Popular Culture and the Baby Boomers
One more thing we’ve ruined.
Jan 2, 2012, Vol. 17, No. 16 • By P.J. O'ROURKE
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.