Today it is commonplace to stream a movie directly to your phone. So, when you are watching Gloria Swanson as faded movie star Norma Desmond proclaim from the palm of your hand, “I am big, it’s the pictures that got small,” it contains layers of irony that writer/director Billy Wilder could never have imagined. Of course, someone streaming something to their phone is most likely watching something even shorter and faster paced on TikTok, certainly not anything in black and white with a running time of 110 minutes.
Every generation gets to pick and choose what they want from the generations that came before with the same arrogance and ego-driven self-importance that the previous generations had when they picked the bones of the ones before them. Pete Townshend was born in 1945, which puts him at the front end of the baby boomer generation, born right after the Second World War ended. The generation who fathered Pete and the rest of the boomers has been called the Greatest Generation — not a self-congratulatory term at all.
It might be helpful to take a moment and define terms just a bit. What exactly is a generation? Currently, the common definition is the period of time that the statistically largest portion of the population born within a thirty-year period is in control of the zeitgeist. Recently, we have entered a new phase, where anyone entering the age of twenty-two as of 2019 is now a member of Generation Z. While people make jokes about millennials, that group is now old news, as obsolete as all of the previous generations — the baby boomers, Gen X, the Fragile Generation, the Intermediates, the Neutrals, the Dependable, the Unshaken, and the Clean Slate.
Marlon Brando, like Elvis Presley, Little Richard, and the first wave of rockers, fell somewhere between the greatest generation ever and the baby boomers; too young to fight against the Nazis, too old to go to Woodstock. Yet when Brando replied, “Whaddya got?” when a local girl asked him what he was rebelling against in the movie The Wild One, it set the stage for the sixties and the rebellion against the picture-perfect prefab communities the boys came home from the war to build.
Like a lot of boomers, Pete seems to have a chip on his shoulder in this song. But he’s not totally confident, he’s somewhat back on his heels. There’s a certain defensiveness. He knows people put him down just because he gets around. Perhaps he feels like he will never measure up or he knows they resent his generation’s newly abundant leisure time. He wishes they would just disappear, fade away. He hopes he dies before he gets old and is replaced like he is replacing them. Pete can’t even point the finger himself, he depends on his mouthpiece Roger to hurl the invective. That fear is perhaps the most honest thing about the song. We all rail at the previous generation but somehow know it’s only a matter of time until we will become them ourselves.
Pete would probably be the first to tell you. He has a front-row seat for the history of his generation. He could read the picket signs against hatred and war. Well, that certainly ended that, thank you for your service. Each generation seems to have the arrogance of ignorance, opting to throw out what has gone before instead of building on the past. And they have no use for someone like Pete offering the wisdom of his experience, telling them what he has learned on the similar paths he has trod. And if he’d had the audacity to do so, there’s every chance that person would have looked up at Pete and told him that he couldn’t see him, he couldn’t hear him.
And that gave Pete another idea.
Excerpted from THE PHILOSOPHY OF MODERN SONG by Bob Dylan. © 2022 Bob Dylan All rights reserved. Audio excerpts courtesy of Simon & Schuster Audio, read by Bob Dylan, Oscar Isaac, John Goodman, Alfre Woodward, Jeffrey Wright, et.al. (P) 2022 Simon & Schuster, Inc. Used with permission from Simon & Schuster, Inc.