The Impermanence of Pop Culture

File this under “obvious but profound”:  culture critic Kyle Smith at National Review writes about the impermanence of pop culture icons in his piece “The Great Forgetting.”  His thesis is simple:  the household names of today will almost universally be forgotten within two generations, lacking the immediate import and significance they currently hold.

An interesting point that Smith makes is that some of the biggest films, books, and music of a given age are often quickly forgotten, and we never know which particular work of art or artist will become the “shorthand” for the entire time period.  He poses the question:  which rock band will be the one that serves as the “definitive” stand-in?  My money would be on Led Zeppelin, but even giants of past genres are swiftly lost to time, with only a shrinking handful of fastidious acolytes discussing their works.

I’ve witnessed this phenomenon first-hand with my students.  Teaching keeps you young in some ways, but it has a knack for reminding you of the inexorable march of time.  Pop culture references that would resonate with students a decade ago are now almost completely foreign to them, outside of a few well-trod, well-remembered classics.

When I first began teaching, I could make South Park references (surprisingly germane when you’re teaching US Government classes) and probably half of students understood and appreciated them.  Now, I’m lucky if one or two students in a class of fifteen or twenty have ever seen an episode of the show, much less the specific episode I’m referencing.

What I’ve found cuts against this “Great Forgetting” is music.  Current acts follow the broad trend:  they’re all the rage for a year or two, then are forgotten.  But “classic” acts—by which I mean music from the 60s-80s (and, increasingly, the 90s) are remembered (at least, their songs are) better and more enduringly than acts from other ages.  Almost every middle school boy I’ve ever taught has, among the list of forgettable rap and country acts of their time, loved AC/DC (perhaps regrettable in and of itself).

I suspect that has more to do with trends in the music industry than with any particular purchase bands like AC/DC have on popular culture.  The economics of big label touring have changed to benefit legacy acts (see also:  The Rolling Stones), and the AOR or classic rock radio format hasn’t changed much since I first started listening to Eagle 102.3 FM as a junior in high school nearly 20 years ago (example:  classic rock stations still play too much Lynyrd Skynyrd).  Grandparents are taking their grandchildren to see KISS.

Besides notable exceptions in music, this trend seems even more intense in the other fine arts.  Don’t get me started on the visual arts, which produce politically-correct garbage more than actual artists these days (lest you think I’m a rube, I more-or-less taught myself art history by visiting the Columbia Museum of Art’s excellent permanent exhibit on Sundays, when it’s free, and Roger Kimball’s Rape of the Masters: How Political Correctness Sabotages Art eruditely backs up this position).  Film stars fade from memory with shocking rapidity—remember when Ben Stiller was in every movie?—and I doubt anyone outside of the ballet world can name many current dancers, much less ones from fifty year ago.

Further, we live in an age in which all of the information we could ever want about any artists is immediately available at our fingertips.  Of course, we have to know what to look for in order to find it—the paradox and conundrum of life in the Internet Age.

Most of what Smith writes about probably deserves to be forgotten, not because it’s bad, but because it’s not particularly great or memorable inherently.  But there is much excellent art that fades away, like tears in rain.  As I’ve grown older and have listened to more classical music, I’ve come to realize there’s much more than “The Big Three” of Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven.

One final reflection:  Smith’s piece touches on a desire of many, if not all, humans:  the desire to be remembered, to be immortalized.  This idea has preoccupied me as I’ve grown older, and begun to think about what kind of mark I might leave on the world (hopefully, I still have ample to leave such a mark, but there’s no guarantee of tomorrow).  We can approach that question with a sense of hopelessness—no matter we do, eventually it will be forgotten—or with carefree aplomb—do what you have to do for those around you, and don’t worry about the fleeting evanescence of fame.

The latter is the only reasonable response.  Fame is fleeting.  Do what you can to help your fellow man for the sake of building Christ’s Kingdom—the only thing that is truly eternal—and not to build up your own.  Enduring greatness in man’s eyes is the private reserve of a small few.  Eternal fulfillment in Christ is for everyone.

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