. That’s nearly 10 percent of everyone sitting up and taking solid food (or not out in the kitchen complaining that no one will come to dinner). The NCIS cops-at-sea drama was seen by 19.4 million. 60 Minutes attracted 18.6 million old farts (minus Andy Rooney), which equals about a third of baby boomers or, to use another metric, everyone who thinks erectile dysfunction drugs still might be worth the bother. The other seven top ten programs—with viewerships ranging from 17.2 to 10.9 million—were Dancing With the Stars, Sunday night’s NFL pre-kick off show, NCIS: Los Angeles, Dancing With the Stars Results (J.R. Martinez and Karina Smirnoff beat Gene Kelly and Cyd Charisse), Two and a Half Men, ESPN NFL Regular Season, and—I’ll buy a vowel and a consonant in a book by James Patterson and read that instead—Wheel of Fortune.
None of this stuff is any good, but who wants “good” TV? The problem, when comparing contemporary television to television in 1974, is that TV has become not just bad but sad.
All in the Family, Sanford and Son, Chico and the Man, M*A*S*H, Rhoda, The Waltons, Good Times, Maude, Hawaii Five-O—gosh, the gang we had back then, great guys, fun gals, what a crazy bunch, and, oh boy, the high jinks we got up to, seems like just yesterday we were all hanging around every night, never a dull moment, those were the days.
Thirty-seven years from now, two gray heads on a pillow, will husband turn to significant other and say, “Gee, Honey, remember when Bob Costas used to dress in women’s clothes to try to get out of his NBC contract on Sunday Night NFL Pre-Kick Off?”
Television makes me question the idea that there’s a stupidity constant, an “S Factor,” if you will, in popular culture. Movies destroy my hypothesis.
Comment is superfluous, however tempting. (Spoiler alert, Voldemort loses.) No change in demographics, loss of the studio system, advent of multiscreen cineplexes, special effects innovation, alteration in moviemaking economics, marketing ploy, or death of Marlon Brando can excuse the existence of parts II of The Godfather and The Hangover in the same universe.
But it isn’t the same universe. The cosmos of popular culture has entered another dimension, where the rules of stupidity physics no longer apply. Stupid time and stupid place are unbounded on the Internet, the great pop culture innovation of boomers. Now omnipresent and illimitable is the bore on the next barstool with his hobbyhorse. Bet you’re wondering whatever happened to Eddie Haskell on Leave It to Beaver. I suppose it’s a blessing that, with a Google search, we’re allowed to choose our barroom bore. Actor Ken Osmond became a Los Angeles police officer, was shot and wounded by a car thief in 1980, retired from the LAPD in 1988, is happily married, and has two grown sons. But there’s no booze. There’s the rest of the World Wide Web instead, making the cultural arts and crafts of us common folks ubiquitous.
The sparkling dialogue once confined to coffee klatsch, water cooler, diner booth, back fence gabfest, and dorm room bull session has gone viral, as have the friends’ slide show of their vacation trip to Weeki Wachee Springs, parlor tricks performed by drunk uncles, and backyard kiddie magic acts with a bedsheet on a clothesline for a stage curtain; likewise the prose beneath the photos of seniors in high school yearbooks; the gum-beating and chin-wagging of barbers, cabdrivers, and random coots; your cousin’s mimeographed Christmas letter; schoolyard exegesis of the facts of life; gripes, beefs, and bellyaches; snitching and tattling; listening in on party lines and peeking through the neighbor’s Venetian blinds; rumors, gossip, poison pen letters, heavy breathing on the telephone in the dead of night; “kick me” signs scotch-taped between shoulder blades; and messages tied to bricks and thrown through plate glass windows.
Did the baby boom wreck popular culture? We have left not one stone of elegance upon another. We have plowed civilization with salt. We have killed refinement and sold sophistication into bondage. And we stand triumphant in the ruins.
P. J. O’Rourke is a contributing editor to The Weekly Standard.