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Listen Up: Seven Up, Minus the Pop

February 1, 2010  |  8:00am
Listen Up: <i>Seven Up</i>, Minus the Pop

In 1964, some British filmmakers rounded up a group of fourteen seven-year-old kids from across the country—boys and girls, rich and poor, black and white—and interviewed them for a BBC program called Seven Up. At the end of the show, a voice-over commanded that viewers tune back in sometime in the year 2000, when the team would circle back to the kids as adults. But in 1971, at the hands of director Michael Apted, who'd been a researcher on the first installment, came Seven Plus Seven, which caught up with the kids at age fourteen and kicked off what's now known as the Up Series, which has revisited the same bunch every seven years since.

Over the past week or so, I've been spending an ungodly amount of time immersed in these peoples' lives. All of the installments are streaming on Netflix (except 35 Up, only available on DVD, so pace yourself accordingly) and now that I'm down to the final two episodes I'm growing antsy, knowing I'll have to wait until at least 2011 for 56 Up. The series is hardly perfect—as comes with the territory, I suppose, it tends to reduce its subjects' lives into easy narratives, which many of the kids (three of whom are pictured above) have complained about as they've grown older. So far, at least, it also seems weirdly tied to the form of the original episode, following up every time on the same basic questions that were first asked: What do you think of school? What do you think of boys/girls? Do you want to have children? What kind of job do you want when you're grown?

It weird to see adults being held accountable, in a way, to big promises they made to themselves at age seven. The series didn't start out as an exploration of Britain's educational system, I don't think, but it's kind of become one—there's a lot of interest in how the kids' class backgrounds and educational opportunities impacted their lives and careers, though it's all too anecdotal to mean anything. There's also an uncomfortable divide in how the male and female characters are handled, with the women's stories more frequently being shaped around their lives as mothers, wives and daughters (even when they have their own careers) and the men focused on as breadwinners and professionals (even when they're married with children).

Still, it's endlessly compelling, kind of proto-reality TV writ large—and no one, of course, could tell the story of a life in full in such a way that it's both accurate and easily digestible to a mass audience. But one thing has seemed quite conspicuously absent to me, maybe only once or twice touched upon in the series so far, and that's the presence—or lack thereof, really—of art or media of any kind in these peoples' lives, specifically music. I can count on one hand the number of times music has come up in any way in the Up Series. In the first episode, a classroom of boys at an exclusive prep school is show singing “Waltzing Matilda” in Latin, and later the same bunch is show practicing with a wonky little after-school band. In a later episode, one of the young men talks briefly about a rock band he used to play with—he sits on a couch during this segment, with a black guitar case lurking in the corner. And later, another male subject is shown performing in his small village's annual pantomime production, singing a song from Oliver! with a rag-taggy ensemble cast.

It's a largely contemporary phenomenon, I realize, this idea of defining yourself and your experiences based on what music you listened to at a particular point in your life,and I know that even now not everyone looks back at all the years they've lived and sees a timeline of songs and albums marching steadily back in time. And the Up Series certainly has more serious problems than its interviewers' failure to anticipate how their young subjects might reflect on their existence in fifty years' time in terms of pop cultural milestones. But knowing that these folks were kids in the U.K. around the time The Beatles exploded, that their adolescences essentially spanned the years in which the world saw most of its first blazing rock stars, that period of modern music that has been so intensely romanticized and so lampooned in decades since—that's what makes it conspicuous to me. Stuff was going on, they had to know—right? The broadness of pop music makes that the easiest starting point, but it could be anything, of course—either way, I think there's something to be said for tracing a person's tastes, as well as their values (which is basically what the series has done), in even the most casual extended pseudo-ethnographic study of a life.

There's one pop song that comes up in the series, and it comes up time and time again. While filming the first episode, the filmmakers brought all the kids together in London for a trip to the zoo, a playground and a party, where they're shown popping balloons and chugging glass-bottled soda and stuffing their faces with cake. And then there they are dancing, all of them in a wild wriggling mass of tiny bodies, the girls all in dresses and the boys in little suits and ties. The song that's playing is a kind of sweetly rough-and-tumble garage rock thing—the first time I heard it, I thought it might be a really early Beatles song I just wasn't familiar with, but it's actually by The Monotones, a band from just south of London that apparently had a few minor hits in the 1960s. This particular song is “What Would I Do,” and it's hard to hear the words for all the screaming kids, but listening to it on its own, it's clear that either this was a really subtly wise choice for the one soundtracked bit of the whole series, or just a massively weird coincidence.

A first it's all impatient, puppy-love hypotheticals, this guy batting at the possibility of some unpleasant future without his girl: “What would I do if you left me? What would I do then but cry?” But then it gets both creepy and eerily apropos: As the kids are shown running around, making faces at each other and faces at the camera—faces that are soon to be known so well to anyone who sits with all the other episodes, at the end of which this sequence is always shown—The Monotones declare, “I'll always follow you / 'Til you said you were true / Believe me, that's what I do / What I do, what I do, what I do.”

And in that moment, which plays over and over at the end of every episode, all I can think of is everything these people—all in their fifties now—have shared, and I forgive them for all the unanswered questions, the nagging lacunas. I forgive them for not sharing what songs got them through their sixteenth year, the term they dropped out of school, their parents' death, their everyday lives, and I forgive Apted and his crew for not asking. Because in some ways I guess it wouldn't be too much more to share. And in others, I know it's kind of everything.

Rachael Maddux is Paste’s associate editor. Her column appears at PasteMagazine.com every Monday.

Listen to The Monotones' "What Would I Do":

Watch the trailer for Michael Apted's 49 Up:

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