Josna Rege

241. People, Not Personalities

In 1960s, 1970s, Britain, history, India, Inter/Transnational, Media, Music, people, Politics, Stories, United States, Words & phrases on January 25, 2014 at 9:04 pm
crowd at concert in Hyde Park, 7 June 1969 (angelfire.com)

crowd at concert in Hyde Park, 7 June 1969 (angelfire.com)

Something came to me with great force a couple of years ago, as I watched, for the first time, a video of the newly-formed blues/rock group, Blind Faith, performing in June, 1969 at a free concert in London’s Hyde Park. It is a beautiful sunny day, with ducks and boaters paddling lazily on the Serpentine, and a large, contented crowd encircling the stage, where the young band are playing and singing their hearts out. The song they are performing in the clip is In the Presence of the Lord, my favorite on what was to be their only album. I wasn’t to hear of Blind Faith until two years later, after we had moved to the States, by which time they had already dissolved. Just as short-lived as the band itself was the ethos of that halcyon summer’s day at the end of the Sixties, before the very different Rolling Stones concert in the park the following month, before Woodstock a month after that, before a cultural shift in the early Seventies that was soon to change everything. I see that cultural shift as inaugurating a new era of individualism and the cult of celebrity, exemplified by the founding of People.

cover, debut issue of People Weekly

cover, debut issue of People Weekly

Heavily financed and published by Time Inc., People Weekly, as it was originally called, made its debut on March 4, 1974 as a magazine of celebrity and human interest stories and was an instant success, soon turning a profit and leading the pack in advertising revenues. Richard Stolley, its founding managing editor, described the magazine as “getting back to the people who are causing the news and who are caught up in it, or deserve to be in it. Our focus is on people, not issues.” And therein lay both the secret of its success and its pernicious role in a conservative, consumerist societal shift, from issues to individuals, from We to Me, and—ironically, given its name—from people to personalities.

In my view, the best way to understand a phenomenon is to see it in a larger socio-historical frame. An individual, however influential, can only be part of the picture; there are always many, many, more people, organizations, and events that shape the times and produce that individual whose name comes to stand for them all. Take Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi, for example, the Mahatma, or Great Soul, of the Indian nationalist movement against British colonial rule: a film like Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi (1982) makes him sole spokesman for the movement, and relegates other critical players to the background, whereas, in reality, millions of people and parties and interests and political tendencies came together to create the conditions for Independence.

Or take the example of Nelson Mandela, African National Congress activist, political prisoner under Apartheid, and President of post-Apartheid South Africa. From the fulsome retrospectives in the mass media after his recent death, someone with no knowledge of the history of the anti-apartheid struggle could easily come away with the idea that Mandela was a superhuman figure, personally responsible for the fall of apartheid. Certainly he was a great man who made a tremendous contribution and whose influence should not be minimized, but as an individual he can only ever be part of the story, and it was the people, the nation, and the times that created him as much as the other way around. When Mandela spoke in Boston after his release from 27 years of imprisonment, his remarks rarely included the word “I”—he was there as a representative of the African National Congress, to greet members of the anti-Apartheid movement in the United States and to gain support for his negotiations with the apartheid regime.

My students often confuse individuality with individualism, but in my view the two couldn’t be more different, one being key to our highest potential and the other being a disease that destroys creativity, community and independent thought. Individuals do matter and one person can make a tremendous difference. As Clapton writes in the song, “In the Presence of the Lord”:

Everybody knows the secret
Everybody knows the score

But ironically, the cult of the individual, like the cult of celebrity, makes individuals feel isolated and insignificant, and thereby disempowered. An old Monty Python skit, “Live Organ Transplants.” illustrates this point brilliantly. In The Galaxy Song, Eric Idle plays an expert who extols the wonder of the “amazing and expanding universe” to make an ordinary housewife feel small and insignificant by comparison. In the punchline, these feelings are immediately exploited by two strong-arm men who have come to take her liver for the lucrative organ trade.

Eric Idle and Terry Jones in "Live Organ Transplants" (thisdistractedglobe.com)

Eric Idle and Terry Jones in “Live Organ Transplants” (thisdistractedglobe.com)

Music and musicians have played an important role in popular movements that inspire individuals with the confidence to act in concert with others. Before the British-based blues revival (which produced Eric Clapton, John Mayall, and others) and rock-and-roll, came the folk music revival of the late 1950s to early 1960s. This movement was closely allied with the U.S. civil rights and peace movements, and Pete Seeger, Odetta, Peter, Paul, and Mary, Joan Baez, Richie Havens, and so many others sought to promote the power of the people, not themselves as personalities. For me it is their spirit that counteracts the cult of celebrity exemplified by People magazine, Entertainment Tonight, and their ilk.

03odet.ms.600

At a performance in 2005, Odette, at age 75, introduced her signature song, This Little Light of Mine, with the following quote from Marianne Williamson:

Our worst fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us. We ask ourselves, “Who am I to be brilliant gorgeous talented fabulous?” Actually who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some of us, it is in every one. And as we let our own light shine we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others. 

“This Little Light of Mine” was also sung at Odetta’s memorial in 2009, and wherever the ninety-nine percent unite against the power of the one percent, as in this 2011 gathering at Occupy Wall Street attended by a 92-year-old Pete Seeger.

winwoodhyde2But I haven’t told you why that 1969 video of Blind Faith performing in Hyde Park struck me so forcefully as a message from a bygone era. It was because the very camera angles took in the crowd as a whole, the whole scene—musicans, stage, audience, boaters, ducks, even the blue sky with fluffy white clouds scudding across it—in dramatic contrast with the voyeuristic focus a similar video would have today on the two stars-in-the-making, Steve Winwood and Eric Clapton. Certainly the camera kept returning to the 21-year-old Steve Winwood, soloist and keyboard player, ericblindformerly of Traffic, singing like an angel, and the 23-year-old Eric Clapton, from the recently disbanded Cream and already a budding virtuoso blues guitarist (the other two band members were drummer Ginger Baker, also a member of Cream, and Ric Grech, previously the bass player for Family). While the band was certainly the subject of the video, the individuals in it are by no means its sole focus. It was only later, in retrospect, that Blind Faith was dubbed one of the first supergroups and Eric Clapton made into a rock-and-roll superstar (a reluctant one, by all accounts). In the 1969 video, he stands quite still, playing brilliantly but undemonstratively as always, the modest writer of the song. And Steve Winwood is singing beautifully, artlessly, simply smiling a little smile—no theatrics, none of the special effects that were to be required of every rock concert from the mid-Seventies on.

It is worth trying to remember, or, if you are too young to remember, then to imagine, what “people” were before People, and what people can be, if their power is not usurped by blind faith in the cult of personality.

Tell Me Another (Contents to Date)

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  1. The Pursuit of Loneliness, Philip Slater, 1970

  2. Outstanding post Josna. Brought back many memories. Pleased you spoke of Mandela in that way. So many many others were part of the dismantling of Apartheid, even beyond the ANC. I think of someone like Helen Suzman and those who gathered around her. They hardly get a mention nowadays. Rather tragic.

    • Absolutely, Don. Your comment inspired me to read a few interviews and obituaries for Helen Suzman. She carried a lonely torch for a long time. And then there are the long-suffering and heroic ordinary South African people, every day of whose lives was (and continues to be) a struggle, who marched and protested and suffered imprisonment and worse.

  3. It’s taken me ages to write this comment because I got stuck listening to Odetta and then all her other stuff on youtube !Thank you !
    Great piece, very thoughtful and thought provoking. What you say is so true and so sad… Hyde Park looks like a lost age of innocence

  4. dearest, here is to wishing that all profound cultural studies lessons could have song, grace, rememory and such bring-the-tears-tenderness, as yours here. bine

    • Heartfelt thanks, bine. You know who does this beautifully in the classroom–or did, when I witnessed it? Farah Jasmine Griffin. Years ago, it must have been the late 90s, she came to my class while I was teaching Morrison’s Song of Solomon and had everyone’s rapt attention while she contextualized it in its 1970’s moment, referring, among other things, to the songs in the charts at the time. x J

  5. This is the same thing that always bothers me about Martin Luther King holiday. They make it sound as though he did it all and without him none of the civil rights movement would have happened and that isn’t the case.

    Another thought – I realized that a community library my husband and i worked with in the late 1960/early 1970s fell apart around 1972. I didn’t realize until a few years ago that most of the activist groups fell apart about then. Whether from outside forces or burn out.

    We are lucky to have memory of those days before rampant individualism came into it’s own.

    • Yes, that’s the People-ization of U.S. media coverage. And yes, it was my perception that a myriad of community efforts started giving way to individual striving for success in the early 1970s. We saw an intensification of that process after Reagan came to power in 1980. Then again, perhaps this is experienced to some degree in every generation, as many young activists in their late twenties/early thirties shift the intensity of their focus from their political work to professions, children, and family.
      And yes, those early memories help sustain a vision of a different way to live. It’s not forgotten, and many people are still building on it, though they aren’t featured in People magazine.

  6. […] People, Not Personalities (U.K., 1969; U.S., 1974 on) […]

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