TV show asks: 'When is something a classic?'

Popular culture pundits reexamine America's icons

In our throwaway culture, it's not always easy to see how enduring some things are. Some would call them "the classics," icons of history that pass the test of time and are passed down from one generation to the next.

The History Channel takes on Madison Avenue's approach to the question "What is a classic?" in its newest series on life in the United States, "American Classics."

The four-hour miniseries (Nov. 27-30, 9-10 p.m.) starts with the goal of identifying those cultural totems that best represent America and why they've become a part of our collective consciousness.

The show's producers began with a litmus test for classic status. "Sometimes it's a function of ubiquity," says historian Karal Ann Marling. She relates her own experience with a group of French tourists who were exploring the Mississippi River.

"Every time we stopped at any little museum," she says, "they'd show us a little film. And every time they were trying to denote the 1950s or '60s in this film, there would be Elvis."

By the end of the fourth day on the road, she says, her French travelers would start the day by saying, " 'Give us this day our daily Elvis.' The notion that Elvis is everywhere was not wasted on them. He clearly was a kind of American place marker, and an American icon."

The producers were also interested in tracing the iconic image back to its human roots. "It takes real people, real events," says consultant and historian Steven Gillon. "It takes people like Elvis Presley, George Washington, [and] cowboys, and shows over time that have become mythologized, how they've become something different from what they were originally."

The series investigates the contrast between the myth and the reality, and the process of mythologization.

"[The program] takes real things, but shows how we imbue them with meaning which they never had and how that becomes an important part of who we are as Americans," Mr. Gillon says.

Inevitably, the list excludes what may seem like obvious selections. "You have to choose something and leave out a lot of stuff," says historian Ray Browne. "What we tried to do was take the mountaintops and leave the second rounders of the mountains," says the professor, who founded the department of popular culture at Bowling Green (Ohio) State University. "What I wanted to do was trace the spirit of America from the beginning in its several manifestations," he says. "And so, what we have in George Washington, we tried to pick out in Elvis Presley."

Elvis and Washington similar? "I know somebody's going to say 'Impossible!' Well, it isn't impossible. In addition to two legs, they had other qualities as well," Professor Browne says, noting that both had charisma and an ability to inspire people with a certain dream or vision.

On the other side of the coin, the marketing machinery that attempts to sell new products as instant "classics" has cheapened the notion of being a classic. How to tell the difference between the passing fad and the real thing is not a simple matter.

"What I have always advocated is for each of us to examine the classics that have been handed down to us and see whether or not we have been sold a bad bill of goods," Browne says. "Maybe they were classic, maybe they served purposes other than that, maybe they were not."

Beyond that, in a post-Andy Warhol era that suggests everyone and everything can have its 15 minutes of fame and then disappear, Browne says classics still emerge.

"I do know that classics are being born every day," Browne says. "I don't know when they become classics.

"I suppose they become classics when we recognize that there is something inside them, a certain power, that distinguishes them and sets them off from the others."

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