Posts Tagged ‘pop culture

09
May
09

Adam Lambert, J.J. Abrams, and Mystery

As previously mentioned here, I have occasionally found myself part of the conglomerate of Americans that weekly find themselves lingering on the every word of the well-groomed and omnipresent alien being that refers to itself as Ryan J. Seacrest.  And as an American Idol viewer, I am keenly aware of the three contestants remaining in this year’s contest, and have formed my own personal opinions about the outcome of the competition.

For the uninformed, here is the general rundown of the three gentlemen who have yet to be eliminated from the program: (since there are only three contestants remaining, it should be assumed that all are talented vocalists, which they are.  If we assume the playing field is even in the talent department, then the contest will be determined, as it typically is, by the persona each contestant has created, the demographics they appeal to, and the way they style their hair rather than pure musical giftedness.  This will be a discussion about those particular nonmusical qualities.) Danny Gokey is the odds-on, overwhelming favorite, as long as the only people you’re asking are white, Christian, and middle class.  He’s a church worship leader, he wears trendy glasses, and he’s a widow, which in an eerily morbid way, makes him more likeable.  Kris Allen is a guitar-strummin’, aww-gee-shucks southern heartthrob, and his style lies somewhere between Jason Mraz and John Mayer.  Whenever Ryan Seacrest says Kris’ name, hundreds of pubescent girls scream like his last name was Jonas and hold up signs that say “Marry Me Kris,” while Kris’ clearly visible wife smiles on adoringly.  And then there’s Adam Lambert.

Adam Lambert, in many ways, defies description.  He wears eyeliner and lots of jewelry and leather, and has a vocal range that would make Steve Perry wet himself with jealousy.  The only thing the public really knows about Adam Lambert is that he’s a theater kid, and was in the Los Angeles cast of Wicked before he became a contestant on the show.  We don’t really know where he came from, we don’t know anything about his family, we don’t know who taught him to sing like that, and we never know what he’s going to do next.  Moreso than anything else, however, we don’t know whether or not Adam Lambert is gay.  And that’s where J.J. Abrams comes in.

J.J. Abrams is the man behind such T.V. shows as Alias, Fringe, and Lost, and movies like Star Trek and Cloverfield.  J.J. Abrams knows the power of an unanswered question, as evidenced through this article he wrote in Wired Magazine, or his Ted Talk here.  He has revitalized suspense in a way we haven’t seen probably since Alfred Hitchcock.  What J.J. Abrams knows is that an integral part of human nature is our inquisitiveness.  Going all the way back to Socrates, we have been a society that questions. As humans, we seek truth, it’s just part of who we are.  What happens after we die, who would make the best president, and what the hell is that smoke monster thing, and why did it kill Mr. Eko?  And now, added to that list of unanswered questions is the question on every American Idol fan’s mind: is Adam Lambert gay?

I think I know what J.J. Abrams would answer if you asked him whether or not Adam Lambert was gay.  I think J.J. Abrams would probably say, if we knew, wouldn’t that just make it less exciting?  The truth is, if Adam Lambert told America he was gay, it wouldn’t change the fact that he’s still a talented singer, and I don’t think it would change anyone’s vote for or against him.  The kind of person who would only vote for Adam Lambert if he wasn’t gay is likely already casting their vote for Danny or Kris.  If Adam Lambert told America he was gay, the only thing he’d be changing is the mystery that surrounds him, and that might just be the reason we don’t know yet.  The reason people keep watching Lost week after week is because they expect that eventually, all their questions will be answered (even if forty-seven new questions show up every time you answer one).  Isn’t it possible that, aside from his obvious talent, Adam Lambert is still on American Idol for the same reason?  We figure if we keep watching, if we keep voting him to the next week and the week after that, he might just answer some of those pesky questions.

I’m not saying Adam Lambert left his sexuality in question intentionally, but he might have.  If he didn’t, he’s probably realized by now that he’s stumbled into something that’s keeping the public’s attention, which is why he hasn’t just flat-out said anything about it yet.  As Abrams points out in the Wired article I linked to earlier, we live in an age of immediacy, where the answer to literally any question we may have is only a mouse click away, and that truth has enhanced the way we look at questions that don’t seem to have obvious or easy answers.  In other words, in a world where we can have all the answers, we’re intrigued only by the ones we don’t have.

And that’s why I think Adam Lambert is going to win American Idol this year.  Or, if he doesn’t win, he’ll end up more successful than whoever does.  It’s apparent from the itty-bitty-nobody-to-all-powerful-cultural-icon path of previous Idol winners like Carrie Underwood and Kelly Clarkson that twelve weeks of being on that show is the equivalent of an upper division master class in becoming a celebrity.  And judging by the way in which he has captured the public’s attention (he hasn’t even won yet, and he’s already on the cover of this week’s Entertainment Weekly), it’s clear that Adam Lambert is at the top of that class for this year.  Whether or not they deserve the attention they get, (and that’s another story entirely) the celebrities that capture the public’s attention do so by utilizing Mr. Abrams’ favorite concept of mystery.  Who are they dating, where are they going, what will they do next, and yes, are they gay?

And that’s why Adam’s going to win.  Like all the contestants, he’s got the talent to deserve the spotlight, and perhaps more importantly, he’s got the mystery to maintain it.  And as long as he keeps America guessing, he’ll be at the forefront of the public eye, and he’ll preserve our attention.  That is, until some bigger mystery comes along to distract us.

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18
Feb
09

The Rise of Captain Hopeandchange

There is a movie you probably haven’t seen called “Idiocracy” that you really don’t need to see, because I’m about to tell you all about it.  The premise of the movie is that a completely average guy from 2005 is cryogenically frozen, and wakes up 500 years later to discover that American society has become so dumbed down that he is the smartest man alive— by a long shot.  While the movie isn’t necessarily laugh-out-loud hilarious, it features incredibly biting satire, and is probably the kind of movie I’d write, if I were the kind of guy who wrote movies.

In the future that “Idiocracy” sees, the secretary of state is “brought to you by Carl’s Jr.”, you can get your college degree at Costco, and the most popular thing on television is a channel devoted to looped clips of men getting hit in the crotch.  And in this future, the president of the United States is a former professional wrestler named Dwayne Elizondo Mountain Dew Herbert Camacho, who makes most of his public appearances at monster truck rallies.

You might expect from having read previous posts on this site that I’m now about to go into some long discussion on how we as a society are closer to this being truth than we think, and we need to blah blah blah before our brains turn into whatever, which doesn’t matter because you stopped caring three sentences ago.  That’s not what I’m getting at.  While I think the movie is witty, I don’t think society is on its way towards anything close to resembling that future.  That being said, I do think the character of President Camacho requires further examination.

In the film, Americans love professional wrestling, and Americans are stupid, so Americans vote a vastly unqualified professional wrestler to be their president, just because they can.  In real life, anyone who saw this on a t-shirt last October knows that while it’s obviously tongue-in-cheek, voting someone into political office on account of their celebrity isn’t so much of an outrageous thought these days.

And that brings us to this, this, and this.  Yes, our current president, whether he intended to or not (and I tend to think he didn’t), has blurred the lines between politician and celebrity even moreso than Ronald Reagan, who need I remind you was an actual celebrity.

(A wee disclaimer: the remainder of this post will be about everyone’s favorite new president, Captain Hopeandchange.  However, this will be a discussion on Obama the celebrity, not Obama the politician.  There’s a difference.  Keep that in mind should you decide to comment.)

I’m not about to suggest that President Obama and President Camacho have all that much in common.  The character of Camacho is, obviously, the extreme.  What I’ve been pondering is whether or not Obama is a step towards that extreme, and a lot of that, I believe, is up to the man himself and how he deals with the fame that has been thrust upon him.

Most people will point to his keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention as the moment when his fame began to rise, and I wouldn’t argue that point.  In order for him to become president, 2004 Obama needed to tenderly cultivate that fame, fertilizing it with equal dashes of political opinion, general handsomeness, and yes— hope, until he had grown into the massive cultural icon (and oh yeah, president) he is today.

And whether or not you choose to believe it, at least a handful of the people who voted for our president did so not because of his ideology, but because of the massive cultural icon he became.  In simpler terms, he was the cool kid in the student council contest.  Many voters (especially those in my generation) may have convinced themselves they were voting Obama instead of McCain, but what they were really voting for was Dr. Pepper instead of Mr. Thunder.  They were choosing a brand, not a president, and quite frankly, anyone who worked on Obama’s campaign is totally okay with that (Don’t worry, though… I’m not talking about you.  You voted for him for the right reasons).

There’s a reason many pundits called Obama’s campaign the greatest in the history of politics, and there’s a reason voter turnout was at its highest in 40 years, and while not all of it has to do with Obama being a celebrity, a lot of it has to do with Obama being a celebrity.  In a perfect world, every four years we’d vote into office the person whose views best aligned with the majority of Americans regardless of what they look like or the quality of their jump shot, and while that certainly is the intention of the electoral process, it has, in today’s culture, become a far too idealistic thought.  Last year, 148.3 million people watched the Super Bowl and we spent north of $530 million dollars on tickets to a movie about Batman, and while that sort of thing shouldn’t have anything to do with our choice for president, it certainly says a lot about what we think is important.  Obama realized what captures America’s attention, and he became just that, or rather, he allowed himself to become that.

That’s an important point to note— Obama didn’t necessarily seek out the fame he has; rather it seemed to be thrust upon him, and he just rode it all the way to the Oval Office.  Now, though, I would argue that if he knows what’s good for him, Obama needs to prune that fame back a bit.  To be a successful candidate, you need to be the first person everyone thinks of when they think “president.”  And now that he has attained that title, he needs to switch gears from gaining popularity to properly representing those that gave him his popularity.

In the most basic terms, I’d say for the first hundred days (at least) of his presidency, he needs to do just one thing: his job.  That means get busy workin’– no appearances on The Colbert Report, no surprise visits to high school basketball practices, just sign bills and do all the things that go with acting presidenty.  Let us see your hard work, not your crossover dribble.

So far, he hasn’t done half bad, and whether you agree or disagree with the work he’s done, you can’t deny he’s been working.  And that’s a good thing.  His road to the presidency, as successful as it was, will most assuredly be emulated in the coming elections.  He’s now set the new standard for campaigning, let’s just hope he also sets the new standard for funneling campaign success into effective governing, rather than just continued celebrity.  Just like Kennedy was the first “television” president, Obama will be known as the first “Facebook” president and the first “YouTube” president, and the last thing he needs is for that exposure to affect his actual presidency.

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.

16
May
08

How The Office is Changing the Face of the American Sitcom (And Nobody’s Watching)

Think back ten, maybe fifteen years. If you remember prime time television from back then, you likely remember one thing: the best shows on TV were sitcoms– little half-hour vacations from real life into the funny world of wacky but likeable characters. In the late 80’s and into the 90’s, the sitcom was king. From 1986 all the way through the 90’s and early 2000’s, The Cosby Show, Roseanne, Cheers, Home Improvement, Seinfeld, and Friends all held the title of “most watched show on television” for at least one year, and each one of them, in their own way, captured the attention of America and will remain a part of its cultural landscape for years to come.

But the American sitcom is dying. Since Seinfeld left the airwaves, the only comedy show to hold the number one spot was Friends, and that was only for one year. The top-rated shows from 1999 on to the present include ER, Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, Survivor, CSI, and American Idol. In fact, it was right around the start of the new decade that the sitcom began losing ground against reality TV, with Survivor leading the charge, opening the door for American Idol, Dancing With The Stars, and Why Exactly Does He Have a TV Show? Featuring Flava Flav.

But there’s one show on TV now that I believe is leading the charge towards a new brand of comedy show, a show that breaks the older mold of what a sitcom should be, and does it in a way that appeals to the new cultural mindset while still remaining completely hysterical.

The Office is the only reason I turn on my television. It’s the only thing I watch other than sports (careful readers will note I also have admitted to dabbling in American Idol, but I watch that on YouTube. And I also watch 30 Rock, but that comes on right after The Office, so there’s no need to turn the TV on again, now is there?) The Office is smart, witty, and touching, and its premise is far more realistic than any other show on TV. But The Office is doomed to fail unless more people climb on board, and there’s a simple reason why:

Nobody watches The Office. At least, according to the standards with which networks judge a program’s worth, nobody watches. The Office is currently the 56th most watched program on television (shocking, considering how much a part of the cultural lexicon it is). When the show first aired, it was #102. Friends, during its entire 10 year run, never dipped lower than 5th, and Seinfeld, in its last five years, never dipped lower than 3rd. The thing is, it’s not just The Office that’s struggling, it’s the sitcom in general. Two and a Half Men, which CBS regularly advertises as the “number one comedy on television” is 19th overall, meaning there’s nearly twenty other shows that Americans would watch rather than a sitcom (and a poor excuse for a sitcom, at that).

So since the sitcom is dying, naturally those in charge of creating sitcoms are trying hard to reinvent their genre and breathe new life into it, and in many ways they are doing a solid job of it, despite the lack of viewership. Sitcoms used to follow a very standard pattern: they were filmed in front of a live audience, they featured live or canned laughter, and they were typically about a small cast of main characters that in many cases lived well above what their means would be in actual life. Also, each episode featured one main storyline and occasionally another minor storyline, both of which were always resolved nicely by the end of the episode. Now however, many shows have been revamping those old guidelines, shows like Arrested Development, 30 Rock, Scrubs, and you guessed it, The Office.

Now sitcoms typically feature a main character surrounded by a wide and diverse cast of funny minor characters and regularly recurring guests. These shows are increasingly self-referential, meaning that not only are regular viewers are rewarded for their loyalty to the show, but that repeat viewings often provide more laughter. Storylines are more and more complex, and can last over the course of many episodes, or even over the course of multiple seasons. And there’s no laugh track. This is important, because without laugh tracks, shows can be funnier, because they don’t have to spend so much time waiting for people in the studio audience to stop laughing. This is growing increasingly popular–watch an evening of NBC’s “Must See TV” Thursday, (My Name is Earl, Scrubs, The Office, and 30 Rock) once considered the “gold standard” of comedy television, and the only laughter you’ll hear is what you produce yourself.

So why is it that The Office is leading the charge among all the other “new sitcoms” out there? Because The Office does one thing better than any of those other shows out there, something that most of those 90’s sitcoms almost never did. The Office utilizes pathos, making you sympathize with its characters, and relate to them on a level unlike any other show. Old sitcoms never had this pathos. Think about Seinfeld: what made the show genius was its complete lack of pathos–if anything, you felt sorry for the people that Jerry, George, Elaine and Kramer encountered, but you never felt sorry for the four characters themselves (a fact that served as the basis for the show’s series finale). In last night’s masterstroke of a season finale of The Office, there wasn’t a character in the whole episode that you weren’t meant to feel some level of sympathy for at some point, surprising considering the focus of the show is to make you laugh. But the show wants you to relate to the characters like they are real people, which is only emphasized by its mockumentary format.

So in essence what The Office has done is taken the old sitcom and made it as close to reality television (what’s popular today) as it could while still remaining outlandish, hysterical, and most important–smart. But in many ways it’s that intelligence that may doom the show. Americans have increasingly shown that when they watch television, they don’t want to think. That’s why American Idol needs its ‘professional’ judges to tell people how to vote, and that’s why dumbed down shows that tell you when to laugh like Two and a Half Men succeed while The Office flounders. And if you know anything about me, you know I’m staunchly against the dumbing down of American culture, so it’s not surprising that I’m in the corner of The Office on this one. That’s not to say that I think The Office is going to make geniuses out of us all, but at least it can give you something more to think about while you’re watching television.

So yes, the sitcom is currently in a bad way, but The Office has the ability to revitalize the genre and insert a bit of intelligence into TV watching. The only question is: does America want it to?

06
Feb
08

The mere fact that you call it “pop-pop” tells me you’re not ready.

If you possess a decent sense of humor, then this is likely the best news you’ve heard in a long time.

Let the (final) countdown begin.