Posts tagged ‘pop culture’

September 3, 2016

#118) How not to complain #6: Friends in low places

Let’s start with the standard disclaimer: I agree with much of what is said in David Hopkins’ article for Medium in which he blames the TV show “Friends” for triggering “the downfall of Western Civilization.” I have no problem whatsoever with the phrases “American Idol” and “Reign of Terror” being used in the same sentence. I have endless sympathy for middle school chess club members who get bullied. As with other complaint deconstructions, however, the issue  is whether Hopkins will sway others to his side. Sure, the geeks who despised the ubiquity of “Friends” and its good-looking cast will nod until their coke-bottle glasses slip off their nose, but will he be able to give the beautiful people pause? Given the article’s descent from promising tongue-in-cheek to lecture, I’d say probably not.

The premise: David Schwimmer’s character, Ross, was set up as the program’s “fall guy” – portrayed in the beginning as a lovable misfit but later as an elitist nag who was too smart for the room. As Hopkins points out, “[A]ny time Ross would say anything about his interests, his studies, his ideas…one of his ‘friends’ was sure to groan and say how boring Ross was, how stupid it is to be smart, and that nobody cares.” According to Hopkins, Ross’s rejection, both by the other characters and the show’s wide audience, was “the moment when much of America groaned, mid-sentence, at the voice of reason.”

The two main downfalls of Hopkins’ argument are themes that come up regularly among ineffective complaints: lack of historical context and lack of empathy/humor.

Hopkins points out that in 2004, the year the show ended, George W. Bush was elected to a second term,  Paris Hilton ruled supreme and Green Day’s Grammy winning album “American Idiot” was released. It was the year “when we completely gave up and embraced stupidity as a value.” Hopkins himself was a middle school teacher at the time, a self-appointed protector of the nerdy kids under his tutelage in the chess club: “Maybe intellectuals have always been persecuted and shoved in lockers, but something in my gut tells me we’re at a low point …”

Well, 2004 might not have been the cultural and political pinnacle of Western civilization, but given selected information, any year can be made to look like pure idiocy. Would Hopkins have preferred to have lived in 1965 so he could watch first-run episodes of “My Mother, The Car”? Or in ’72 so he could attend the premier of John Waters’ “Pink Flamingos”?* Let the record show that in 1991, four years before “Friends” and thirteen before Hopkins’ “year that reality television became a dominant force in pop culture” former Cincinnati mayor Gerald N. Springer first took to the airwaves with his perennial Emmy winner. As for persecution of nerds, it’s been happening at least as far back as the 17th century when Galileo was convicted of heresy due to his crazy idea of a heliocentric universe and has continued through Mercury Records telling a certain power trio from Canada that their songs were too long and their lyrics had too many big words. And take it from me–nerds have been shoved into middle school lockers since at least the late ’80s, just like, uh, my, uh, friend…Joey…Jim Bob…uh, Schwartz. Yeah, that’s it, Schwartz.

One could also argue that since 2004, nerd culture has been increasingly embraced, even if superficially–twee, Silverlake, Zooey Deschanel. A case can also be made that, Kardashians notwithstanding, since “Friends” television has upped its game – “Mad Men”, “Sons of Anarchy”, “Walking Dead”, “The Voice” and many other shows that people tell me are awesome.

History aside, Hopkins’ admonishment to “read a fucking book” probably won’t send folks on a beeline to the library any more than “stop buying so much shit” will keep them away from WalMart. Hopkins concludes with a positive note, asking us to “protect the nerds”: “Nerds create vaccines. Nerds engineer bridges and roadways…we need these obnoxiously smart people, because they make the world a better place.” His sympathy for nerds is admirable, but to be a more effective complainer, he also needs to sympathize – or at least empathize – with the quarterbacks and cheerleaders behind enemy lines.

*The only movie I have ever had to turn off

December 8, 2013

#65) Lorde Have Mercy: Tackling another one of my New Years’ Resolutions

I only have three weeks to finish my New Years’ Resolutions project and one of the items was to “Read at least one article/blog post/etc. that contradicts [my] beliefs.”  I found one putting for the idea that Lorde, a teenager from New Zealand whose real name is Ella Yelich-O’Connor and who has burned up the airwaves with her song “Royals” is the heir apparent to Nirvana.  The article can be found here.

I will concede the following: “Royals” is one of the few new songs I’ve heard recently that sounds different from everything else  and that if I had a teenage daughter I’d sure as hell rather have her see Lorde as a role model than say, Snooki.  However, the comparison between her and Nirvana is, to me, somewhat of a stretch and judging by some of the comments on the article, I’m not the only one.  In truth I’m not a huge Nirvana fan, probably due to timing in that they broke once I had irrevocably entered my jazz snob stage.  When my roommate told me that Cobain killed himself I said, “Who’s Kurt Cobain?”

But I digress.

Before reading the article, the main point on which I disagreed with Powers is: can anybody really be declared the next anyone else on the strength of one song?

Author Ann Powers argues her point vigorously.  She compares Cobain to a Molotov cocktail; Lorde to a virus, alluding to the fact that the former was explosive and the latter is stealthy; also perhaps referencing the modern connotation of the word “viral.”  Powers points out that just as Nirvana and the grunge movement was the antidote to bloated ’80s rock, Lorde is becoming at least to some the answer to “MileyMania.” Powers doesn’t go so far as to predict that Lorde will put New Zealand on the musical map the way Cobain et al did for Seattle, but she does point out that both Cobain and Lorde hail from places outside pop music’s “centers of power.”

Yet, despite her well thought-out case, I must simply agree to disagree with Powers.  At this point we just can’t tell if Lorde will become a leading voice of her generation or a one-hit-wonder.  I also can’t help but feel as if Powers is over thinking the room: at times she seems to want to use Lorde as a prism with which to view the world of 2013, dropping references to “The Hunger Games” and Trayvon Martin, discussing class warfare and other weighty topics.  She almost seems to write too well for her own good.

That said, the article fit my project guidelines nicely.  The best way to understand your own arguments is to learn those of the opposing side and as a purveyor of internet content (who’s overthinking the room now, D-Lock?) I am on the same team as others who do the same, even if our view points differ.  While I still don’t agree with Powers, I defend to the death her right to say that Lorde is the Nirvana of our times.

December 2, 2013

#62) Testing the Test of Time: The Survival Instinct

Time is one of the hardest–and most widely respected–tests of the quality and validity of all things.  At some point, we’ve all said or heard someone say, “____ (did/didn’t) stand the test of time.”  Lately, however, I’ve been considering a puzzle: there are certain things that have survived time, yet are generally not considered to be of high quality.  High quality is a matter of opinion, of course, but for the sake of argument, let’s assume that most people don’t consider McDonald’s, Jerry Springer and Britney Spears to represent respectively the pinnacles of excellence in cuisine, television and music.  Yet all of the above have been household names for quite some time: more than half a century (McDonald’s) a near quarter century (Springer) and a solid decade and a half (Spears).  If these are not quality products, how have they been able to stand the test of time?  Two words: survival instinct.

Let’s start with Mickey Dee’s.  The Golden Arches appeal to our survival instinct on multiple levels.  First of all, as human beings, we are wired to crave high calorie foods: it goes back to our cave man ancestors, who didn’t know where or when they would find their next meal, so stocking up on calories was a matter of survival.  Being able to get food quickly is also important to the survival instinct, as does being able to stretch one’s dollar farther.

What of the masses that chant “Je-REE!  Je-REE!”?  More than one pundit has opined that reality TV’s appeal lies in its ability to let the viewer feel superior to the characters.  Nowhere is this more clear than in the Jerry Springer show.  One could make the leap that the need for humans to feel superior is an extension of the behavior of animals–rams, gorillas, roosters–whose survival and social standing depends on their ability to dominate.

One could argue that as of this writing, the appeal of Britney Spears is more than just that of a human trainwreck; that’s Miley Cyrus’s job.  Sure, she had her embarrassing tabloid moments, but unlike, say, Paris Hilton or Lindsay Lohan, Spears has proven that she doesn’t have to disappear to avoid disaster.  Thus she appeals to another facet of the human survival instinct: the identification with the underdog.  We still love Britney not because she entertains us with her drama, but because she’s survived it.  We all want to know that making mistakes is OK; that if we get back in the ring for another round, things will work out no matter how long the odds may seem.

So what do we do with all this?  How does any of this effect the life of you, the reader?  It probably doesn’t, in all fairness; it’s just interesting to consider that things that seem unappealing on the surface may have more of an impact on us than we realize.  I’m not saying that you need to watch Season 6 of “Springer” on Netflix, purchase front-row tickets to Britney Spears’ new show in Vegas or retrace Morgan “Super Size Me” Spurlock’s ill-fated McDonalds voyage.  Perhaps there are other ways to respond to our survival instinct.   But be that as it may, McDonald’s, Jerry Springer and Britney Spears have managed to become part of our culture, for better or worse.  Form follows function and while appealing to base instincts might not be the most elegant way to pass the test of time, it just might be the most reliable.

August 9, 2012

#44) TV Review: “Shipping Wars”

Can a show that has the word “wars” in its title actually bring something new to the table?  Believe it or not, A&E’s new reality show “Shipping Wars” actually does.

The easiest way to describe the show would be as a mix of “American Pickers” and “Storage Wars.”  It follows independent truckers who ship cargo that is considered too high-risk for larger shipping companies.   Items featured on the show include the last car that Elvis ever owned, a statue of Willie Mays making “The Catch” in the 1954 World Series, a food truck, two live rodeo bulls, and more.  At the beginning of each episode, the truckers bid on jobs, and the show follows them on their journeys from pickup to delivery.

There are several interesting elements to the show that keep it entertaining.  The truckers, of course, must “guesstimate” their expenses and consider the risks involved with each item when placing their bids.  Unexpected obstacles invariably come up, and they often have to improvise and incur additional expenses.  In some cases, they can offset their out-of-pocket costs by picking up extra cargo.

The show also keeps things interesting by following the truckers across the country, on hauls of all distances.  It takes on an “American Pickers” flavor as it travels America’s back roads, meeting all kinds of people and coming across all kinds of items.

If there’s any weak spot in the show, it’s the characters.  Many of their onscreen personas have obvious “Storage Wars” counterparts, and while it’s interesting to see how they solve the problems presented by the unpredictable nature of their job, the show would benefit from less trash-talking and more actual stories (only two jobs are followed in each episode).  Nonetheless, you find yourself rooting for them to drop off their cargo on time and in good condition.  You wince when they get pulled over or have a flat tire; you breathe a sigh of relief when a customer gives them good feedback and they turn a profit.

Will “Shipping Wars” last?  Will it stand out from all of its competitors?  Like the truckers it follows, it might not be perfect, but it gets the job done more often than not, and will likely have a good run for itself in a saturated market.

July 13, 2011

#16) Learning from the couple I (used to) love to hate

Ten years ago, I was jamming with some musicians, and we were joking about the “Boy Band” craze that was sweeping the nation.  One of the guys said, “You know, we’re laughing–but they’re laughing harder.”   Back then, if someone had told me that I would be writing a blog entry about Justin Timberlake and Britney Spears, apart from not knowing what a “blog” was, I would have said, “Dude, you’re high.”

Yet that’s just what I find myself doing.  Pop culture phenomena that make everyone roll their eyes are common, and most of the time, they fade quickly.  (How have those record sales been lately, Paris Hilton?)  But every so often, one of these products passes the test of time, and I must tip my cap, however begrudgingly.

This was how I felt when I heard that Justin Timberlake is buying a share of Myspace.  I felt oddly impressed by this: the former N*SYNC-er (or is it Backstreet Boys?  Or New Kids On The Block?) is obviously welcoming the challenge of helping resurrect a dying institution.  I like that he’s not resting on his laurels.  Looking back over the last ten years, I have to admit that there must be something that Timberlake’s done right.  I refuse to believe that there is a single honest note in any of the music he has produced (hey, this isn’t “Positive Music Place“, I’m calling it like I see it); everything he’s done is 100% calculated.  But he’s gotten results, and I’ve got to give him props for that.

But what of his ex?  Britney Spears, at this point, reminds me of an outmatched boxer who simply refuses to fall to the canvas and tires out their opponent (kind of like Mark Wahlberg in “The Fighter.”  Speaking of Wahlberg, he’s another one who’s impressively moved past the skeletons in his closet.  Back in the 90s, when I was taking a music business class taught by a lawyer, he told us that the “low point” of his career was bailing Marky Mark out of jail, and we all laughed.  But it seems to me that this “Dawchestah, Mass” native has had the last laugh.  But I digress.)

Back to Britney: I used to like joking that maybe she was just some genius whose work went too far above my head, and that the other three Bs – Bach, Beethoven and the Beatles – were the ones that sucked.  But her weird ability to survive makes me feel like perhaps she is in fact some kind of evil genius.  We love building people up, we love tearing them down and we love it when they come back.  But few people besides Spears actually survive this process.

I highly doubt there will ever come a day when I am genuinely inspired or moved by anything either of these former Mousketeers has done, but it just goes to show that sometimes lessons can come from unlikely places.  I have to keep reminding myself that every time I want to open my mouth about Britney, a lot of what has been said about her was also said about the other three Bs.