Thursday, August 15, 2013

I don't miss what I missed

My life has been a constant chorus of, “You missed out.” In practically every situation I’ve ever been in, someone who preceded me is there to wistfully reminisce about the glory days that are now over. Apparently, I was born too late to experience anything at its peak. If they’re to be believed, of course.

Much of that is human nature. People tend to lock in their barometers in life at a young age, and spend their later years comparing reality harshly against the nostalgic haze of the past. So it’s no shock that as people get older, they tend to think everything’s going to hell.

Even accounting for that, though — and it pains me to do this — I have to indulge the baby boomers in one respect: they win pop culture. Some of the best music, TV shows and movies ever made came out during the peak years of that generation’s influence. People born in the 1990s are intimately familiar with songs from the 1960s to the 1980s, whereas they probably know less about stuff from their own formative decade.

Why is it painful to admit that? Because those who lived through the sixties are often gratingly righteous about it. Vietnam, civil rights, Woodstock, the Beatles — that’s when a generation made a difference, man! You kids these days, you just don’t know! You’re obsessed with Justin Bieber and the Kardashians. We never had trash like that growing up! And your generation will never know the frustration of prejudice and racial tension, or of fighting a war you can’t win.

OK, maybe that’s overkill. But not by much.

My point is that for all their ignorance of the generation gap (itself ironic), boomers really can claim cultural victories. Part of that is the quality of the material. But another factor is theirs, possibly for all time.

Monoculture.

I first learned of this word in this AV Club blog from 2009, written shortly after the death of Michael Jackson. Monoculture is the (much-debated) idea that the limitations of technology meant we shared more collective experiences in the past. Those who adhere to this notion argue that there can’t be a Michael Jackson anymore, because audiences are too fragmented to mold a star with such universal appeal.

I think that’s mostly true. Not necessarily because tastes have changed, but because anyone even approaching an MJ-level of stardom today gets torn down long before they have a chance to build their reputations. That’s due in part to the Internet, which allows real-time ridicule. It also allows for people to indulge more niche tastes not available in the days when entertainment was confined to certain acts and certain hours.

It’s those conditions that led to the creation of Saturday Night Live, one of the most oft-cited examples of boomer-era genius. People raised on the original Not Ready for Prime Time Players will insist that the show was unadulterated gold then and is a pale imitator these days.

Having seen the first few episodes of SNL, I can’t say they’re objectively better than the most recent season finale. But I can see how the show was such an unexpected and mind-blowing presence on Saturday nights in 1975. Indeed, I remember how fresh and new it seemed when I was 6, staying up that late for the first time and feeling loopy (this explains why I’m nostalgic for the 1985-86 season, widely considered one of the worst ever). It’s the nature of discovery in a more limited age.

In the 1980s, let alone the 1960s and 1970s, it was still a big deal to have more than a few fuzzy channels on TV. Radio was less corporate, and music was a much bigger force in shaping the cultural conversation. The Internet was still the province of the Department of Defense. That, combined with a pop cultural past bereft of equivalent rock-and-roll revolutions, the baby boomer era was a perfect storm of creativity and relevance that still resonates today. And, for the most part, I missed it.

I also don’t miss the fashion, the awful cars, Reaganism, open prejudice and the copious mountains of drugs. And I like being able to publish my writing to where anyone in the world can see it anytime, even if it means I’m a molecule in the Pacific Ocean.

Hopefully, future generations will find what I wrote and see for themselves how much they missed. Or, more accurately, how little.

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