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Tuesday, September 30, 2003

The Flip Side of Pop Culture

I would say that most of what passes for pop culture in our society is driven by marketing. Pop culture is something that is bought and sold. If there is a spontaneous eruption of a pop culture event it is soon co-opted by the marketing people. The particular item is snatched away from whoever created it, cleverly packaged, and sold in the marketplace. The marketing people prefer a world of predictability and that is what is brought to you courtesy of television, movies, and music. Most of these creative endeavors today seem more like Catholic religious rituals than art. The lack of surprises in religion is supposed to be comforting. Religion doesn’t ask questions, it gives reassuring answers.

The aspect of pop culture most caught up in presenting rituals would have to be the Hollywood movie industry. I went to the Cineplex yesterday and had to endure about ten minutes of trailers of coming attractions. There were no surprises. The bland fare served up by Hollywood is not meant to inspire thought, it is only meant to be reassuring. The same actors play the same roles: Jack Nicholson as a smiling jackass, Sean Penn as an angry malcontent, and so on.

Whether or not this is what the public wants is beside the point. Leave it to the people in marketing to get the asses in the seats; just don’t rock the boat by actually requiring people to think about their entertainment. A thinking public is a pretty scary concept to the marketing people who prefer to tell people what to think. I don’t remember Catholic priests asking me what I thought during my religious training. They had the answers and I was supposed to listen and take notes.

The forces dictating pop culture are all so incestuous these days that it’s impossible to tell where CNN ends and Time-Warner begins. The New Yorker prints a cheery review of a moronic movie that most of its readers wouldn’t even consider seeing. CNN reports on the Ben Affleck-J Lo romance as if covering a G7 summit. Not only are most of the media outlets hawking all of the industry-sponsored pop icons but there is almost nothing in the way of criticism. Isn’t the absence of criticism passivity? To the priests of my youth any criticism was considered blasphemy.

Friday, September 26, 2003

The Lives of the Saints, American Style

After magazines have been thrown in the trash and have gone through the lower intestinal track of the sanitation industry they seem to end up on the shelf at my gym. Months-old copies of People, Us, Oprah, In Style, and, no kidding, Cheerleader are all I have to choose from when I am riding the stationary bike. Under a stack of celebrity rags I saw just the title for a magazine I had never seen before.

As soon as I pulled it out and saw the picture of Kevin Spacey on the cover I knew that Biography wasn’t some weightier periodical dedicated to chronicling the lives of important people, but yet another hagiography of movie stars--just what our print media really needs. I will look through any magazine at least once--anything to keep my mind off of how much riding an exercise bike sucks. I checked out Cheerleader magazine before and it is every bit as frightening as you would probably imagine.

Biography’s motto on the cover states, “Every life has a story” but looking at the content it seems that the only lives with stories worth telling are those of movie stars. In my admittedly very unscientific survey of the magazine I found that 99% of the pictures were those of your favorite TV and movie actors—the Mount Olympus Gods of our culture. I can just imagine the scene in the boardroom at the inception of Biography. Some young entrepreneurial go-getter stands up and shouts, “I’m sick of the way movie stars are ignored in our culture and I think we should start a new magazine to let everyone know how great they are and what a tremendous contribution they make to our lives.” Fighting backs their tears, the other board members heartily agree.

My favorite entry in this previously-unknown-to-me contribution to American letters was the section “Where Are They Now?” The lead story was about the actor George Lindsey who played the mildly-retarded mechanic, Goober, on The Andy Griffith Show. Where is he now? Does anyone want to know where he is now? What I would like to hear is that the entire show was just some sort of surreal nightmare that I had one evening in my childhood and that I didn’t actually spend untold hours watching that crap. I want someone to tell me that instead of watching horrifically bad TV I spent the evening hours of my youth mastering Mozart sonatas on the piano or discussing Tuscan cooking techniques with my siblings.

I didn’t spend my youth playing Mozart or learning the fine points of international cuisine. I spent it like everyone else I know: watching obscenely bad TV. I have tried desperately in adulthood to make up for my wasted years in front of the boob tube, but nothing I do can ever give me back all of the ill-spent time I passed getting to know Goober.

Wednesday, September 24, 2003

Stop Me if You've Heard this One Before

God is a comedian playing to an audience too afraid to laugh.

A man is at the hospital waiting to hear news about his wife who has had a terrible accident. The doctor approaches him.
“I’m afraid I have really bad news. Your wife will never walk again. She has lost most of the functions of her brain. She’ll basically be a drooling vegetable for the rest of her life.”
“My God, that’s awful,” the husband replies.
“I’m just kidding,” the doctor says. “She’s dead.”

According to Janet Drummond, associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington in Seattle, if you laughed at the preceding joke this proves that you are almost completely immune to normal human emotions and desensitized to all concepts of right and wrong. Either that or you have a completely healthy sense of humor. It could go either way. Dying and suffering are either no laughing matter or freaking hilarious; it’s too close for the professor to call with any degree of accuracy.

Professor Drummond also has something to say about people who laugh at incredibly lame jokes. Take this morning’s comic Pardon My Planet by Vic Lee in which a woman is trying on a dress that makes her look like a TV remote control. Her friend tells her, “Take my word for it-he won’t be able to keep his hands off you.” “For any normal human being, hearing a punch line like that should make your eyes roll back in your head so hard you fall over backwards,” Drummond said as she poured herself another four fingers of Old Granddad. “I don’t know about you but there has never been enough cheap bourbon made to make me laugh at something like that.”

Drummond, the author of the highly influential treatise on American humor, What Are You, Some Kind of Animal? How Can You Laugh at That?, studied the effects of humor on children to reach many of her conclusions. “Children are a fantastic microcosm of adult behavior. That and you don’t have to pay them a damn thing for the studies. We basically provide free baby sitting and the parents are all over it. In fact, when we announce that we need subjects for a study the parents literally kick down the door to our lab and throw their kids at us. Half the time we have to call them repeatedly and beg them to come pick up their children when we’re done.”

Drummond examined groups of five year old children and how they reacted to the popular comic strip Hi & Lois. In her study she found that 99% of the children studied reported that they "didn’t get it” when queried about the humor content of the family-oriented strip. When slight changes were made in the comic to make it highly offensive (The baby was sold for crack in one panel, in another the father is savagely punched in the crotch by the wife) she couldn’t get the five year olds to stop laughing. “These children are our future,” Drummond says as she shudders and makes a sign of the cross. “Can you excuse me; the liquor store closes at 8.”

Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Baseball Rules

I threw a baseball around for an hour or so yesterday in Discovery Park. Sometimes it's hard for me to understand how I can be so entertained by throwing a ball back and forth. The only thing that would have made this beautiful end-of-summer day better would have been listening to the Mariners on the radio while playing.

I don’t think that there is another sport that is so gratifying to listen to on the radio. Tuning in a baseball game is like having someone tell you a story. I love to hear car radios playing the game when I am out walking around town. The broadcasts are like an electrical current that runs through Seattle or like a sheet of music that every baseball fan is reading from. I know what you are thinking but it’s OK to mix metaphors when you are talking about baseball.

The game started at 7pm last night. I hadn’t had much to eat so we quickly ran through places where we could eat and watch the game, which was being played down the coast at Anaheim. Pesos, a Mexican joint in lower Queen Anne, has food, beer, and a TV. The easiest decision I made all day.

We sat down at the bar about ten minutes before Ichiro was due to lead off the game. The problem was that they had Monday Night Football on the screen. I don’t care for football but I really hate football at the end of the baseball season when it interferes with the most exciting games of the year. No one seemed to be watching football so the bartender switched over for us.

The game was all a Mariners’ fan could ask for when their team is still in contention for the playoffs. The 40 year old veteran pitcher, Jamie Moyer, won his 20th game of the year—his second 20 game season. Left fielder Randy Winn hit an inside-the-park two-run home run. I don’t think I have ever seen anyone hit an inside-the-park homer and it hadn’t been done in Anaheim since 1984. I was just saying how I have never seen a no-hitter—either live or on TV.

The Mariners’ chances for the playoffs are tenuous at best but at least for today (until game time) Mariners’ fans are happy. With any luck we’ll have a few more weeks of baseball weather here in Seattle. A few more weeks of throwing, hitting, catching, and--if we’re lucky--watching the M’s play into the post season.

Monday, September 22, 2003

File Sharing: The Barn Raising of the Digital Age

Out in the country, when a farmer needs a new barn, his neighbors all get together to help him build one. I don’t know if this is actually true or not. I’ve seen this in a couple of movies, the most memorable scene being from Witness. In real life this charitable practice may or may not occur. For all I know when a farmer needs a new barn the other farmers may get together and steal his lumber and nails to prevent him from building it. If that is true then just let me say that I think farmers are assholes. If that is true I will boycott all farm products--except pork.

If farmers do get together for barn raisings then that would be like internet dorks getting together for file sharing. Say a new kid comes on the internet and he/she doesn’t have any J Lo music. That kid could end his or her J Lo-less misery by downloading a bunch of crappy J Lo tunes. You can’t store hay or animals in a pirated MP3 of a shitty top 40 band but you know what I mean. If you don’t know what I mean then just forget this stupid analogy and I’ll start over.

The music industry is trying DESPERATELY to explain their loss in sales on computer file sharing sites like Kazaa and Sharebear. This whole campaign was probably instigated by the record industry marketing division to cover up for their horrific incompetence. The truth is that the recording industry has been selling lousy products for the past several years. By going after people who share files with trumped-up lawsuits they are about to completely alienate their entire market. (Someone needs to tell me how the record industry has a right to examine a person’s internet usage without a search warrant. This is a privacy issue that needs to be addressed immediately.)

I am completely convinced that the record industry has been developing and planting computer viruses on the file sharing sites because they haven’t been able to cut off the heads of all of the Napster hydras through legal means. They also won’t be able to prevent people from making bootleg CD’s now that every new computer is equipped with a CD burner. Way to think this whole problem through from the beginning, guys. Way to take your example from the War on Drugs handbook.

What the industry needs to realize is that they are in the service industry and they need to cater to the public—not the other way around. Unlike food and water, people can actually live without crappy pop music. If they want to expend all of their energy promoting stuff like Brittany Spears then sooner or later they are going to have to realize that the entire American record-buying public isn’t 13 years old.

I may be a bad example because I have been playing classical music for a few years now but I can’t even remember the last CD I purchased. I have so many classical CD’s in my collection that I really don’t need to buy another classical CD as long as I live. I haven’t completely given up on pop music but it looks like it has given up on me.

Sunday, September 21, 2003

The Sex and Diet Issue

Please excuse my absence the past few weeks but my computer was ravaged by the recent spat of record-industry-invented viruses. I honestly believe that the record companies are planting viruses on file sharing sites to discourage this practice that they haven’t been able to stop through legal channels.

Every three months, or whenever readership drops below two (including all members of my very extensive immediate family), Leftbanker publishes an exciting issue dedicated entirely to the matters of sex and dieting—America’s favorite subjects (not necessarily in that order). To many people residing outside of America these two subjects would seem completely unrelated but you can’t blame them because they don’t have magazine racks full of Cosmopolitan and Details.

On a recent National Public Radio interview, an author of a book examining the lives of adolescent children explained a dance technique called “freakin’ on a ho” in which a young girl shakes her backside while a pimply-faced, male X-box devotee pantomimes intercourse behind her. I don’t know about you but when I was in middle school if I would have even thought to myself about “freakin’” my father would have grounded me for so long that Nelson Mandela, sitting in his cell, would have shuddered with pity at my hopelessness.

The author went on to say that kids these days aren’t having appreciably more sex than when I was that age but it seems that they are certainly more preoccupied with it than we were. I think that is true of this country as a whole. We are being bombarded by sexual images in advertising and in entertainment but we aren’t really having all that much sex. I would venture a guess that we Americans have fewer orgasms per capita than just about any culture on earth. We are also being bombarded with messages about health and diet yet have one of the highest rates of obesity of any nation on earth.

We are obsessed with sex and obsessed with dieting yet we aren’t screwing and we are mostly a bunch of fat slobs. I blame this problem on ham. Ham is relatively cheap in this country compared to the rest of the civilized world. In fact, ham is outlawed in most Muslim nations. Shaved ham, sliced ham, honey baked ham, ham with pineapple, with these kinds of choices who has time to have sex with Pamela Anderson? Not me, that’s for sure. I’d rather be freakin’ on a ham any day.

If we are going to be too distracted by ham to have sex perhaps we can at least watch our waistlines—kill one bird with two stones, if you will. I suggest that we develop a synthetic ham that is low calorie. I know what you are all thinking to yourselves: Ham-flavored Viagra would kill two birds with one stone. Nice try but Viagra is manufactured under kosher conditions.

I'm afraid this is the best I can do. I am listening to the Mariners play a very important game against Oakland. Comedy takes a backseat when the playoffs are on the line.