Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?

When I was a kid we knew about stars in the world of popular entertainment who had peaked long before we were born. I knew a whole lot about Rudolph Valentino, Rudy Vallee, Mae West, Ida Lupino, Fred Waring, Nelson Eddie and Jeanette MacDonald, Victor Borge, Harold Arlen, Josephine Baker and Mary Pickford, to name just a few.

That hunger to learn about the roots and evolution of popular culture seems to be missing from nearly everyone I speak to who are now in their early to mid twenties. Historical memory has apparently become shorter, and the OGs of our current popular culture trends have mysteriously become invisible.

To take one example, very few people in their twenties that I speak to seem to who know who Lenny Bruce was. A few of them recognize him as a character lurking around the fringes of The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel, but that’s about it.

This despite that fact that George Carlin, Richard Pryor, Chris Rock, David Chapelle, Amy Schumer, Sarah Silverman and many others are living in the construction of modern comedy that Bruce built. And he built it against enormous societal resistance, at unimaginable cost to himself.

I could give many similar examples. We appear to be living in a time when people are simply not interested in tracing back the historical roots of their own popular culture. I wonder whether this is just a phase we are going through, or whether it indicates a fundamental shift in the nature of popular culture itself.

3 Responses to “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio?”

  1. J. Peterson says:

    Reminds me of Winsor McKay. He was hugely popular at the beginning of the 1900s, and the inventor of animation as an entertainment medium. He was largely forgotten until historian John Canemaker started writing about him in the late ’80s.

  2. admin says:

    Yes, John did a great service by getting more people aware of Winsor McCay. Although some of us were already fans from childhood of LIttle Nemo and Gertie the Dinosaur.

    The moment when McCay fed that apple to an animated Gertie in front of a live audience will for me always be a high point in the history of media. It captured my imagination when I was a child, and got me thinking about recorded media and performance in a whole different way.

  3. Adrian says:

    I wonder if the shortening of memory is due to the broadening of what’s available now. Popular culture is now hugely fragmented.

    In the past, we had far fewer channels for media. The biggest celebrities lasted a relatively long time and were known by an overwhelming majority of people–approximately everyone knew of Elvis.

    Now, with more music, television, movies, and books being produced than ever before (and there being more niches), there are also more celebrities than ever before. And more one-hit wonders. You don’t have to go very far into the past to get your fill of interesting celebrities.

    Consider how Netflix has completely abandoned the long tail in their transition from DVD rentals to streaming. Good luck streaming a bunch of Hitchcock films, even though, not that long ago, you could rent almost every one from a well-stocked video store.

    Even today’s biggest hits (e.g., Game of Thrones) don’t reach nearly the audience that a hit show (e.g., M*A*S*H) on one of the “Big Three” networks would have had when there were only three big networks.

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