When not giving sway to WWE-level paranoid histrionics masquerading as a debate over the future of American health care financing, the media spent much of the summer of 2009 partying like it’s 1969. Shortly after (finally) bidding Michael Jackson bon voyage to that Neverland Ranch in the sky, it embarked on a no-stone-unturned-anew excursion in the Pop Culture Wayback Machine, all in tribute to a most tumultuous year.
The reminiscing actually started in June, with new considerations of the Stonewall riots as a turning point in the gay rights struggle. In July, we all went back to the moon, or at least to the moment when Neil Armstrong became the first person to set foot on it (goosed along by clips of the late Walter Cronkite’s live broadcast of it, as part of the coverage of his passing). In August, we saw various quartets of Beatles fans recreate the cover photo from Abbey Road, their last moment together in the studio, which was recorded 40 years ago (never mind the apparent fact that people have been doing their own spins on that iconic photo all along, not bothering to hinge it to any particular date in time). And we even saw a few where-are-they-now pieces about the Charles Manson clan, and their gruesome Sharon Tate-LaBianca murders over one L.A. weekend, dovetailing with the 13 August release from prison of former acolyte Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, who had tried to kill President Gerald Ford in 1975.
And then there’s Woodstock. As massive an event as that was, it’s taken on even more of a mythic status over the years, as the avatar of everything the ‘60s allegedly stood for, in all the decade’s free-love-and-drugs glory. The anniversary celebration came complete with numerous ways to remember the event by shelling out some anniversary bucks. There were music and concert footage reissues, with the weekend’s festivities served up whole or parceled out in newly sliced pieces at every price point. There were new books on the shelves,“ think pieces” galore in the music press (at least what’s left of it) and from cultural commentators all over the map, and Ang Lee’s fictionalized account of the festivities, Taking Woodstock. There was even a recreation, of sorts: a concert in Woodstock, Illinois by tribute bands representing much of the original lineup.
To hear the pontificators, attendees and everyone else carry on and on about the event, one would think that the world had been rocked onto a brand new axis over the course of one three-day festival. (Considerably less blather was expended towards the anniversary of an event that really did portend new things for music: the recording sessions later that Woodstock week that resulted in the landmark Miles Davis album Bitches Brew.)
None of that is all that surprising, given the Baby Boomer generation’s predilection for self-mythologizing. Today’s kids, raised on social media and the celebrity-industrial complex, have been charged with excessive narcissism, but if they’re guilty of any such crime, they came by it honestly. Their forebears, the young people who brought us all the aforementioned events or had front-row seats for them, gleefully tend to place the years they fully came of age, from 1964 to 1975 (from the onset of Beatlemania to the fall of Saigon), as the fulcrum of modern history, and their generation as the ultimate change agents.
In fact, they’re the people who helped nostalgia become a pop culture cash cow: by generating and consuming product after product basking in the afterglow of those long-gone days, they proved the existence of a sizeable marketplace of people willing to purchase their youth all over again (you could extend that concept to hair dying products, relaxed-fit jeans and erectile dysfunction drugs, too). Add to that a media industry happy to wring new content out of old file footage, and suddenly the past – or at least easily marketable slices of it (as in The Beatles: Rock Band) – becomes inescapable, as if it never had gone away.
Now, there’s no denying that 1969 was a significant year on many, many levels. And the media have always been suckers for any anniversaries ending in a 0 (by that token, expect much press this fall for the 30th anniversary of the Iranian hostage crisis). But for all the hype about the 40th anniversary of this and that major event, there’s been far less attention paid to the anniversaries of these events:
The first space flight outside Earth’s gravitational pull;
The invention of the microchip;
The introduction of Malcolm X to an American TV audience;
Court decisions overturning censorship measures against controversial works of art;
The first American battlefield death in the Vietnam War.
All those events took place 50 years ago, in 1959. That’s a year that doesn’t enjoy any of the cool factor or pop-cultural panache of 1969, or 1968 for that matter (there was a lot of reconsidering ’68 going on in ’08). Truth be told, 1959 is most commonly seen as the culmination of a pretty boring decade, compared to the social upheaval of the ‘60s. And compared to a moon landing, a raging war, rising (and often armed) black militancy, and three days of music in upstate New York mud, ’59 doesn’t offer much in the way of Epochal Moments or Major Chapters in History.
Nonetheless, Fred Kaplan asserts that 1959 deserves a second look. The title of his new book, 1959: The Year Everything Changed (Wiley), makes a pretty bold claim, and Kaplan’s description of some of the story lines that began or saw major shifts that year supports his basic premise, if not the subtitle’s hyperbole. Various trends in science, politics and the arts, developments that had been taking place far beneath the radar throughout the ‘50s, first bubbled up to the surface in 1959. Those blossomings, Kaplan writes, would set the tone for the freewheeling ‘60s, and beyond.
“The truly pivotal moments of history are those whose legacies endure,” Kaplan writes, “And as the mid-forties recede into abstract nostalgia, and the late sixties evoke puzzled shudders, it is the events of 1959 that continue to resonate in our own time.” Kaplan’s selective recounting of the year includes not only the aforementioned events, but also the emergence of independent cinema in America and “New Wave” filmmakers in Europe, turf wars over the fate of the American space program, charm-offensive visits to the US by Soviet Union leaders, and the first official US government report on racial discrimination.
Kaplan builds a pretty strong argument for 1959’s significance, full of long-lost historical detail snappily recaptured, with one foot squarely planted in the present day. And in retrospect, any year that (literally) began with the triumph of Fidel Castro and ended with the presidential candidacy of John F. Kennedy would seem to have more than its fair share of historical importance. But for all his thoroughness, he missed a few spots. There’s nothing in 1959about:
The premiere of The Twilight Zone, which made prime-time TV entertainment safe for thinly veiled moralizing about the dangers of Cold War paranoia and social inequality (and, by extension, other social issues);
The establishment of the renegade American Football League, which helped usher in the modern era of big contracts from TV and big paydays for players;
The birth of the Second City improv/sketch comedy troupe, whose influence trickles down through The Graduate, Saturday Night Live and even The 40-Year-Old Virgin.
And there are other events the book didn’t include, moments that fall squarely into this column’s typical purview that had ramifications far beyond the turning of the calendar (plus one that, as we shall see in due course, takes a personal detour). So jump into that ’59 Cadillac Eldorado Biarritz with the maxed-out tailfins, contemplate what an original Barbie doll could fetch on eBay (yeah, she started in ’59 too), and enjoy this addendum to the roll call of More Reasons Why Everything Changed in 1959.