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Cannibal Culture

Pop culture demands a high degree of cultural literacy, starting with who created what first.
 
 
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Hey, Mr. Lemire! Do you remember Alf?

This query, posed to me during my graduate study at the University of Michigan, came from two of my freshmen students. They approached me after class, a section of English comp.

The reference was to the 1980's TV sitcom Alf, which I knew (without seeing an entire episode) was a sitcom about an American middle-class family who adopt an alien, played by a puppet. Why were my students asking about Alf when we had spent the last hour discussing Lester Bangs’ essay on the death of Elvis Presley? Because the late rock critic (known to my students, if at all, as a name speed-dropped in an R.E.M. song) had asserted that despite Elvis’s decline, no other entertainer existed in 1977 for whom people would wait in the rain to see, just so they could say they had seen him or her.

I asked my students: Could they think of a living entertainer now, in 1996, of whom that could be said?

One female student, Michigan-born, proffered the name of native son Bob Seger. Not everyone in class knew Bob Seger (much to the female student’s incredulity), so I asked if people knew the song "Old Time Rock ‘N’ Roll," which got a few more heads nodding. Seger, I explained, sings that song.

So when those two after-class students asked if I remembered Alf and I said yes, they said: "Remember that episode of Alf where he was dancing in his underwear to ‘Old Time Rock ‘N’ Roll’? That was hilarious!"

"I never saw that episode," I said, "but it sounds like a spoof of Tom Cruise in Risky Business."

Both students looked at me blankly.

"You guys never saw Risky Business with Tom Cruise?" I asked. (Neither had I, actually; I had seen only Bob Seger’s MTV video featuring that famous -- or so I thought -- film clip.)

No, the two students hadn’t seen Risky Business. Later, I did the math: These boys were 4 when Risky Business came out in 1983, and considering I had never seen Tom Cruise’s breakout movie replayed on TV, I had no grounds to expect that they, or their classmates, would know it.

My class hadn’t understood, either, Lester Bangs’ essay reference to Donna Summer, because they were all born in the aftermath of the general consensus that Disco Sucked. No one in class even knew the name Donna Summer.

I don’t adduce this anecdote as an example of pop culture ignorance in young people, or to point up what slim pop culture creds I, at 29, had over them. After all, that same year, in one of my graduate English classes, a fellow student employed the phrase "the stuff that dreams are made of," and I, eager to score points, noted aloud the phrase’s original source: The Maltese Falcon.

When a fellow student did me the courtesy of correcting me, naming the original original source -- something called A Midsummer Night’s Dream -- I reflected that despite my being known by my friends as a Shakespeare fan, I had graduated Boston College as an English major without ever having taken a Shakespeare class (or, for that matter, never having seen more than that one clip from The Maltese Falcon).

We are, all of us, culturally ignorant to some degree and in some respect, whether the literacy refers to the kind endorsed by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., or to the pop culture kind. Not only are there works we do not know, we often do not know that the works that we do know often borrow, were inspired by, pay homage to, reference, appropriate or downright steal from works that we may or may not know.

When I was an undergraduate, the push was on in the American culture wars for young people to learn as many "cultural terms" (read: high culture terms) as possible, to correct their shameful cultural illiteracy. But the fact of the matter is that consumers of pop culture need a higher degree of cultural literacy than even the highbrows, since pop culture is the greater cannibal of other cultural products -- and, of course, of itself. 

The problem is that there is no established mechanism by which people -- young as my students or as old as I am -- can see and learn how pop culture borrows, steals, references, pays homage or is inspired by other sources (hence, the above situation with Bob Seger and Alf). And the more profound question -- Is all the ripping and riffing just cheap plagiarism or one-upmanship, or is it a central dynamic of the creative process? -- is rarely discussed. 

It’s hard, admittedly, for adults to resist the urge to berate younger people for their ignorance, even if it’s over a reference to pop culture. The MTV VJ Kennedy, on a retrospective program on that channel, cited Martin Landau as her worst interview: When, at the 1996 Hollywood premiere of Mission: Impossible, she innocently asked what the aged actor was doing there, he replied that, well, of course, he was in the original TV show -- but not only did Kennedy not know Landau was in the TV show Mission: Impossible, she didn’t know Mission: Impossible had been a TV show. She made the mistake of blurting this out to Landau, who responded with an ugly, verbal dressing-down right there on the spot.

Maybe the problem is with MTV. Consider the story (probably apocryphal) about MTV correspondent Tabitha Soren, covering President Bill Clinton: When Clinton, an amateur saxophone player, referred in a press conference to Theolonius Monk, Soren allegedly turned to an older reporter next to her and asked, "Who’s the loneliest monk?"

Hilarious, right?

Granted, one can hardly chock up Kennedy’s ignorance to her youth: Mission: Impossible was revived for network TV in 1988 (when Kennedy was 16), and the show ran for two years. Blame, perhaps, Kennedy’s poor research skills -- a furious Landau certainly did -- but it’s scarcely reflective of intelligence for a young Oregonian woman who grew up wanting to be an orthodontist not to know who starred in a TV espionage drama. Kennedy, like other TV talking heads, relies on a staff to supply her with such knowledge.

The fact is that if no one tells "these kids today" who Theolonius Monk is, or who came first, Shakespeare or Bogart, or even that anything existed before the year they were born, the kids will have no way of knowing and should not be blamed for not knowing -- any more than I, at 34, should be blamed for not having intimate knowledge of the lyrics of Linkin Park.

Apart from reading and catching connections willy-nilly, the best approach is for one generation to educate the other, and the place to start is to help young people understand the creative process, specifically the ways in which an artist takes material from a preexisting source. A spectrum of terms describes this taking: reference, nod, tribute, homage, emulation, appropriation, inspiration,adaptation, rip-off, plagiarism, copyright infringement, theft.

Let young people decide for themselves what term describes any connection between Marilyn Manson and someone named Alice Cooper. (We might also mention to young people, in case they didn’t know, that Manson’s hit song, "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)," was a hit for another band, 12 years earlier.)

Rampant sampling in pop and hip-hop music makes more a lively debate and exchange (as opposed to a flat-out argument): Does it or should it matter to us that "I’ll Be Missing You" by Puff Daddy (now P. Diddy), the 1998 tribute to the late Notorious B.I.G., samples "Every Breath You Take" by The Police? Does knowing the reference exists mean anything? Is it homage or indicative of a dearth of creativity?

These are questions that people of different generations can engage to each other’s mutual benefit, hopefully without the conversation becoming acrimonious, each generation defending its products of culture as "better" or "more original" than the other’s.

A conversation perhaps less controversial would be to explore the ways in which artists use their media to talk to each other, to wink or nod, to tell a joke, or just to have fun. This exchange -- whether it be between generations or genres -- reflects much more than artistic thievery or competition; it enhances the creative process as well as the experience of culture.

Consider the one television program that contains more pop culture references per second than any other: The Simpsons. I’ve encountered more than a few devotees who breathlessly extol the show’s "hundreds" of references. (Ask them to name five in under five minutes, and they’re stymied.) A few examples come to mind: Mr. Burns "re-educating" the Simpsons’ dog Santa’s Little Helper by subjecting him, via the Clockwork Orange treatment of forced-open eyeballs, to disturbing films (in this case, Lyndon Johnson holding up a dog by its ears); or Bart, distributing Thai take-out menus as a ninja, mimicking The Matrix with that movie’s soundtrack behind him; or Marge reminding Homer that he loved the movie Rashomon, which elicits in Homer the rejoinder, "That’s not how I remember it."

If Simpsons fans derive pleasure from recognizing these references, it is based, it seems to me, on the knowledge that they themselves "get it" and the assumption that the majority of other viewers don’t. We’re back in class, and we’ve just earned a gold star.

For those of us who don’t get it, it’s a "Ballad of the Thin Man" moment: Something is happening here, but we don’t know what it is. (In case you don’t get that, it’s a Bob Dylan song from his 1965 album Highway 61 Revisited). No matter what our age, suddenly we’re the young person, and we need someone to educate us.

The makers of The Simpsons, surely, aren’t nesting these references to elevate the show to any high cultural level (the show’s humor relies more on characters’ stupidity than on the intelligence of the viewer), or in hopes that viewers will rent Rashomon in order to get the joke. If anything, the jokes to "get" are ones the show’s creators insert for their own pleasure, even if it means suspending disbelief that Homer would ever watch Rashomon.

Movies, especially, are a medium through which filmmakers talk to one another, or at least nod and wink. Clearly, Brian dePalma is not trying to pull a creative fast one in his 1987 film The Untouchables with a train station shoot-out sequence that is inspired by (or lifted from, whatever you prefer) Eisenstein and Aleksandrov’s 1925 film Battleship Ptomekin. DePalma cannot be thinking, "No one’s seen Ptomekin or will ever get this reference -- I’ll be lauded as a genius." To be sure, those of us who recognize the allusion or imitation are meant to smile.

Think of the opportunities with young people to craft special video rentals: Friday night, it’s Kurosawa’s 1954 film The Seven Samauri; Saturday night, it’s John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven, 1960; and finally, Sunday night, George Lucas’s 1977 hit, Star Wars.

If you rent the Meg Ryan-Nicholas Cage movie City of Angels and your resident teenager finds it to be cloyingly sentimental claptrap -- or even if they don’t -- it’s easy to say, "Well, if you did/didn’t like that, what do you think of this?" Then cue up Wim Wenders’ Wings of Desire. Or rent La Femme Nikita and compare it to Point of No Return. Or rent Cruel Intentions with Dangerous Liaisons.

The young person may dislike both films, but at least he or she stands to learn something about creativity and culture (and the lesson learned depends on the teacher): that there is nothing original under the sun; that cultural products and their creators need not be burdened by the task of being "original"; that inspiration or referencing imbues even the most serious cultural product with a welcome element of play; or that appreciating a cultural product can be a first step in being led to other, related products.

Once young people begin to see that art is not just a game of connect-the-dots, but is one in which motifs, characters, images and symbols recur and are revived; the conversation can turn from entertainment culture to political culture. For example, in October 2000, to bolster George W. Bush for president, the Texas-based nonprofit Aretino Industries paid for a remake of the infamous "Daisy" TV commercial, in which the innocent image of a white girl picking petals off a daisy is followed by that of a nuclear bomb mushroom cloud. Originally broadcast in 1964 by the Lyndon Johnson campaign, the commercial was only shown once and yet lingers as a notorious example of the so-called "attack ad" -- for those who remember it.

The conversation will go on, to larger trends in politics that recur and are revived, to arguments and points of view that come up in different guises and from different voices, and to cultural moments that mirror or echo ones before it. Attention to and inquiry into "first uses" makes people bigger and broader consumers of art and cultural products, and, to reference another source, "It’s a good thing."

It’s like Groucho Marx said: An old joke is never old if you’ve never heard it before, and the younger you are, the fewer jokes you know.

Tim Lemire is a Boston-based writer and a MFA graduate in creative writing (fiction) from the University of Michigan.