Legacy in the age of manipulation

Article by Lauren Rosewarne /
ABC The Drum /
July 25, 2011 /

Click here to view original /

At my office at Melbourne Uni, posters of 88 of my favourite films line the walls.

New visitors inevitably ask varyingly weird questions: sometimes of the “have you actually seen all of these films?” – kind; more often, of the “why not The Shawshank Redemption?” – calibre.

Interestingly, no visitor has ever asked where the Citizen Kane poster is.

When I heard about the death of Amy Winehouse, I immediately thought about cinema. Cinema, memory and pop culture legacy.

CNN was on when I got the news. And whether it was my amazing psychic abilities or just my 31 years of watching clichéd coverage, as predicted, the host quickly asked about the Winehouse legacy. Would she be remembered as a ne’er-do-well junkie or the hey-soul-sister of the kind that Train tragically slaughters in song? (Indeed, I paraphrase).

This question, asked to all manner of talking heads, prompted elaborate tropes and speculation and oh so very confident answers. You know, because legacy is such an easy thing to speculate on.

There’s a TV commercial screening in America at the moment. Familiar tear-jerky, soft rock, nostalgic shlock. And over much apple pie family crap, a voice of propriety asks, “So how do you want to be remembered?” You know, because legacy is such an easy thing to control.

We accuse the 24-hour news cycle of all kinds of social conniptions, but the easiest to measure is that need to fill 24 hours with endless babble. Part of this unending chatter is each commentator wanting to be the first to make a finite “Winehouse will be remembered as…” statement; to be the commentator to make the definitive legacy prediction.

Milking free wi-fi yesterday and Hit the Road Jack came on Radio Starbucks. Two little French kids – sadly, sans-berets – at the next table knew all the words and sang along happily.

So why do these little French kids know the words to a song released 50 years before they were born? Why do they know this song but likely not the innumerable others released that the same year?

Why does Citizen Kane get remembered and ceaselessly lauded over and above – at the very least – 88 debatably better films released before and after?

Whether we remember Amy Winehouse for her car crash life, for a couple of pretty OK songs or whether we forget her like we’ll triumphantly forget bands like Train, is impossible to forecast.

No CNN host or Tweeting producer/celebrity/fan can possibly predict the bizarre hokey pokey of the pop culture machine. No-one knows for how long music journos will beat the Winehouse drum. No-one knows how much hyperbolic elevation of her talents will occur, or how much gross distortion of her celebrity will transpire. No-one knows whether a film or Apple product or disreputable bank will use In My Bed in some 2035 holographic commercial or whether a future Glee/Australian Idol incarnation will deliver her a new battalion of fans. Nostalgia, kitsch and audience reaction are fickle, fickle beasts.

But legacy has nothing to do with how individuals remember and everything to do with how we’re manipulated into remembering. En masse. Manipulated into caring, manipulated into feeling nostalgic, manipulated into praise.

And it’s so much easier when there’s a soundtrack at the ready.

© Lauren Rosewarne