The Magazine

Popular Culture and the Baby Boomers

One more thing we’ve ruined.

Jan 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 16 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
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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:

Bob Dylan, 1941

John Lennon, 1940

Mick Jagger, 1943

Timothy Leary, 1920

Ken Kesey, 1935

R. Crumb, 1943

Peter Max, 1937

Che Guevara, 1928

Malcolm X, 1925

Muhammad Ali, 1942

Abbie Hoffman, 1936

Gloria Steinem, 1934

Jane Fonda, 1937

Jimi Hendrix, 1942

Jerry Garcia, 1942

Chairman Mao, 1893

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.

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