Aretha Franklin, John McCain and the 1960s

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In this Aug. 26, 2018, file photo, flags flying a half-staff in honor of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., frame the U.S. Capital at daybreak in Washington. McCain, 81, died at his ranch in Arizona after a yearlong battle with brain cancer. (AP Photo/J. David Ake, File)
In this Aug. 26, 2018, file photo, flags flying a half-staff in honor of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., frame the U.S. Capital at daybreak in Washington. McCain, 81, died at his ranch in Arizona after a yearlong battle with brain cancer. (AP Photo/J. David Ake, File)

“Hope I die before I get old,” the Who sang at Woodstock as the 1960s hurtled to their end. Indeed, the decade and its echoes made premature legends of so many – Kennedy to King, Hendrix to Joplin to Morrison. They became emblems of an era, and the packaging of their virtues and vices has never really stopped.

But then there were those who didn’t die, who did get old and emerged from that crucible and carried themselves through the arc of a life unabbreviated. They moved across decades and changes and navigated a culture that their younger selves would not have recognized.

In this Oct. 16, 2017, file photo, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speaks after he received the Liberty Medal from the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
In this Oct. 16, 2017, file photo, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speaks after he received the Liberty Medal from the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

That’s the crossroads where both Aretha Franklin and John McCain stood – shaped by the decade that reshaped so much of American life but propelled into the 1970s and all the way to 2018, carrying some of the fundamental storylines of the 1960s as they progressed forward.

Think of the most dominant, most kinetic narratives of the 60s, the fiery combustion engines that drove the decade: From race, gender and music (Franklin) to war and politics (McCain), they are contained in the two figures to whom we bid farewell this past week.

They exit the stage together in an American moment not unlike the period when each emerged. Fifty years after the cataclysmic year of 1968, today we are in a similar period of upheaval and polarization – a time when American society’s foundational pillars are being questioned and people of all political persuasions are deeply angry and uncertain about the nation’s path.

At a juncture like this, faced with this pair of memorials of a man and woman so very different and yet so uniquely representative of the American experience, what better time to stop and think about such figures, about what they meant and mean?

Sure, we’re doing that. But are we doing it effectively?

In the past few days, the American packaging machine has pulled these two lives into slick renditions of who they actually were. Video montages, photo slide shows, memories and even the pleasingly compact monikers we throw around – the “Queen of Soul” and the “Maverick” – are sweet and nostalgic, yes. But they tend to reduce whole lifetimes to their clichéd sharpest edges: the most popular hit songs, the most pointed quotes, the most outsized moments.

The United States is often accused of being an ahistorical nation, and these fragmentary, Twitter-feed-like glimpses of entire lives make that assertion easier to prove. Sort of like we’ve come to view the 1960s themselves through the prism of reductive, Halloween-party buzzwords like “flower children,” ‘’sit-in” and “Summer of Love.”

“If there were ever a moment for us to talk and sit down and reflect about who we are, where we came from and where we’re going, this weekend should give us that moment,” says Ron Pitcock, assistant dean of the John V. Roach Honors College at Texas Christian University, who teaches about American cultural memory.

“We need to not compartmentalize these two people into these convenient narratives,” he says. “We have two giants who waded through these muddy waters for us. If we settle for just making them an icon or giving them celebrity, then we’ve completely failed in this moment of reflection.”

The places where those muddy waters flowed were sometimes even muddier. Since the 1960s, the country has only gotten more complicated and, many believe, even more fraught.

In this Nov. 3, 2008, file photo, Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speaks at a rally in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)
In this Nov. 3, 2008, file photo, Republican presidential candidate Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., speaks at a rally in Tampa, Fla. (AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster, File)

Trust in government sits near historic lows after beginning to plummet around the time that Franklin’s voice started becoming a household sound and McCain was enduring his years in North Vietnamese custody. Music, delivered on vinyl discs for Franklin’s first recordings, is now more typically served up in bits and bytes. And the stories of race and gender in America remain raw, ragged and aggressively unresolved.

What’s illuminating about McCain and Franklin, in the context of the formative eras and experiences that produced them, is this: Each navigated historical currents – rode them, you might even argue – and each figured out how to remain relevant and impactful on their communities. Lives of high drama, yes, but staying power, too.

In this Jan. 30, 2000, file photo, confetti falls on Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and his wife, Cindy, at the end of their 114th New Hampshire town hall meeting with voters at the Peterborough Town House in Peterborough, N.H. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia, File)
In this Jan. 30, 2000, file photo, confetti falls on Republican presidential hopeful Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and his wife, Cindy, at the end of their 114th New Hampshire town hall meeting with voters at the Peterborough Town House in Peterborough, N.H. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia, File)

“Years matter. The people from the ’60s who end up shaping America were often the ones that lasted. Ted Kennedy shaped America much more than John F. Kennedy,” says John Baick, a historian at Western New England University.

“So many figures from the ’60s are caricatures of themselves,” he says. “Aretha Franklin and John McCain didn’t talk about the good old days. They wanted to bring the past into the present. They were living reminders.”

In this Sept. 4, 2008, file photo, Republican presidential candidate John McCain acknowledges the crowed as he goes on stage at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)
In this Sept. 4, 2008, file photo, Republican presidential candidate John McCain acknowledges the crowed as he goes on stage at the Republican National Convention in St. Paul, Minn. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

The very youngest Baby Boomers are in their mid-50s now – despite the exhortation to never trust anyone over 30 – and more than half of today’s Americans have no living memory of the 1960s. When personal experience ebbs, myth fills in the mortar between the bricks.

But those who were shaped by the decade continue to influence it, both alive and dead. Sales of Franklin’s music on the day after her death increased by more than 1,500 percent, Billboard Magazine reported.

This Feb. 11, 2011 file photo shows Aretha Franklin in Auburn Hills, Mich. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)
This Feb. 11, 2011 file photo shows Aretha Franklin in Auburn Hills, Mich. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, File)

“Music changes, and I’m gonna change right along with it,” Franklin once said – or, at least, is widely quoted as saying. The 1960s were a time of great and lurching change. Those who made it through often had to change again and again – continuously, even. She did. He did.

That might be the ultimate echo of that long-ago decade that Aretha Franklin and John McCain leave us with this week. Looking past all else, the main story of the 1960s was change – causing it, managing it, figuring out how to live with it.

In this March 26, 1973 file photo, soul singer Aretha Franklin appears at a news conference. Franklin died Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018 at her home in Detroit. She was 76. Franklin and Sen. John McCain lived through the decade that reshaped so much of American life but were propelled into the 1970s and all the way to 2018, carrying some of the fundamental storylines of the 1960s as they hurtled forward. (AP Photo, File)
In this March 26, 1973 file photo, soul singer Aretha Franklin appears at a news conference. Franklin died Thursday, Aug. 16, 2018 at her home in Detroit. She was 76. Franklin and Sen. John McCain lived through the decade that reshaped so much of American life but were propelled into the 1970s and all the way to 2018, carrying some of the fundamental storylines of the 1960s as they hurtled forward. (AP Photo, File)

We’re still not anywhere near where we need to be with that, as American politics today so clearly demonstrate. In that respect, the lives of these two – and similar figures who survive them – hold clues still to be uncovered. (AP Essay)

In this Jan. 19, 1993 file photo, singer Aretha Franklin performs at the inaugural gala for President Bill Clinton in Washington. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta, File)
In this Jan. 19, 1993 file photo, singer Aretha Franklin performs at the inaugural gala for President Bill Clinton in Washington. (AP Photo/Amy Sancetta, File)
In this Aug. 28, 2018, file photo, Swanson Funeral’s 1940 LaSalle hearse with the gold casket of legendary singer Aretha Franklin leaves the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)
In this Aug. 28, 2018, file photo, Swanson Funeral’s 1940 LaSalle hearse with the gold casket of legendary singer Aretha Franklin leaves the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit. (AP Photo/Carlos Osorio, File)
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger speaks at a memorial service for Sen. John McCain at Washington National Cathedral in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger speaks at a memorial service for Sen. John McCain at Washington National Cathedral in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
In this Aug. 28, 2018, file photo, Aretha Franklin lies in her casket at Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History during a public visitation in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, Pool)
In this Aug. 28, 2018, file photo, Aretha Franklin lies in her casket at Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History during a public visitation in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya, Pool)
Cindy McCain, wife of, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., accompanied by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, left, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, second from left, lays a wreath at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 1, during a funeral procession to carry the casket of her husband from the U.S. Capitol to National Cathedral for a memorial service. McCain served as a Navy pilot during the Vietnam War and was a prisoner of war for more than five years. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)
Cindy McCain, wife of, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., accompanied by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, left, and Defense Secretary Jim Mattis, second from left, lays a wreath at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 1, during a funeral procession to carry the casket of her husband from the U.S. Capitol to National Cathedral for a memorial service. McCain served as a Navy pilot during the Vietnam War and was a prisoner of war for more than five years. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik, Pool)
Former President Barack Obama speaks at a memorial service for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., at Washington National Cathedral in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 1. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Former President Barack Obama speaks at a memorial service for Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., at Washington National Cathedral in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 1. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
From left, former first lady Laura Bush, former President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former vice president Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne and former vice president Al Gore arrive at a memorial service for Sen. John McCain. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
From left, former first lady Laura Bush, former President Bill Clinton, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, former vice president Dick Cheney and his wife Lynne and former vice president Al Gore arrive at a memorial service for Sen. John McCain. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Meghan McCain speaks at a memorial service for her father, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., at Washington National Cathedral in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 1. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Meghan McCain speaks at a memorial service for her father, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., at Washington National Cathedral in Washington, Saturday, Sept. 1. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)
Ariana Grande performs during the funeral service for Aretha Franklin at Greater Grace Temple, Friday, Aug. 31, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Ariana Grande performs during the funeral service for Aretha Franklin at Greater Grace Temple, Friday, Aug. 31, in Detroit. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Former President Bill Clinton poses for a photo with Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson during Aretha Franklin’s funeral. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
Former President Bill Clinton poses for a photo with Ariana Grande and Pete Davidson during Aretha Franklin’s funeral. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)