The 1960s. Dear god. It’s both remarkable and somewhat depressing to think about the continuing prevalence of 1960s mythology today — albums recorded during that decade are regularly presented to us as the Greatest Ever Made, films as the most influential ever shot, and so on. One can’t imagine that in the 1960s, the 1910s were presented as culture’s high watermark. So why the enduring talk of the 1960s today?
The easy answer, of course, is that many of the things that shaped our culture today originated in that decade. But those things have had 50 years to grow and evolve and progress. How do they relate to their origins now? And why the cultural conservatism that dictates nothing born out of the 1960s can transcend that era? Woodstock ended 45 years ago today, and all this week at Flavorwire, we’ll be commemorating that anniversary by examining boomer classics from the perspective of 2014 — what they mean today, whether their greatness has endured, how they fit into 2014’s cultural landscape.
Both Generation X and millennials can relate to growing up in the long shadow of the ’60s. The decade is presented as the peak of counterculture, a magical time when everything went right — the sex was plentiful, the drugs were great, and everybody had a whale of a time while also managing to effect fundamental changes in the nature of American society. You know the key points of this narrative just as well as I do: Sgt. Pepper. Easy Rider. Hendrix at Woodstock. The Merry Pranksters and The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test. Silent Spring. Jim Morrison getting his dick out. Hair. Dylan going electric at Newport. The debacle at Altamont. And so on.
Hands up if you’ve ever been told by an aging baby boomer that things these days just aren’t as good? Yeah, me too. Hands up if you’d rather not hear about Woodstock again? Yeah, me neither. It gets… well, it gets depressing, because if you believe that culture peaked half a century ago, why are we even bothering? As Thom Yorke sang on The Bends, “I wish it was the ’60s/ I wish we could be happy/ I wish, I wish, I wish that something would happen.”
The thing is, though, that the meaning of cultural touchstones changes as the years pass. It’s just like the meaning of language — neither is frozen in time, and both evolve constantly. Once a piece of art is in the world, it transcends its author and their intentions. We tend to lament artists coming in and out of fashion, and while there’s definitely a measure of natural attrition as less well-known artists are slowly forgotten, there’s also the fact that some create work that has resonance for future generations and some don’t. The best art remains universally relevant — the narratives of Shakespeare’s plays resound as much in 2014 as they did in 1614. And, indeed, they find new meanings.
All of which is to say, criticism involves a constant re-interrogation of the classics. Or, at least, it should. These days, we tend to assess classics in their own context, which is perhaps why we never stop hearing about the landmark moments of the ’60s. This isn’t to say that cultural products can be evaluated out of context, but most contemporary criticism of beloved works from the past does very little apart from recounting history. Every five years, when it’s the anniversary of some great album or other, we get a new deluxe remastered edition and big ol’ cover features in MOJO and Uncut, telling the same stories over and over about how the album was made and how many drugs were consumed in the process.
We can do better than this. The eternal greatness of art proclaimed great half a century ago should not go unchallenged, or at least unexamined. What do boomer touchstones say to people today? Why are we still being told that Sgt. Pepper is the greatest rock album and always will be?
With that said, there’s also definite potential for trollishness in being the guy who stands up and proclaims at the top of his voice that he hates the Beatles. The Internet isn’t known for its appreciation of subtlety. Contrarianism for the sake of contrarianism is both dull and fundamentally unproductive; it starts with a preconceived notion and cherry-picks the facts to fit. On the Internet, sadly, the discussion on the boomer cultural legacy is as polarized as, well, every other discussion. Either the Beatles are the best band ever or they suck. Nuanced discussion is thin on the ground.
And this stuff is important. The legacy of the counterculture is still evolving, for better or worse: you can trace a direct line from the idealistic individualism of the 1960s through the hyper-individualism of the ’80s to the tech bros of Silicon Valley today. You can also trace a direct line between the outrage and disgust over racial injustice that drove the Civil Rights movement of the ’60s and what’s happening in Ferguson right now. We sell both ourselves and our parents short by accepting the idea of a Leavisite boomer canon, the albums and films and books that have transcended criticism and exist only to be praised again and again.
We come neither to bury or praise the ’60s; we come to think about what it all means today.