“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.”
“If there were ever a moment for us to talk and sit down and reflect about who we are, where we came from and where we’re going, this weekend should give us that moment,” says Ron Pitcock, an assistant dean at Texas Christian University who teaches about American cultural memory.
“We need to not compartmentalize these two people into these convenient narratives,” he says. “We have two giants who waded through these muddy waters for us. If we settle for just making them an icon or giving them celebrity, then we’ve completely failed in this moment of reflection.”
The places where those muddy waters flowed were sometimes even muddier. Since the 1960s, the country has only gotten more complicated and, many believe, even more fraught.
Trust in government sits near historic lows after beginning to plummet around the time that Franklin’s voice started becoming a household sound and McCain was enduring his years in North Vietnamese custody. Music, delivered on vinyl discs for Franklin’s first recordings, is now more typically served up in bits and bytes. And the stories of race and gender in America remain raw, ragged and aggressively unresolved.
What’s illuminating about McCain and Franklin, in the context of the formative eras and experiences that produced them, is this: Each navigated historical currents — rode them, you might even argue — and each figured out how to remain relevant and impactful on their communities. Lives of high drama, yes, but staying power, too.
“Years matter. The people from the ’60s who end up shaping America were often the ones that lasted. Ted Kennedy shaped America much more than John F. Kennedy,” says John Baick, a historian at Western New England University.
“So many figures from the ’60s are caricatures of themselves,” he says. “Aretha Franklin and John McCain didn’t talk about the good old days. They wanted to bring the past into the present. They were living reminders.”
The very youngest Baby Boomers are in their mid-50s now — despite the exhortation to never trust anyone over 30 — and more than half of today’s Americans have no living memory of the 1960s. When personal experience ebbs, myth fills in the mortar between the bricks.
But those who were shaped by the decade continue to influence it, both alive and dead. Sales of Franklin’s music on the day after her death increased by more than 1,500 percent, Billboard Magazine reported.
“Music changes, and I’m gonna change right along with it,” Franklin once said — or, at least, is widely quoted as saying. The 1960s were a time of great and lurching change. Those who made it through often had to change again and again — continuously, even. She did. He did.
That might be the ultimate echo of that long-ago decade that Aretha Franklin and John McCain leave us with this week. Looking past all else, the main story of the 1960s was change — causing it, managing it, figuring out how to live with it.
We’re still not anywhere near where we need to be with that, as American politics today so clearly demonstrate. In that respect, the lives of these two — and similar figures who survive them — hold clues still to be uncovered. Discuss.
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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