It would be a mistake to diminish the importance of the assassination of John F. Kennedy. So much of modern history (Vietnam, anybody?) rests on this defining moment. And yet, it is worth considering how nostalgic baby boomers have spent the last fifty years lionizing the young, fallen president — and how they probably overdid it with the “Camelot” stuff.
Speaking of this phenomenon, Ted Anthony observes:
“It is they who have carried this torch, they who have fueled its flame. When talk turns to the inevitable question — ‘Where were you when you heard the president had been shot?’ — the dominant answer in American culture is this one: ‘I was in school.’ It is almost as if no adults were around on the Friday of the assassination, except as bit players. This is because baby boomers — who were, indeed, in school that day — are the ones who have shaped the national memories of this event.”
We may be witnessing one of the last big gasps of this baby boomer nostalgia (for more on this, listen to my recent discussion with historian and author David Pietrusza).
Of course, it’s not just JFK. It’s the Beatles and Dylan and…you name it! For people my age, the most frustrating part may be that — not only have we endured this our entire lives — but we won’t be able to pay it forward by forcing future generations to pay equal attention to our heroes and martyrs and popular culture.
Nobody has made this observation better than Steven Hyden at Grantland:
“It was a good system: Each generation would get its turn at the media steering wheel, allowing people in their thirties and forties to talk incessantly about how anything and everything that happened in their teens and early twenties was tremendously consequential and yet somehow criminally underrated. After that, these people were swept aside, and the next generation would rewrite history all over again. I grew up in the ’80s and ’90s, when baby boomers had their run memorializing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan and the game-changing brilliance of All in the Family with countless Time magazine covers and major TV network retrospectives. I assumed something similar would happen for the MTV debut of “November Rain” and the revolutionary competence of ABC’s TGIF lineup. And I guess that did happen, sort of. Arsenio Hall has a talk show again. Ed Kowalczyk is still putting out solo records. My people allowed these things to happen. But the world has changed.
By the time my generation had its hand on the controls, the media power structure was diminished. Now we can’t force kids to watch our nostalgia fests. Instead, we have to be satisfied with the Internet and social media, where it’s more difficult to proclaim the superiority of the past over the din of nattering youngsters. “The kids are coming up from behind,” some old dude whose band broke up in a distant time called 2011 once said. In the postapocalyptic media hellscape, you have to fight for your sliver of attention 140 characters at a time.”
Look, I like Bob Dylan as much as the next guy. But I’m pretty sure the amount of Bob Dylan information I’ve been fed during my lifetime has exceeded both his talent and import — which is saying a lot. Now, just imagine if Dylan had been gunned down in, say, 1967, and you get an idea of how much Kennedy imagery and content I’ve been fed by the boomers running the media.
Yet, after enduring all of this Kennedy nostalgia, future generations probably won’t be forced to watch the specials we produce about Kurt Cobain’s trenchant lyrics — or the transcendental rhetorical abilities of Barack Obama. It hardly seems fair. But come to think of it, maybe it’s for the best.