July 23, 2008

Kids these days; or, unearned irony

Every time I see an eighth grader in a Led Zeppelin t shirt, I'm tempted to go up to him (generally it's a boy) and say, okay, hotshot, name two Led Zeppelin songs and one Led Zeppelin band member. Two things keep me from doing this: sloth and the fear of being mistaken for a pervert. Oh, and the fact that half of these kids were raised by Grand Theft Auto and are probably packing heat. So, three things. Kids these days!

My point is not about armed teens, however. I just want to raise the question of what that shirt means. At one time, wearing a Led Zeppelin shirt would have meant, "I like Led Zeppelin." Right? I don't think it means that any more. If I were wearing a t shirt with Marilyn Monroe on it (can you picture that? Because I can't) and somebody came up and asked me whether I preferred Monkey Business to Some Like It Hot, would I consider the question impertinent? I don't think so.

(The answer, of course, is yes to Monkey Business, but Niagara beats both. Mike, feel free to correct me if I'm wrong. And enjoy the Wordshed bump!)

ANYhow, this gripe is not about being Houses of the Holier than thou ... because I'm not. Yes, I consider "When the Levee Breaks" to be pretty much sublime, but mine is a limited appreciation, not idolatry by any means. My gripe is about how at some point pop culture references became witticisms in and of themselves, not necessarily because they're appropriate, but because "hey, I know what you're talking about." Maybe it's Dennis Miller's fault (sorry, I was going to link to a clip, but frankly I couldn't find one I can stomach). Everybody wants to be a cognoscente. But when I see a kid laughing at some Family Guy take on an old movie or historical event without having a clue about what the scene is referring to, I think it's kind of pathetic.

Once (hah! once!) I experimented on my first year composition students, who would always laugh with appreciation at my sarcastically witty asides, no matter how self-indulgent and obscure. I tried using my sarcastically witty aside voice--you know the one I mean--to say random "things" throughout my "oratory." They ... dammit, they laughed with appreciation. They were responding to the tone of my voice the way my dog does, and for the same reasons, probably: that intoxicating mixture of fear and an eager desire to please.

Hey, I'm not knocking that mixture ... I lived on the stuff! I'll take what I can get ... but in the course of a generation or so we've gone from, "That's an apt allusion" to "I recognize that allusion" to "The tone of your voice indicates to me that you may be making an allusion, which I shall now pretend to appreciate." Ample evidence of devolution, if you ask me. I mean, we used to take pleasure in knowing things, right? Like, when somebody says, "I really like Led Zeppelin's song 'Nobody's Fault But Mine,'" it's great to be able to say, "Well, I prefer Blind Willie Johnson."

If you live in a world in which Mad magazine is over the head of the average reader, you're going to get some stupid reactions to the occasional New Yorker cover. Is I guess what I'm saying.

1 comment:

Michael said...

Insightful commentary. Pop culture references were "cool" for a while because they were so rare--I think I could count on two hands the number of "classic era" movies with obvious pop culture references in them. But by the 90's they were everywhere. They can still be fun in the right hands (I'm thinking Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert), but they are no longer in and of themselves funny or witty or special...

Except when you get them and no one else does. The episode of The Middleman we watched last night had zombies; one character was named Mr. Argent, another character took on the fake name of Mr. Blunstone. As I recognized but my partner did not, these are the names of members of the 60's band The Zombies. Later came references to the other band members, to the song "Time of the Season," and to the classic album Odessey and Oracle (that's not a misspelling ). I loved it, Don loved that I loved it, and all was right with the world for a few minutes.

As far as Monroe, you're on your own. I'm not a big fan of hers (I may like her best in her tiny role in ALL ABOUT EVE), though I am a fan of SOME LIKE IT HOT.