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You Had To Be There: A Theory on Pop Culture

February 13, 2013

People are fond of saying that it is difficult, if not impossible, to compare athletes across eras.  (Don’t worry, this isn’t a column about sports.)  Whether talking about baseball, tennis, hockey, golf, or even motocross, someone at some point has made this statement about the sport they live or love.  In a recent column for Sports On Earth, Will Leitch takes this argument one step further by saying that when it comes to athletic genius – be it of the long-lasting (think Michael Jordan) or flash-of-brilliance variety (think Lin-sanity) – we must hold on to our memories, because the legacies will not hold up over time.  Leitch says that when it comes to knowing that something is the best anyone has ever seen, “There’s something about sports that requires us to see it, and to put it in our own specific context.”  The implication is that because athletes as a whole are continually getting better under every measurable standard (more home runs, more touchdowns, faster race times, etc.) the greats of yesterday don’t hold up in the minds of today’s generation (and today’s won’t hold up to tomorrow’s) even though each generation knows – by virtue of seeing it – that certain athletes they witnessed defy the statistical arguments and are in fact the greatest of all time.[1]

One way of understanding Leitch’s conclusion is to say that by being witnesses we are adjusting statistical evidence for context.  Mickey Mantle’s lifetime stats aren’t reflective of the fact that he was a transcendent player; they compare more closely to that of other very good Hall of Famers.  Nevertheless, anyone who watched baseball in the 1950’s and early ‘60s will tell you that he was the best in the game then, and may even argue that he was the best to ever play.  These are big words for a man whose top-10 similar batters[2] include such non-luminaries as Gary Sheffield, Jim Thome and Chipper Jones.  Because we can make this mental adjustment, and because there are people still alive who have watched baseball from Babe Ruth through Albert Pujols, we should be able to reach some sort of consensus over who the all-time greats are.  Somehow, though, there remain strong generational divides.  My father may have seen both Mickey Mantle and Ken Griffey Jr. firsthand – similar players if there ever were any – but he will never consider the possibility that Griffey could have been better than Mantle.  As Leitch explains:

A wise man once said that the taste of the average American is essentially set in stone when they’re in middle school, and everything after that is going to be too tinged with knowledge of how the real world works to possibly compete with those memories. This, justifiably, makes us look like old fogies to our grandchildren (actual, theoretical and proverbial) when we tell them that, no, trust us, things were better back in MY day. We are all, deep down, old fogies: No matter our age, we will always think things were better when we at our most impressionable age.

It all comes down to the simple phrase, “you had to be there,”  where “there” is not just being a witness to the spectacle, but a witness of the right age, at a time when perceptions about the world are still being formed.  Leitch is mistaken, though, in his belief that this phenomenon is unique to athletic genius.  The “you had to be there” theory (as I will henceforth call it) can be extended and applied to any form of artistic genius or aspect of popular culture.  Any example of something that is appreciated for its brilliance not only in its time, but well past its time, but only (or at least primarily) by those who witnessed it in their formative years fits the YHTBT theory.  And with that lengthy introduction in mind, I’d like to take this theory and apply it to three aspects of popular culture – music, movies, and television – plus a fourth category of “everything else” in a decade-by-decade review of things that are/were great.  Being a child of a child of the ‘60s, I will start there, with the generation that has most often told me “sorry kid, I guess you had to be there.”

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The 1960s:

Music:

Nothing better exemplifies the YHTBT theory better than the music of the 1960s taken as a whole.  The list of performers at Woodstock might as well be a who’s who of YHTBT candidates.  That’s not to say that classic rock from this era isn’t great – it undoubtedly is – but when I listen to a classic rock radio station (do those still exist?) I hear good music, while people in my father’s generation hear something else.  They hear music that exists on a plane that is higher than everything that came before and after.  Ironically, the band that epitomizes the theory for me wasn’t even invited to play at Woodstock, though it’s now universally regarded as either the greatest or second-greatest band of all time.  That band is the Rolling Stones.

Look, I like the Stones.  But there are a few sentences in Leitch’s column where he talks about his father’s and grandfather’s heroes, Mantle and Stan Musial respectively, which can applied to my feelings about the Stones by changing only a few relevant words:

“I have no doubt both of those players the Rolling Stones were great: Their statistics albums are impressive, and there are enough intelligent people who claim they were The Best They Ever Saw that I won’t dismiss them. And I’ll confess an emotional connection to Musial Jagger as a gentle, decent hard-partying, overtly sexual man, the way we like to wish all our athletes rock stars were like, even if we have no real right or authority to expect such things. But I still can’t think of those guys as better than the ones I’m watching or listening to right now because I didn’t see them in their prime.”

I know intellectually that so many people – fans and critics alike – think that the Stones are great, maybe the greatest ever, that it must be true.  I just don’t see it.  I guess YHTBT.

Movies:

I have an uncle that still watches old Westerns.  John Wayne, Clint Eastwood, James Stewart – these MEN were real actors.  And while collectively these MEN (and their contemporaries) have won more awards than I could fit in my home, there isn’t a person under the age of 40 that wouldn’t rather watch “Django Unchained” over “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly.”  When it comes to Westerns, I guess YHTBT.

Television:

It’s probably unfair to expect any television program from the ‘60s to live up to being considered one of the greatest of all time.  After all, TV programming was in its infancy and should only be expected to improve with experience.  That said, as long as episodes of Gilligan’s Island, The Beverly Hillbillies, The Andy Griffith Show[3], and Bewitched are still being shown on TV in the 21st century, there are still people out there watching it because they think that these shows are good even outside of their 1960s context.  To those people I say, I guess YHTBT.

Everything Else:

Astronauts.  Growing up, my parents used to tell me that I could be anything I wanted to be – a doctor, a lawyer, the President of the United States, even an astronaut.  That astronauts are regarded as legendary is as generally accepted in our culture as the greatness of Mickey Mantle, as proven in their  use in recent episodes of very popular television and body spray commercials aired during the Super Bowl.  Even so, it’s probably safe to say that in 2013 Buzz Lightyear is more famous than Buzz Aldrin.  The notion in the 1960s that one day a cartoon character, even an awesome space ranger like Buzz, would be more popular than any real-life astronaut that has ever lived, would have seemed insane.  So for people who weren’t there when man first walked on the moon, there is a disconnect between the intellectual knowledge (astronauts are heroes, among the greatest men who have ever lived) and current perception (what’s really the big deal about being the second guy to ever walk on the moon?).  Nowadays, if my father told my son that he could grow up to be an astronaut, my son would probably say “why?”  The only reasonable answer: I guess YHTBT.

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The 1970s:

Music:

I bet you think I’m going to talk about disco.  But disco fails one critical element of the theory.  Yes, people loved it in its time.  Yes, people will tell you that to understand how popular disco was you had to be there in “Saturday Night Fever” era.  But no one in their right mind will argue today that disco is actually any good, let alone the greatest musical genre of all time.  When people of that era say “you had to be there,” what they mean is “I have no idea how we all got so obsessed with that garbage, but it was everywhere, it completely consumed the popular landscape.  I am so ashamed.  I guess you had to be there.”

A true YHTBT candidate has to be appreciated today by at least some demographic.  They have to be regarded as among the true greats.  What could better exemplify this than being awarded the United States’ highest cultural award, a Kennedy Center Honor, by the President of the United States, as Led Zeppelin was this past December.  Again, with all due respect to Jimmy Page, Robert Plant, and John Paul Jones, who put out a huge number of hit songs including the one that is always #1 in any classic rock countdown, “Stairway to Heaven,” I just don’t see what separates Zeppelin from many great bands of the past 40 years.  Are they really better than R.E.M.? Pearl Jam? The Strokes? A wide-ranging group of people in their late 40s and 50s, from President Obama to Ned Schneebly,  would say “yes, you had to be there.”

Movies:

The ‘70s were a glorious time for movies.  You could make the case that the greatest movies of all time were made in this decade in each of the following categories: epic drama (The Godfather movies), sci-fi (“A Clockwork Orange”), campy sci-fi (“Star Wars”), war (“Apocalypse Now”), sports (“Rocky” / “Rocky II”), horror (“The Exorcist”), campy horror (“The Rocky Horror Picture Show”) and even musicals (“Grease”).  Still, the films of the ‘70s are not immune to the power of the YHTBT theory.  Here I will name 2 categories of movies that absolutely do not measure up to their reputations: Woody Allen movies and Monty Python movies. You probably won’t ever hear the same person extolling the virtue of both, but no doubt you’ve heard at least one person (like this guy) claiming that Woody Allen is the greatest living writer/director and another claiming that there is nothing funnier than a Monty Python sketch.  In the case of Allen, none other than Rotten Tomatoes agrees: 1972’s “Play It Again, Sam” has a 97% approval rating, 1977’s “Annie Hall” 98%, and 1979’s “Manhattan” 98%.  I, like many people, think that Allen is living off of his reputation built so many decades ago (the majority of his post-2000 movies rate below 50%)[4] but more importantly I don’t even see what’s so special about that trifecta of Allen hits. I would no sooner put any of those three movies in my DVD player than I would “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.”  I hate being told that something is hilarious; just tell me “I guess you had to be there.”

Television:

Here’s the story,

of a show named Brady,

that gets more and more ridiculous over time.

This doesn’t stop folks,

like this one crazy guy,

from building a Brady Bunch shrine.

Everything Else:

Whenever people talk about living through the 1970s, I feel that it’s mandatory that they end with “you really had to be there.”  New York City in the mid-late ‘70s is one giant YHTBT moment.  I’m not saying that it’s the greatest time and place to have ever lived – far from it, though some will try and be nostalgic for the era in that way – but I suppose it can be considered the greatest if by greatest you mean “the time and place when more crazy things happened that will ever happen again in any of our lifetimes.”  Each of these things came out of or happened in this era: CBGBs and the rise of punk, the Blackout of 1977, the Reggie Jackson / Thurman Munson Yankees, Son of Sam, Serpico and NYPD corruption, and of course Howard Cosell’s famous (apocryphal?) statement “There it is, ladies and gentlemen, the Bronx is burning.”

In its history of New York City, in the very first paragraph about the 1970s, Wikipedia says:

The city’s subway system was regarded as unsafe due to crime and suffered frequent mechanical breakdowns. Prostitutes and pimps frequented Times Square, while Central Park became feared as the site of muggings and rapes. Homeless persons and drug dealers occupied boarded-up and abandoned buildings.

Whoa.  I cannot begin to imagine my city as this hellhole, but I know it to be true.  It may have been fun.  Or deadly.  Or both.  Who knows? YHTBT.

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Click here for part 2 … the ’80s and ’90s.


[1] Nike’s “We Are All Witnesses” campaign built around Lebron James shows that they’ve understood this fact for quite some time.

[2] According to Baseball-Reference.com similarity scores, explained here.

[3] The Andy Griffith Show never ranked lower than 7th overall in any year of its 8-year run from 1960-1968, and peaked at #1 overall in its final season.  Really?? The Andy Griffith Show?? That is some awful television. You really had to be there I guess.

[4] Though I really liked 2005’s “Match Point.”

From → Featured Essays

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