A recent editorial on Woodstock revealed something far more interesting (at least to me) about the remembrance of that event than any particular ruminations on its symbolic importance in history. Somewhere in the article, the author refuted the old joke about the ‘60s (“If you remember the ‘60’s, then you really weren’t there”) by saying that, whatever meaning the period ultimately held, he could at least remember it more clearly than, say, 1999.
I wasn’t at Woodstock. I was sixteen years old that summer and working as a bag-boy in a supermarket. Furthermore, I didn’t have a car or even any friends who were intrepid enough to risk the uncomfortable realities of camping in the mud for three days for the outside chance of fun and music and nothing but fun and music. The spectacle seemed interesting enough to watch on TV.
Nevertheless, I remember Woodstock vividly, as I do my feelings about being alive at that time. I remember subsequent years and their changing hues of cultural and political identity with equal vividness. I can tell you, for example, how 1973 felt like the first stirrings of my generation toying with the idea of accepting adult mainstream values, rather like twelve year olds swearing and smoking to see if it makes them feel more grown-up. (For many, apparently, it did. In that same year, former stoners began applying to law school with a middle class vengeance. A decade later, “power to the people” was replaced by the “power lunch.”)
I don’t know when popular culture lost its focus for me, its distinctive flavor. I do know that I can’t ascribe any definite aesthetic to 1994, or 1996, or 2003. You may think this is nothing more than the effects of aging. However, my students (I’ve taught high school now for nearly twenty five years) also seem peculiarly unaligned with any social movement, even their own “youth” culture. I once asked them what music they thought they would listen to at their high school reunions twenty years hence. Overwhelmingly, they said, “Probably stuff from the 60s, 70s, and 80s.” When I asked them why, they shrugged. “We like that stuff,” they said.
I was astonished by their reply. It was as if my classmates and I, while still in high school, had made the decision to play 40’s swing music to commemorate our 1971 graduation.
Perhaps my students are already living through a cultural aesthetic that many of us have felt only gradually creeping up on us through the years—a kind of Lotus Land haze settling over our life and times. We yell at town hall meetings. We watch more television—someone is always furiously angry with someone else. But later, much later, what will my students, or I, remember of the summer of 2009? Will we remember the political arguments? Will we remember the music? Will we say to each other, “Hey, how about the silly clothes we wore that year?” Will we think back to this time—and our culture—with clear, vibrant memories of who we were then and the path we followed to become someone else?
My students don’t think so. Even before they get old, they’ve decided to dance to another generation’s music.
Perhaps, in the end, the most important legacy of Woodstock was not what it promised or failed to deliver, but what our memory of that event tells us how we now interact with our society.
Woodstock? I wasn’t there. But at least I remember how I felt then.