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Were Old People Always Old?

Click here for a video of The Who playing "My Generation." It's set to a montage of footage from the band's early history. The key line for this post is probably the most famous lyric from the song: "Hope I die before I get old." (Most of them didn't.)

I’ve seen a few advertisements recently for this Sunday’s Super Bowl half time show. Apparently, one of my favorite rock bands of all time, The Who, is getting together again for this year’s extravaganza. I had a few different reactions when I first learned of this. First of all, I was surprised that they had not gone into permanent retirement. After all, they have to be well past the age where many start collecting Social Security. The fact that they are getting up there in age also makes me worried about both their musical abilities and their personal safety. I remember hearing years ago that Pete Townshend was practically deaf from years of playing really loud concerts. Will he still be able to hear well enough to stay in sync with his band mates? Also, if he breaks into one of his windmill guitar moves, is there a danger that his shoulder will come out of its socket? And at the end of “Won’t Get Fooled Again,” when he attempts to smash his guitar into pieces, will he still be able to generate enough force to carry this out?

After some reflection, the logic of booking The Who became clear. Ever since Janet Jackson terrorized the world by flashing one of her breasts a few years ago, the organizers of the Super Bowl have been booking older, seemingly safer artists for their halftime shows: Paul McCartney, Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, The Rolling Stones, and now, The Who. (You know that the world has changed when The Who and The Rolling Stones are considered to be “safe” acts.) These older artists, whose status is based on the quality of their music and not stunts like a “wardrobe malfunction,” seem less likely to offend anyone. So if god forbid they accidentally flash some private body part to the world, the emotional reaction of the audience is more likely to be repulsion than arousal. And let’s face it; repulsion offends far fewer people than arousal.

I also wonder about the oncoming reaction of the younger audience to these old men rocking out at The Super Bowl. I am sure that some of them are familiar with The Who. Classic rock still gets the attention of some young folks. Some unfamiliar with the band may also be impressed with what these guys can do. In their heyday, after all, The Who played stuff that was louder, harder, and more powerful than just about anything out there today. Still, I think that most of the youth will see some old guys doing old people music, something that is, by its very nature, uncool. Old people can’t do real rock music. Good music, after all, is played by people who know how to be bad.

There is a disturbing moment that all children must go through when they learn about the “birds and the bees.” When the concept sinks in that certain body parts must be placed into certain locations in order to produce children, an image pops into their head that is unavoidable: “If I am standing here, then my parents must have had sex.” Then, if they have the guts to follow this line of reasoning, there is an even more disturbing insight: “My grandparents also must have had sex.” Then, if they have healthy imaginations, other questions follow: “Is it possible that mom, dad, grandma, or grandpa had sex with other people before they got married. I wonder how experimental they were in exploring different ways to…” and then their brain shuts down due to psychological trauma, and they may possibly lose their lunch. It is probably best at that point for kids to convince themselves that mom and dad and grandma and grandpa only did it enough times to produce the kids that they had. It also lasted for a very short time and was not very good.

It is very difficult for young people to picture old people doing all of the fun things that society tells them are bad, whether it is playing wild music or having a good time ‘doing the nasty.” (My Uncle once told me that his kids thought that they invented sex.) This is partly because it is hard for young people to picture older people as ever being young. It is almost like they live under the delusion that older people came out of birthing pods as fully mature adults. The reality, of course, is that their parents and grandparents were young once, and their behavior was not all that different from modern day young people. They may have had moments where they drank too much, drove in an unwise fashion, accidentally set fire to their parents’ garage (which my dad did once), or, god forbid, disobeyed their parents.

Parents are partly to blame for this delusion. We recognize that we are role models for our kids, so we want to present the best image that we can. This includes, of course, giving them at times a somewhat edited version of our own personal history. A couple of weeks ago, I posted an essay called “The Battle Against Schoolhouse Rock (and other Childish Depictions of History.)” (See Blog Archive to the right.) There, I talked about society’s tendency to give kids a romanticized version of American History, which is understandable but can also be potentially harmful if taken too far. Is the same true when we give our kids a romanticized personal history? I will let you decide.

Whatever the case, through the course of writing this I have thought of another good reason for kids to study history. As I have said, it is difficult for us parents to be honest with our kids about our own past (or present). So instead of introducing kids to the fact that the world and the people in it are often messed up through the example of our own lives, maybe they could get used to what the world is really like by studying history. That way, when we as parents inevitably disappoint them, they won’t be so surprised. Sometimes, the opportunity to get a dose of reality about both their families and society in general might come up for kids simultaneously. I can imagine a situation where a kid is watching the movie documentary about “The Woodstock Festival” of 1969. There, in the front row, they might see grandma and grandpa half (or more) naked, smoking something that looks illegal, and having a great time listening to The Who. 

1 comment:

  1. Hi Paul,

    I thought of "Before She Was Mama" as I read your post.

    Finding out about our parents' pasts is a little like figuring out there is no Santa or Tooth Fairy.

    A friend of mine pointed out that realizing we are lied to is part of growing up. It helps us become better at making sense of the information we're handed.


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