January 19, 2019

KYLE SMITH ON THE GREAT FORGETTING: Cultural Icons: Popular Today, Unknown Tomorrow.

These days, in a cultural sense, the only two pre-1960 singers who still linger in the memory are Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. Bing Crosby, as Terry Teachout recently pointed out in Commentary, has more or less disappeared. A case could be made that, in addition to being one of his era’s most popular singers, Crosby is the single most popular movie star in Hollywood history. Certainly he is in the top ten. Today he survives in the memory of specialists and historians and suchlike boffins. To the broader populace, the words “Bing Crosby” no longer have meaning.

Looking back on his four decades as a movie critic, John Podhoretz points out that even if you go back only to the 1980s, hardly anything survives. People still talk about Back to the Future and Raiders of the Lost Ark and The Princess Bride (but not E.T., the biggest hit of the decade). Rain Man not only swept the Academy Awards in 1988 but was the biggest hit of that year, selling the equivalent of $380 million in tickets in today’s dollars. Bring up that movie in a classroom today and I suspect the reaction will be the same as if you brought up Mickey Rooney or Shirley Temple. Step forward, 1990s movies, and report to the vaporization facility. You’ve got a few years left, but only a few.

As the Who suit up for what I suppose will be their final tour (“Who’s Left”?), Chuck Klosterman points out in his book But What if We’re Wrong? that whole forms die out. He compares rock to 19th-century marching music: nothing left of the latter except John Philip Sousa. That’s it. And Sousa himself is barely remembered. In 100 years rock might be gone too, Klosterman guesses. Maybe we’ll remember one rock act. Who will it be? Maybe none of the obvious answers. It certainly wasn’t obvious at the time of Fitzgerald’s death that The Great Gatsby would be the best-remembered novel he or anyone else wrote in the first half of the 20th century. As for the novels of the second half of the 20th century, the clock is ticking on them. The Catcher in the Rye is moribund. Generation X was the last to revere that book. Teaching it to young people today would get you ridiculed. To Kill a Mockingbird? It had a good run but it’s now being labeled a “white savior” story by the grandchildren of those who revered it. Soon schools and teachers will be shunning it.

Speaking of The Catcher in the Rye, as Cathy Young noted last week at Quillette, “The Posthumous #MeToo-ing of J. D. Salinger,” is helping to dramatically speed up his once universally known novel’s memory holing, despite this being the 100th birthday of its author.

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