Saturday, August 07, 2010

Snooki vs. The Babe

On July 27, Nicole Polizzi, Paul DelVecchio, and Michael Sorrentino rang in the opening bell on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. These individuals, cast members of MTV's Jersey Shore, are better known to millions of people as Snooki, DJ Paulie D, and The Situation, respectively.

The very next day, NBA player Chris Bosh rang in the opening bell on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange. He is known to millions of people as Chris Bosh.

At one point in history, when newspapers and motion pictures were the dominant media, anyone of accomplishment in America was bestowed with a nickname. Sports heroes, predominantly baseball players, boxers, and football players, were anointed with monikers and titles. Shoeless Joe Jackson, James "Cool Papa" Bell, Johnny "Blood" McNally, and Sugar Ray Robinson are some of my favorites. If you study baseball rosters at the time, seemingly every team had a "Kid" and a "Buck" (and before the 1950s, when the word took on a feminine context, many teams had a guy nicknamed "Chick"). Some players were so accomplished they had both a permanent nickname and a mythological name: Harold Grange was known as either Red Grange or "The Galloping Ghost," while George Herman Ruth had a series of names known to anyone who has seen The Sandlot. But it wasn't just athletes: politicians, entertainers (musicians in particular), and mobsters also were bestowed with new monikers. Charles Lindbergh became "Lucky Lindy." Ernest Hemingway was "Papa."

But while some may look to the past for a golden age of nicknames, others might look at the present. No MTV producer came up with the name "The Situation." Apparently, the guy started calling himself that long before cameras started following him around. And while the character himself may not be mainstream, the concept of self-dubbing is. You don't have to wait around for a newspaper to give you a nickname anymore; the Internet has enabled everyone who wants one or more "handle" to come up with one with a few keystrokes. But even in the off-line world people are more emboldened to view nomenclature as malleable. When I first started listening to sports radio in the 1980s, callers had names like "Mike from Brookfield" or "Bill from Racine." When I worked in sports radio a few years back, we had callers named "Dr. X," "Big Boo," "The Reverend," and "The Legend."

So the contrasting situation on Wall Street last week highlights an interesting shift in culture. Just at the time when we are emboldened to create our own nicknames, the cultural heroes who were recipients of nicknames in the past are no longer getting them. (For the record, I don't consider derivatives of given names like "D-Wade," "T.O.," or "Shaq" to be nicknames...and nicknames forced on us by shoe companies don't count either. Nobody ever really called Michael Jordan "Air").

These trends can probably be attributed to shifts in media. Mainstream journalists are no longer in the habit of mythologizing what they report (which, in the case of sports coverage in newspapers especially, I maintain is a mistake), but the Internet (and reality television for that matter) has allowed self-mythology to flourish. And so we have seen a strange revolution that even Karl Marx wouldn't have predicted. But then again, the fact that the nicknamed and the non-nicknamed both partook in the same ceremony last week speaks to the fact that perhaps not that much has changed after all. The names may change, but the bell keeps ringing.


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