What if I’d come back in 2013? Would I have been impressed? I think not…


Some seemed to doubt the premise of the preceding post about how static and dull and lifeless popular culture has become (or at least, to discount the importance of it). But to someone who was young in the ’60s, there’s something very weird about living in a time when a photograph of people 20 years ago would look no different from a photo today (assuming you could get them to look up from their smartphones for a second during the “today” picture).

As I said in a comment on that post

I’ve written in the past about how enormously exciting I found American pop culture when I returned here in 1965 after two-and-a-half years in South America without television. My words in describing it are probably inadequate. It was so amazingly stimulating, as though all my neurons were on fire. It was like mainlining some drug that is so far unknown to pharmacology, one that fully engages all of your brain.

If I had returned at that same age in 2013 rather than ’65 — meaning I had left the country in March 2011 — I doubt it would have been such a huge rush. It would be like, “Oh, look: The latest iPhone does some minor stuff that the old one didn’t. And now we have 4G instead of 3G. Whoopee.”

Most of the big movies would be sequels of the big movies when I left — or “reimaginings” of Superman or Spiderman. The best things on TV would still be “Mad Men” and “Breaking Bad.” “Firefly” would still be canceled. I’d be disappointed that “Rubicon” had only lasted one season. And I’d marvel at the fact that, with hundreds of channels out there, everything good was on one: AMC. (HBO hasn’t impressed me since “The Sopranos,” and that would have been over years before I left the country.) “The Walking Dead” would be new to me. Again, whoopee.

I just can’t imagine what I’d grab hold of and say, “Wow, THIS is different and exciting…”

But consider this list of things that I saw and heard for the first time in 1965, either immediately when I got back into the country, or over the next few months:

  • James Bond – who was enormously important to my friends and me, and who did a lot toward defining the decade (just ask Austin Powers), and who embodied much of what “Mad Men” recaptures about the decade. Yes, Bond had been around earlier, but I had never heard of him before the film “Dr. No,” which I actually saw on the ship on my way down to Ecuador. Which I did not enjoy. I didn’t really get Bond, as something that interested me, until “Goldfinger.”
  • Really exciting new cars that changed dramatically from model year to model year. I had seen ONE Mustang, parked outside the Tennis Club in Guayaquil, and I thought it was awesome. I’d never seen a Sting Ray, and the ’65 model was particularly cool…
  • Not just the Beatles, but the entire British Invasion – the Stones, Herman’s Hermits, The Dave Clark Five, Freddie and the Dreamers, the Animals, Tom Jones, Petula Clark. Just those few names illustrate the tremendous diversity of styles just within that one category we describe as the “Invasion.”
  • Folk rock – The Byrds, Chad & Jeremy, Simon and Garfunkel, and so on.
  • Beach music, West coast – The Beach Boys, Jan & Dean, the Surfaris
  • Gimmick bands – Paul Revere and the Raiders, Sam the Sham and the Pharoahs, etc.
  • One-hit wonders – Much of the vitality of the era was personified by such groups as ? and the Mysterians, the Standells and the Troggs (OK, all three of their hits were technically in ’66. But consider such one-time hits of 1964 and 65 as “The Girl from Ipanema,” “Eve of Destruction,” “Keep on Dancing,” “Land of 1,000 Dances”…)
  • Ordinary guys wearing (relatively) long hair. Yes, we’d heard of The Beatles by this time in South America, but the fashion had not caught on.
  • Beach music, East coast – Yeah, this music had been around, and white kids had been listening to this “black” music, but it didn’t have the kind of profile where I could hear it until this point. I think Wikipedia rightly cites the heyday as being “mid-1960s to early 1970s.”
  • Color TV – It had existed, but I hadn’t seen it.

OK, taking off on that last one, let’s just take a quick run-through of the TV shows, icons of the era, that were either new in 1965, or new to me because I’d been out of the country:

  • Gilligan’s Island
  • Green Acres
  • I Spy
  • Hogan’s Heroes
  • The Wild, Wild West
  • The Smothers Brothers Show
  • Lost in Space
  • Bewitched
  • Daniel Boone
  • The Man from U.N.C.L.E.
  • Get Smart
  • The Munsters/The Addams Family
  • Shindig!

I want you to especially note the variety in those shows — they weren’t all manifestations of the same cultural phenomenon, the way, say, “reality TV” shows are today. (A phenomenon that would not be new to me at all from a two-year absence.)

I’d like to include “The Beverly Hillbillies,” but it actually premiered shortly before I left the country, and I’d seen it once or twice. And I won’t cite the ground-breaking “Batman” because it premiered in January of 1966 – which was still within my first year back in the country. Also, I never saw “The Andy Griffith Show” before my return, but that was my fault — it had been out there for a year or so before I left.

This may all seem silly and superficial to y’all, but I think it’s actually significant that our popular culture is so static and unchanging today. Someone, trying to dismiss this, said on the previous post that I was ignoring the fact that the dynamism of popular culture in previous decades was just a First World, affluent-society phenomenon.

No, I wasn’t. In fact, that is sort of my point. I had come from an unchanging, static culture in the Third World into one of the most exciting cultural moments in the life of the most affluent country in human history. I would even go so far as to suggest that the dynamism of the popular culture is related somehow to economic dynamism.

And maybe the economic stagnation that is the New Normal today is related to cultural stagnation. We could feel our economic horizons expanding in past decades. No longer…

The Rolling Stones – Live in Shindig! (1965) by Vilosophe

17 thoughts on “What if I’d come back in 2013? Would I have been impressed? I think not…

  1. Brad Warthen Post author

    Of course, if I’d been gone 40 years, I’d be amazed by a lot in today’s culture. But none of the things that would amaze me happened in the last two-and-a-half years. Not even close. The Internet took hold in the mid-90s, and the dot-com bubble had burst by the turn of the century. Social media came along in the middle of the past decade, and was old hat by the spring of 2011, when I would have left the country in my scenario…

    1. Doug Ross

      I’m not saying Twitter, tablets, and drones didn’t exist at the start of 2011, but the proliferation has grown rapidly. Change happens faster now so the incremental steps seem less dramatic.

      1. Brad Warthen Post author

        They were all a big deal before I would have left the country. Their growth has been steady, but none of them would be an exciting revelation to anyone who’d been here in 2011…

  2. Kathryn Fenner

    Well, as Mad Men so deftly illustrates, the 60s were a time of especially dramatic change….

  3. bud

    An I-Phone that can make a video call is really, really, really cool. Cars with built-in data screens with GPS capability are really cool. Under the Dome is a pretty good Stephen King TV series. Another pretty good show is Revolution. The Big Bang Theory is the best TV Sitcom ever made. (I guess that was on in 2011). Have you seen the new Corvette? That is super cool.

    Having said that the cultural changes from 1959 to 1967 are startling. Probably never was there a period when we changed so much. I think it has a lot to do with the birth control and the TV coverage of the Civil Rights era and Vietnam. But if you pick out virtually any other 8 year period the cultural changes would be far less.

  4. bud

    Color TV – It had existed, but I hadn’t seen it.

    That one clearly doesn’t count. Color TV premiered in 1954 and was relatively common (although not universal) by 1963. That would be comparable to the Iphone in today’s world.

    1. Brad Warthen

      But I had never seen it.

      Actually, my family didn’t have a color TV until the 70s, which is just as well. I saw lots of color sets in the 60s, but the picture quality was pitiful. The first time I was impressed by the picture on a color TV was about 1972. It was a set in a common area in my dorm at Memphis State, and it was showing “Yellow Submarine.” Very sharp, and good color saturation…

      1. bud

        I don’t mean to be contrarian on this very minor and fun topic but you’re making a claim about the general nature of how the culture changed dramatically between 1963 and 1965 by invoking examples of your personal experiences. Then you contrast that with the world today compared to 2011. That argument only works for exactly one person, Brad Warthen. For someone else who was very familiar with color TV by 1963 the color TV example is completely irrelevant. I remember very well watching the bowl games at my aunt’s house in the early 60s in color. It was a magical experience. We had our first one in 1965. It wasn’t nearly as good as sets would become in a few years but it was dazzling to me but only because it was ours not because it represented some sea change in cultural development. But I think what really made the 60s seem like some kind of rapid fire change in the way we lived was our age. Life has a way of astounding a 9 year old much more easily than a 50 something.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          I think you’re making too much of that “color TV” bullet. Take it out, and then look at the list.

          Color TV did not form a significant part of my life in 1965 — we didn’t have it, and I watched all of those shows listed above in black-and-white. But I was aware that they were available in color (in those days, the shows available in color had a special symbol next to them; the rest were broadcast in black and white), and occasionally I saw a color set — such as at my aunt’s house in Marion.

          I spent that spring and summer in Bennettsville and down at the beach, at my grandparents’ two homes. If I recall correctly, I wasn’t able to get all three networks clearly until we moved to New Orleans just before school started. At that point, I memorized all three stations’ schedules, and watched as much of everything as I could — in black-and-white.

  5. Norm Ivey

    The 60s were undeniably a time of profound change. The Boomers were of an age and of a number that they had influence on the culture in a way that no generation had before. They had the affluence and world view that led to (or advanced) the notion of American Exceptionalism. The article you linked to (which I could not read in its entirety because it was behind a pay wall, so I went on the content of your excerpts), seemed to bemoaning an irreversible change in American society. I’m thinking that the 60s were the exception rather than the rule (which may be your point as well). I think what’s exciting about today is not so much how dynamic pop culture is, but how powerful and positive our general culture is (political climate aside). The ideals of the 60s are coming to fruition in a very static, dull and lifeless way.

    Folk rock, I Spy, and The Smothers Brothers were important not just from a pop culture standpoint, but from a general cultural standpoint as well. But Colbert and Stewart are every bit as funny, satirical and on point as the Smothers Brothers, many of the ideas in much folk rock have been realized (or at least accepted as good ideas), and the controversies surrounding I Spy just seem stupid now. We had to have the 60s to have today. You are fortunate to have experienced the decade so fully. At my age, I can only recall the last few years of the period.

    Pop culture isn’t stagnant; it’s incredibly diverse. There’s so much to experience that no one can hope to experience it all. One of your recent posts focused on Breaking Bad, a pop culture phenomenon. I haven’t experienced it at all, but it’s not because I avoid pop culture, but that my pop culture interests (needs?) are being met elsewhere. All the shows you listed above were on 3 networks. The music was heard on the 2 or 3 radio stations most towns had, the cars were produced by 3 automakers, and all the theaters were showing the same films. If we look the same as people 20 years ago, it’s because we’ve discounted the importance of following a fashion trend. Pop culture was concentrated in the 60s.

    You talk about how stimulating pop culture was to you at the time. For me ( and for many folks much younger than me), that’s the Internet. I am absolutely astounded by how quickly I can read up on something that I might not have known existed when I woke up this morning. I am amazed by the things I discover that I like that I stumble over unexpectedly. including things I’ve been introduced to by this blog. I am blown away by the ideas and information I have access to with just a few clicks.

    The 60s were an amazing decade, but so are the 2010s. Given a choice, I choose today.

        1. Brad Warthen Post author

          And are we truly better off for our ability to do that? We were more into the NOW back then, because the now was endlessly fascinating and constantly changing.

          We would have had little interest, for instance, in discussing a movie or a car or a song that had come out 18 months earlier, because that was SO year-before-last, and all the styles would have changed so much in that time….

          Of course, all those things were rather superficial, but we were more into experiencing the moment, it seems…

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