Television for the 55-Plus Folks

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, May 2, 2016

Talking with my old buddy Connell last night, I commented that everyone today has very different tastes in music. Out of 432 songs on my favorite Spotify playlist, I might share a unique handful with each of my friends. Back in the 1960s, when we were young boomers, we all watched the same three TV networks, listened to the same AM top-40 radio stations, often bought the same albums, went to the same rock concerts and movies, and pretty much shared the same pop culture. Living in the shiny future of the 21st century, pop culture has exploded. Everyone has gone off to do their own thing—usually tuning out with earphones and a personal screen—and won’t VR be even more isolating? I feel little pop culture kinship anymore.

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I wonder if cord cutters, the retired ones, aren’t all sitting in our darkened rooms, by ourselves at night, watching the same TV shows? We’ve reduced our TV universe to a few local broadcast networks again. Going from 200+ channels to a handful might be a socially unifying trend. How many of us are watching Antenna TV, Grit TV, Movies!, Decades, GetTV or MeTV?

I cut the cable cord years ago. I planned to watch Netflix, Hulu and other streaming services instead. What’s weird is I spend more time now watching broadcast TV. What goes around, comes around. I own a Tivo Roamio, which allows me to record over-the-air TV—and zip past the commercials. When I do see the commercials, most are targeted to my demographic, the 55-plus crowd. At any random moment of the day, a quick flip by all the channels will mainly reveal commercials. To get folks to watch those commercials they use old shows and movies as bait. I guess they know what we’re biting.

decadeslogo2Grit

If I didn’t have the Tivo, I couldn’t handle that. I hate commercials. Yet, I’ve got to admit they’ve got my number, because these networks broadcast content that appeals to me, and I assume, to my fellow baby boomer cord cutters. I hardly ever watch the major networks anymore. Their primetime shows aren’t geared to my tastes. Mostly I watch PBS. However, when I’m not watching public television, I love the local channels that show old movies, and to a lesser degree, the old television shows. Especially content created in the 1950s and 1960s, when I grew up. Is broadcast TV curated for us baby boomers? Or do young people like retro-TV? After we get on social security, and our fixed incomes become cable-unfriendly, lots of us go back to over-the-air television reception. Evidently, marketing gurus have discovered old episodes of Peter Gunn, Perry Mason and The Twilight Zone sell adult diapers, self-catheters, Consumer Cellular phone, prostate pills, unbreakable reading glasses, and other doodads for the 55-plus-set better than reruns of Cheers or The Mary Tyler Moore Show . I have 4-5 channels where I can watch the same shows I watched when I lived with my parents. Decades later, in the 1980s we chanted, “I want my M-TV.” Now I sing, “I want my GetTV.” (My city doesn’t have it yet.) There’s a tremendous number of broadcast networks, but no city gets them all. But as each city gets more of them, won’t there be less demand for cable?

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How many over-55 cord cutters are watching these networks? By reducing the the number of networks we watch, do we bring ourselves closer? Will there ever be a time again when people share the same pop culture? Sometimes I think I could cut out all TV but one network – PBS. Are public television lovers my chosen peeps?

I cancelled my subscription of Netflix discs because I just let the discs sit around for weeks. I have Netflix streaming, but I don’t watch it much, mostly for documentaries. I also have Amazon Prime which I use to watch new television shows and movies when I have company. When I’m by myself, which is most of the time, I mainly watch documentaries on PBS or old westerns. I spice things up now and then by trying an ancient TV show, or an old film, in particular, a 1960s comedy, or a 1940s film noir. When I have friends over, we watch new TV shows like Mr. Robot, Humans, Fargo, The Knick, Man in the High Castle, Mad Dogs, etc. I do like modern scripted TV, especially if the show is one story told in 10-13 episodes. But I save those shows for when I have company and we can share. It’s great to have new shows to talk about. Solitary watching is different. I guess my comfort TV is old stuff.

I realize I have multiple personalities. I have my main personality that watches TV by myself, and a different personality for each of my friends. I almost never listen to music with friends anymore. I guess group listening to albums stopped when we quit smoking pot back in the 1970s. I wonder if medical marijuana for old folks is bringing back album parties? I do read books with friends, sometimes, because of book clubs. And I usually go to plays and art shows with friends. When I think about it, I spend a lot of time enjoying various art forms alone. Back in my K-12 years, that wasn’t so. You’d watch TV with your family, and then go to school the next day and discuss the shows with your friends. Our world was smaller, but it was closer. I guess in a couple decades when I move into a retirement home, I’ll be back watching TV together with a new family.

With over sixty years experience watching TV, I’ve gone though many phases of TV culture. I wonder as I get older if I’ll want to rewatch 1970s TV, and then 1980s TV, and if I live long enough 1990s TV. Do people get nostalgic for their twenties, thirties, forties, fifties? In the future, will baby boomers crave Must See TV and want to watch old episodes of Seinfeld, Mad About You, and ER? Right now I can’t even make myself watch old Star Trek series which I once loved. Will, I change in the future and crave them again? Or will nostalgia always keep me trapped in 1956-1965 TV-land?

JWH

Leaving the 20th Century Behind

By James Wallace Harris, Monday, December 29, 2014

I assume anyone choosing to read this essay remembers the 20th century, and that young people aren’t my targeted audience. Gen X (1965-1979) and Millennials (1980-2000) can remember last century, and I’m sure they have their own objects of nostalgia, although I find it hard to picture people in their forties getting all weepy over punk tunes, claiming, “Hey, they’re playing our song!” Gen X’ers and Y’ers are closer to their past, but it’s quickly becoming old like mine.

Forbidden Planet

The other night I was checking out TCM and Warner Archive Instant, and realized I was prowling through the same old decades, looking for the same old favorites movies and movie stars, and wondered if it wasn’t time I got back to the 21st century. Trying to find a great Pre-Code flick or a gritty 1950s western that I haven’t seen is getting harder and harder. What I’ve discovered in my late night TV watching is I can choose to dig around the 20th century, or I can look for something new.

When I go the new route I’m often uplifted by an influx of current data about reality. I know I’m addicted to the past, yet I also know I get the best intellectual rushes from taking in reports from the event horizons of things going on now. I’m both a news junky, and a nostalgia addict, but I’m slowly discovering that keeping up with what’s new is healthier for my aging brain.

If you grew up in the 1950s and 1960s like I did, 2015 sounds like the far future. Most of my fellow baby boomers (1946-1964) identify more with the 20th century than the 21st. I’m not sure that’s good. We’re well into the 21st century now, and I think it’s time we leave the 20th century behind. Few people actually live in the pop culture moment. The old live in the past, and the young have so many choices that they experience the moment in an asynchronous consumption that is so diverse that it’s hard to imagine them identifying themselves as any particular generation. I guess they are the Net generation – because of Internet and Broadband networks – but the net connects them to everything. They can call up a 1965 TV show as easily as a 2014 show, which gives their pop culture content a timeless quality.

Back in my youth, baby boomers tended to watch the same few TV channels live, and listened to the same AM radio stations, and went to the same movies. This synced us up in ways that young people growing up today can’t understand. Boomers in the now tune into classic rock, watch nostalgia TV and collect DVDs of all our old favorite movies and television shows. For Christmas I got my wife a subscription to Spotify, and she immediately made playlists of her favorite 1960s and 1970s music.

Isn’t it time we left the 20th century behind? I don’t know about you, but nostalgia starting to run thin.

Among friends my age, the closest we sync with the present pop culture is with movies. Many of my friends go to one or two movies a week, and this gives us something to share. When it comes to music, we’re all living in our own isolated headphone space. There is some sharing of TV, but it’s few and far between. Sports is the one pop culture experience where millions focus on the same event at the same time, young and old. Unfortunately, for me, I’m not a sport fan, so I feel out of the loop there.

As a TV watcher, I stick primarily to PBS for live shows, and that syncs me mostly to my fellow baby boomers. I have a lot of friends who love NPR, and of all my friends who still watch the nightly news, we’re to a person watching NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams. Of course, the conservative people I know, stick to Fox News. As a group, baby boomers, whether liberal or conservative, are not that adventuresome when it comes to taking in new data. Neither NBC, PBS or Fox is cutting edge 21st century.

It’s only when I read new books and magazines do I get a feeling I’m living in the 21st century. When I’m reading about attacks on string theory, news of exoplanet discoveries, or the politics of wealth inequality, do I feel like I’m close to current. Reading the news feeds of Zite, Flipboard and News360, as well as digital magazines on Next Issue and Zinio, makes me feel like I’m actually keeping up with the present. And it’s documentaries on PBS and Netflix streaming that give me a sense of what’s really happening around the world now. Nightly news shows relentlessly show the same type of news stories so over the long haul of time nothing really feels new. Politics and weather disasters never seem to change, they’re so 20th century.  It’s only stories about science and technology breakthroughs do I feel I’m actually hearing about current news, and feel I’m in the 21st century. Hell, the details from the Middle East seem like the same stories I read in The Bible.

When I buy used books, I ignore any nonfiction before the year 2000, and I’m getting to I don’t like anything published before 2010. And in some ways, I feel the same about fiction. I grew up in the 1950s and 1960s loving the old movies of the 1930s and 1940s, and for many years I loved film history up until the year 2000. More and more I want to see movies that are less than a year old. I was an English major in college, and have always loved books from 1800-1950, but even that taste is changing. I still love the 19th century, but now I often prefer it seen through 21st century eyes, like Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things.

In other words, if I look at the past, I want to be with a fresh perspective, with modern eyes.  We can’t escape the legacy of the past, but we can avoid rigidly being frozen in old perspectives of reality. The 21st century is upon us, and I believe we need to pay attention.

JWH

Pop Music versus Classical Music

Growing up in the 1960s I was programmed to love rock music by AM radios.  I never developed an ear for classical music.  Last night, three lady friends and I, attended the opening performance for this season of the Memphis Repertory Orchestra.  I tried hard to get into the music.  It’s not that I hated what I heard, it was  enjoyable, even fascinating, but I didn’t get the emotional response from that music that I do from pop music.  I’m trying to figure out why.

I thought the performances last night were very good, and plan to attend again.  I’m intrigued once again with classical music.

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The last performance, “Les Preludes” by Franz Liszt, was my favorite of the evening.  I got into it. I could close my eyes and forget my body, and let my mind flow with the music, and it was fairly exciting, going through a range of sounds that often evoked comparisons to real world sounds, like sheets of rain, or movie soundtrack imagery, like a city coming alive in the morning.  But even though the music was pleasant and thought provoking, it didn’t push any of my emotional buttons like I’m used with rock music.  Why?

I’m not blaming classical music here, I’m blaming me.  After reading The Mind’s Eye by Oliver Sacks, I’m all too well aware of my perceptual limitations.  This is a brain issue.  I know other people find this kind of music deeply moving and emotional.  Somehow my upbringing has made me colorblind to classical music.

Pop songs are short, usually have a strong backbeat that you can dance to, and they have a hook, a catchy phrase or melody that’s repeated.  The emotional mood of a pop song is usually singular, although there’s a few famous examples, like “Hey, Jude,” “A Day in the Life” and “Stairway to Heaven” that change moods in mid-song.  Pieces performed last night constantly shifted gears, and only rarely, did a short sequence push one of my buttons.  The second soprano, at one point sang a snippet of verses, that I wished someone would make into a whole pop song.

I would guess that fans of classic music must find pop hits musically terse and boring, if not monomelodic.  Symphony music is obviously polymelodic.

Classical music is like a long speech and sometimes I’m moved by a few catchy phrases here and there, but for the most part I’m indifferent to most of what’s being said.  It’s like listening to a foreign language speaker and occasionally hearing a word I know.

Classical music pieces are like novels with many scenes and pop songs are like short poems that hit you hard with one epiphany.

I would say a symphonic composition is like listening to an entire album of songs that must be perceived as a wholeness.  Parts of a classical composition that thrills me often lasts for just a few bars, sometimes only one, and never the 3 minutes common to a pop song.

Obviously, to appreciate classical music requires a different mindset.  I assume I am just too poorly educated to appreciate classical music, both in its technical nature, and in the training of my ear for listening enjoyment.  I also assume if I worked at it, I could learn to love classical music.  I should be embarrassed to admit this, but even pop fluff like Katy Perry or Ke$ha are thousands of times more exciting to me than any classical piece I’ve ever heard, and Bob Dylan is so far beyond them, that I’m in a different world.

My musical upbringing made me primarily attuned to the sound of the guitar, bass, and drums, and secondarily to organ and piano.  Later on I picked up a feel for the saxophone, mandolin, banjo, steel guitar, fiddle, trumpet and other instruments as folk, country and jazz influenced rock.  Eventually I worked backward in time through jazz and big band eras and acquired a taste for their sounds.  I have always liked symphonic music when it was played as movie soundtracks, but I’ve never been able to feel for music written before the 1920s.

To be completely honest, I’ve never learned to love jazz and big band like I do rock and pop, but I have learned to crave their sounds, to hunger for the feelings their tunes pull out of me.  Maybe one day I’ll be able to say I’m in the mood for a classical piece.

When I say feel for music, I mean, it makes me high.  It stimulates my emotions.  I crave it like a drug.  So far, classical music doesn’t get me high.

Classical music was a lot more popular in its day, but I’m not sure if it the common folk often hummed its tunes.  Few people got to hear Mozart’s compositions in his day, unless it was in church.  Folk music was probably more popular, or music from taverns and dances.

I’m mostly a self-educated person, even though I have a college degree.  I’ve read books about other places and times where the main characters were cultured, very well educated and spoke beautifully of the emotional depth of classical music pieces they loved.  That has often inspired me to buy classical music, but it just never worked.  I never felt what the characters described.  I’ve bought two separate recordings of Glenn Gould’s Goldberg Variations, decades apart, because of the powerful written descriptions I’ve read about his performances.  Each time I was painfully disappointed.  I could sense their intellectual achievement but they were cold and passionless to me.  Simone Dinnerstein warmed up the Goldberg Variations quite a bit, but not enough to make them hit songs with me.  Maybe Roy Bittan should give them a go.

I know classical music offers greatness, I just can’t perceive it.  Over the decades I keep trying.  I’ve bought a couple dozen classical CD sets over the years trying to perceptually break on through to the other side.  Haven’t made it yet.  Last night performance encourages me to keep trying.

I went with three women to the performance last night, Ann and Anne, and Robyn, a woman who teaches and performs classical music.  I grilled her for information, and I asked her about her tastes in pop music.  I got the feeling she doesn’t share my passion for rock and pop that I do.  Were we each conditioned to like only what we grew up listening to?  Is it genetic?  I wished I could have telepathically tuned into the heads of my three companions to see how they each perceived the performances.  Just how different are our inner worlds?  Are classical and pop music such distant lands that they are each alien landscapes to the other?  Are classical music lovers mentally different from me?

Of course, we all have our own unique collection of passions.  I am never moved to yell or high-five a friend over a football play on television.  I absolute love Breaking Bad, a television show my wife feels only psychopaths could embrace.  My friend Peggy thinks about dancing the bop or shag all the time, but I’m never moved to get up and boogie.  My wife and her family are mesmerized by golf games on TV, while I sit around wonder where’s the Kool-Aid I should have drank to feel such happiness.

Maybe I’ll never love classical music, but I’ll keep trying. 

I do worry that learning to love classical might change the way I love rock.  Does it work that way?

JWH – 9/2/12

I’ve Been Living Under a Rock–So Who are the Kardashians?

I’ve been living under a rock, or so it would seem, because until today when I looked up Kardashians on Wikipedia I really didn’t know who they were.  For weeks I’ve been hearing the word Kardashians and wondered if they were a band. 

Friday at work, I overheard three students arguing about the K named people.   When two left, I asked the remaining young woman, and she smiled and kindly explained they were people who were paid to be famous.  “Umm…  They do that now?” I wasn’t so clueless that I hadn’t notice tabloids exclaiming gossipy stories about K named women at the checkout.  Something about an expensive wedding and a marriage gone bad in 72 days.

Today I looked up the name Kardashian on Wikipedia and found out about their television show.  Even when I had cable I never watched E!.  I really don’t need to know any more about the Kardashians than I do now, and would not recognize one if I saw one.

This amuses me and I chuckle at my own cluelessness.  To the young, knowledge of the famous is a sanity check.  Not knowing the glitterati often gets me a sneer or sarcasm, that tells me I’m out of touch with reality and implying I’m over that famous hill.  I turned 60 last year, and I can’t name the young people who are currently famous as movie stars, TV stars, sport stars, and I would stay rock stars, but is rock is even famous anymore?  I’m just now memorizing Kate Winslet’s name and I saw Titanic twice at the theaters – for the shipwreck.

My pop culture education grades took a nose dive when I gave up cable TV and quit reading TV Guide and Entertainment Weekly.  I do read The Rolling Stone on my iPad, so I know a few new groups, but I had to buy two Arcade Fire albums before I could remember their damn name, and I still can’t remember any of their dang song titles.  Starting in my late 40s, and all through my 50s, I’ve been losing the ability to remember nouns – so maybe that’s why I lost interest in pop culture.  Following the famous requires noun memorization.

I know who Kay Francis and Robert Montgomery were, and I doubt millions of young people do – so there!  Who is clueless now?

Luckily, forgetting doesn’t hurt.  Oh, it’s annoying when I struggle to recall a name I used to know, but it doesn’t hurt.  And it’s not even embarrassing at work when young people make fun of me for not knowing the people they worship.  I remember being 13 and baffled by parents, aunts, uncles and teachers that reveal their low IQ by not knowing The Byrds and Robert Heinlein.

The 21st century is so passé, the 19th century is where it’s at.  My new idols are Anthony Trollope, Louise May Alcott, John Singer Sargent, Edith Wharton, Charles Darwin, … so back under my rock.

JWH – 1/16/12