Saturday, April 25, 2009

The Noughts

It was the most eventful of times. It was the least eventful of times. Perhaps it is just a little early to start the retrospectives, but as the last spring of the decade dawns, I find myself wanting to look back over the last 10 years (or perhaps I have nothing better to write about this week).

On one hand, the world that we live in now would be to some degree unrecognizable to a traveler from the year 2000. I've been writing a blog for a little less than half the decade, yet at the dawn of the decade the word "blog" wasn't in my vocabulary. "Google" was in my vocabulary, but it meant a one with a thousand zeroes after it. "Youtube," "Wikipedia," and "Facebook" wouldn't have been recognizable words. Not many people had high-speed Internet in 2000, and "surfing the web" meant sitting through long waits while pages loaded. Despite being a college student and having fairly good access to the Web, I would sometimes go a couple of days without logging on. Now I can't imagine going a day without going on-line several times. Cell phones were a novelty in 2000, and even Steve Jobs would have looked at you funny if you asked him what was on his iPod.

But even without the shifts in technology that have literally changed the way we live, the geopolitical developments of the last 10 years have been staggering. As late as September 10, 2001, a large scale attack by foreign powers on American soil would have been unthinkable. The wars of this decade were likewise unthinkable in 2000, as was the economic collapse. And who on Earth would have predicted in the days following the prolonged 2000 presidential election that the next man to occupy the White House would be a black man named Barack?

Yet for all that, the world as we approach 2010 looks like the world of 2000. And this is all the more surprising given how much has changed. To illustrate what I'm talking about, consider this late 1990s Super Bowl commercial starring Britney Spears:

Though this commercial obviously does not attempt to accurately and realistically document evolution in public taste, we nevertheless recognize the portrayals as collectively agreed upon perceptions of the aesthetics of given eras. And these aesthetics shifted rapidly over a period of 12 years, followed by a much slower evolution over a period of 30 years. And now we have come to a grinding halt. The Pepsi Generation of 2000 literally looks like the Pepsi Generation of 2010 will (minus cellphones and earbuds).

And speaking of Britney Spears, guess who topped a list of Lycos search subjects in 2000 and Yahoo searches in 2008? Unlike the days when the likes of MC Hammer and New Kids on the Block enjoyed meteoric rises and crashing falls, once you are enshrined in the celebrity pantheon, you are likely to stay there.

Furthermore, this decade might be the first 10-year span since Elvis (and possibly before that) in which pop music sounds virtually unchanged. The changes in the music industry in the last 10 years have been well-documented, but whether those changes have anything to do with the lack of change in music itself is an open question. Just as 2009 looks like 2000, it sounds like 2000 (which is mostly unfortunate, as is the unwelcome news of a Limp Bizkit reunion this summer).

And along with a lack of meaningful development in music, other areas of pop culture also saw a period of stagnation over the last 10 years. Despite advances in special effects, cinema in the last 10 years has mostly plodded along, producing a large number of sequels and remakes. Unless you count the reality genre as an innovation, television of the last 10 years has been unmemorable--people still reference Friends and Seinfeld more often than they do shows in current runs.

And there is one more factor that argues for the last 10 years as a period of literal insignificance--it bears no name. Granted, our nomenclature for previous decades is lazy (e.g. "The '80s"). But given the developments of this decade, shouldn't it have some designation? Or are the technological and geopolitical developments obscuring the actual truth that nothing much has happened lately?

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Next Big Thing

It's been a bad week for pirates. First there was the Easter Sunday incident in the Gulf of Aden. Then the guys behind the torrent search engine Pirate Bay get sentenced to jail. But piracy powers have actually been in decline for awhile now. Since the heady days of the first couple "Pirates of the Caribbean" films, which also saw a rise in the popularity of the "pirate joke" and "International Talk Like a Pirate Day," the pirate has seen has cultural position hijacked by the vampire, who has taken over the box office and the best seller lists. It's now gotten to the point where the only way pirates can move units anymore is if they combine with vampires.

Of course, pirates should have seen this coming. They should have known their day atop the pop culture mountain would not be a permanent thing. When I was a kid, ninjas were the biggest thing going. Now, kids these days probably don't even know what nunchucks are. So the zeitgeist keeps turning. And we know that our cultural phenomena are destined to relatively short shelf lives, but can we predict what will rise up to replace the current fad du jour?

I believe that we can--if we assume that these phenomena are manifestations of a culture's perception of itself. Chuck Klosterman asserted in 2004 that the "faceless stealth and absolute freedom of the 'rogue ninja' symbolized the last bastions of counterculture within the bloated commercialism of Reagan-era autocracy," while the "pirate renaissance" could be attributed to a paradigm in which "[y]ou are a chump if you pay your taxes, you are a chump if you never lie, and you are a chump if you still pay retail for CDs. This is the new paradigm. And this is why we love pirates: We have to. Our only options are to be 'pro-pirate' or 'pro-chump.'"

But we can only be in latent mental anguish about our lying and cheating ways for so long. At some point, some other psychic concern must rise up. And that is where we are now with the vampire. The vampire obviously thrives on economic crises. Powerful, greedy white-faced (er, white-collar) types have sucked the blood right out of this country.

But this too shall pass. At some point we will either make good on an economic recovery, or get tired of thinking about those who have caused it. And then what will emerge on the pop culture radar? All things being equal, and barring some unforeseen geopolitical upheaval, I'm prepared to make a prediction.

When analyzing ninjas, pirates, and vampires as a single data set, what strikes me first is that mythologies around these groups go back centuries. So no matter how contemporary the social problem, we draw on distant archetypes to address them. With that in mind, I ponder the social issues that might demand some kind of psychic release. And I think of the recent upsurge in attention to environmental issues. And I think of how the tree is used as a type of avatar for environmental health in general. I think of Tolkien's "Ents," which leads me to Wikipedia pages on "talking trees" and "tree mythology."

So here is the prediction: in the next couple of years, we will have books, films, and consumer products based on the concept of anthropomorphic, benevolent, talking trees.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Backs and Buses

What is the nicest thing you can do for someone? What is the apotheosis of friendship? These actually aren't difficult questions. For anyone who pays a smidgen of attention to vernacular, it is readily obvious that you know someone is your friend if they "have got your back."

I'll admit that I didn't pick up on this trend until I noticed its prevalence in student essays (if anyone wants to understand our culture and how it has changed over time, forget blogs, all you need to do is study essays written in college freshman comp classes). In particular, I've read several "definition essays," in which a popular topic to define is "friendship," and invariably, there is some mention of friends "having each other's back." With my radar attuned, I've noticed the phrase being invoked constantly. Some samples from google:

"Unemployed in the U.K.? McDonalds has your back!"
"Fear not Oprah, Tyrese has your back!"
" has your back"
"Curved imac has your back" (Nice one there)
"John Mayer: Jennifer Aniston has my back"
"Obama has my back"
"Beyonce's dad has her back"
"Miley Cyrus: Ashley Tisdale has her back"
"Jessica Disses Carrie Underwood, but PETA has her back"

Okay, so a good friend will always have your back. But what is the meanest thing someone can do? Not have your back? No, actually, the apotheosis of mean is to "throw [someone] under the bus." About a year ago, Newsweek lamented the sudden ubiquity of the term, and from my observation, it hasn't declined in usage since. In fact, a google news search reveals that literally hours ago (as I write this), a public defender in an Ohio criminal case (in which a man stands accused of trying to collect urine from a public restroom) has been quoted as saying that the media has thrown his client "under the bus." Also mere hours ago, a Vermont paper editorialized that "our current Legislature is pandering to the special interests while throwing the public interest under the bus."

What strikes me as odd in both of these idioms is that the fear being expressed is so anachronistic. Though "having someone's back" may have military applications, I associate the phrase with an Old West sensibility, in which people literally needed help in watching their backs. So the actual prominence of the phrase stands in sharp contrast to its literal usefulness. Likewise, in the early days of public transportation, I suppose buses could have been scary. But given all of the potential dangers lurking in modern culture, the threat of being run over by a bus resides pretty low on my list of worries.

Yet despite the oddity and the clumsiness of the metaphors we use to express our sentiments, there is obviously a great need to discern and to distinguish a true friend from a potential betrayer. And whatever the vernacular tics of a given time, the concept itself has been constant through the ages. We are reminded in particular this time of year that just because one kisses you does not mean they will not throw you under a bus, and even if someone tells you they will never turn away from you when all else do, they still might not have your back.

So what's the nicest thing you can do for someone? Well, I suppose if you offer up your back for a flogging so that your friend doesn't have to suffer, you can properly say that you "have got their back."

Saturday, April 04, 2009

Infamy and Identity

It's not fashionable to assign accolades to the national news media, but I have to give credit for the way, in general, it has handled the disturbing trend of mass shootings over the last few months. Despite the obvious temptation of correlating the tragedies with the collapse of the U.S. economy, media outlets have resisted oversimplifying what are likely a series of complicated and perhaps unrelated situations. Most importantly though, I appreciate that the main focus of media coverage has generally not been on the psychological state and background of the shooters. This has been of necessity a part of every story, but there has also been attention paid to the victims and in some cases those who helped to end a rampage. Unlike the perpetrators of the Columbine and Virginia Tech tragedies, the recent shooters' names have not penetrated our national consciousness. Perhaps that is because we have chillingly reached a saturation point in which the novelty of a mass shooting has worn off. Or perhaps it is because we recognize the potential dangers in doing so.

More than six years ago, a sociologist and criminal justice professor co-authored this editorial, in which they decried the practice of giving nicknames to killers. The editorial was written during the Beltway Sniper Attacks, and ends with the hopeful sentiment:

Whoever he is, the Washington sniper, despite his newly found fame and the monikers some have for him, is nothing more than a monster who, we hope, soon will be no more than yesterday's news.

This proved to be prophetic: just as the monikers ("Serial Sniper" "Tarot Card Killer") never got traction, the names John Allen Muhammad and Lee Boyd Malvo have been stricken from out collective memory.

The thesis of the editorial is that to give criminals undue attention is wrong because it A)Glamorizes the unglamorous B) Inspires the perpetrators to live up to their reputations and C) Could inspire copycats. Although the second doesn't apply to instances of mass killings, the other two easily could. Additionally, though, I would put another objection on the list. At the risk of falling into oversimplification myself, I would postualate that one of the motivations for high-profile crimes is to assert an identity, or to establish a new identity, in which impotent and ineffectual people can re-imagine themselves as potent and effectual. I think it is safe to say that at the least this was a motivation for the Virginia Tech killer, who mailed what was essentailly a press kit to the media.

So although there is pitifully little we can do after a tragic incident has run its course, we would do well to not give the perpetrators the reward they sought. The less said about them as people, the less that we aid them in using their crimes to construct an identity, the safer we will all be.