AP’s Ted Anthony: “Hope I die before I get old,” the Who sang at Woodstock as the 1960s hurtled to their end. Indeed, the decade and its echoes made premature legends of so many — Kennedy to King, Hendrix to Joplin to Morrison. They became emblems of an era, and the packaging of their virtues and vices has never really stopped.
But then there were those who didn’t die, who did get old and emerged from that crucible and carried themselves through the arc of a life unabbreviated. They moved across decades and changes and navigated a culture that their younger selves would not have recognized.
That’s the crossroads where both Aretha Franklin and John McCain stood — shaped by the decade that reshaped so much of American life but propelled into the 1970s and all the way to 2018, carrying some of the fundamental storylines of the 1960s as they progressed forward.
Think of the most dominant, most kinetic narratives of the 60s, the fiery combustion engines that drove the decade: From race, gender and music (Franklin) to war and politics (McCain), they are contained in the two figures to whom we bid farewell this week.
They exit the stage together in an American moment not unlike the period when each emerged. Fifty years after the cataclysmic year of 1968, today we are in a similar period of upheaval and polarization — a time when American society’s foundational pillars are being questioned and people of all political persuasions are deeply angry and uncertain about the nation’s path.
At a juncture like this, faced with this pair of memorials of a man and woman so very different and yet so uniquely representative of the American experience, what better time to stop and think about such figures, about what they meant and mean?
Sure, we’re doing that. But are we doing it effectively?
In the past few days, the American packaging machine has pulled these two lives into slick renditions of who they actually were. Video montages, photo slide shows, memories and even the pleasingly compact monikers we throw around — the “Queen of Soul” and the “Maverick” — are sweet and nostalgic, yes. But they tend to reduce whole lifetimes to their clichéd sharpest edges: the most popular hit songs, the most pointed quotes, the most outsized moments.
The United States is often accused of being an ahistorical nation, and these fragmentary, Twitter-feed-like glimpses of entire lives make that assertion easier to prove. Sort of like we’ve come to view the 1960s themselves through the prism of reductive, Halloween-party buzzwords like “flower children,” ″sit-in” and “Summer of Love.”
Ted Anthony, director of digital innovation for The Associated Press, writes frequently about American culture. Follow him on Twitter at @anthonyted.
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