Originally composed in 1934, the popular song “What a Difference a Day Makes” has become a staple of American culture, what musicians call a “standard.” The widest variety of celebrated singers and performers have covered this song in a plurality of musical genres, from R&B to jazz, soul, disco and even symphonic music, in a recording by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra.
The song has a curious history. María Grever, a Mexican composer, originally composed it. She gave it the Spanish title “Cuando vuelva a tu lado” (When I Return to Your Side). It got its current title when it was adapted to English. For two decades, “What a Difference a Day Makes” lived on the sidelines as a somewhat recognizable tune. In 1944, the title achieved some limited popularity thanks to Mexican-American singer Andy Russell’s bilingual version, which made it to number 15 in the charts.
In the dawning age of the transistor radio, Dinah Washington’s 1959 R&B version became a top ten hit. That sealed its reputation as a song every serious singer and jazz musician had to learn to perform. From then on, popular singers from Frank Sinatra to Dean Martin, Bobby Darin, Natalie Cole, Rod Stewart, Cher and many, many others made it part of their repertoire.
Why bring up this bit of curious US folklore 90 years later?
There are moments when history stalls and others where it accelerates. We now have the leisure to put 2023 in the rearview mirror. Future historians will almost certainly see it as a year of historical acceleration. A bit like 1959, a time when everything seemed to be on a fairly even, predictable keel for those who were living through it.
Political history follows similar patterns to cultural history. They both change over time, in ways that those living through the transitional moments fail to perceive. The practices as well as the tastes of the past often disappear and may even appear to the following generations as incomprehensible. The vagaries of popular music, especially in our consumer society, offer serious matter for reflection.
The commercial music scene has changed radically over the past six decades, as it already had between 1934 and 1959. For many commentators on US culture, the latter date represents the crucial moment when a shift took place from postwar puritanism and buttoned-down conformity to the liberation of the sixties, with the hippies, the Civil Rights movement, the sexual revolution and the golden age of a rock’n’roll, a US invention transformed and brought up to date by British artists.
The 1998 movie Pleasantville appears to take place in 1959, judging from its use of Miles Davis’s “So What” as background music for one scene. All jazz musicians acknowledge that Davis’s album “Kind of Blue” literally changed the nature of jazz. The movie’s director and producers in 1998 were obviously aware of that.
Pleasantville follows two youths who are magically transported from the 90s to the title town in the 50s. They disturb the innocent residents with their relatively uninhibited manners. The 1950s scenes in the movie were filmed in black and white. When manners and morals began changing midway through the movie, the filming changes to technicolor. For the producers, that symbolized how Americans visualize that transitional moment in their culture. Things would never be the same after that.
A tale of two decades (the fifties and sixties)
The cable TV series Mad Men (2007), focused on Madison Avenue’s advertising industry in the sixties, ran for eight years. Picking up where Pleasantville left off, the first episode begins in 1960, the start of a new and radically different decade that would transform the 1950s’ consumerist culture into something wildly different.
Mad Men builds its drama around the careers of high-achieving advertising executives. The plot is regularly punctuated by historical and cultural events. These include two Kennedy assassinations, war in Vietnam, a moon landing, drugs, the deaths of MLK and Marilyn Monroe, and all the other excitement of the times kicked off in the decade that followed that seminal year of 1959. Both works look back at the rapid metamorphosis that American culture underwent in those decades.
All this is to say that some years do make a difference. 1959 was one of those years. So, I maintain, is 2023. Something, or indeed many things possibly equally significant happened in this past year. When producers of Hollywood and TV dramas three or four decades from now look back at 2023, they may have a similar impression. There will nevertheless be a significant difference. This time around it isn’t just US culture that is transitioning. It’s global culture
What will 2023 be remembered for? Here are seven of the most obvious things. Future historians will certainly find others.
— The continuation of a violent and, in the likely view of future
historians, senseless and avoidable war in Eastern Europe, which
has already changed the shape of international relations.
— The start of another absurd and even more tragic war in Gaza that
is likely to have even greater historical consequences.
— The visible beginnings of the dedollarization movement
accelerated by the expansion of BRICS (an intergovernmental
organization named for Brazil, Russia, India, China and South
— The consolidation of the notion of “the Global South” in our
— The predictable growing momentum of another more-
traumatizing-than-ever US presidential campaign leading up to
the November 2024 election,
— Gathering evidence that this really is Cold War 2.0. This time,
though, there are two hot wars that have the potential to spark
World War III and a nuclear war, whose specter haunted my
generation’s youth during the original Cold War.
As the year 2024 approaches — seated atop “time’s winged chariot hurrying” ever nearer, in the words of Andrew Marvell — the real question concerns how the tense plot of all these abruptly begun, ambiguously evolving and clearly unfinished events will wend towards some kind of acceptable denouement or a more traumatizing development.
Ranking years past
As we look back at recent history, 2016 stands as a landmark year that saw Brexit and Donald Trump’s rise to the US presidency. Trump had the effect of putting history itself in a state of suspended animation before the unanticipated invasion of COVID-19. 2020 stood out as the year of the pandemic, marking the confusion of a clueless, globalized world that suddenly woke up to the reality that it had no idea how it had found itself in this predicament and even less about how to respond appropriately.
As Joe Biden assumed the throne of the 75-year-old “rules-based international order,” 2021 turned out to be a year of building suspense, as a new shift to normalized behavior was announced. The major event of that year was the US withdrawal from a 20-year engagement in Afghanistan, which momentarily seemed to reduce the tension. But the building pressure — some of it deviously planned — exploded in February 2022 with the war in Ukraine.
A new year has now begun. Between wars and crucial elections at various points of the globe, 2024 is likely to be loaded with drama that dwarfs that of the previous years. Anything can happen. None of it looks as if it will be easy to manage.
Anyone in the media should know by now that high drama is good for business. Catastrophic drama is great for business. The hyperreal shenanigans associated with Donald Trump’s election and presidency, including his chaotic exit from the White House, enabled the media to live off five full years of a manufactured, worthy-of-Hollywood scenario called Russiagate. That was mostly comedy, but in February 2022 it morphed into global tragedy as the already deeply detested Russia invaded Ukraine.
In 2024, there will be new drama. At Fair Observer, we are intent on covering it from multiple perspectives to avoid being captured by only one narrative. We will need your help more than ever. We need the insights and direct testimony of our authors, which potentially includes all of you. But, most importantly of all, we need you to keep thinking. In the dawning age of AI, human thinking will be our most precious asset.
[Anton Schauble edited this piece.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
Support Fair Observer
We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.
For more than 10 years, Fair Observer has been free, fair and independent. No billionaire owns us, no advertisers control us. We are a reader-supported nonprofit. Unlike many other publications, we keep our content free for readers regardless of where they live or whether they can afford to pay. We have no paywalls and no ads.
In the post-truth era of fake news, echo chambers and filter bubbles, we publish a plurality of perspectives from around the world. Anyone can publish with us, but everyone goes through a rigorous editorial process. So, you get fact-checked, well-reasoned content instead of noise.
We publish 2,500+ voices from 90+ countries. We also conduct education and training programs
on subjects ranging from digital media and journalism to writing and critical thinking. This
doesn’t come cheap. Servers, editors, trainers and web developers cost
Please consider supporting us on a regular basis as a recurring donor or a sustaining member.
Will you support FO’s journalism?
We rely on your support for our independence, diversity and quality.