Monday, January 06, 2014

POP CULTURE ON THE SKIDS: Romping with Dachshunds

(NOTE: If you want to be a bird/Why don’t you try a little flying/There’s no denying/It gets you high/Why be shackled to your feet/When you’ve got wings/You haven’t used yet/Don’t wait for heaven/Get out and fly)

Beanie Babies, Garbage Pail Kids, Fizzies, Pop Rocks, Silly Putty, velvet paintings by Leeteg of Tahiti, Frederick’s of Hollywood, mood rings, pet rocks, surf speak, Alf, apps, Jeffrey Koons, water pipes, Game of Thrones, and Miley Cyrus being nasty with Robin Thicke. Cargo pants, Jerry Garcia neckties, Rocket Radios, Doctor Strange, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Snuggies, The Simpsons, Beavis & Butthead, MTV, Batman, Iron Man, McDonald’s, Jack in the Box, Burger King, and iPod, iPad, and iPhone. America continues to outstrip every other country in generating pop culture. With any luck and in a fairer world than where we live now, every piece promises to eventually fall from the collective memory.
Pop culture attracts the generation with the greatest disposable income. The bits consist of ninety-five percent marketing and five percent actual physical material. Pop culture has as much connection to real culture as yo-yos to intercontinental ballistic missiles. Stick a poster for Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen next to a landscape by Richard Diebenkorn and you see the difference. One says See, Breathe, and Imagine, while the other waits between Blu-ray and toy sales for the custodian’s recycle bin.
Writers use pop culture references to fix a story in time and place, but they age faster than clichés. Such references also have the ability to disappear before the story hits print. Pop culture is better described as disposable culture applicable to only to this day, this hour, this minute, and not a second more. Forcing the reader to dig through the detritus of network television shows and blister packs from Toys R Us yanks them out of the story about people, and why they are reading in the first place.
F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote effectively about the Jazz Age from being a participant, as in the short stories “Bernice Bobs Her Hair” and “The Diamond as Big as the Ritz.” He used intimate knowledge of the language and attitudes to identify his characters’ generation as different from the previous. Both stories would sound false if Fitzgerald had been older at the time of composition. His involvement engaged the reader then and now.
Pop culture is marketed to those under the age of thirty-seven. After that milestone is passed, income previously used for fun is taken over by doctors, dentists, mortgages, and retirement plans. Marketers in search of the next big thing ignore the men and women who no longer have the means to drop serious money on a 1/72 scale Millennium Falcon. The older and more responsible ignore them in return.
Pop culture is supposed to be a reflection of the zeitgeist yet it rarely rises above the limitless bottom of money-grubbing. Sometimes a crossover occurs, like the really cool Oscar Wilde action figure, but these are meant to be an ironic comment on how shallow the culture in general has become.
Writers should only refer to pop culture they know or are an active participant. Anything else is a trial for the reader, especially when they know more than the writer. More important than mention of Gummy Bears and lava lamps are character, story, and setting, those nice essentials that keep writers writing and readers reading.
Never to be outdone or overdone, a new cult has formed in the Carolinas around The Dog Walked Down the Street: An Outspoken Guide for Writers Who Want to Publish (Cypress House, $13.95). Members wander the villages wearing oversized white tee shirts with the letters “CTFU,” and harangue passers-by with gospel fervor about the coming of the Big Blue Pencil. “We deserve the right to know about writing,” they clamor. “We deserve the right to know about how publishing works” is writ large on placard signs. To ensure these goofs miss your neighborhood, consult for an independent bookstore near you. Buy several copies from the understanding clerks and expect to be congratulated on your fine taste and being far ahead of the crowd. “Pretty soon” is close to happening.

NEXT: A Sleeping Cat is an Easy Target

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