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Chuck's World | What we knew and when we knew it


December 11, 2019

Perhaps you noticed the other day when Billie Eilish didn’t seem to know who Van Halen was. Perhaps you missed it. Perhaps you need me to start over.

Billie Eilish is an American teenager, a singer/songwriter who’s garnered a lot of fame, attention and awards over the past few years. She’ll be 18 next week, having been born in 2001.

Van Halen is an American rock band, formed in 1972.

Jimmy Kimmel is an American late-night talk show host. He was born in 1967.

Recently, Eilish appeared on Kimmel’s show. He was sort of teasing her at one point about her young age and musical success, and asked if she could name a member of Van Halen.

Kimmel, being a 52-year-old man, probably has some affection for Van Halen’s music. I, being a 61-year-old man, understand this affection, although I don’t really share it. Van Halen provided much of the soundtrack for my younger life, but I had other favorites.

Billie Eilish seemed a little uncertain about Kimmel’s question, and it appeared as though she’d never heard of the band. This, of course, provoked immediate outrage from a tiny segment of the internet, joined by other tiny segments with their tiny feelings.

This is why I noticed. I saw the usual signs of an online argument and got curious.

Full disclosure: I’m pretty sure I’d never heard of Billie Eilish before this incident, although it’s possible I was dimly aware. I know who Jimmy Kimmel is. I’ve explained Van Halen already.

And I don’t need to explain the obvious, although I guess I will.

Eddie Van Halen is old enough to be Billie Eilish’s grandfather. You could argue that this young woman should know her popular music antecedents, but I wouldn’t make that argument myself. Unless she just developed a fondness for the band somehow, I can’t imagine a 17-year-old easily falling in love with her grandpa’s music.

This reminded me of another generational dust-up, a few months ago. There’s been a popular meme for about a decade called “the nodding guy” or something similar, just a GIF of a bearded man nodding his head.

This was a clip from the 1972 film “Jeremiah Johnson,” and the bearded man is the star, Robert Redford. It’s a good movie, if even now obscure, and Redford isn’t easily recognizable with the full beard, and so it makes sense that a lot of younger people thought it was actor Zach Galifianakis.

They were surprised that it wasn’t, and then we got the usual push-back from people who somehow thought this was (again) an outrage.

I saw “Jeremiah Johnson” on my first date. I was 14 and my brother drove us to the theater. It’s the kind of thing that sticks with you. I had no trouble identifying the film clip.

I also really like Zach Galifianakis, and I see the resemblance. I can’t imagine why a 20-year-old, say, should be expected to recognize an image from a nearly 50-year-old film that almost no one remembers, but people apparently just like to make a fuss.

They also apparently are unaware that they’re following a long tradition of grumpy old people, complaining loudly about how young people don’t appreciate our cultural history.

This puzzles me for a couple of reasons. First, one of the joys of aging for me has been the opportunity to share the past with younger generations, trying to navigate the shaky territory between interesting and deadly dull.

I’ve glazed over quite a few pairs of eyes in my time, mostly belonging to my kids, who almost certainly need therapy now.

Secondly, we now live in a culture where it’s impossible to keep up. The other night, my wife and I went out to eat and found ourselves looking at the TV in the restaurant’s bar. It was showing a sitcom, and as we watched the muted screen we tried to figure out what it was.

We made a few guesses, and then I pulled out my phone and discovered that it was “Modern Family,” a wildly popular TV show that’s been on the air, and off my radar, for a decade.

I’m not a cultural hermit either, holed up in a cave with my Beatles CDs and VHS copies of “The Golden Girls,” Farrah Fawcett poster on my wall, muttering to myself about how young people don’t appreciate the Cowsills.

I know what’s going on. I watched “Fleabag,” both seasons. That makes me hip, right?

There’s just too much out there, folks, and we’ve got bigger problems than Van Halen’s legacy, anyway. There’s no point in arguing with people who want to apply the final coat of varnish to the past and call it finished; they’ll always be with us, and they always have been.

For the rest of us, though, increased choice is an opportunity to learn and grow. We can’t read everything, see everything, listen to it all, but we can explore and it’s good for us, I think.

These year-end lists of everything that are popping up now offer lots of good suggestions.

One of them might be Billie Eilish, actually. She has an interesting quality that I found compelling, and she’s just getting started. It might be fun to see where she ends up.

And watch “Fleabag” if you haven’t already. It’s wonderful.

So is “The Golden Girls,” by the way. Ask a young person. They know all about it.


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