February 11, 2014

Thoughts on "The Narcissism of Boomer Nostalgia"

Terry Teachout, a writer whom I like and admire enormously, had a provocative Wall Street Journal article a month or so ago in what he refers to as "The Narcissism of Boomer Nostalgia;I would hate to think I fit his description of

Baby boomers who have long been a nostalgic lot and are growing more so as they totter toward old age. Witness their tiresomely obsessive fascination with the popular television series of their youth. Likewise their undimmed passion for the rock music of the 1960s and '70s, which they still love so much that they'll buy expensive tickets to see wrinkled old codgers play it onstage.

You talkin' to me?  Probably not, although I can't deny there are days when I fade into the mists of classic television time as if it were a town called Willoughby.  In fact, I was going to write about this earlier - much closer to when it was actually published - but never got the piece past the "draft" stage.  Probably too busy watching The Saint and The Man from U.N.C.L.E.  

But I'm glad I didn't get to it until now, and in fact what prompted me to return to the subject was the Grammy Salute to The Beatles on CBS on Sunday.  I didn't watch it; as you may recall, I've never been a particular fan of the Fab Four, and besides, it would have interrupted my viewing of season two of The F.B.I.  So let me ask all of you out there - does this show fall into Teachout's description?  Either the one above, or the one below:

As always with the boomers, this nostalgia contains more than a touch of narcissism. The same narcissism was on display in many of the countless gushy boomer-penned reminiscences occasioned by the 50th anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. An indisputably major historical event, to be sure, but there was also something decidedly creepy about the self-centered tone of those suddenly-my-world-changed pieces, which was deftly skewered by this Onion headline: "Area Man Can Remember Exactly Where He Was, What He Was Doing When He Assassinated John F. Kennedy. " Like everything else in the boomers' world, Kennedy's death turned out in the end to have been all about them.

My first reaction was, and remains, that the Beatles/Grammy special probably does fall into this category. As a historical moment in time, you can't deny that it was significant.*  However, had CBS wanted to commemorate that, it probably would have been easier to simply rerun the Sullivan show that had aired exactly 50 years ago that night.  It exists, after all.  And though The Beatles are just one part of the show, that very fact illustrates how at least two eras existed in the same space that night; the world as it was, and as it was about to become.  (Had Ed had SeƱor Wences on that night as well, you could have added the vaudeville past as well.)

*Though I'm not prone to attaching as much significance to it as many do.  I think the idea that "The Beatles helped America recover from JFK" shtick is a bit overblown.  However, given what Teachout says about JFK above, it's not at all a surprise.

The real significance of The Beatles on the Sullivan show was that it demonstrated at once the need of programs to appeal to more than one age demographic, and the increasing likelihood that they would no longer be able to do so, leading to the fragmented programming we have today.  As suggested in the Sullivan book I reviewed a couple of years ago, one could argue that it was Sullivan's desire to remain relevant by booking rock groups such as The Beatles that led to his eventual downfall, a classic case of trying to satisfy everyone and winding up satisfying no one.

So instead of offering a one-hour look at a moment that's since been frozen in time (with perhaps a wraparound documentary), the network opted for an all-evening extravaganza consisting of a reunion of the remaining members of the group (these reunions, by the way, are starting to resemble nothing so much as the old Peter Cook-Dudley Moore movie The Wrong Box) and an appreciation concert by legendary rockers.  It was, in short, an event that came dangerously close to a marathon of self-congratulatory ceremony by the industry, for the industry, and on behalf of the industry.  Look at us, they seem to say, look at how we changed the world.

And this, I think, is the kind of thing that Teachout writes about.  Because the whole thing was important to the industry, it has to be important to everyone, inflated beyond all reasonableness.

***

Now, I know what you're thinking: wait a minute. You write about things like the JFK assassination as much as anyone.  In fact, your whole blog is devoted to classic TV.  Don't his words speak to you as well?

Probably.

I know some classic TV buffs who fit Teachout's description of those who “don’t want to see anything new, though they’ll put up with it if absolutely necessary.”  Maybe I fit in that category somewhere, although those who've followed my Top Ten list know I've heartily embraced several shows from this century - a couple of which are still going.  But it does raise a larger question: what is it about classic television that causes us to feel nostalgia?  Is it the hearkening back to an era that never really existed except in the yearning of the imagination?  Is it that television itself, which has always styled itself a guest in our homes, has the rare ability to touch our interior in a way that other media can't?

I'll be frank that in general I prefer many old television programs to new ones - I've never made a secret of it. The reasons often are the same as those given by people who prefer the current version: things like character development, longer story arcs, complex backstories, ensemble casts.  And I'd agree that there's a time and place for them, but - to coin a phrase - they should be safe, legal and rare.  For example, a program such as 87th Precinct - one of the better one-season cop shows of the early 60s - tells us virtually nothing about the private lives of its lead characters, save what's essential to that week's particular storyline.  But I'm a far bigger fan of programs that are plot-driven, shows such as Mission: Impossible in which the plot is everything and the players are generally interchangeable.  Let me ask you this: how many times have you seen Perry Mason's home?  Do you know where he went to college, what law school he graduated from, why he even went into law in the first place?  Does he have brothers and sisters?  Are his parents still alive?  Who does he chum around with when he's not working on a case?  We don't know any of that, and it matters not a whit when he sits down to do battle each week with Hamilton Burger.  The show is entertaining enough as it is.

There are other reasons I prefer older shows: often I find the absence of "frank adult content" to be a relief.  I like the immediacy and imperfection of live drama.  I think the civilizing influence of classical music is not only refreshing but necessary.  I think the rapid quick-cuts that are popular on so many shows are good for not much besides inducing seizures.  And so on and so on.

Does this mean that new television is all bad?  Of course not.  I think location filming has done a great deal to enhance the viewing experience.  The acting in many old shows was stilted, and character motivation could hover between naivety and improbable.  Advances in technology and special effects have made many action scenes more compelling, and I like avant-garde camera angles about as much as anyone.  And though I think story arcs and serializations are best left to soap operas, some character development and continuity would be welcome in the old warhorses.

***

So where does that leave us?  I think the dangers in nostalgia are twofold: first, it can be dangerously close to sentimentality, which not only isn't necessarily good but can often be bad.*  And second, it can cultivate, as Teachout suggests, a self-centeredness that combines both narcissism and isolation, to a very bad effect.

*And makes for bad television, as demonstrated by virtually anything by Hallmark or Oprah.

When we live constantly in the past, we fail to grow personally.  We refuse to mature, to take on the responsibilities of adults.  We submerge ourselves in cartoons, much the same way as some take refuge in videogames, refusing to leave the comfort of our childhood.  We stop striving, because things can't get any better than they already were.  We ignore the contributions made by present and future generations.  I didn't reject new Doctor Who, for example, just because I loved the old series.

If it seems that I'm giving classic television nostalgia a lot of power and significance, it's because the issue really isn't watching old TV shows.  It's living one's life for one's own pleasure and satisfaction, in finding a comfort zone from the past that excludes the present, in shutting everything else out.  It's defining your tastes as the correct ones, and your preferences as the only ones worth appreciating.  It is, as Teachout says, turning everything inward, it making it all about you.  And when everyone does that, when everyone points to themselves as the center of the universe - well, I guess you wind up with the world we now have, to a great extent.

And, oddly, that's not the world portrayed in the sitcoms of the 50s and early 60s, when families ate meals together and sat around the fireplace together (or the radio, or the early television) and sometimes just talked to each other.

As a cultural archaeologist, I try to use the past to understand the present and gain insight into the future.  I look at the programs of the 50s and 60s (and early 70s) in an attempt to see how and why things developed as they did, to gain a glimpse of worlds long gone, to see if there's a hint of what's yet to come.  Television both shapes and reflects its times, and as a measurement of a given time and place it's as good as anything.

Someone once said that where there's life, there's hope.  When you remove the incentive to strive, to achieve, to create something new, you've removed a crucial aspect of life.  And that, in the end, is what this is all about.  When you live in the past to the exclusion of the present, when you say that what we have is as good as it gets, then you're not really experiencing life at all.  And where's the hope in that?

11 comments:

  1. Initially, I was going to post this at the TV Guide entry; I've got that issue at hand, along with a few surrounding others.
    But today I saw this new one, and some thougts come to mind.

    I was ten years old when these issues came out, but in a way, I was already inclined toward nostalgia.
    Much of the TV I was watching consisted of old movies - and by old I mean the Thirties and Forties, no more than twenty years before.
    The kiddie shows used cartoons from the '30s - Popeye mainly, plus comedy shorts from that same era - Laurel & Hardy, the Little Rascals and such.
    The daily afternoon and late movies came mainly from the same period - programmers and second features from small studios and occasionally large, often featuring the same character actors we were seeing in the newer filmed shows in prime time on the networks.
    To 10-year-old me, this was all of a piece. It was fun to see an actor in a new TV show after watching him in an old movie that afternoon - was this "nostalgia"?

    I was 6 years old when I heard of the death of Oliver Hardy, the first celebrity death that affected me directly, because I'd been watching his old movies. The obits said that Ollie was 65; they also said that Stan Laurel was 67 and retired, and that's how I learned about old age (I will be 64 in late September, and that's how I really learned about old age ...).

    I've just depressed myself so much that I'm not sure how to continue (and I'm also not sure how many characters I have left), so I'll try and pick it up tomorrow.

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    1. Reply to myself:

      About 15 minutes ago, I'm looking at another website, and thee's a cut-in:
      Sid Caesar died today, age 91.
      So here's more of that "nostalgia" coming on.
      The site I was at was Mark Evanier's News From ME (which if you don't read every day, you ought to).
      Evanier once wrote for Caesar, late in his career; what he has to say about working with a man whose era has pretty much passed is worth your time.
      I'm still mulling over this business about nostalgia and narcissism; I basically think that Mr. Teachout is full of expired horseradish, but I'll give it another day.

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    2. Mike, I probably heard the news about the same time as you did. End of an era for sure, and as it was with your comments yesterday, I feel a bit older than I did before. Well put.

      Yes, let's continue the thoughts on Teachout's comments!

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    3. Reading Terry Teachout's column, as well as some of the posts on his own blog, I was reminded of an old saying:

      When you point the finger at someone, you're pointing three back at yourself.

      Narcissism, as Teachout defines it for his purposes, would be claiming that the old stuff that "Boomers" (a term I hate, by the way) seem to prefer is automatically lesser because of that fact.

      I was born in 1950, smack dab in the middle of the so-called "baby boom", but what I say here is my own perception.
      My parents, born in the '20s, raised in the Depression, living through WW II (The Big One, as Herbert T. Gillis always called it) - they accumulated nostalgia which they happily passed along to all us kids: my older brother, me, and two younger sisters.
      We also had plenty of exposure to everything the '50s and'60s had to offer - from rock'n'roll to color TV to bigger and louder movies - and nobody ever used the term "demographics" to tell us that we were too young or too old to like a certain thing. We had everything to choose from, and we didn't limit ourselves.
      Television played a big part in this.
      We saw new shows and performers, but also older shows and performers; movies from the '30s and '40s, plus TV shows from the '50s and '60s with many of the same talents from the movies of the '30s and '40s. We learned to read credit crawls, and seeing the same names was an education.
      Music - same thing: this was a transitional period, an evolution. Rock didn't spring up instanter; it evolved from the swing of the postwar era, with added flourishes picked up from other cultures.
      Likewise, literature: everything that was popular in the "Boomer" period has its roots in works that came before - often many years before.
      I grew up to learn that just about everything that happens in life is a continuity - something led to it, and in turn it will lead to something.
      At least, this was the case in my family.

      Mr. Teachout, as I read him, seems to have what he claims the "Boomers" have - an advanced case of The Good Old Days.
      This is a condition fairly common to people who come to believe that there was actually a fixed time in the past when everything was Absolutely Perfect - and from which everything has irretrievably Declined into The Mess We Have Today.
      Teachout has this condition in spades; in his case, he feels that his Good Old Days are superior to everyone else's, "Boomers" in particular.
      This is what I meant about the expired horseradish.
      Look, anybody who remembers the '60s will recall how older people would put down Rock music as "junk", which caused younger people to dig in and take sides.
      The elders seemed to conveniently forget that their own novelty favorites from the war years and just after were just as annoying to their own parents.
      So which is "superior" - Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!!! or Hubba-Hubba-Hubba!
      You tell me.
      And take a closer look at who's putting down the newer and wilder music.

      I think I'm running out of space: I may pick this up tomorrow.

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    4. Well put, Mike - see my comments to Dixon below. This is an exceptionally deep and rich topic; I'm so glad I put it up!

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  2. I see you're watching "The FBI". What a great show, and I'm very thankful for MOD, which made it available. The show lost Stephen Brooks at the end of the 2nd season, and I burned with the desire to know why. Ralph Senensky, who directed quite a few of the Season 2 episodes, has suggested that Brooks had some personal problems. I went straight to the source (pretty much the only remaining source, as it develops) and wrote Efrem Zimbalist, Jr. regarding my question. Got back a handwritten reply in which he stated that while he and Brooks were great friends during the production of the show, Brooks saw no future in being a second banana, and Zimbalist never heard from Brooks again after he left the show.

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    1. That's fascinating, Roadgeek. As I'm nearing the end of season 2, I've been wondering why Brooks left as well - I thought he really grew into the role. "The FBI" was always one of my favorites as well, and like you I'm very grateful for MOD. Thanks for some great info!

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    2. "The FBI" and "Twilight Zone" and "The Fugitive" are all great from another angle. I grew up watching "Star Trek". TOS featured so many wonderful character actors, and it is a joy to watch Steve Ihnat, Lawrence Montaigne, Ken Lynch, Barry Atwater, Nancy Kovack and so many others in non-Trek roles. I'll find myself watching an episode of "The FBI" and pausing the disc so I can explain to my wife just who Barry Atwater was, and why did Nancy Kovack change her hair color when she left Neural?

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    3. You're so right - there are so many familiar faces in these old shows. Sometimes you feel as if you know them, they appear so often. And when you have a familiar character actor who plays against type, it makes their appearance that much more effective.

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  3. Yes, there may be some narcissism in what we enjoy and what we write about, I won't pretend otherwise.

    But what did we watch when we were younger? Current day and nothing else? Of course not. We watched a lot of stuff that came before us--"I Love Lucy," "Leave It to Beaver," the theatrical shorts of Our Gang/the Little Rascals and the Three Stooges, the movies of the Marx Brothers, Abbott & Costello, etc. I watched "Star Trek" as a toddler when it was on NBC but a vast majority of the "Star Trek" fans in my real world orbit only found it in reruns.

    Sure, part of our appreciation and enjoyment of older shows and movies, was because that's what was on. For instance, it composed a huge part of the lineup of WTCG, Channel 17, which was added to our local cable lineup in 1972 or so. But we didn't run away from it. We lived in a full color era but didn't declare "Ewww! Black and white!" like I overhear younger people do. It wasn't just me; when my friends got together for sleepovers--including more than a few who didn't have much in common with me--it wasn't unusual for us to plan our evening around an Abbott & Costello marathon, despite Lou having died 5-6 years before we were born.

    So sometimes, when I hear someone like Teachout moan about the "narcissism" of baby boomer nostalgia, I also hear a little bit of "Hey, you made me think about history today! You made me think about something I wasn't interested in! Uncool!" And I'm seeing a lot of the younger people who were so quick to reject the pop culture nostalgia of our era, start generating their own love for things like, say the Nickelodeon cartoons and game shows of the 1990s.

    And anyone who reads my own blog knows I wasn't consciously aware of a lot of that material at the time, and have an honest assessment of it. And there's a lot of current day programming (and fine art) that I love.

    I think our generation just had an appreciation of history and we don't always understand when others don't.

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    1. Excellent, excellent points, Dixon - especially your last comment about appreciating history! I think it ties in quite well with Mike's point above. I really appreciate this conversation; some of the best I think this blog has hosted. Thanks, guys!

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