I can pinpoint the moment when I realized that we baby-boomers were no longer the driving force of popular culture and that control had been taken over by Generation X -- those who came of age in the Reagan Era, rather than the Kennedy-Johnson-Nixon era.
It was last week. And it was because of Three Dog Night.
How, you may ask, could Three Dog Night -- as irrelevant a rock band as ever topped the charts in the 1960s and 1970s -- be a marker signaling a cultural shift?
Stay with me.
On the Feb. 28 episode of Lost, Hurley (Jorge Garcia) found an old VW bus on the island and got it running. His moment of triumph was underscored by the Three Dog Night song, "Shambala," an uptempo bit of pop goofiness that featured yodeling and a utopian vision. The Three Dog Night excerpt eventually melted into a sweeter orchestral arrangement that underscored tranquil images of the Lost cast, while emanating good vibes and a moment of inner peace on that benighted island in the Pacific.
The next day, I was watching an advance screener of a fairly awful new ABC series, October Road, which debuts March 15. The central character is a callow writer (Bryan Greenberg) who returns to his New England hometown after running away 10 years and one best-selling youthful roman-a-clef ago. At the end of the show, as he reaches a moment of epiphany, the soundtrack swells ... and the song being played is "Shambala" by Three Dog Night.
Undoubtedly, those October Road producers are kicking themselves over the unfortunate coincidence; by the time the new series gets on the air, they may even swap it out for something else. But the synchronicity of that musical moment (and a couple of other musical choices on this show) must be seen for what they are: signposts that something is changing -- if it hasn't changed already.
The other musical moments in October Road? Both have to do with the returning writer's high school friends, now 10 years removed from graduation day, who have maintained a weekly tradition of getting together and playing air guitar to favorite rock songs. Except that these characters -- all born around 1980, if my math skills don't fail me -- are lip-synching to tunes like Boston's "Don't Look Back" and Thin Lizzy's "The Boys Are Back in Town," both songs from (give or take a year) roughly 1975.
Which means that these 20-somethings' favorite music really springs from the youth of the 30-somethings who are running this show.
How does this signal a cultural landslide?
Let's start with the premise that all pop culture is youth-oriented, if not youth-directed. Then go to the given that we baby-boomers, who consider ourselves eternally youthful, are now late-middle-age, approaching senior citizenship. And no matter how much Botox or hair-coloring or Pilates, how many facelists or sports cars we apply as an overlay, it is still all just a thin disguise that cannot cover the fact: We are now the old people.
And pop culture is run by young people.
Or, rather, the young people who have moved into positions of power, who are in their 30s now. We boomers still act like we want to think we're in our 30s -- but people in their 30s are in control.
(Wait, you're saying -- then who's choosing all that fresh-from-the-Internet emo and faux folk that swells the soundtracks in shows like Grey's Anatomy? Easy: production assistants, junior executives -- anyone in a position to suck up to the producers/creators who are actually running the shows but don't have the ears or the time to stay tuned to the latest musical buzz.)
These Gen-Xers are prey to the same Big Chill-like nostalgia that swamped us when we boomers were in OUR 30s -- that sense that, gee, 35 seemed so old when we were teen-agers or even in our 20s: "Even though I still feel like I'm 18, I'm actually halfway through my life. And what exactly have I accomplished?"
And since very few people have ever accomplished the things they thought they would at 35, they retreat into nostalgia for a simpler age: when they were youngsters in the 1970s -- and songs like "Shambala" were popular and made them feel good.
How do I know that this particular song was chosen for that soundtrack by a Gen-X-er? Because no boomer worth his musical salt took Three Dog Night seriously. The rock snobs saw TDN as the equivalent of a bubble-gum band, making pop confections like "Joy to the World" that topped the charts (and became fodder for karaoke bars) but had no cred among serious rock-music fans of the period.
For baby boomers, nostalgia meant music from the 1950s -- and not the real rock'n'roll like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. That's why Sha Na Na was a hit for a while in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
So it will be from now on. The Gen-X-ers -- who complained so bitterly that the boomers controlled the culture at the point in the 1980s when shows like thirtysomething were popular on TV -- are now in control. So watch for pop-culture references to the most inane music, TV and movies from the 70s and 80s. Yes, it's already happened to some extent ("Scooby Doo," anyone?). But we're about to see the crest of the wave.
Cue Three Dog Night for its comeback.
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