Sunday, January 25, 2009

Fonzia: The "Born Too Late" Syndrome

Growing up in the 70s, I was constantly made aware by people who had grown up in the 60s that I had been born too late … and missed out on being a hippie, I guess. Being raised where I was, I probably missed out on going to Vietnam.

The few hippies in our small town were pretty tame. I recall the girl who played church organ wearing a gigantic peace-sign necklace – the size of a car’s steering wheel. That was about as hippie as kids got around there. I do recall the Protestant minister’s son being a bit out there. We once spied him, naked on the hill in the cemetery, lounging with his similarly naked girlfriend in the mid-day sun, probably stoned out of his mind, too. Caused quite a stir. The point being kids like that were not the norm – they were considered unusual in our small town.

A phenomenon that’s been lost with instant media is the very slow path that trends used to move on in America. In other words, it took forever, literally a few years, for cultural trends to be acceptable in rural areas that were probably commonplace in more urban areas years before. You open a yearbook from my high school from 1969, and you will see unironic crew cuts and bouffant hairdos. Open one up from 1974, and it will look like Woodstock. The kids from 1969 were certainly listening to all that great music and well aware of hippie culture. It was just a huge leap of faith to dress and act that way in a rural area, where sizable numbers of young guys were going off to fight in Vietnam. Hippies were by and large the product of the middle- and upper-middle-class – these people weren’t around so much in our rural area. You’d find occasional small-town hippies, but they would be greatly out-numbered by, well, for lack of a better word, normal people.

I can even recall vestiges of this in the 90s. In New York, white kids decked out in hiphop gear with many going the full “wigger” route and pretending they were ghetto gangstas. It’s one of America’s greatest mysteries, to me, that this whole time period and way of being has pretty much been glossed over and ignored in pop culture. I thought these kids were creepy and offensive -- ultimately racist, too, in that I grasped they’d never accept black culture to the extent of actually living in or genuinely respecting it, and that they’d abandon this morbid façade by their mid-20s, if not long before then. I think I’ve stated before that their lack of sincerity regarding an issue as serious as race relations was something I found offensive and misleading. You want to paint a star on your face and wear platform shoes in 1974, that’s one thing. Pretending you were not just black, but a deeply offensive, buffoonish caricature of black circa 1994, struck me as total insanity … and I felt pretty much alone in that belief as no one ever seemed to discuss the issue, especially in a way that would question the white kids’ motives or genuine understanding of race.

But I do recall, circa 1993 or so, walking in a mall back home, where the whole hiphop thing had yet to sink in there, and seeing some kid decked out in full fashion, which meant he looked like he was wearing a particularly gaudy pair of pajamas, shuffling through the mall, and you could tell how deeply self-conscious this kid was in that no one was dressed like him, and people were “looking at him funny.” He was way ahead of the curve, and I was mildly let down when I went to a high-school football game a few years later, probably 1996, and saw more than a few kids doing their dumb gangsta-hoody thing with the size 52 pants and untied, over-sized sneakers, the creepy Limp Bizkit, backward baseball hat and vestiges of bad facial hair, god, what a morose time that was for kids – basically indulging in flash cards of an empty culture that had nothing to do with them. I think that’s my problem with a lot of teen trends, and that one in particular: kids are coerced into favoring a temporary culture that has nothing to do with them or their ways of life, when they should be creating their own cultures based on these two things. It’s the culture of marketing as opposed to the culture of humanity, and it sucks the life out of America, not to mention every other country it touches. It’s as bad or worse than fast food and is just as corporate in its intent.

But getting back to the concept of being “born too late” – that was the whole point of 60s kids laying their trip on us 70s kids. Our culture was junk in comparison. Never mind that there was plenty of junk culture in the 60s, too. I usually find people crowing over superiority of culture based on the decade they were kids generally have nothing to do with the creation of any sort of culture: they blindly followed whatever was put in front of them at 15 and decided that was that. The cries of superiority sound more like insecurity, which is exactly what they are. There was a lot of great music in the 60s. A lot! More than in the 70s. But there was a lot of great music from that decade, too. Frankly, I thought the 50s were even more revolutionary, and in terms of folk and the blues, at a minimum, were the basis and roots of most of what has followed since. If I had to choose a decade to revisit to see the first signs of these cultural shifts, I’d surely choose the 50s and see the flowering of electric blues and then rock and roll. In my mind, that’s a few thousand times more exciting than the 60s.

But the whole “born late” ruse seems like something aimed at the young – directed at them by older generations and always meant as a negative critique of the younger one. And you’ll find some kids who play along, claiming they were born too late. (And thus missed out on some great trend, which probably was great fun at the time, but came and went, and woe unto anyone who clings to those memories as opposed to leaving them comfortably in the rear view mirror.) These kids are really trying to say they can’t stand the current teen culture foisted on them, and I can’t blame them for that. When you’re in your 40s, or probably even your 30s, you’re thinking more about dying one day, not being born too late. You’ve swam out to the deep end, where you’re a lot closer to other people drowning. Teens and 20s, that’s the time of insecurity, to wonder why you couldn’t have been born in 1954 instead of 1984. If it makes you feel any better, you probably would have been an asshole in either decade.

I came across a single the other day on youtube that struck me as being a bit odd: “I Wish I Was a Punk Rocker (with Flowers in My Hair)” by Sandi Thom. Apparently, t
his song was a huge hit in the UK and a few other parts of the world, but not here just yet. I actually like the way the song sounds – it’s pretty novel for someone in the music industry today to make such a bare-boned song and have a hit with it. But the lyrics gave me angina. More of that mildly self-loathing “weren’t things better before I was born” mentality.

I came up with a word for that a few years ago: Fonzia. Taken from the name “Fonzie” --the cool greaser character played by Henry Winkler from the hit 70s TV series Happy Days. This show was 50s nostalgia, roughly 20 years after the fact, aimed largely at a teenage audience that wasn’t even born in the 50s. Ergo, people being made to feel nostalgic for an era that they hadn’t even been alive in. Thus, Fonzia, a sort of baseless nostalgia lacking roots in any real emotions or memories.

I think Sandi Thom has Fonzia in spades. I checked her website to see she was born in a small fishing village in Scotland and is now 26 years old, meaning she was born in 1982 (the year I graduated from high school). If she has any childhood nostalgia to ponder, it’s people with symmetrical haircuts and gigantic white t-shirts emblazoned with “Frankie Says Relax,” white-people dancing to bad synth pop.

Thus, I can’t blame her for feeling nostalgic for cultures of an earlier era. Which she gets all wrong, but who’s keeping score. I’ll print out the lyrics to “I Wish I was a Punk Rocker” below and give you my running interpretation:

Oh I wish I was a punk rocker with flowers in my hair
In 77 and 69 revolution was in the air

Of course, punk rockers didn’t have flowers in their hair. Punks hated hippies, or at least claimed to. And I am certain that hippies hated punks – most people did. Punk didn’t happen en masse in America, although you started seeing many more punk-rock kids by the early 80s when punk had become an established sub-culture around urban areas. It was a rare kid who dressed punk, or even liked punk music, in my rural area in 1982. I was one of the few kids in my high school who had Clash albums and the Sex Pistols album – most of my friends didn’t know what the hell I was talking about when it came to punk, nor did they care. Most punk music, I didn’t know myself, and could sense that stuff like Talking Heads and Elvis Costello wasn’t punk music. (They were too good and had real talent.) The situation was different in the UK in 1977, but even then, I suspect people are now pretending there were punks all over the place when they were much more of an anomaly in the overall culture – the same way every British artist of any sort you meet carries on about “bloody Thatcher,” yet the woman was routinely re-elected for years on end. Who were those invisible millions who kept voting her in?

Revolution surely was in the air of 1969, but it came to naught. It came to even less in 1977. This was a passing fashion for most people. Not meant to disparage them or their beliefs. Simply stated, revolutions did not occur. The mildly wealthy kids who shucked their nice lots in life temporarily … eventually eased back into them and became what they were meant to be – reasonably wealthy people looking to stay reasonably wealthy. If that sounds cynical, it isn’t meant to be. It’s the way of the world! Most people become what their parents were, or make serious efforts to raise themselves even higher financially. Nothing wrong with that. Just doesn’t jibe with this whole “revolutionary” stance. Which most people quietly put away in a trunk in the attic some time in their 20s. Like watching a girl go from nose and eyebrow piercings, to a nose ring, to a tasteful diamond stud in her nose, just to a plain, unadorned nose, once she realizes there aren’t many 32-year-olds wearing face jewelry.

I was born too late and to a world that doesn't care
Oh I wish I was a punk rocker with flowers in my hair

The world would have cared no more or less in 1969, 1977 or 2007.

When the head of state didn't play guitar

I guess this is a swipe at Tony Blair for being a musician. Is the implication that life was better in that pre-rock era when heads of state had nothing to do with art or music? It probably wasn’t.

Not everybody drove a car

In 1969 and 1974, most people in the UK who could drive were driving cars. Not sure what that’s supposed to mean? You have to go back another 50 years or so to find a time when a recognizable number of people didn’t get around in cars.

When music really mattered and when radio was king

Music really matters now – no more or less than it did in 1969 or 1974. (The question is does it really matter to you, and the answer, unfortunately, is "no" for many people as they age, which is a shame.) Radio was king, but by the 70s, it was pre-programmed lists determined more by marketing strategies than taste or natural appeal. There was a very small window in the late 60s into the early 70s where some DJs on the FM dial in America (and I guess people like John Peel in the U.K.) had influence enough to make or break songs, and taste enough to be excellent at their jobs and have tremendous reach for playing new music. The bulk of the industry has almost always been pre-programmed, heavily-marketed music that large record companies want to succeed. That’s still true today, as much as I wish it wasn’t. And you could argue that for a time in the mid-60s, AM radio was such that just by playing what was popular, they featured a beautiful cross section of pop music that’s still being played today. That was a great time for music. I was in diapers. Much like I don’t miss shitting them, I don’t miss those days. Live long enough, and you see diaper-shitting on the horizon again.

When accountants didn't have control

OK, so I can agree with this one! In her view of musical history, there was a time when music was more controlled by tasteful people who nurtured talent. This is very true, but again, by 1977, with the industry growing exponentially since 1969, it was growing less true by the day. If punk caught on at all, it was thanks to billionaires like Richard Branson and his record label pushing it. The accountants were gaining control in 1969 and surely had it by 1977. Good-to-great music still managed to get made, just like today.

And the media couldn't buy your soul

They still can’t, but I appreciate the gesture she puts forth. At least her heart’s in the right place.

And computers were still scary and we didn’t know everything

I never found computers scary. I found Computer Science classes scary, although I wish now I would have taken a few and added that to my list of talents. But computers, man, once it was clear how to use them, I embraced them completely. Most people did. I take it she’s being sarcastic with the “we didn’t know everything” line – good for her.

When popstars still remained a myth

Probably the best point she makes. Pop stars appeared more in magazines and on album covers than the blanket coverage they now get thanks to MTV and then the internet. There was a mythology around pop and rock music that made physically seeing stars perform, even on TV, much more exciting back then.

And ignorance could still be bliss

Again, one of those weird lines that makes no sense. Ignorance could always be bliss, even in 1469.

And when God Saved the Queen she turned a whiter shade of pale

Nifty use of Sex Pistols and Procol Harum lyrics. A word on invoking The Sex Pistols. I suspect if Johnny Rotten heard this song, he’d break into a sarcastic, loose-limbed hippie/sufi dance, waving peace signs and rolling his eyes before stalking out of the room in a profane rage. The song’s sunny pop sense is more Bay City Rollers than Sex Pistols, and I mean that as a compliment. Watching her video, if you put a can of Coke or Pepsi in her hand, the look and feel of the video would perfectly mimic your average soft-drink commercial.

When my mom and dad were in their teens

She was born in 1982, the year I graduated from high school. Meaning her parents, unless they were banging straight out of the gate, were probably born in the late 50s, maybe early 60s at the latest. I’d wager they were too young to be full-on hippies, and too old to be punks – and probably would have been neither in a small Scottish fishing village. I’d wager her parents were into glitter rock if I had to take direct aim at the timing of their youth. They might have been Bowie and Roxy Music fans, assuming they grew up liking pop music, maybe even into prog rock like Yes and Genesis. Plenty of great British rock was made in the early 70s: The Faces! Her mother was probably a Bay City Rollers fan, which I wouldn’t hold against her. (I would be in heaven if her parents had totally neglected pop music and sat around in musty kitchens playing Scottish reels on bagpipes and violins while watching the rain fall sideways.)

and anarchy was still a dream

Anarchy is just about always a dream, and meant to stay that way. Generally speaking, if you’re in a situation where anarchy rules these days, bad shit is happening. Not the utopia of intelligent, compassionate people fulfilling their individual destinies with no governmental control. If that period of history has existed anywhere in any culture in the history of mankind, I’d like to know about it. Johnny Rotten sang, “I want to be anarchy,” but you know he was full of shit – in a good way, of course. But full of shit, nonetheless.

and the only way to stay in touch was a letter in the mail

Yeah. Phones didn’t exist in 1969 or 1977. We used smoke signals and carrier pigeons.

When record shops were on top
and vinyl was all that they stocked

Record shops sure were on top for a very long time, probably up until the mid 1980s or so. But they always stocked much more than vinyl. When I was a kid in the 70s, there were eight-track tapes, and then cassette tapes, which people gravitated towards when portable and car stereos came into being. Vinyl had a nice long run, probably about three or four decades of being the main physical product in the music industry. But time marches on. I’ll never go back to vinyl and don’t miss it. Maybe the art work associated with albums, but that’s it. I’m extremely wary of vinyl enthusiasts who weren’t around when vinyl was the main game in town.

and the super info highway was still drifting out in space

I’m not sure how long the internet has been around, but I gather it goes back in some form back to the 70s. Still, the idea of mild negativity being associated with the creation of the internet is just a bad, misleading concept in my book. It’s much more beneficial than it is negative.

kids were wearing hand me downs

I’m assuming poor kids still do.

and playing games meant kick arounds

I’m sure you’ll still find kids playing football/soccer in the UK of their own free volition. Granted, I get her point about the age of video-game zombies, but let’s give credit to kids who still don’t zone out with an X Box for four hours a night.

and footballers still had long hair and dirt across their face

Every time I watch a soccer match, I’m always seeing a few players on the pitch who look like hippies.

I was born too late to a world that doesn't care
Oh I wish I was a punk rocker with flowers in my hair

You weren’t born too late, Sandi, but in light of this song, I strongly suggest you cover “Drop Kick Me Jesus through the Goal Posts of Life” by Bobby Bare. Country music. Loved by people who think hippies and punks always have been assholes. Gives you a whole new demographic to tap into, and seeing as how pretty you are, an opportunity to float a video to CMT. And you’d be better off feeling Fonzia over Hank Williams songs that are better written and more lasting than much of what went down in the 60s and 70s. Look at the big picture, lassie!

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