Repeat celebrity deaths this week, yoked one to the another by more than just the end of the life, but, in some ways, the defining aspect of it. I’m talking, of course, of David Cassidy and Charles Manson, and the year 1969. For Manson, ’69 saw the infamous murders he would later be imprisoned for masterminding. For Cassidy, this is the year he got his start on the Partridge family, launching him into the hearts of thousands if not millions of young women across the globe. Together, they are a Janus figure – Manson the twisted, long-suppressed thanatos of the era, Cassidy the commercialised, sugary optimism. Fitting, then, that they should shuffle off together.
Does this signal a tide-shift, then? With these mobile archetypes finally gone, can society slough off the fetters of a long-past era? I doubt it.
All my life, Western culture has been dominated by a nostalgia for that period, 1965-75, and it has warped the production of just about everything around its own, particular focus. It makes a certain sort of sense – this was a period where the economy had been on an upward trajectory for some time, the people coming of age here more materially wealthy, collectively, than any the species had seen. The economic turmoil in the late 70’s, multiple crises in the 80’s and 90’s, not to even start into the morass that has been the first decades of the 21st century, only makes that time look all the lovelier in the child-like gaze of memory.
Nostalgia isn’t new, of course – even the ancients had a conception of it – but there was, is, something new about the duration and monetisation of nostalgia for this time. It’s uncontroversial that every generation will look back on their formative years as something special, but it seems like that period in the 60s/70s has been distinct thus far – the first time we’ve this mass media apparatus – the technical ability to keep near-perfect records, coupled with the commercial impulse to reproduce the simulacra, again and again and again. The cohort that ushered it in are still with us, if starting to look a bit ragged, and more importantly, still call the shots from the heights to which they’ve climbed. Not for nothing are millenials disempowered and cash-poor. These are the fruits born of that twisted tree: Eagles international tour 2018, with James Taylor supporting. For this year. And next. And forevermore.
The cultural landscape produced by this autonomic reproduction is no doubt what led to the outsize impact of the Great Celebrity Cull of 2016. Statistically, last year was in line with the usual expiration of famous people, but, because we are now into the period where Baby Boomers will drop off with greater regularity, and the fact that the last 3 decades have been spent deifying this slice of the population, these deaths packed a heavier punch. There was a collective feeling of personal loss, because, in a real way, the individual celebrities had been woven into the fabric of our lives. This will continue.
Growing up, I didn’t really have a sense of how dense this agglomeration had become – the fish doesn’t see the water in which it swims, of course – and it is only since my own childhood has been hooked up, in a much lesser degree, to the industrialised nostalgia machine that I’ve taken notice. Taken notice I have, though. I remember, maybe a couple months back, going in to the local Fopp (a subsidiary of HMV, for you none British-types; cynically triangulated towards a more indie, art-house crowd than the flagship shop, though similarly struggling economically) and taking a moment to soak up the space. The ‘new’ release wall was riddled with the latest offerings from legacy acts, slumming to pay their alimony. Stacks of Kerouac and Hunter S. could be seen beyond that, acid crisp in new edition. Oh, for sure there was something genuinely fresh buried underneath the detritus, like some sort of fungal growth feeding off the rot, but like a pig you had to sift to find it. Clammy, near-lifeless hands hanging on doggedly to the throat of the consumer was the impression.
And, to whom does our own nostalgia really play to? We of the 80’s delude ourselves, saying the like of Stranger Things is for us – but is it really aimed at the people who emerged from it, or is it a sop to those who lived it the first time through? It straddles a weird spot for me, between myself and my parents, but it’s only by way of the life-long inculcation of their media, their stories, their situation, that I derive as much pleasure from it as I do.
So, with the accelerating removal of the physical embodiments of this era, shuffling about in their well-tanned agedness, are we likely to see new vistas open before us? I don’t hold my breath. The machine has been brought up to speed, and it’s too late to change course now. Too many people of my own age have been reared on this stuff to warrant an abrupt course change, or, heavens forfend, an actual shut down. There’s money to be made, and what’s the real difference anyway between a mostly-dead and an actually-dead Keith Richards?