Recently, I spent an evening with friends who go back to my high school years. The three of us are the same age, and so we have the same cultural memory, which was formed in the 1960s and 70s.
I mentioned that I wanted to see the new Linda Ronstadt documentary that’s now in the theatres, and they agreed that should be fun. Another pal saw it on its opening day, and highly recommended it. The film chronicles one of the greatest singing careers of the 20th century, but sadly it ended in 2012 when she was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease.
She was only 66, and so at an age when veteran performers can extend their runs in places like Las Vegas and Branson, Missouri, Linda had to retire. But at least she can look back and know that she conquered just about every music genre, from Rock & Roll, through Country and Latin, a foray into the classic American Songbook with Nelson Riddle, even Light Opera via a revival of Gilbert & Sullivan’s Pirates of Penzance.
After dinner we turned on YouTube and played most of her classic recordings. This website has become the greatest Show Business archive ever assembled, and I’ve spent countless hours mining its listings.
One of its best features is how it learns your preferences, and then suggests other things to sample. I’ve found lots of clips I haven’t seen in decades, and even a few that were brand new to me.
The other day I asked a millennial if she knew who Linda Ronstadt is. She had no real knowledge about her at all, only the dimmest of name recognition.
Then I mentioned some of my other old favorites, ranging from Perry Como to Sam Cooke to Jim Croce. My young friend had never heard of any of them.
Now, granted I have almost no familiarity with current singers, as what passes for commercial music today holds almost no interest for me. Still, I can drop the name of a rapper or two, and I’m aware of the Taylor Swifts of the world, who tour arenas.
I just don’t believe even the biggest attractions today will have much staying power.
Thankfully, Sinatra, Elvis and the Beatles are still famous enough to be acknowledged by 20-somethings. The fact that they endure at all measures how huge their careers were. Given the loss of the Mass Audience, the destruction of attention spans and all the other media distractions, it’s impossible to imagine any person or group ever approaching their impact again.
But aside from this musical Mount Rushmore, think of how many former superstars are now completely obscure to the last few generations?
Bing Crosby was at one time the biggest movie and recording star on the planet. Today, he’s forgotten. Sammy Davis, Jr. was widely acknowledged as perhaps the most versatile performer of the post-war years, and he too was a headliner in clubs, films, Broadway and TV. I’ll bet ten out of ten teens couldn’t pick him out of a line-up.
Yes, I’m prejudiced in favor of the old-timers, but objectively I don’t see anybody currently labeled a star who will ever approach their achievements.
And I can always go to YouTube to demonstrate why.