Can’t Get You Out Of My Head: how we got to where we are

‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’ is a TV series that attempts to untangle the many threads of history that got us to where we are today. It’s an unusual format, an exhibition of themes and footage from the 20th century. In this conversation, Mel and Alex discuss the series from their different perspectives: Mel lived through much of what is explored, while Alex has only learned about it from books and history lessons.

Alex Matthews: You recommended that I watched a BBC TV series that you had seen called ‘Can’t Get You Out Of My Head’. It’s done in a really unusual way, a sort of exhibition of footage and themes from the 20th century. You said you ‘binge’ watched it in pretty much one sitting, but I really couldn’t get into it! I found it difficult to follow and quite unsettling. I’d love to understand what you enjoyed about it.

Mel Young: I don’t know if enjoyed is the right word but it certainly was different. If it had been a standard documentary series, I don’t think I would have watched it. It was like a combination between a piece of creative art and a documentary; it was quite surreal. I became a bit fixated with it because I lived through part of the time that it focussed on – the 60s and 70s, with the Vietnam War, the Cold War, the race riots in the USA, the global growth of communism, the collapse of the Berlin Wall and so on. As young people in the 60s and 70s, we believed that we were creating a completely new paradigm, not just with politics but with music, fashion and culture. It was a time of significant change and somehow the programme pricked my memory in a way which made me look at the contradictory issues which were around at the time.

AM: It was definitely an exciting and exhilarating time to be alive – there was so much change and progress in the 60s and 70s, and monumental historical events. I’m really interested in 20th century history and enjoyed how the programme examined the events and themes in an original way – but perhaps as this all happened before I was born, it doesn’t resonate with me as it does for you. You mentioned in one of our conversations how the programme looked at the two big ideologies and economic systems of the twentieth century – communism and capitalism – and what it meant to be living under those systems. What are the themes that particularly struck you?

MY: I think what struck me was the inherent contradictions throughout the programmes. At one point, for example, everyone was a hippie and the motto was peace and love and sharing in the collective good for all. But in reality, hippies could be very individualistic and self-centred. The whole rock and fashion sector emerged and some people made millions as we moved out of the hippie era. So much for sharing everything! But we seemed to embrace all of this as one thing. I think it might be because we were the baby boomer generation and just by sheer force of numbers we thought we knew everything and simply went along with what was in vogue at the time. In some ways, the series captured this, but they did it in an unusual way. 

AM: That contradiction is really interesting and not one that had occurred to me before – when you think of hippies you do think of communes and shared living, but you’re right that it wasn’t as collective as seems on the surface. What you say about the baby boomers thinking that you all knew everything is worth exploring. I think every generation accuses young people of thinking they know everything – but is that because young people can see what is wrong in the world created by their elders and work hard to create a better society? For your generation, that was the hippy movement and it did seem like a better, kinder, more environmentally friendly way of living – but as so often happens with these things, they morph into something uglier. The intentions are right, but the execution is marred by human nature! A bit like communism I suppose – the idea of fairness and collective living sounds great in theory, but in practice it is much more exploitative and harmful.

MY: Looking back on this period, there was a lot of turbulence in the world. There were lots of wars, many people died. Some nations were trying to dominate the world whilst youngsters were coming together across borders and sharing the same ideologies which were opposed to aggressive nations. It was the emergence of the global citizen I guess and was against nationalism, but we seemed to have gone backwards again. Currently it seems that nationalism is trumping globalism. Or is that right? Young people – your generation – are united across the globe about climate change and are determined to make sure that the world is not destroyed and becomes sustainable. And those voices are being heard – aren’t they? Governments and big businesses are talking about change which has to be a good thing but are they going far enough? 

AM: Lots of big questions there Mel! I think these are the very questions that Can’t Get You Out Of My Head was seeking to answer by looking at their historical roots and how they evolved over the 20th century. These conflicts, as you say, continue into the present day – they are about different issues, but at their heart they are the same. They are about how we can best live with each other and with the planet. People have very different ideas about what the answers are, but I believe the questions are ultimately the same. And it is the young people, as it was in the 50s, 60s and 70s, who are dissatisfied with the status quo and demanding that things change. They might not have all the answers, back then or now, but they are active, passionate and resolute, and perhaps that’s the most important thing.

MY: The programme series was surreal, as I say. I like some surreal art which was maybe why I liked the programmes. Some of the images and stories took me back in time and I remembered all the drama of it even if it was taking place thousands of miles away. But to me, to keep up with the surreal theme, it was like we are on some kind of continuous loop where history simply repeats itself. It is about our individual freedoms against our collective responsibilities. If we are going to save the planet, as the younger generation demands, then all of us are going to have to curtail our individual freedoms for the collective good. Therein lies the challenge! How will that work? And that is the same issue which ran throughout all the programmes in some form right though from liberalism, globalisation, authoritarian governments, excessive wealth, democracy and so on. Get an answer to the question about the right balance between our individual freedom and our collective duty and then we will save the planet!

You can watch Can’t Get You Out Of My Head on BBC iPlayer now.

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