Media

Talking the Talk

The author of a new book on pop language describes how media-driven popular culture is not only changing the way we speak, but maybe even the way we think.
"Whaaaassssuuuuuuup?!"

Remember that phrase? Still trying desperately to forget it? Good luck. It's one of the most pervasive pieces of pop language in recent memory. What you might not know, however, is that before it was an advertisement for beer, it was a short film by a young black copywriter in Chicago. The film catalogued the soon-to-be ubiquitous phrase's popularity among filmmaker/copywriter Charles Stone III and his friends for 16 years; Budweiser saw the potential for an advertising hit, bought it, and the rest is pop history.

Oh, and it's actually spelled "Whaazzzaahhhh?!," in case anyone is keeping track.

Stories like this are the subject of Leslie Savan's new book, Slam Dunks and No-Brainers: Language in Your Life, the Media, Business, Politics, and, Like, Whatever. Savan, a former advertising columnist for many years at the Village Voice, is taking on the rugged world of the social application of language. She has produced a work that slides past the sensitivity most people hold to the way they speak and goes for the jugular of exposing pop language for what it is.

Well, what is it, exactly? Savan tackles that question in an excerpt from the book's introduction that AlterNet has published, and it's a question whose answer evolves and changes, depending on who's asking it and when. Savan proposes that this examination is not a strict, finger-wagging criticism of the way we speak, but an exposé of the effects of mass marketing and mass media on the way our brains process and regurgitate information.

Writing about language is a challenge when considering the fact that the subject matter is the essential tool in the explanation. Savan's personal preferences for language are strong themes throughout the book, but nonetheless she succeeds in breaking down complex issues: the Orwellian, "regular guy" vocabulary of the Bush administration, the appropriation and stereotyping of African American dialects and slang, the effects of the digital age on the way we speak, and more.

Savan doesn't pretend to be an expert in any of these areas; she cites numerous sociolinguists and scholars for the research that she bases her theories on. Rather than being an academic exercise or prescriptive diatribe, Slam Dunks and No Brainers is the beginning of a discussion that shows how pop affects our ability to process information, and how we relate to one another in the Age of Inundation.

AlterNet had a chance to speak with Savan about the book in late October 2005.

Where does pop language come from? The media?

Part of what pop language is, is words and phrases that have a glamour or cachet… they're clichés with cachet, you might say. [laughing] It comes from everyday, "regular" people. It doesn't come down to us from media, from advertising agencies and sit-coms. But, once the sit-coms and the ad agencies pick up on how catchy it is, they distribute it and use it more as punchlines. Many of the phrases like "I don't think so" are used as the punchline of an ad.

For example, "no brainer -- " there are whole ads that would spin on the use of the words "no brainer." Dozens of ads and movie trailers, particularly, have turned on "Yessss!" Some of the movie trailer producers would tell me that they were so thankful when there was a "Yessss!" in the movie, because they knew they could produce their whole ad on that "Yessss!" They explained that it very consciously says, "Yes, I'll go see this movie." It makes you one of audience, it builds up the excitement and sort of generalizes without saying what the movie is, what the context is, what the characters are.

Once the media and marketing pick up on the language and then send it back to us "regular people," we pick it up and feel new cachet, new glamour. It connects us to the millions of other people that are saying it, too. Here we get into another aspect of the definition, which is that you are "the crowd" speaking when you speak this language. You seem to have them in the background, on your side, helping you to make the point and winning the moment.

You say in the book that pop language in this sense is a social equalizer, maybe a show of solidarity. How does that happen?

I say that it's a social equalizer, it shows that you have the necessary skills to either mimic, or link to, or be part of that "ideal American personality." That personality is very mainstream, upbeat, ironic here and there when necessary, but also sentimental and heartfelt at other times… it's not just one thing, like everybody's personality, it has many sides. The "regular guy" thing -- the words are "guys," "walk the walk, not just talk the talk," "step to the plate," or just "step up." It's not just an ironic personality.

Again, it's having the sense of "the crowd" behind you. Now, the crowd, could be a very threatening thing; if you're an individual up against the crowd, it can be perceived as a mob. When that language is heaved at you, that can feel like they win the moment. But then other people like to lose themselves in the crowd, they feel safe -- safety in numbers. I'm just like everybody else. Us, not them. The great big huggable Us.

One of the ironies of pop language is that so much of it -- especially the more ironic stuff -- is about being edgy or cutting edge. You're different. All the product names that end in Z instead of S now, or that use X, the Outsider X. Millions of people want to be outsiders, be rebels. Those people who are trying to do that are, of course, anything but rebels. They're part of that mainstream crowd.

You talked about a commercial on Brian Lehrer's show -- the Sprint commercial that has an upper-class white executive talking about getting a particular Sprint phone, and talking about "sticking it to The Man." And his subordinate says, "Uh, sir, you are The Man." The executive nods and says, "I know…"

That commercial was so interesting because commercials, for decades now have been using this "Outsider" appeal, this "stick it to the Man" appeal. Which, of course, has been a crock all along. But this commercial was acknowledging that it was a crock, and that was its selling point. It was adding one more meta-level where we can identify with Sprint because they know that they have used this kind of appeal.

They're winking at themselves and us at the same time.

They're winking with both eyes. [laughing] The point is that you can't get outside of that box anymore, you can't think outside of that box of buying something to stick it to the Man who's selling it to you. And that is of course a pop phrase itself -- think outside the box. The more we talk this way and think this way, and perform this way, the more we are stuck inside that box.

How do you think people can break out of it?

First of all, by slowing down and listening. Those are two hard things for us to do, as Americans. One reason we talk this way so much is that our life has become sped up we're all so busy, and all the media and marketing are competing for our attention more ferociously. We need a strong, healthy language that speaks to the power structure of the moment. They need pop language cut through the clutter of life, and we need it, too.

So, if we can stop racing for a moment, and sit back and listen to ourselves and listen what is being spoken to us, and what it's saying, then we can become a little bit more aware. This is what I really want the book to be about. I'm not saying that this language is bad, but we need to be aware of it. Much of pop language is great -- much of it, for example, cuts through Orwellian bullshit in the realm of politics. Much of can do that -- we are fighting fire with fire, and we need it.

The use of "slam dunk" by George Tenet was interesting.

A lot of people knew that George Tenet, the former CIA director, said that finding WMD would be a "slam dunk." The build-up as to how he came to say that is even more intriguing, though. This all comes from Bob Woodward's book, Plan of Attack. George Tenet's deputy made a detailed presentation in the Oval Office with George Bush, Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice and chief of staff, Andrew Card. He convinced them that they could convince the American public that there were indeed WMD in Iraq and that they would find them. Apparently -- it's not entirely clear from the book -- the CIA wasn't trying to prove to Bush and company that there were WMDs, but that they could make a case to the American public that there were.

It was a marketing meeting.

It was totally a marketing meeting. And in fact, Bob Woodard says in his book, it was a "flop marketing-wise." It was detailed, it had satellite photos of trucks moving around, numbers, projections, little bits of conversation, but nothing that was very persuasive. And then George Bush himself, according to Woodward, said, "Is this the best you've got? I don't think that this is something that Joe Public would understand." And then George Tenet, who had been quiet up until that point, jumped up off the couch, made his arms and hands go into sort of a dunking-the-basketball gesture (he's a big basketball fan) and said "Don't worry, it's a slam-dunk case." Bush said, "Are you sure about that?" And Tenet said, "Definitely, it's a slam dunk."

According to Woodward, Bush later told him that if it had just listened to the deputy's presentation, it wouldn't have sold anybody on the idea. But once George Tenet said that, they definitely felt better about it. And the people in that room, their mood shifted from doubt to confidence. In a way, George Tenet was speaking in terms that Joe President would understand. [laughing]

I always think about how people say that language is devolving… people say things like, "And the kids! They can't even talk anymore!" People have been saying that for 500 years about the English language… is the media what makes it different now?

The older generations have always said that of the younger generations, and that's throughout the world and throughout history. One of the linguists I interviewed said that in little tribes in Kenya, where they don't have much interaction with the media or anything, the older generations just looked at in disgust how the young, particularly males, talk. They can't stand it.

What it is different now, and why I'm calling it pop, is because of the media and marketing. So much of the national mainstream pitter-patter that we have now came about with television and then again with the Internet. Everything that we say now is distributed and flashed across the world so quickly, and then is bumped by the next thing that's flashed across the world, and on and on. It's like there's a golden media streaming through everything, and it comes to us not just in radio shows or blogs or so-called content, but of course the advertising and the marketing that brings it all to us.

We are part of that media, so we've imbibed it and then put it back out there. It becomes the way we speak to each other. What makes pop language different now than in the past is that it's not a matter of type, it's really a difference of quantity. There is a difference in that the glamour that we get through the media and marketing world is to be very simplistic

It connects people to that big world out there, the media world. They're part of it, they're linking to it in that way. We feel more important, and we are in fact more persuasive when we use it.

I loved the comparison of Friends versus Seinfeld, in that Friends used words that were already prominent in pop language and just sort of regurgitated them, versus Seinfeld, which created a lot of words… maybe they were taking words that were popular within certain subcultures, but they seemed to be really creating a vocabulary.

They were very conscious of language, and every time they used a phrase, it was with an awareness and conscientiousness, where they raised it one level for the humor of it, and the attempted manipulation of when we use it. They showed the many ways that language was used and abused and was so ridiculous sometimes.

A lot of Seinfeld was commentary, directly or indirectly, of the kind of people we were becoming, often through language. It was always pretty interesting… "Not that there's anything wrong with that." And "close-talker." The idea that you could categorize people and give them names and labels according to the little annoying social quirks they had. Some of these social quirks were in response to the sped-up, self-marketing kind of society that we've become. The Person Nouvelle that I talk about in the book is someone who vibrates with an automatic media response, where we really are aware of the media around us and are infiltrated.

The way Friends used it was to recite it and repeat it, versus comment on it, or to even be aware of it… except as an awareness of it as a joke or a punchline or something to get over the moment, or to keep people bopping up and down. Friends was very good in that sense. Seinfeld did it on a different level.

Friends, to me, represents the homogenized culture, and I'm sure it was natural for them to be using the language that way.

The rhythm of sitcom patter … the example I use with Monica and Chandler, where they're coming back from their honeymoon. Chandler says, "I can't wait to go in there and spend the rest of our life together." Monica, referring to his aloha attire, says, "You're really sticking with the shell necklace, huh?" The way the rhythm of that went, there's the sincerity, there's the beat, and then her punchline, which makes his sincerity look more like the set up for a punchline. And that rhythm is part of pop language. Rhythm, beat and inflection are so much a part of pop language, outside of just verbal messages. "I don't think so" is just that, but "I don't think so" is pop.

Before that, we'd simply say, "I'm not sure about that," or "I disagree," but now, "I don't think so" is "I disagree and you're a fool for saying that." With the weapon words and the put-downs, we have the perfect phrases to put people down for almost any situation. Sometimes, because we have these words and this arsenal at our disposal, we may even perceive or interpret a situation as one demanding a put-down where we might not have before. It's a little easier to be miffed if you know that you can always say "Hel-lo?" in a passive aggressive way. It's saying "You're not paying attention to me and you must."

Does it make it easier for us to act out by drawing on the weapon words?

Yes, I think so. In the same way that fashion works. It makes it easier to act out something that we want to express in ourselves if we have the gear to do it with. It's more tempting. I'm not saying that we don't have anger or feelings of wanting to lash out, we've always had that, but it's a little expected to be used. The words and comebacks are a little gilding of entertainment, and we've seen them in the media and this is what's expected. It's more fun to use, it feels more natural.

I think the expected part is interesting. If you're a member of the culture and you're participating in it, you're expected to have the same arsenal, and to use it to prove that you're One of Us.

These kinds of insults are snappy and snappish… because they're snappy, they snap into place and click sensations. They're entertaining, but they have the anger attached. I think the more we use them, the more we rev ourselves up and look for opportunities to use them.

Pop language seems to come up from various subcultures, especially African Americans. The selection of words that are used in the mainstream helps to reinforce stereotypes of African Americans as entertainers, athletes and the like. The mainstream is missing whole picture.

Pop language definitely involves using Black language to "hippen" stuff up, "hip-hopify" stuff. It comes back to that old thing of trying to sound like an "Outsider." The irony is that the language of an excluded people is used by the included people to sound more automatically effective, with a little edge or subversiveness or whatever it is. So, Black people are used as a symbol for that in this context, as the symbol of the outsider, as the "X." There's a whole section on "X" in the book, as a matter of fact.

Using Black English in this way certainly enables white people to stereotype. Tom Dalzell says in the book, that through the introduction of speech, the adoption of rap vocabulary, that white teenagers can "mimic the cadence of street speech and admire from a safe distance the lives of prominent black rappers and athletes."

Following teenagers' speech… it must have been hard to write the book on something that changes so quickly, words that are fashionable and then suddenly not.

Well, I don't pretend to know what the latest is in any one group, and, in a way it made it easier. If I was trying to write about subgroup jargon, I couldn't have known what it was… I'd have to be living somewhere else and be an anthropologist. By limiting it to what is mainstream, what only rises to the top, and stuff that's been around for a while… it made it easier because I only had to pay attention to the stuff that everybody understood and often used, regardless of age, race, ethnic background, occupation, region of the country. Pop by definition is everywhere, middle ground, not threatening, not particular hip. It's something that we use, in a way, to be understood by everybody.
Deanna Zandt is a contributing editor at AlterNet.
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