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Listen Up and Tune in the Evolution of Culture

by on July 12, 2015 10:55 PM

On a recent return to Centre County via Interstate 80, I had the opportunity to listen to the satellite radio that was installed in the rental car.

I usually hook up my phone to Bluetooth to listen to internet radio and my playlists but this time decided to make use of a service that wouldn't eat up my data usage on my phone.

While navigating around the tractor-trailers and driving rain for most of the trip, I found myself jumping from current pop stations to those stations they call The Decades - music specifically from the 1960s, 1970s, 1980s and 1990s.

I made some mental notes as I listened to the wide variety of music that we have listened to over the past 50 years. First, the Rolling Stones had at least one song in every decade (which reminded me that Mick Jagger is now a great grandfather). Second, some of the music was really bad but reminded me of good times. Last, music offers a glimpse into our culture and can really be a sign of the times.

From the Cornelius Brothers and Sister Rose singing "Treat Her Like a Lady" and reflecting that " strange, as it seems, you know you can't treat a woman mean" to the creepy songs of Gary Puckett and the Union Gap including "Young Girl" and "you better run girl, you're much too young girl" some of the music really reflects how our culture has changed.

The classic, however, came on right outside of Youngstown, Ohio. The 1969 hit by a group called the 1910 Fruitgum Company's "Indian Giver" starts out with a decidedly tribal sounding drum intro and then the lyrics go on to accuse the girl who took her love away as being an Indian giver.

Indian giver? Are they kidding?

Can you imagine these and other songs crawling up the Billboard charts as number one hits in today's politically correct climate? (Conversations about Kanye and some of today's hip hop and rap artists who reflect on the "how many bitches I own" is probably better left to another column.)

Aside from nostalgia about some of the so-bad-its-good music of the last century, the lesson in reviewing the old tunes was pretty simple. Culture should not be evaluated through the lens of the here and now. To try to go back and evaluate or judge something from the past using today's wisdom or science or perspective doesn't make sense.

We can't rewind the tape on our past merely because we see things differently now. The objective must be to learn from our history so that it doesn't repeat itself.

Anthropologists and sociologists have applied Darwin's theory of human evolution to societies and groups of people. Just as Darwin and other evolutionists believed that humans respond and react and therefore adapt to their environment, socio-cultural evolutionists believe that our communities and how we organize ourselves and respond within those communities respond and react as well. In other words, the influence of both time and of change within our environment cause our cultures to evolve.

Think of how our interpersonal skills have evolved and adapted in the short time that the cell phone has had an influence in our lives. We are a different society with different norms and mores because of this external influence.

People must therefore evolve within their societies as their societies evolve.

I can remember taking vacations as a kid. We would be driving along and we would gather up the all the trash in the car - snack bags or leftover styrafoam containers from the fast food restaurant and toss it out the window of the moving car. Soda cans, bags of food and other garbage flying by on the interstate, coming out of the other cars, was nothing out of the ordinary. Today, as I separate my cardboard from my plastic and glass and put them in separate containers for the recycling pick up, I can't imagine that I ever thought tossing rubbish out on the street was an okay thing to do.

Looking at the past through today's lens can sometimes show us a really ugly and often embarrassing picture. It can't however change what we knew or did then.

Collectively we learned that littering and garbage is unsanitary and damaging to the environment. We have adapted our habits and changed our decisions. Our culture and our society (and the individuals within it) have evolved. (Sadly, many cultures outside of North America haven't evolved to that same level of understanding).

Unfortunately, we seem to be moving in the direction that people are demanding that we go back and somehow undo the sins of yesterday because of what we know and do today. The trend that "someone has to pay" for decisions made by people years or decades or centuries ago (and who may not even be alive) seems to growing.

We can't undo the past but we can learn from it.

It wasn't all that long ago that people thought the world was flat. It wasn't all that long ago that we sang a song called Indian Giver.

What will be the issue or cause or decisions made by our culture today that our children and grandchildren look back and say "What the hell were they thinking?" Hopefully, they will have evolved to a greater understanding.


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Patty Kleban is an instructor at Penn State, mother of three and a community volunteer. She is a Penn State Alumna. Readers of State College Magazine voted her Best Writer of 2010 and 2012. She and her family live in Patton Township. Her views and opinions do not necessarily reflect those of Penn State.
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