Classic vs. Timeless: Do You Know the Difference?

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Ten years ago, I wrote a play for The Monsignor Schnacky Players. It was called The Macaroni Kid. The melodrama told the heartwarming but comedic story of a young orphan trying to reunite with his long, lost mother. Kidnapped by gypsies as a baby, he doesn’t know her name, he doesn’t know where she lives, he doesn’t even know what she looks like. All he remembers is her voice and the beautiful songs she would sing to him.

Now a young man, he decides the only way to find his mother is to sing everywhere, every chance he has. Only then, maybe, if he is lucky, she will find him. (That’s the heartwarming part.)

The only trouble with his plan; he can’t sing. But everyone is so captivated by his story and his quest that they don’t have the heart to tell him. (That’s where the comedy comes in.)

This isn’t a new story. It’s a spin on the familiar “boy-loses-girl/boy-looks-for-girl/boy-finds-girl” three act drama well known among story-tellers, scriptwriters, and playwrights. Lest you think “mother” doesn’t qualify for “girl,” I suggest you reread that timeless Greek classic Oedipus Rex.

There. I just did it. I used “timeless” and “classic” in the same sentence.

Most people view “timeless” and “classic” as interchangeable adjectives. They’re not.

By definition, “timeless” mean “eternal” and “classic” means “highest quality.” That means just because something is really good doesn’t mean it will last forever. For example, Betsy’s lasagna roll-ups are really good, but they don’t last forever, (not even when refrigerated, although they usually don’t make it that far when Peter’s home).

Rather than focus on arcane culinary cooking from the Carosa Kitchen, perhaps it would be more useful to you if we viewed “timeless” and “classic” through the cultural lens.

Here’s why it’s important to understand the difference: because you’re a follower, not a leader.

Sorry, about that, chief, but we are, to one extent or another, followers. Even when we act as leaders. Here’s why.

Behavioral psychologists like Robert Cialdini have shown “Social Proof” as one of the best methods you can use to persuade people. What is “Social Proof?” It’s the thing that makes you jump off the bridge when you see all your friends jumping off the bridge. Sure, your mother warned you about this, but, admit it, you’ve done things just because you know a lot of other people have done it.

Don’t believe me? Have you ever said this about any public policy: “We should (or shouldn’t) do this because most people surveyed said we should (or shouldn’t) do this.”? That’s Social Proof. (That’s also why political surveys can be a dangerous thing.)

But let’s stay in the realm of fun. Let’s look at historical figures and popular culture. Which are timeless, and which are merely classic?

Well, let’s start with this: In order to be considered timeless, you must first be considered classic. To be classic, you must be ranked first in your particular genre. Let’s take a look at some of history’s bad guys. Do you know these names: Attila the Hun, Mao Zedong, Adolph Hitler, Ivan the Terrible, and Pol Pot? All these men committed atrocious acts of genocide. Pretty bad stuff. They make the cut of “History’s All Time Bad Guys” as well as give new meaning to G.O.A.T. (“Greatest of All Time”).

But do they “rise” to the level of timeless? Although we might think Hitler as a timeless antagonist, (and he may well be), will history remember him fifteen centuries from now like they do Attila the Hun? Sure, Hitler may have killed more people than Attila the Hun, but that’s only because there were more people to kill. And if killing people is our measure, Hitler’s not even in the top two. Jozef Stalin (who wasn’t even on our initial list) ranks #2, killing 50% more people than Hitler. Topping the list is Mao Zedong (nee Tse Tung), who is “credited” (?) with killing 3-4 times more people than Hitler.

Ugh. I don’t like going down this path. Let’s turn to pop culture.

Sure, Beethoven, Bach, and Brahms might be considered “timeless” among their “classic” classical peers. But which of their tunes are really timeless? I would say Beethoven’s 5th and 9th certainly merit that label as does Brahms’ Lullaby. Bach? That’s a bit more of a challenge. I would vote for “Toccata and Fugue in D Minor.” Don’t believe me? Do a web search on it and give it a listen. Otherwise, watch Fantasia or the original Rollerball.

If the “Three B’s” remain timeless, will there be a fourth “B” soon added to this “classic” list in every Music Appreciation syllabus?

With each succeeding generation from Beatlemania, it appears that the Fab Four are earnestly evolving from the “classic” category to the “timeless” category. That they wrote their own music helps them attain this position in a way that Elvis never could. That being said, Elvis, between his avant-garde swiveling and his unique voice, may merit his own “timeless” category.

Finally, let’s touch upon classic films. Although many cinephiles agree Citizen Kane merits the top all-time rank in the list of best films, will it endure as timeless? Like The Macaroni Kid, the movie is about a boy’s continuing search for his lost mother (or at least the innocence she represents). It certainly qualifies as “classic.” It will forever be the first in many categories. No one will ever be able to take that away from it.

Nipping on its heels, however, is Casablanca. Again, it features the “boy-loses-girl/boy-looks-for-girl/boy-finds-girl” three act drama, but with a very satisfying twist. Unlike Citizen Kane, it also contains an all-time bad guy as its implied protagonist – Hitler.

A love story where the protagonist gives up the girl to defeat one of history’s worst villains?

Now that’s timeless.

And also one of the greatest Star Trek episodes ever (“City on the Edge of Forever”).

 

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