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Aretha Franklin and John McCain: So very different and yet so uniquely representative of the American experience

How those who were shaped by the 1960s continue to influence America

“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, King, Hendrix, Joplin, 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.

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 just bid farewell.

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 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 often is 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,” said 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 said. “We have two giants who waded through these muddy waters for us.”

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.

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 aggressively unresolved.

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

“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,” said John Baick, a historian at Western New England University.

The very youngest Baby Boomers are in their mid-50s now, 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 culture, 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.

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

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