The Corner


Imagine There’s No Cultural Memory

A fan holds a picture of John Lennon during a candlelight vigil at Strawberry Fields in New York City in 2005. (Reuters photo: Peter Foley)

An MIT professor of about 40 asked a student if she recognized a song that was playing. Was it Coldplay? She wondered.

It was John Lennon’s “Imagine.” That’s as close as you can get to iconic, when it comes to a work of popular art. Culturally speaking, it’s just about dead. John Lennon has been gone for 38 years. His work is disappearing from our collective memory.

The MIT prof, Cesar Hildago, is studying how long famous people endure after they’re gone. His estimate is five to 30 years. It was nice to know you, John.

I think most of those of us who are at middle age or past it have probably already taken note of the phenomenon. Even very intelligent young people who are highly attuned to popular culture have more or less shrugged off everyone who was famous before they were born. If you can be as famous as John Lennon was and be forgotten in 30 years, fame is even more evanescent than we all thought.

Chuck Klosterman did some heavy thinking about the matter in his superb book, But What If We’re Wrong? I wrote about it a while back. Even if you go back only as far as, say, 1980s movies, as John Podhoretz recently did, hardly any of them are still culturally viable and the ones that are still talked about are not the ones that dominated the conversation at the time of release. Who, for instance, watches Best Picture Oscar winners Ordinary People or Out of Africa or Rain Man anymore? (Rain Man was in addition the number one box-office hit of 1988.)

One glimmer of hope is the streaming-TV revolution, which means you no longer are at the mercy of what TV programmers put on the air, nor have to bestir yourself to get to a video store, in order to revisit wonderful old movies. Even if you only subscribe to a couple of services, you have access to hundreds of great old movies. Movies like Lenny and The Elephant Man and Heartbreak Ridge. I’m trying to keep them alive by writing about them, and you can check them out with a click of a few buttons.

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