Wednesday, August 02, 2006

Accessibility+Relatability=Popularity

I'm embarrassed that it has taken me so long to realize the equation above, or that it took a Chuck Klosterman essay to hit me over the head with it, but I know the formula by which any popular artifact achieves popularity.

I never could understand why rock music isn't as popular as country or rap. Suddenly, thanks to Klosterman's essay "Toby over Moby" it makes perfect sense. I love this observation from the essay, in which he expains Eminem's popularity:

"He enunciates better than any rapper who ever lived. He's literally good at talking. The first time you hear an Eminem song, you can decide whether or not you find him entertaining."

It's not just that lyrics to rap or country are easy to understand, it is that they are relatively concrete, and concreteness is a necessary aspect for commercial viability. As much as people love to say we are in a postmodern age, and in many aspects we are, there is a reason postmodern (or even modernist) art is not commercially viable. It doesn't speak to the average person's concrete experiences. And as much as Kafka might lead us to believe otherwise, for the majority of people, true absurdity is not something we encounter in our day to day existence. (Or alternatively, we have been so accustomed to absurdity that it is the norm and we no longer think of our lives as in any sense absurd).

Perhaps deep down we know our experiences are absurd, and consequently don't like art that forces us to confront this. I keep using the term art, but what I really want to talk about is humor. I've always loved absurdist humor, but I dare not use it in most social settings. I dig non-sequitors, random interjections, and seemingly disconnected associations, but they don't go over very well in most circumstances.

I remember in high school I did a theatre of the absurd segment for our school's news program on our community access channel. It involved a student "reporter" asking students man-on-the-street questions, which were all absurd (i.e. "Why don't lily pads go to college?") and letting the students ad lib responses. I also cast myself as one of the respondents, and I remember delivering the most inane 30-second monologue I could muster (I remember somewhat drawing on Bill "The Spaceman" Lee's commercial for MLB in which he talks about breaking bats).

One of my friends reported to me that his Mom saw this segment and became angry with me while I was spewing my absurdity. "He just kept going on and on and I wanted him to shut up," she is alleged to have said. It kind of reminds me of the anger some people were said to have expressed after seeing the first productions of Waiting for Godot.

Jim Morrison once said "I am interested in anything about revolt, disorder, chaos - especially activity that seems to have no meaning." Why should meaningless activity, which is on the surface neutral, be necessarily equated with revolt? Perhaps the angry parent made the same kind of connection that Morrison made, an implicit assumption that meaninglessness equals subversiveness.

The reason I think it is perceived as subversive goes back to relatability. Anything we can't totally relate to we become suspicious of, and it is hard to relate to meaninglessness, particularly meaningless language, since it is not built into our everyday perception and experience of the world. Combine that with the fact that meaninglessness is by very nature inaccessible, and you have a recipe for the opposite of popularity, which is not apathy, but suspicion and anger.

Let's test my theory. What is the all-time most popular joke? It has turned into a cliche and lost any semblance of humor, but I'd argue that it is "Why did the chicken cross the road?" This joke reinforces the notion that there is nothing outside of our day-to-day experience that needs to be explored through hidden explanations. It is the ultimate in accessibility and relatability.

What should be the most popular joke in our culture? Try this exchange from a Bob Dylan interview in the 60s:

PLAYBOY: Mistake or not, what made you decide to go the rock-'n'-roll route?

DYLAN: Carelessness. I lost my one true love. I started drinking. The first thing I know, I'm in a card game. Then I'm in a crap game. I wake up in a pool hall. Then this big Mexican lady drags me off the table, takes me to Philadelphia. She leaves me alone in her house, and it burns down. I wind up in Phoenix. I get a job as a Chinaman. I start working in a dime store, and move in with a 13-year-old girl. Then this big Mexican lady from Philadelphia comes in and burns the house down. I go down to Dallas. I get a job as a "before" in a Charles Atlas "before and after" ad. I move in with a delivery boy who can cook fantastic chili and hot dogs. Then this 13-year-old girl from Phoenix comes and burns the house down. The delivery boy - he ain't so mild: He gives her the knife, and the next thing I know I'm in Omaha. It's so cold there, by this time I'm robbing my own bicycles and frying my own fish. I stumble onto some luck and get a job as a carburetor out at the hot-rod races every Thursday night. I move in with a high school teacher who also does a little plumbing on the side, who ain't much to look at, but who's built a special kind of refrigerator that can turn newspaper into lettuce. Everything's going good until that delivery boy shows up and tries to knife me. Needless to say, he burned the house down, and I hit the road. The first guy that picked me up asked me if I wanted to be a star. What could I say?

PLAYBOY: And that's how you became a rock-'n'-roll singer?

DYLAN: No, that's how I got tuberculosis.

9 Comments:

Blogger Heidi said...

miss me? or did you even notice that i left?

2:41 PM  
Blogger Enjoy_Every_Sandwich said...

"I dig non-sequitors, random interjections, and seemingly disconnected associations, but they don't go over very well in most circumstances."
Sounds like my everyday conversations.

12:20 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

do you consider the jackass movie absurdist humor? There's another one coming out this fall, check it out and see what you think

1:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

do you consider the jackass movie absurdist humor? There's another one coming out this fall, check it out and see what you think

1:43 AM  
Blogger Azor said...

Heidi, you are always missed, sometimes even when you are here.

Anon, I generally only watch superhero movies.

10:53 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like how I'm ignored all the time.
By like, I mean, I don't like.

12:40 PM  
Blogger Heidi said...

uh, Azor, I'm not sure what you mean by that. But, I think you have to much time on your hands. Write 50 words next time. I might not skip it.

2:11 PM  
Blogger Azor said...

Anon, if you don't like being ignored, perhaps it would be best to pick a name other than, I don't know, "anonymous"?

Heidi, I couldn't post something in 50 words if I only had nine words to choose from.

1:32 PM  
Blogger Enjoy_Every_Sandwich said...

why anonymous? well hmm, all the canadians (by all, i mean me and heidi) get shut down on the tim show so i thought it would be better to keep my anonymity but if you insist.
wow, i'm so emo.

3:03 PM  

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