woody zimmerman 118 2007A curious phenomenon of our time is the aging rocker. This is not an old piece of furniture but a person frozen in a musical time-warp. Often it is a former headliner trying to recapture those halcyon days of the ‘60s or ‘70s – e.g., the much superannuated Mick Jagger, or others like him, rockin’ on far into middle age and even beyond.

In other cases, aging rockers are individuals who feign – in middle age – an imagined with-it style they never had in their youth. They affect an ersatz “hipness,” believing it will help them connect with younger people in some enterprise. The result is often comic, usually absurd.

In schools, some teachers now dress “cazh” (i.e., casual) to show students how into their scene they are. Many churches have gone contemporary, too, with ministers and deacons affecting a coatless/tieless style in an effort to convince young attendees that they are completely hip and can talk their lingo. (What happens when those twenty-somethings eventually realize that the “Rev” and the Dee-cones are just badly dressed old fuddy-duddies is not covered in the “Fighting Young Priest Who Can Talk to the Young” instruction packet.)

As a young person I was surrounded by adults in school and church activities. Adults ran ball teams, boy scouts or musical groups that I participated in. To the best of my recollection, not one had a duck-tail hairdo or wore a miniskirt, poodle-skirt, pink shirt, pegged pants or any other youth-style clothing of that era. (I recall none with a pack of Lucky Strikes rolled up in his tee-shirt sleeve.) All dressed and comported themselves in ways appropriate to their ages. Ministers and teachers wore suits and ties. Female teachers were similarly well turned out – with the possible exception of the female gym teacher who pranced around the school in a tennis skirt.

I recall no teachers, church leaders, coaches or directors evincing the slightest desire to “identify,” style-wise, with the young people in their charge. (We should have considered any such attempts ridiculous.) Their working premise was that we were there to learn and they were there to teach (or direct or coach). We could listen to them or rebelliously ignore them, as we wished, but their dress or style had nothing to do with our response.

But, of course, ours is – connection-wise – a far more hip era. Politicians, particularlyly, seek to identify with their constituencies by dressing in ways they think will make them attractive to voters. Al Gore made headlines in 2000 by retaining a feminist consultant who advised him on how to dress so women would see him as an Alpha Male. He went around the country wearing “earth tones” and deporting himself with a machismo he believed a “real man” would project. (Reports that he usually kicked something over when he entered a room are unconfirmed.)

“Alpha” Gore also made a production out of theatrically smooching his wife, Tipper, on the platform of the Democratic National Convention. This and the earth tones were part of a mighty effort to connect with female voters at some elemental, sexual level. (One wag wondered if Mr. Gore was running for President or Head Stud.) But political analysts say the Alpha Male strategy backfired, as majorities of both men and women found Mr. Gore’s contrived macho-image silly.

The political custom of trying to “connect” with constituents has an old pedigree, of course. Abe Lincoln was widely characterized as the log-cabin-born “rail splitter” from Illinois – a reference to his early life on the 1820s frontier. By 1860, of course, he was a successful, well dressed lawyer who had long-since left his rough-hewn origins. (Lincoln, himself, seldom referred to his frontier origins, except by telling earthy stories of which he was very fond.)

A celebrated 1927 photo shows Calvin Coolidge standing with Sioux Indians wearing a feathered headdress and looking about as comfortable as a horse wearing BVDs.

In 1960, John Kennedy was filmed playing touch football, thus projecting an image of youth and vigor which completely belied his back trouble and affliction with Addison’s disease. (None of this was known to the public at the time.)

In her 2007-’08 try for the presidency, Hillary Rodham Clinton famously addressed an audience of black women in Selma, Alabama, using what she thought passed for an ethnic accent:

Ah don’t feel noways tahrd. Ah come too fahr from where ah started…”

After replaying the sound-clip (probably for the 100th time) on a recent broadcast, talk-jock Rush Limbaugh noted, “She does not have a gift for this.” Of course, it was perfectly ridiculous for a blond, snow-white Wellesley graduate to attempt a bogus, deep-south black accent that she had probably never even heard until she went to Arkansas as Bubba’s wife. Although her audience cheered her effort wildly, they ultimately went for the real article, Barack Obama – even though he had no connection with the black South, either. Mrs. Clinton should remember this if she tries for the office again – or she might take some remedial Ebonics elocution lessons.

Politicians, of course, are notoriously willing to do nearly anything to obtain name recognition and attract voters, so their activities should not be used as a benchmark. The current tendency of teachers and church leaders to do these things, however, is more troubling than what crazy politicians do. One can’t help wondering if a basic lack of confidence in their message and ability to convey it informs the modern fashion of trying to look (and sound) like the people they are trying to reach and teach. Past teachers and preachers did not suffer from this lack of confidence.

Occasionally I see old videos (circa 1960), on the Catholic Channel, of the late Bishop Fulton J. Sheen teaching some theological concept in a classroom setting. He is wearing his elaborate clerical robe and has no teaching accouterments sexier than a piece of chalk and a blackboard. Yet his intelligence, wit and powerful gifts of wisdom, persuasion and instruction shine through those old black-and-white videos. His teaching about life and the Gospel is still fresh and compelling, fifty years later – not because he was dressed in mod clothing, but because he was a gifted teacher whose cup truly overflowed with goodness, grace and charisma.

The famous evangelist, Billy Graham, made no attempts to look or act “hip” for his vast audiences. Dressed entirely conventionally, he had no “props” except an open Bible, to which he repeatedly referred. “The Bible says…” was his signature phrase – lending authority to his non-contemporary, but so-relevant Biblical message of repentance and salvation.

Similarly, great singers of our time, like Placido Domingo, Luciano Pavarotti and George Beverly Shea, stood before their audiences with no assistance from either costume or face-lift to give us the gift of their marvelous voices. In more recent days, a somewhat dowdy, middle-aged Scottish lady named Susan Boyle turned the world on its musical ear when she dazzled the audience of Britain’s Got Talent with a stupendous rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.” She completely knocked the place over with her ringing high notes and silken lower tones, as she showed the whole world that real singing is about only the voice and the emotion behind it.

Young ministers, now preaching sans coat and tie (most, fortunately, still wearing long pants), point to the Biblical passage in which the Apostle Paul writes that he would be “…all things to all men, that I might by all means save some.”1 The passage is very compelling, and has been used to justify everything from rock-and-roll praise bands to pub “beer ministries.”

Paul, of course, knew exactly who he was, what he was talking about, and what he was doing. He knew how to “act” like a Pharisaical Jew because he was a Jew (and a Pharisee). He knew how to act like a Roman because he was a Roman citizen. He could debate the Greeks on their own ground because he was intellectually prepared to do so. He did not affect trappings that were not natural to him. Nor did he ever compromise his personal integrity or the Gospel. Paul never dressed or acted like a pagan in some bogus effort to “connect” with pagans of his time. He was who he was, and his message was what it was, nothing else.

The real question about affectations of modern dress, language and comportment is whether they are effective. Are young people really drawn to listen and learn by teachers and ministers who affect contrived hipness? Popular books are written by people who say this method works. Some are in charge of mega-churches, so one assumes they must really know.

But I wonder about the permanence and depth of these connections. How many of those attracted to mod churches or taught by hip teachers obtain faith or learning at a significant level? And how many simply pass through the “revolving door” of big churches and trendy schools without much substance sticking to them?

So far, no one has answered these questions. I’m not sure if anyone actually wants to know the answers. Bigness is the thing. Numbers make the case. Today, everyone “knows” that young people simply won’t listen to you unless you look and sound like they do. (“Ah don’t feel noways tahrd…”)

Did Jaime Escalante2 try to look like he had just come from the barrio when he taught those Mexican kids that they could master the calculus. I suspect he set a higher standard in his dress and comportment. His vision was for his students to escape the barrio, not to remain stuck in it.

Me? I’m not a hip kind of guy (as my grandchildren would affirm), and I don’t try to be. When I stand up to sing, I wear a suit and a tie as a sign of respect for my audience and for the occasion. Besides, it’s who I am. I figure if people are going to listen to me, it will be because I can sing and because the song is good – not because I look like a dude from the ‘hood.

Yo! Maybe I am hip, after all. Wasn’t that a poem?

coolidge era indian headdress

Fighting young President who could talk to the Indians

(Calvin Coolidge, 1927)

  1. King James Bible; I Corinthians 9:22
  2. Stand and Deliver; American Playhouse film release, 1988.