28
Sep
08

The Classics

What’s the difference between Ringo Starr, Jabba the Hut, and Bart Simpson? (Hint: the answer is not ‘lipstick’.  That’s another joke entirely, and a poor one, at that.)  The truth is, depending on how you look at it, not much.  Let me explain:

Recently, as I was working in the music and DVD section of my local neighborhood mega-bookstore, a young gentleman came up to me and placed a copy of V For Vendetta on the counter.

“Wow, great choice,” I said.

“Yeah, it’s a classic,” he replied.

I finished ringing him up and sent him on his way only to later start to think about what it was that he said.  Once I did, I came to realize that he had just made a claim that was— in every possible way— dead wrong.  I know that it was, in all likelihood, simply a throwaway line, something to say to the guy at the checkout counter to be friendly, as opposed to staring at me blankly and ignoring me altogether.  But consider that statement:

“It’s a classic.”

First of all, V For Vendetta only came out in 2005.  That’s entirely too soon for something to be called classic.  But that wasn’t even the main problem I had with his statement.  The main problem was that V For Vendetta will never be a classic— ever.  I could be having the same insignificant conversation with him forty years from now, and people could still like V For Vendetta just as much as they do now, and he’d still be just as wrong as he was just a few days ago.

Don’t get me wrong.  V For Vendetta is a completely acceptable movie.  A good movie, in fact.  I’m not downplaying its quality, rather I’m defending the definition of the term ‘classic’.  If you ask me, as far as pop culture is concerned, nothing that we’ve seen since Star Wars can be considered classic, and not just because it isn’t old enough yet.  What I’m saying is that nothing that we’ve seen since Star Wars will ever be classic at all (although even Star Wars may not last if George Lucas can’t quit trying to mess it up with more prequels, cartoons and all that other ridiculous and tarnishing garbage).  This doesn’t mean Star Wars is the only classic cultural icon, it just means it’s the last one, for reasons I’ll soon get to.

Despite how definitive a statement I’m making, it’s important to know that I wholeheartedly accept that it may prove false.  It’s slightly possible that The Simpsons may one day be a classic.  American Idol may have a shot, too.  But we won’t know unless they are able to stand the test of time, and since they haven’t left the pop cultural landscape yet, there’s no way to tell if they will remain in the general public consciousness for the coming decades.  But aside from those two things, there’s nothing else we’re currently witnessing that I believe will last much longer than the time it takes to exit the pop cultural stage.  That means Britney Spears, Harry Potter, the Lord of the Rings movies— none of these will ever become classic cultural icons.

The main reason this will prove true can be summed up in one word: choice.  As long as our culture continues to produce the same general thing over and over and over, there will never be anything that’s truly as universally accepted by all of society as iconic in the same way that something like Star Wars was.

Britney Spears?  “Yeah, well Christina Aguilera was more talented…” Harry Potter?  “You probably never read the Narnia books…”

These will be the conversations people will have twenty years from now.  But Star Wars?  It’s universally accepted as being without peer, and much of that had to do with it being the only one of its kind.  Even people who don’t like Star Wars will accept that the movies played an important role in our culture in the way no other film had ever done before.  So how does this all work?  How is it that Star Wars just might become the last true classic that American pop culture ever sees?  To understand that, you have to unpack the definition of what it really means to be a classic.

But before we get to that, a clarifying point.  Before you get yourself all in a huff and start whining about how your favorite movie or band or show should be considered a classic, consider this: in all likelihood, whatever it is you’re thinking of could very well be seen as classic within your particular circle.  By that I mean that certain things (Fight Club, Saved By The Bell, Nirvana, etc.) might very well be classic, but they will never be universally classic for the reasons I’m about to point out.  They will be classic to those people who experienced them firsthand, but to someone who knows nothing about it, they have no significance whatsoever.  That is not the case with Star Wars, Elvis, or Catcher in the Rye.  Your grandma likely doesn’t have a clue who Tyler Durden is, but she probably recognizes the name Luke Skywalker.

I touched on one of the features of a true classic earlier.  True classics stand the test of time.  But this isn’t an honest-to-goodness characteristic of a classic, rather, this is one of the things that happens to something once it already is a classic.  It is a result of being a classic, it doesn’t make a classic.  In the same vein, some may argue that having a large following of dedicated supporters (like Star Wars) may make something a classic.  Again, this is a result, not a cause.  Same thing goes for accessibility— something does not become classic simply because it is widespread.  If you have basic cable, chances are on one of your channels right now is a re-run of Friends.  This doesn’t mean that Friends is a classic, it just means it’s everywhere.

So what are the causes?  I’ve come up with four of them, and you must possess all four to truly become a classic.  First, for something to become a classic, it must have a certain level of universal relatability— that is, people need to be able to understand it on at least one level, preferably more than one.  There’s only a select few people who know what it’s like to fly through outer space, and there ain’t nobody who knows what it’s like to be friends with a wookie, but people can relate to a strained relationship with their father (Steven Spielberg knows this, and that’s why it’s a central plot point in 90% of his movies).  People also can relate to the struggle between making the right choice and falling into temptation, and even some people (creepy as they may be) know what it’s like to have a crush on your sister.

Secondly, there must be a level of depth or a history that goes along with something for it to be classic.  This is where people can get confused and say that classics must stand the test of time, but there’s a distinct difference between standing the test of time and having what it takes to deserve to stand the test of time.  Things like Star Wars or the Lord of the Rings books fulfill this requirement by being stories of tremendous depth— going so far as to invent layers upon layers of detail that aren’t at all necessary to appreciate the story, but add to its overall weight as a cultural event.  Elvis or the Beatles accomplished this by changing and transitioning into different characterizations of themselves over time, all the while still retaining the original quality that made them recognizable in the first place.  That is, we watched the concept of ‘The Beatles’ go through many different stages, (‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ vs. ‘Revolver’ vs. ‘The White Album’ vs. everything in between) and even though they showed many sides of themselves, the whole time they were essentially the same thing, that being the most important rock band ever.

Thirdly, and perhaps this is obvious, but there must be a level of creativity that goes into something before it can become a classic.  It must be the kind of idea or concept you couldn’t have thought up sitting on the floor of your basement, throwing back a couple beers with some friends.  Only that which is truly creative can fulfill our need for original stories as a culture and reach that same part of our brain that’s forever been triggered by fairy tales, ghost stories, or Mark Twain.  It is that inventiveness, or rather the basic creative idea behind a concept or person or story that has the ability to grab our attention and let us know that what we are witnessing is something truly special.

The last characteristic is where everything that comes after Star Wars falls out of the race.  A classic must be one of a kind— the only one of its kind.  Because of the current state of greed in our culture, nothing that’s successful will ever remain uncopied, and I would also argue that because of that greed no one who is capable of creating something truly original is willing to let it stand alone (see: The Lion King 2: Simba’s Pride).  And even though those copies or sequels rarely match up to the original, they still take away from the original’s overall impact.  American Idol is a hit, so why not America’s Got Talent or Last Comic StandingThe Simpsons is successful, so bring on South Park and Family Guy (and The Simpsons Movie, to a lesser extent).  With so much capitalization on every single successful concept that comes along these days, it’s far too easy for that original idea to get bogged down and scarred by all the other things that try to fit in its same niche and steal its impact.

There is hope, however.  Occasionally being one of a kind can be supplanted by being the first of its kind, and that’s why there’s hope for The Simpsons or American IdolThe Simpsons isn’t the only adult-oriented animated sitcom about a dysfunctional family, but it was the first, and it certainly has lasted the longest, thanks to its quality.  American Idol isn’t the only show to pluck regular people out of obscurity and give them a forum to express their talents, but it certainly is the most successful (it wasn’t the first, however, which is why it has less of a chance than The Simpsons does.  And by the way, I’m certainly not saying Star Search is anywhere near becoming a classic).

So what does this all mean?  Nothing, really.  It’s simply another way in which our culture is broadening and our world is changing.  You would think with improved communication and the advances of the internet, more and more people would be able to connect themselves through common forms of entertainment, but I would submit it’s exactly the opposite.  The more effective ways we have to communicate, the more highways there are for numerous new forms of entertainment.  The world may be smaller, but the forum for entertainment won’t ever stop growing, and that means finding quality among all the muck becomes that much more difficult.

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7 Responses to “The Classics”


  1. 1 Leslie
    September 30, 2008 at 3:48 pm

    Yay, I’ve been eagerly awaiting a new post!

  2. September 30, 2008 at 3:50 pm

    Greets! Really interesting. keep working! Tnx!

  3. 3 mattvaudrey
    October 30, 2008 at 7:37 pm

    Say what you will, but there has never been, nor will there ever be another Christmas Jungle.
    ~VP

  4. February 18, 2009 at 5:05 pm

    Pulp Fiction and Goodfellas are already classics. “Paul’s Boutique” is already a classic.

  5. February 18, 2009 at 5:15 pm

    Sadly, that is false.

    Using the definition of “classic” I created for the purposes of this post, Goodfellas isn’t classic because not enough people have seen it. Ditto Pulp Fiction. Also, (and I know I’m in the minority on this one, but…) Pulp Fiction sucks. And I would submit that more than three-quarters of the general American population thinks “Paul’s Boutique” is a place you buy flowers. Like I said in the post, these are things that may be classic in your personal circle, but they are not classic in the overall eyes of pop culture.

  6. February 18, 2009 at 6:11 pm

    I see your point, but suck’s is a matter of taste. Do you think you are putting too much emphasis on Global Pop Culture Icon in your definition classic? I think “classic” art of all types is the most subjective subject you could ever try to objectify. I do applaud the effort. Your explanation is as good as any I have seen.

  7. February 18, 2009 at 8:17 pm

    That’s really the point I’m trying to make… if everything is classic to someone, then nothing’s classic anymore. That’s why Star Wars is the last true classic, in my opinion, because it was the last thing to be considered classic during a time period in which pretty much everyone agreed on the definition of the word.


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