It is extremely odd that among the big concert tours this season are those by the Allman Brothers Band, the Beach Boys, Billy Joel, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton, Crosby & Nash, James Taylor, Sting, Jimmy Buffet, and the Who. Imagine if Benny Goodman and Bing Crosby had endured as glamorous, successful pop stars through the late sixties and seventies and into the eighties. Madonna is 48, Rosemary Clooney’s age in 1976.
Does anyone under 40 not resent this generation’s interminable hegemony? That’s why Barack Obama is trying to have it both ways: a 45-year-old trying to pretend he’s not really a baby-boomer.
And of course, America itself may well be slipping into its long lame-duck period, the way Britain did in the late-nineteenth century. In fact, the slo-mo decline of the British empire looks like a pretty apt model. (Would that we can manage it as gracefully.) For the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, the game wasn’t clearly up until after the First World War, and even then they could claim the greatest writers in the world (Joyce, Woolf, the expat Eliot), not unlike the way we’re reassured today by our continuing dominance of global pop culture. After the Great War, another 30 years passed before Britain officially became an also-ran. The U.S. has probably not yet reached our equivalent of 1916—the year the British began their five-year-long nation-building occupation of Mesopotamia—but even a best-case outcome in Iraq (our Boer War?) will not make anybody feel as if the American Century has a new lease on life.
Lame duck emerged as a business term in the eighteenth century (for defaulting London stockbrokers), and American business today consists of a great flock of enormous lame ducks. The U.S. auto industry, stuck with expensive labor costs (extracted by lame-duck labor unions), loses money on every vehicle it sells—which meant a loss last year for Ford of more than $1 billion a month. Yet Ford and GM will continue to muddle along for years more, our gimpy, dying great American behemoths.
And consider big media. “CDs seem so antique,” my 17-year-old daughter remarked the other day. Again and again these days, the record-setting CD sales number isn’t about gold or platinum but for the all-time lowest number of sales by a No. 1 album. Just as our lame-duck-in-chief refused during 2004 and 2005 to face the hard facts in Iraq and shift strategy when he might’ve still had a good shot at succeeding, the big record companies did not in 2000 and 2001 begin seriously reinventing themselves for the digital age. And yet in this lame-duck age, where the outmoded doesn’t disappear, 90 percent of music is still sold in the form of aluminum-coated plastic discs.
MTV remains the biggest brand in music, but it missed the digital boat in the years before YouTube and MySpace, back when it had the leverage to keep artists on the reservation. MTV is no longer the cool destination for its demo and never will be again. In the radio business, the paleo-monopolists at Clear Channel hoovered up (and homogenized) broadcast-music stations in the nineties at the very moment broadcast was becoming a lame-duck technology, serving in the bargain as a great appetite suppressant for young record buyers. It amounts to a kind of death-spiraling symbiosis among the largest lame ducks, like Detroit with the UAW, each making life more untenable for the other long-term.
People started talking about the broadcast-TV networks as lame ducks in the late eighties, but they remain the entities, HBO aside, for which producers and writers most yearn to produce shows. In lame-duckish Hollywood, the Zeitgeist is encoded in the movies themselves. Four of the five Best Picture nominees concern old-school hegemons desperately dealing with their endgames: The Departed, about the Irish Mafia in Boston; The Queen, about the British monarchy; Letters From Iwo Jima, about imperial Japan; and Babel, about imperial America. Another of the best films of last year, Children of Men, depicts humans as a lame-duck species who will require a whole grim century to die off.
On the other hand, even as the various twilights linger on and on, I take heart in the prospect of the new dawns. And I don’t (just) mean three cheers for digital media and globalization and a decent 44th president. I badly want to believe, for instance, in the theses of two recent books by African-Americans that portray the old-fashioned binary salience of race as a defunct, lame-duck mode of thought. In American Skin, Leon Wynter says that the unprecedented cultural prominence of black performers has made “American” an inherently transracial category. And conversely, in The End of Blackness, Debra Dickerson argues that blacks’ continuing default to racially based self-identity and accusations of racism is a self-defeating anachronism. “The shackles are off, the ball and chain are gone,” Dickerson says. “To hear it from the traditional black—and white—left, you would think it’s still 1950 … We’ve outgrown ‘the Negro problem,’ but it’s blacks who still want to see themselves as the Negro problem.”
T.S. Eliot, who left the up-and-coming U.S. for lame-duck Britain back at the other end of the American Century, had it right: “Life is very long / Between the desire / And the spasm / Between the potency / And the existence … This is the way the world ends / Not with a bang but a whimper.” But enough already with all these extended, whimpering ends. Next! Let the worlds be reborn anew.