Thursday, June 9

From Bad To Worse

After a hard day's labors and two hours spent trying to keep the garden from spontaneously combusting--"It's 90, but it feels like 96!" says the Weather Geek, hiding the fact that his experience of either consists of the time it takes him to go from air-conditioned office to air-conditioned SUV--I sit down for a hour of television. It's not too much to ask. I've all but abandoned the other 23 hours of television to the terminally slack-jawed, but suddenly The Daily Show has decided to see how much pain and suffering I'll endure in the interview segment in exchange for the laughs that come before. (The laugh's on them, actually, as the interview is also known as Go Make A Sandwich around here.) Dennis Miller (with a double time allotment!) is followed by Zell Miller is followed by Newt Gingrich? Could we get Craig Kilborn back to do these?

Watching the rerun of the Tuesday show last night, I was too tired to move far enough away. Hey, kids, it's Wired's Pop Culture Cheerleader Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad Is Good For You, which I hear is really good. If you catch my drift. Anyway, Johnson's fearlessly contrarian point is that far from being toxic sludge, video games and television actually make you smarter, and pop culture on the whole is just incredibly more complex and interesting than ever before. Because, like, dude, 24 has all these interwoven story lines an' stuff, and that's so much more intelligent than he remembers Starsky and Hutch being.

My first inclination is to introduce him to my nineteen-year-old nephew and be done with the argument. But this sort of thing irritates me all out of proportion to Yet Another Guy trying to sell books by telling people who don't read they're right about everything, and even more than the whole Digital-Cyber-Holo-Video-Interweb Is the New Messiah! crapola which must be at least ten years out of date by now. I think that by the time you're in your mid-thirties you ought to have realized that the world isn't something they found in your diaper when you were three months old, and maybe we can expect your perspective to reflect that.

I don't have any opinion about video games. I think play is an important part of being human. Some people think video games are stupid, or too violent, or that kids waste too much time on them. That's a far cry from saying they dumb players down, and it's hard to argue that playing a game for eight hours a day will make you smarter than playing it for two hours a day and spending some of the remainder, I dunno, reading a book?

Let's move on to television. Johnson thinks multiple story lines are both a cerebral stimulant and a mark of the march of pop culture progress. I think the fact that someone hopes to make a pile of cash off the argument is its own disproof. Okay, Hill Street Blues may have ushered in the trend for prime time series--twenty-five years ago--but that's a matter of being innovative for teevee, a notoriously status quo commercial operation which had for years aimed its programming at a nine-year-old mentality. Being the first person to say "ass" in prime time does not make you Lenny Bruce. Multiple perspective had been around in film for fifty years at that point, in literature for at least one hundred and fifty. Hell, they've been running multiple story lines on soap operas since the 60s. Do soap operas make people more intelligent? Have you ever listened to people talk about them?

Johnson apparently gets into movies in his book, though he said nothing about them with Jon. If he can honestly look at the great French films of the 30s, at the Japanese or Italian cinema of the 50s, at Buñuel and Kubrick, at the great American films of the 60s and early 70s, and still claim that the post-Star Wars era of blockbuster entertainments is cultural progress we should be handing out Ph.Ds for setting off fireworks. There's nothing wrong with enjoying pop culture. There's something amiss when educated people have no sense of anything that happened more than ten years before they were born.

And while I'm happy to defend your right and mine to wallow, there's such a thing as recognizing shit when you eat it. Witness Stephanie Zacharek's paean to the glories of Disco in Salon:

Whenever any of my allegedly liberal music-nerd friends tell me how much they hate disco, I always like to ask, mischievously, "So are you a racist, a homophobe, or both?"

Expletives fail me. If Disco truly was the "fabulous, gender-bending revolution" you claim, it wouldn't need to resort to name-calling just because a lot of people hate it.

Or historical distortion: "possibly the most democratic form of popular music ever conceived"? "as much a political statement as punk would later [sic] be (maybe even more so)"?

Fer cryin' out loud...rarely memorable, frequently execrable, over-produced producer's music was revolutionary? Jesus, rock and roll had been gender-bending since Little Richard first set foot on stage. Elvis could have been shot any time in the 50s. Lou Reed and David Bowie were professionally out when a twelve-incher was only found in porn loops. I find it a little hard to accept that being a gay male going to dance clubs in New York City in the late 1970s was much of a political act. The death of three Ramones was national news. When they dedicate a portion of Central Park to the memory of Vicki Sue Robinson, give me a call.

But then again, we're faced with cultural pundits who imagine the world began about the time they first heard of it, and have an irresistible urge to justify their teenage tastes into middle age. Zacharek writes:

And although by the '70s white kids had already been listening to, and dancing to, black music for decades, the merging (and recombining) of soul, jazz, Latin and R&B that disco represented -- not to mention its role in the genesis of rap and hip-hop -- was more than just a co-opting and repackaging of music made by minorities for the consumption of privileged whites.

I'm sure all the folks at Motown and Stax will be interested to learn they were cranking out unsophisticated platters for Mistah Charley all those years before you New York club kids came around and revolutionized things. Wanker.


Anonymous said...

The compulsion to justify why you like something other people don't has always baffled me.
So you like disco, or soap operas, or big hair. So I don't. Why does my not caring for it take away any of your joy in it?
Even if someone sneers at what I like, so what? That person isn't me. I'm not giving up something that makes me happy, just to make someone else feel better about their opinions.
Happiness is rather in short supply, it seems. Take it where you can find it. If eight hours of video games do it for you, dandy. If eight hours of books do it, great.
The happier you are, the less likely you are to be looking for someone to kick--and the less likely I am to get kicked somewhere on down the line.
Does it *have* to be more complicated than that?

And, yeah, I wish they were still doing Five Questions, 'cause that's really all I need to hear out of Newt Gingrich.

Anonymous said...

If this discophile idiot sincerely believes that Amii Stewart's desecration cover of Eddie Floyd's "Knock on Wood" is anything but a steaming pile of fetid and opportunistic vomit thrown up by a dog that has just ate his own excrement, well let's just say I beg to differ.

Anonymous said...

Take it from one who graduated from high school in 1978, yes, just as disco was peaking. We hated it then, too.

Remember the "Star Wars" theme disco-ized? How about the disco-ization of Beethoven's 5th? Yup, the zenith of '70s music, I'm sure.

Anonymous said...

"Stars on 45" was a product of the disco years. If you've never heard it, or its unholy spawn, you are lucky. Here's the deal: Take a bunch of popular songs. Cut out recognizable snippets, play the snippets back-to-back with a little strings and synth and the *same* *freakin'* *thumpa-thumpa-thumpa* beat behind the whole thing. Same tempo throughout. Minimum number of key changes. Even in the disco era, this was guaranteed to be worse than the originals.

One good thing came out of this monstrosity - Weird Al Yankovic made "Polkas on 45", a parody that used accordions and oom-pah instead of strings and a disco beat. I still find myself singing his bit of "Jocko Homo".

Anonymous said...

I've never understod why books are inherently better then video games; I mean, they're both sedentary activities, they're both simulations of the real thing rather then the real thing. I mean, books can have more intricate or educational content, but video games are interactive problem solving excercises. So, they seem about equal to me.

And whatever else you think, kids shows have gotten a good deal better. When I was a kid, we watched half-hour commercials like GI Joe and Transformers. Before that, kids watched inane crap like the Superfriends, where it was clear the creators just didn't give a damn. Now at least the people making cartoons care about the product.