Monday, August 23, 2010

The Limits of Pop Culture

This is not one of those stuffy posts, questioning the value of popular entertainment in artistic terms. That's a worthy line of inquiry, but it's not for now. I have in mind a way more basic question: will anyone even remember the popular culture which today seems ubiquitous and permanent?

Here's my starting point, a quick anecdote shared by Jim Emerson in June of this year:

Over Memorial Day weekend I attended a high school graduation in Albuquerque. One of the graduating senior boys gave a speech in which he used car parts as a metaphor for the components of one's personality or identity. It was a clever piece he'd co-written with a friend, delivered with wry humor. Afterwards, the head of the school -- a man I'd estimate was in his 60s -- took the stage and thanked the student, quipping: "Baby, you can drive my car anytime."

Thud. Thunderous silence mixed with scattered, bewildered titters.

The next night at a graduation party, the kid who'd given the speech was standing around with a few friends and the uncomfortable subject came up.

"What was that?" he said. "'Baby, you can drive my car?!?'"
"It was creepy," said one of the girls.
I piped in: "It was creepy -- because it was totally inappropriate and made no sense. Unless he was attempting to seduce you. He was just trying to make a Beatles reference for some reason."
"Oh!" exclaimed a couple of students.
"I didn't even think of that," said the boy. "But still, it was creepy."

This is The Beatles we're talking about. I honestly don't think it's possible for anything today--in our fractured culture--to be as popular as The Beatles were in 1965, the year in which "Drive My Car" was released in the UK. And now, a scant 45 years later, burgeoning adults don't recognize some of the most recognizable lyrics of our most recent century.

You'd think the documentarian nature of the internet would help keep these fleeting bits of culture alive, and, to a certain extent, this is true. I had no idea who these John and Marsha people were that Peggy and Joey kept prattling on about in the premiere episode of Mad Men's fourth season. But, thanks to the web, I was quickly able to find out. It seems to me that this general procedure is how memory will work from now on. Someone will encounter an obscure reference, and she'll proceed to look it up. Even a site like Retro Junk works largely in this way. But what happens when no one's left to make the reference in the first place? I don't encounter many references these days to the outstanding comedy routines of the 1870s, for example. (Though, if I had to guess, I'd wager that there were some wickedly funny Civil War jokes to be had.)

Esquire's short review of Jonathan Franzen's upcoming Freedom was long on praise for the cojones the book's author displays in writing a big book, a book that attempts--according to the Esquire reviewer, who knows a surprising amount about Franzen's unspoken intentions--to join the canon of great literature. (To highlight this point, the header image features Freedom alongside works by Twain, Faulkner, DeLillo, Melville, and Fitzgerald.) The canon of American literature is notoriously fickle. If nothing else, I learned that in my last college literature class, on Melville and Ellison. I'm not sure what, exactly, Franzen will earn with acceptance to the above mentioned group, but if long-lasting notoriety is what he's shooting for, a big, serious novel seems to be the way to do it. Pop culture, no matter how popular, doesn't seem to last very long at all.

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