Johnny Cash, Forever Cool
They've Been Around
Forever. So Why Are Johnny Cash, William Shatner, Mister Rogers, And A Few
Other (Mostly Male) Icons A Hot Ticket For Twenty-somethings?
Johnny Cash, it started right about when he hit 60.
in the early 1990s. The country music legend was playing a festival show
, and he noticed that the audience didn't look like the fans he was used
to seeing. "There were thousands and thousands of young people
there," he remembers. "People in their 20s and their 30s."
happened? Throughout the 1980s, the middle-aged Man in Black had seemed
trapped in the familiar entertainment-business arc: His record sales had
declined, and younger artists had pushed his tunes off the radio. But now
suddenly Cash wasn't a nearly-washed-up country music star any longer. He
was something else—something. . . cooler. Ask around on any college
campus today: Even the kids who barely know the tune to "Folsom
Prison Blues" have a clear and intuitive understanding that this old
man is an original, someone to be reckoned with—one very cool man.
isn't the only performer who has experienced a late-career change of
fortune. In recent years, a select group of Americans over 60 have
achieved a new kind of celebrity among the very young, a cultural status
never before imagined. Called
alchemy of coolness is poorly understood under the best of circumstances.
Add a few wrinkles to the equation and things get even more complicated.
In a culture geared toward the pursuit of ever younger consumers, visible
maturity often equals irrelevance. Computer wizards, television writers,
and rock stars are considered nigh unemployable after age 40. And, as many
a movie star and athlete has painfully learned, one generation's rebel
hero is the next's dimly recalled infomercial pitchman.
And yet, a
handful of vintage TV stars, well-preserved legends, hard-living music
artists, and assorted has-beens, survivors, and elder statesmen seem to
have gained a mysterious new cachet. Any way you look at it, it's a motley
crew: Cuban strongman Fidel Castro, heavyweight champ Muhammad Ali, and
starship captain William Shatner are members of the club (though you may
have a hard time finding a young person who idolizes all three). Former
president Jimmy Carter has a bit of Eldercool in him, but then so does
former Batman Adam West. Photogenically creased leading men such as Sean
Connery and Clint Eastwood make the cut; in this arena, however, they
might well be overshadowed by the Dalai Lama or even Mister Rogers.
Eldercool are, with a few exceptions, men. This is not because men are
inherently cooler, but because relatively fewer women over 60 have careers
that give them the sort of widespread pop-cultural resonance that
Eldercool seems to require. This will no doubt change in the years to
come, as a generation of prominent, liberated women comes of age.
you may not care about coolness, you might be interested in its
implication: that there is a new bond forming between the old and the
According to Joe
Austin, assistant professor at
's Department of Popular Culture,
coolness and advanced age are not fundamentally irreconcilable. Musical
and other subcultures have always had a "canon of revered
elders" that coexisted peacefully with their younger counterparts, he
sees it, the whole idea of an
impassable gap between generations is left over from the 1960s, when
youthful rebellion often took the form of a "blanket
condemnation" of age itself. Because yesterday's rebellious youth are
today's cultural overdogs—the baby boomers—today's young people live
with the scars of this epic intergenerational battle. "This mythical
fight between the young and the old is actually being created by the
. But, as the phenomenon of
Eldercool demonstrates, young people have looked across the divide and
realized that people their grandparents' age have more to offer than their
parents might be willing to admit.
case of Johnny Cash, one could argue that it was a daring act of
reinvention that revitalized his career. Not content to play to the same
old (dwindling) audiences who'd been flocking to his concerts and buying
his music for generations, in 1993, at the age of 61, he stunned Nashville
by signing with American Records in Los Angeles, a label associated with
rock and rap artists 40 years his junior.
then, Cash has recorded three spare, unrelenting albums, each hailed as a
rough-hewn masterpiece by critics. The result has been an artistic
rebirth: At an age when many performers are either retired or forcibly
consigned to the oldies treadmill, Cash now has more artistic control than
he ever did before. "I'm making a new record, and my record company
and record producer say, 'Go for it—do whatever you want to do and take
however long you want to do it,'" he says, sounding a bit amazed
himself. "That's really a blessing."
not well these days. The singer turned 70 this year, and his years of
touring have taken a toll. He's had several hospitalizations for
pneumonia, including one a few years back that left him in a coma for
several days. He has now sworn off the road and spends the colder months
of the year at his home in
. But Cash is far from retired.
He's recording a new album, and he's got a young audience clamoring to
Cash's path of creative self-renewal has been followed by a few of his
colleagues—country "outlaw" artists such as Kris Kristofferson
and Willie Nelson, both of whom now boast healthy followings among young
audiences. Part-time actor Kristofferson has been punching out vampires
and gorillas in action movies like Blade
2 and Planet of the Apes;
last year, Nelson was hailed as "The Last Outlaw" in Maxim magazine, the quintessential arbiter of young male tastes.
path is also open to artists in less hell-raising genres. Crooner Tony
Bennett hit the Eldercool motherlode when he appeared on MTV in the early
1990s. The geriatric Cuban musicians of the
Social Club, venerable bluesmen
like R.L. Burnside and the late John Lee Hooker, and funk founding father
George Clinton command a similar youth appeal.
their allure is their authenticity. As more movies are sequels and
remakes, as more pop songs "sample" or borrow from older
recordings, these old-school practitioners gain value in young people's
eyes as the elusive real thing. "Young people don't go for
schmaltz," says Cash. "In me, they bought honesty. Honesty of
performance, simplicity of lyric, simplicity of delivery, and honesty of
reverse of this is equally true, and that is what makes the spectacle of
superannuated rock stars singing songs of adolescent rebellion so
unbelievable, and thus so uncool. Or so says John Strausbaugh, editor of
Press and author of Rock
'Til You Drop, a caustic reflection on aging and rock stardom.
Strausbaugh, 50, is an outspoken critic of baby boomers who cling to the
illusion of their youthful hipness.
on the other hand—the defiantly and unapologetically old—don't have to
bother. There is a freedom inherent in getting older, and young people can
sense it. With nothing to prove to parents or bosses, people in their 60s
and older have the liberty to say or do outrageous things. "They
almost become rebels again, because they can speak their mind," says
people look at pre-boomers and glimpse authenticity and rebellion. But
they also glimpse a version of themselves. In a society where you are your
career, people at either end of their working lives can feel ignored,
powerless, and at odds with the mainstream. The young like to perceive
themselves as outcasts, but those over 60 are often the real outcasts. Age
can thus offer the ultimate antiestablishment credentials, a fact which is
now raising the profiles of such disparate fomenters of controversy as
65-year-old Rudy Ray Moore, the comedian and rap pioneer, and MIT linguist
and political activist Noam Chomsky. Certainly, part of Chomsky's appeal
is the timely convergence of his libertarian rhetoric with the rise of the
anti-globalization movement on campuses. But the 73-year-old activist's
own dissident cachet doesn't hurt. Likewise, primatologist and
e Goodall's star power as a college
speaker keeps rising.
enough, Fred Rogers, TV's Mister Rogers, might be the premier embodiment
of Eldercool's subversive powers. For the multiple generations who grew up
's drowsily mesmerizing children's
show, an affection for Mister Rogers isn't an ironic wink at the whole
cardigan-wearing enterprise. This is largely because the 74-year-old
is the pure, unflinching absence
of irony, so immune to the cultural forces around him that he seems
invulnerable. "Fred Rogers is a supremely confident man,"
observed National Review's
Michael Long. "If you're over the age of 10, he doesn't really care
what you think of him. And that's real power."
confidence is the same power that one now sees in such saintly elder
statesmen as former South African president Nelson Mandela and the Dalai
Lama, the exiled Tibetan Buddhist leader who commands a faithful legion of
young celebrities here in the U.S. In these cases, Eldercool is an
effortless byproduct of the life being lived, not a calculated
manipulation of image. In other words, Eldercool—unlike the more studied
coolness of the young—demands of its bearer only the vaguest notion that
it even exists: It is likely to resist all attempts to consciously
cultivate it. Look at it directly and it disappears. If you're trying too
hard—or at all—you've probably already lost it.
host Bob Barker's entry into the ranks of Eldercool follows a slightly
He and other older faces became familiar to
rations X, Y, and Z thanks to their
constant presence on daytime TV. Earnestly (and endlessly) replaying their
roles on cable channels, stars such as Star
Trek's William Shatner and Brady
Bunch mom Florence Henderson have forged second stardoms in more
not to take yourself too seriously. Barker's coolness zoomed, for example,
when he was portrayed as a hot-headed lunatic who beats up dopey Adam
Sandler in the 1996 comedy Happy
Gilmore. "Young men love that picture," Barker observes.
"They love to see an old gray-haired man rolling around in the grass
with Adam Sandler."
for Barker is that a good portion of the studio audience for The
Price is Right are college-age kids who greet every new showcase of
kitchen appliances with rock concert whoops. "Many of them have
actually told me that they schedule their classes so they can watch The
Price Is Right," says Barker. "I think some of them are
majoring in it."
Shatner, now 71, specializes in amiable self-parody of his own hambone
acting. His youth appeal, like Barker's, is at least one part simple
kitsch. But few can deny that a gift for irreverence will endear one to
cases, quasi-cool can arrive due to shifting cultural forces, and
yesterday's fuddy-duddy may wake up to discover that he is considered a
pillar of reassuring stolidity. Last year's terrorist attacks brought
about one of these sea changes, the most striking evidence being the
improbable ascendance of Donald Rumsfeld, the no-guff 70-year-old
Secretary of Defense, to "
's new rock star," as The
Post declared in December 2001. Thanks in part to Rummy's lively
Pentagon press briefings, the heretofore obscure Ford Administration
veteran now boasts a multigenerational following, complete with Internet
fan clubs. In a national crisis, hopeless squares like Rumsfeld and former
New York City
mayor Rudy Giuliani morph into
squinty icons of American resolve.
transformation no doubt heartened those who yearn for a general
reasserting of traditional authority figures, but it's likely to be a
temporary phenomenon. In the end, The Man isn't very cool, and neither are
most establishment political figures—unless they are former astronauts
(John Glenn) or are otherwise viewed as perpetual outsiders (John McCain).
Secretary of State Colin Powell has long topped many young Americans'
lists of most admired individuals, in part because his appeal transcends
the strictly political. Indeed, his attraction for younger voters is so
great that he was wooed by both major parties to be their presidential
candidate. (Cooler still, he refused them both.)
Few of us
mere mortals are likely to receive such dramatic validation of our own
youth appeal. We won't get Grammy awards or cabinet appointments or film
cameos. But—if we don't try to be anything but our true, best
selves—we might just look out across the generational battlefield one
day at young eyes that see us with a new appreciation.
so, because along with making life more fun, Eldercool seems to prolong
it. "It keeps me young to work with younger people," says Johnny
Cash. He thinks back on an all-star tribute concert held for him in
New York City
in 1999 in which such artists as Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen, and U2
paid him homage. And for a moment his familiar baritone rumble—now raspy
with age—takes on a note of wonder, an acknowledgement that life still
has the capacity to marvel even a man who's seen it all.
That was a kick, boy, he says. "That was something."