Hey, I wonder what Susan Dey’s been up to?
Silly question? Yeah, sort of. But there was a time when it wouldn’t have been. Or more specifically, there was a time when you could be pretty sure that just about anybody in the room would know who you were talking about. Now before you decide that I’ve driven down Nostalgia Rd. (again!), let me assure you that that’s not the case. No, it’s just that the death of Andy Williams got me to thinking about the cultural reach of celebrities and how that has changed (read: mostly decreased) over the years.
And so what’s the Andy Williams/Susan Dey connection? To be honest, there really isn’t one, at least not one that’s direct. When I heard that he had passed on, I started in on the idea of cultural significance…and, quite randomly, my opening question just kind of appeared. Culturally speaking, what they did share was a range of fame that just doesn’t exist in the modern era. Just as most people in the ’70s knew Dey from her role on The Partridge Family, everybody knew who Williams was, from his music to his variety show.
The entertainment world was a smaller one back then. I may have been a kid (who may or may not have had a huge crush on Susan Dey), but I did know who Andy Williams was. Yes, it was the music of my parents, and yet I was quite familiar with “Moon River.” Weird, but true.
Does this matter? Does it matter that the expansion of the entertainment landscape has removed those larger areas of commonality? Does it matter that Lady Gaga isn’t the household name that Andy Williams was?
I don’t have any answers. The phenomenon does bother me a little, but I’m having a hard time pinning down why this is an issue. Is it that we can’t have a meaningful discourse about culture if there’s no common ground? If a parent loves Alison Krauss and her daughter loves Justin Bieber — with both only marginally aware of the other — is that a problem?
Again, I don’t know. Or rather, I think so but I don’t know why. Many years ago, I used to listen to UMASS radio show called “Martinis With Mancini.” It was a show programmed with all manner of easy listening and lounge music. Nostalgic? Yes, but it was a look back into music whose familiarity ranged from “Part of my everyday listening life” to “Stuff that my parents owned, but were too embarrassed to forward on to me.” Each show ended with “Moon River.” Decades ago, would most kids have been able to identify that song? Yes. And now? Very few songs bridge generations like that.