Saturday, January 17, 2009

The Fascinating: Old and Young

Every year Barbara Walters gets a fair amount of attention for her list of the "Ten Most Fascinating People." Though I discount out of hand any list which regards Miley Cyrus as "fascinating" (even if the phenomenon surrounding her might qualify), I like the concept. The idea of identifying, examining, and if possible, interviewing fascinating people is a good one.

But what makes someone fascinating? As I get older, I'm less likely to be fascinated by anybody. When I was younger and more impressionable I was apt to find anybody slightly eccentric, or anybody exhibiting any degree of nonconformity, to be fascinating (Dennis Rodman, for example). Likewise, anybody who exhibited excellence in any given field was a fascination of sorts (continuing the NBA theme, my generation seemed to hold a fascination for Michael Jordan). But once you've lived through Rodman's shtick, the likes of a Chad Ocho Cinco holds less fascination. If you've seen Jordan in his prime, you aren't as likely to hold fascination (admiration, but not fascination) for Kobe or Lebron. Heck, if you've lived through the ascendancy of NKOTB, Hammer Time, Hanson, the Backstreet Boys, N Sync, Britney, and Christina, you aren't going to be fascinated by Miley and the Jonas Brothers (much less if you've lived through Donny Osmond, Leif Garret, the Beatles, Elvis, Rickey Nelson, etc).

So who do I find fascinating? I am fascinated by people who have achieved a great deal of success in two or more fields, especially if the fields are unrelated. But as I wrote about some time ago, polymaths aren't really in evidence anymore. Yet there is still hope for a non-polymath to make my list of most fascinating people. But it's not easy. You must, in your chosen field, keep up with your cultural milieu over generations. The work you produce must be reflective of the world you live in, even as that world changes. You can reject the nouveau if you choose, but you have to demonstrate you know what it is you are rejecting. You must be just as relevant in your old age as you were in your youth.

Of course, this means that you have to be old in order to be fascinating. But that certainly isn't to imply that anyone who is still going strong at an advanced age is automatically fascinating. The Rolling Stones are worthy of admiration for what they continue to do, but they are certainly not fascinating. Brian Wilson is worthy of honors and plaudits galore, but his genius is of a particular time and place, and therefore he is ultimately not fascinating.

So who is fascinating? Well, as I said before, I'm hard pressed to find anybody fascinating. As we have gone through the past few years celebrating the 40th anniversaries of the tumultuous years of 1967, 1968, now 1969, it is apparent how few figures from those culturally watershed years carried relevance through the subsequent years, much less hold relevance today. Bob Dylan is of course fascinating. But Dylan is not known for engaging culture, and his reference points are not the present, or even his past, but the distant past. Even as he was making history singing about the times a-changin', he was drawing his energy from the Dust Bowl and the Civil War. His work today is relevant because it is a stubborn defiance of the a la mode that channels not his own rich and varied history, but the rich and varied history of his land.

So does that leave anyone who can claim to be fascinating on the basis of inhabiting both the past and the present? Pete Townshend comes close, but he is not prolific enough. Yet there is one hope, a man who has literal dual citizenship (as a Canadian and an American), and a figurative dual citizenship as an inhabitant of multiple generations. That man is the aptly named Neil Young.

Young has never been as widely cast as the "voice of the generation" as Dylan has, perhaps ironically because Young is more articulate. Whereas Dylan often demurs and lets people project things onto him, the garrulous Young exhausts those who would listen to him. Yet Young is every bit the master of re-invention that Dylan is and has the same proclivity for writing songs that resonate deeply with a zeitgeist. If someone wishes to understand how rock and politics intersected for the hippie generation, they need look no further than Young's "Ohio." If they want to understand the post-Woodstock ennui that generation faced, they need only listen to "Heart of Gold."

Yet rather than get bogged down in that ennui, Young kept on going, changing with the times because he comprehended the times. Out of all the performers at Woodstock, who but Neil would go on to name check Johnny Rotten in a song? And then he cut a couple of electronica albums...when Moby was still in a punk band. And the main who wrote "Ohio" would go on to write "Rockin' in the Free World," the only canonized rock song to reference an initiative (the thousand points of light) of the first Bush administration. And then in the 90s came the whole "Godfather of Grunge" era and a tour with the then-red hot Pearl Jam. And in recent years he has kept up with current events, writing songs about 9/11 and the Iraq War.

But that's all backdrop. It wasn't until recently that I became ready to bestow Shakey with the title "fascinating." First, there is the whole Linc-Volt project, in which Neil and a Kansas engineer are attempting to do no less than revolutionize the auto industry. Even if he is not successful, the mere fact that he has such high ambitions out of his original field is enough to make him fascinating. But this last week, he has done something else to satisfy my other criteria for being considered "fascinating." He did something musically that demonstrates that he is still as relevant to this era as he was 40 years ago.

If a musician from 1969 were cryogenically frozen, and thawed out today, they would probably be less surprised by the changes to music than the changes in the music industry. They would be shocked at the ease with which a musician could self-distribute their product through the Internet, even if that product is shockingly mediocre. You don't need to press a vinyl record and find avenues of distribution. You can write a song off the cuff, shoot a low-res video, and make it accessible worldwide. And now there are millions of low-res mediocre music videos on the Internet. And this week, Neil Young made the quintessential low-res mediocre music video, loading it with highly topical references. He was perfectly of his time almost 40 years ago:

And he is perfectly of his time today:

I would totally watch a Barbara Walters interview with Neil Young.


Blogger zen ironman said...


I am always impressed when I read your varied ruminations, and never disappointed, even when your opinions differ from mine (Spider Man 3).

That being said, I'm wondering if your working definition of "fascination" doesn't carry with it quite a bit of prerequisite? Certainly, the attributes that you you would have a "fascinating" individual possess are fascinating, and admirable...but are they the sole source of fascination?

I suppose, given the disparity between Walters' Cyrus-inclusive list, and your Everyone-exclusive list, we would have to see fascination as a relative, subjective classifier, but surely there is some middle ground?

Certainly fascination can take many forms. Depending on one's particular vantage point, there are numerous ways that our 43d president could be considered fascinating.

I have to stop, as my thoughts are getting too far ahead of my words, but consider that fascination can be--and often is--fleeting. Otherwise, it just becomes normal.

4:36 PM  

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