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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? 

For Johnny Cash, it started right about when he hit 60.

This was in the early 1990s. The country music legend was playing a festival show in Europe , 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."

What 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.

And Cash 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 It Elder-cool

The 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.

The 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. 

While 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 young. According to Joe Austin, assistant professor at Bowling Green State University '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 says.

As Austin 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 middle-aged," says Austin . 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.

In the 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.

Since 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."

Cash is 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 Jamaica . But Cash is far from retired. He's recording a new album, and he's got a young audience clamoring to hear it.

Johnny 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.

But this 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 Buena Vista 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.

Part of 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 feeling."

The 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 the weekly New York 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.

Pre-boomers, 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 Strausbaugh.

So young 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 environmental activist Jan e Goodall's star power as a college speaker keeps rising.

Oddly enough, Fred Rogers, TV's Mister Rogers, might be the premier embodiment of Eldercool's subversive powers. For the multiple generations who grew up with Rogers '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 Rogers 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."

That 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.

Game-show host Bob Barker's entry into the ranks of Eldercool follows a slightly different track. He and other older faces became familiar to Gene 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 ironic incarnations.

It helps 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."

The payoff 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."

Similarly, 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 the young.

In other 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 " America 's new rock star," as The Washington 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.

This 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.

Let's hope 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."


 

Revised: September 03, 2007

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