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Pop Culture's 40-Year Itch


And if you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. And we're going to talk about music, movies and culture now, and in particular, about something known as the 40-year rule. Adam Gopnik is with us now from New York. He's written about it for the latest issue of The New Yorker. Hello, Adam.

ADAM GOPNIK: Hey, Guy. How are you?

RAZ: I'm good. Let's explain this with a pop quiz, Adam. You know the answers. so don't give it away because this is for the listeners.

GOPNIK: All right.

RAZ: Everyone out there who's listening, take a guess at which of the following songs won the Grammy for the Best Rock and Roll Recording in 1966. Here we go.


THE MONKEES: (Singing) Take the last train to Clarksville and I'll meet you at the station. You can be here by 4:30 'cause I made your reservation...

RAZ: OK. It was The Monkees with "The Last Train to Clarksville." That was a nominee. Here's another option.


THE BEATLES: (Singing) Ah, look at all the lonely people. Eleanor Rigby...

RAZ: OK. We all know that one, The Beatles, "Eleanor Rigby." And here's the other option for 1966 Grammy for Best Rock and Roll Song.


BEACH BOYS: (Singing) Good, good, good, good vibrations.

RAZ: I love that song, Adam.

GOPNIK: First record I ever bought.

RAZ: Unbelievable. Beach Boys, of course. So we got the Beach Boys, the Beatles, The Monkees, all of these were nominees in 1966 for Best Rock and Roll Recording. Adam Gopnik, you have the answer. Who won the Grammy for Best Rock and Roll Recording in 1966?

GOPNIK: The winning record - and we could throw "Paint It, Black" in there and a few others...

RAZ: Oh, yeah,

GOPNIK: ...was "Winchester Cathedral." "Winchester Cathedral" by The New Vaudeville Band.


THE NEW VAUDEVILLE BAND: (Singing) Winchester cathedral you're bringing me down.

GOPNIK: And they weren't even a band, really. You know, they were one of those studio inventions that had to be thrown together to do that number.


BAND: (Singing) My baby left town...

RAZ: How is that possible? I mean, that - "Eleanor Rigby," "Good Vibrations," how does "Winchester Cathedral" win the Grammy for Best Rock and Roll Song in '66?

GOPNIK: This is the golden demonstration of the 40-year rule at work. It's the middle '60s, right, the most revolutionary decade, and yet there's this lingering residual (unintelligible) for something that has happened 40 years before, the music of the mid-'20s. It's the period we look back at as somehow innocent, as a kind of Edenic moment before the fall. That almost always seems to be 40 years back.

RAZ: Why is it 40 years?

GOPNIK: Well, I have a theory about that. And my theory is it's not so much that pop culture is made by 40-somethings - in fact, it's usually made by young folks, like The Beatles made by 20-somethings - but it's usually produced in every sense. The suits who organize it, decide what goes on, are usually 40-somethings, the people between the age of 40 and 50. And we are fascinated, I say, as one of them, we are fascinated by that moment just before you were born.

It's kind of this, in every imaginable sense, the sexiest moment in the history of the universe is the moment just as your parents were making you.


RAZ: Adam, you write about this in the latest issue of The New Yorker. You're looking at all of these sort of cultural signposts for the last, you know, 20, 30 years. Let's talk about one of them that were - a lot of us are focused on now, "Mad Men," right, this huge cultural phenomenon. Not just a TV show, but like Banana Republic ads.

GOPNIK: Exactly.

RAZ: This is a show that takes place 40 years ago.

It's interesting, too, that Matt Weiner, who's the creator and the maker of it, was born exactly in 1965. So he is just in that - exactly that kind of space, that sweet spot where - it's not just that we're interested in the early '60s, it's that we load it with the feeling that then life had a kind of freshness that it doesn't have anymore. They were able to smoke innocently.


JOHN SLATTERY: (as Roger Sterling) Don't you love the chase? It's like having that first cigarette, head gets all dizzy. Your heart pounds, knees go weak. Remember that?

GOPNIK: Because they didn't know it would kill them. They were able to drink innocently at 3:00 in the afternoon.


SLATTERY: (as Roger Sterling) I bet daily friendship with that bottle attracts more people to advertising than any salary you could dream of.

GOPNIK: Don't you think that's part of what draws people to watching "Mad Men?" They say: Oh, my God. It's 11:00 in the morning, and they're going to drink. They're having rye and whiskey and scotch, and they're going to light up a cigarette. And we know it's wrong, and yet we wish we could.

RAZ: And there's been a lot of talk about the Titanic this year, of course, the 100th anniversary. You traced the nostalgia a lot further back.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as Character) How many people are on board?

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: Under 1,200, (unintelligible) in the boat's bar.

RAZ: Adam, do you recognize that?

GOPNIK: I do, indeed. "A Night To Remember."


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #2: (as Character) ,12000.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (as Character) This is the epic drama of the greatest disaster in the history of the sea.

GOPNIK: First of the great films about the Titanic, which comes to us right on time in the mid-'50s 40 years after the original. And again, you know, it's partly because - that's a terrific movie. It's also because that's the kind of space of time you need in order for something to, in this instance, to be drained of its terror. It just - it becomes spectacle.


UNIDENTIFIED MAN #3: (as Character) No writer of thrillers could ever achieve such agonizing suspense.

RAZ: You mentioned the '60s, of course, but back to The Beatles for a moment. You say each of the last four Beatles records, which all came out in - at the end of the '60s, each of them contained or included a song that harkened back to the sound of the '20s, right?

GOPNIK: That's right.


GOPNIK: Except for "Let It Be," which is...

RAZ: That's an exception.


RAZ: We'll forget about the exceptions.

GOPNIK: Right.

RAZ: Let's hear one of the songs, "When I'm 64."


RAZ: Now, that sounds a little more like "Winchester Cathedral."

GOPNIK: It does. It's in the same spirit. It's like Paul McCartney sped up his vocal to make it sound a little more 20-ish, a little more megaphoney. Like everything The Beatles touched, it's magic, it's melody, it's wonderful of its kind, but it's also a genuine looking back as the entire "Sergeant Pepper" record is in a way. But it's, again, the 40-year thing. And the funny part about it is I talked about how producers, in the broad sense, helped create this.

It's like, The Beatles' special producer, the great George Martin, was born in 1926, so right exactly on time. And I genuinely think one of the things that's going on in those wonderful Beatle retrospective numbers is that Paul McCartney and George Martin are playing a kind of game. You know, can you write the music of my childhood the way I'm producing the music of your youth?


RAZ: In the '80s, "Raiders of the Lost Ark," "Empire of the Sun," "Hope and Glory," all set in the...

In the '40s. "Hope and Glory" is a nice example, wonderful film, but it's all about an innocent view of World War II, the one subject in which you'd think it would not be possible to have an innocent view. But John Boorman, the director, draws exactly from his own childhood memories of being a kid in the blitz and thinking that it was kind of cool, that it was something wonderful about the transformation of the world then.

You write about the '90s, particularly that GAP ad. I remember that GAP ad, the Brian Setzer Orchestra...


RAZ: ...with the song "Jump, Jive and Wail."


BRIAN SETZER: (Singing) looks like it's gonna hail.

RAZ: And you had like all of these kids in khakis dancing around, jumping around...

SETZER: (Singing) You better come inside let me teach you how to jive and wail.

RAZ: ...and the tagline said, khakis swing.

GOPNIK: Khakis swing. And Kerouac wore khakis, so that's Jack Kerouac 40 years later, which, at the time, seemed to be a document of American disaffection, suddenly became a document of American delight. We're always looking for a period that we can imagine as being somehow simpler that our own. But at a deeper level, you know what I think? It's that our kids right now sitting in their strollers and in their cribs, they are seeing details that we're so used to that we don't even notice them.

You know, we drink our lattes every morning at 10:00 a.m., and we're no longer aware that there's something weird about that any more than the advertising men in 1962 were aware that there was something weird about drinking whiskey at 11:00 in the morning. And our kids will be storing that stuff up, and 40 years from now, they'll make art out of it, and we'll finally see what our lives were really like.

RAZ: That's Adam Gopnik. He writes about the 40-year rule in the latest issue of The New Yorker. Adam, thanks.

GOPNIK: Pleasure.

RAZ: By the way, Adam, one last question for you.


RAZ: Whatever happened to "Winchester Cathedral"?

GOPNIK: "Winchester Cathedral" sort of rose and fell. It's one of those great one-off songs of the '60s, you know, like "Question Mark and the Mysterians" (unintelligible) and they disappeared. The one-hit wonders, but this one, 40 years old.


BAND: (Singing) Winchester cathedral you're bringing me down. You stood and you watched us, my baby left town.

RAZ: And for Saturday, that's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. Check out our weekly podcast, WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. You can find it at iTunes or We're back with a whole new hour of radio tomorrow. Until then, thanks for listening and have a great night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.