Apr 5, 2004  •  Post A Comment

I feel like Sophie Tucker. OK, you may not know who Sophie Tucker was, which is part of my point. She was a zaftig vaudeville star who was known as “The Last of the Red-Hot Mamas,” though you may not know what vaudeville was, either. She also made a few movies, including “Broadway Melody of 1938,” one of the worst MGM musicals ever made-though it was still the most entertaining choice on TV one night last week, as Turner Classic Movies’ programming often is.
Anyway, Sophie played an old vaudevillian much as she really was and also the mother of the character played by Judy Garland, whose stealing of the movie could be called petty theft, except she does it by singing the immortal “Dear Mr. Gable.” (Mr. Gable was Clark Gable, star of “Gone With the Wind,” a famous movie based on a famous book. A book is a thing made of-oh, never mind.)
Jeez, I’m digressing from my digressions, which is what happens when you get to be-that is, when you are over 40, or let’s say over, uh, 41. Anyway, Sophie is being entreated to sing by a small crowd and she spews a lot of dialogue to the effect that “No, no, I’ve had my day, now it’s time for you young people to take over Old Broadway.” She talked a lot about Old Broadway. She talked about being old herself, but she looked like she might have been all of 50.
human detritus
That stupid old saying “Don’t trust anyone over 30,” which some thought sounded just fine in the topsy-turvy ’60s, has come back to haunt us. We of the baby boomer generation and its fringes apparently never imagined we’d someday be well over 30 ourselves, and that this didn’t necessarily mean we’d become hopelessly dissolute and corrupted. Many of that generation did, however. They grew up to head giant corporations and are now headed for prison, or should be. Of course, if they have enough money to keep bribing jurors and securing mistrials, then they can go back to their ill-gotten yachts and laugh at the system they betrayed.
As for my feeling like Sophie Tucker, that’s the fault of the medium I have spent my adult life (to stretch a term) writing about. Implicitly and even explicitly, television tells you that unless you’re in the right demographic group, preferably 18 to 49, sometimes 18 to 34, you might as well be dead. You’re a discard, a remnant. You’re human detritus; your life is over. You can sing like Sinatra or Crosby (they were big pop singers back in a previous century) or, all right, like Rod Stewart (no, wait, he’s too old too) or, OK, like Clay Aiken, but if you’re not under 25, competing on “American Idol,” among many other things, is off-limits to you.
“Idol” is not and never has been a talent competition. It’s a star competition. You have to look good in tight jeans and know how to dance to qualify as a “singer,” in quotes, as in “Candidate Kane found in love nest with quote singer unquote.” Oh, that’s a reference to made-up headline from a famous movie called “Citizen Kane.” I know an intelligent 21-year-old who has never heard of Orson Welles or of H.G. Wells, and you can say “Rosebud” all day and get nothing but a blank stare in return.
If you like to feel in touch with the zeitgeist, keep up with popular culture, even want to like what the mass audience likes, it’s harder than ever, partly because there’s so much pop culture (and, alas, no other kind) and because it changes personalities almost daily. It doesn’t matter to those who live in a culture of illusions-television, computers, video games and movies that look like video games-that what’s here today may well be gone tomorrow, that if you leaf through all of last year’s issues of Rolling Stone you’re likely to find dozens of acclaimed sensations who are already nobodies.
In television, the cry keeps going out for “younger, younger, younger.” When even The History Channel retools and makes a mockery of its name by going after younger audiences (with “The History of the Bikini,” for instance), you know we’re into national insanity. When the Game Show Network reformats itself into “GSN” and trashes loyal viewers who have lived beyond the permissible age limit, there’s no real recourse but sulking. Likewise, American Movie Classics’ throwing out all the real classics to show recent movie mediocrities.
I know it’s not a new complaint. I know it sounds like a fogey’s lament, but believe it or not, many of the smug little darlings to whom all of television now slavishly kowtows will someday cross that point-of-no-return, from 49 into 50, themselves, heh heh heh. Of course, by then the desirable demographic might be 14 to 28. The turning point of sorts was not when MTV came along and started catering to shortened attention spans with its three- and four-minute music videos. The turning point came when MTV’s powers-that-be decided even three minutes was way too much, so now most videos are interrupted for sound-bite inserts, superimposed graphics, animated logos and promos for what’s next.
Even the present is considered out of date; thus the phrase “so five minutes ago.” It’s only what’s next that counts. So there you have it: That’s why I had a moment there when I felt like, of all people, Sophie Tucker. Her big song was, by the way, “Some of These Days.” It began, “Some of these days, you’re gonna miss me, honey/Some of these days, you’re gonna feel so lonely. … ”
But that’s just wishful thinking.