How will our pop heroes sound 100 years from today?
While we were leafing through a magazine the other day at a reckless clip - we admit it! - these really awe-inspiring phrases began to leap off the page and slow us down.
We were dealing here, it seemed, in ''heroic feats of self-generation.'' The hero under consideration was somebody with ''a compelling spiritual conviction'' who, by his feats, was ''gaining in the struggle a reason for going on.''
Had we stumbled upon still another anniversary piece on Martin Luther? The description of austere moral purpose certainly fitted.
But wait. This was a person who searched out in his life ''every avenue of possibility except religion.'' Among the byways specifically explored: ''knowledge, reflection, friendship.''
The dedicated fellow had to be a French philosopher at the least! Or maybe a Nobel Prize-winning poet from Latin America. One imagines the words ringing out in a Stockholm awards ceremony: ''great tenderness, compassion, and joy.''
Well, we could prolong the suspense indefinitely. But we hear somebody say, ''I give up.'' And we hear another voice in the back cry: ''I could never guess - not in a million years.''
May we have a little fanfare from Nelson Riddle or Axel Stordahl or Gordon Jenkins? For the subject of this study in ''greatness'' (to quote again) is none other than Frank Sinatra.
We've never been a Sinatra fan. But we almost felt sorry for ''Old Blue Eyes'' - ''The Chairman of the Board,'' ''The Leader of the Rat Pack'' - being treated as something halfway between a genius and a saint.
Just to put the matter in perspective, we're talking about ''compelling spiritual conviction'' - and we're talking about a lot of doin' it my way.
We're talking about ''knowledge'' and ''reflection'' - and we're talking about inquiring questions like how deep is the ocean, how high is the sky?
We're talking about ''friendship'' - and we're talking, for the most part, about finger-popping invitations to come fly with me.
We're talking about ''heroic self-generation'' - and we're talking about the king of the cult of the swooners, those men with melting eyes and knowing little swoops to their baritones who make the customers in Las Vegas turn back their clocks and squeal like teen-agers.
It must be noted in all fairness that this latest incomium iconium only rerepsents a consensus, including Richard Nixon, who once compared Frank Sinatra to the Washington Monument.
Are we being as unjust to Frank Sinatra in our own way as his genuflecting eulogists have been on the other side of excess? Perhaps. But some sort of readjustment is in order.
About 50 years ago a rather wonderful thing happened. Aesthetic snobbery started to break down. People saw that old caste distinctions ought not to be made between the fine arts and the popular arts. One could love Shakespeare and Charlie Chaplin, Mozart and Louis Armstrong, Rembrandt and the comic strips. Good news!
Then, about 25 years ago, a rather awful thing happened. People began to talk as if the comic strips were Rembrandt. Pseudo-scholarly essays got published, comparing the Beatles with Bach - with Bach barely holding his own. Bad news!
Today, porn-film stars appear on talk shows to analyze, in all solemnity, their Art. At a time when wines are called ''noble'' and cheeses ''honest,'' the inflation of Frank Sinatra into a moral hero for our times must be counted as the least of our confusions.
It is not, at any rate, a question of Frank Sinatra. It is a question of us - of our control over words and the values they are supposed to contain.
In a bitterly flip piece called ''Welcome to the Age of Junk,'' the editors of Rolling Stone magazine tried this month to explain what we are doing to ourselves. ''We've always had junk aplenty,'' they observe, ''but we used to differentiate it from the valuable. Now we know better. Now it's all the same. . . . Two of the most popular words in the country are classy and sleazy. Soon they will mean the same thing.''
It takes an element of the ''sleazy'' to be that cynical. But one way or another, we must acknowledge that hype is the other side of boredom - and that the language of hype is threatening to become our everyday monotone, applied indiscriminately to all subjects from war to the smug rhymes of ''moon'' and ''June.'' We turn the horses loose until our discourse approaches hysteria, and then, of course, it's back to the yawn.
While on the subject of male vocalists, we'd like to cast a vote for Jack Teagarden. Humorous and gentle - all sweet Texas lyricism - Teagarden once recorded a song called ''A Hundred Years From Today.'' The words argued modestly , as popular songs often do, against the self-important bustle of daily life. Teagarden played the feathery mood for all it was worth. The whole thing came off as serene as a summer's day exempted from history.
Nobody wrote an essay about ''A Hundred Years From Today'' or about Jack. Nobody had to. What you did was lift the phonograph arm very carefully and play the song again - and again.