All Persons, Living or Dead, Are Purely Referential

Pop culture references were invented in 1989 by Seth Brundle, when working in his lab, late one night. He was writing up his findings to an experiment on the influence of synthesiser music on coked-up rats, when he accidentally drew a crude comparison to the scene in Back to The Future, when Marty McFly steals rock n’ roll from black people, then tells a room full of white people they aren’t ready for it yet. In suggesting the rats were similarly unprepared, the scientific paper went whatever the 80s equivalent of viral was (no, not that) and thus the first pop culture reference was born into the world.

Okay, so here’s my question. There were a couple of pop culture references in that paragraph, but did they make it better or worse? Are pop culture references entertaining in and of themselves, or do they need to be making a comment on the subject of the reference? Pop culture references are the poor-man’s metaphor. They provide an easy, immediate comparison to something, in order to illuminate it and draw satisfying parallels, like Abed in Community seeing his world through the prism of TV and movies, and commenting on the tropes of those media as rules by which to live his life. But whereas metaphor is only used to illuminate, pop culture references can either additionally, or exclusively, have the surreptitious motive of displaying your particular taste, or bragging about your pop culture knowledge/nerd credentials.

Sure, we’ve all slipped the odd The Office quote into conversation (if that’s true, excellent) but what is the allure of doing it? Is it the feeling of a shared experience, the idea that you can relate to someone on the most basic level of ‘I’ve enjoyed this thing, let’s see if you have too’? Because if that’s true, why not just insert the names of universally enjoyed foodstuffs into conversation? ‘Yeah I’m having a great weekend, a real Red Velvet Cake of a time. ‘ ‘How’s the weather? It’s warmer than that pasta we had once!’ Is it because pop culture gives a low-level, accessible opportunity for artistic critical analysis, where you can slag off an episode of Game of Thrones with no prerequisite of intelligence or education. You just have to have watched it and have an opinion, even if that opinion is ‘dragons + tits = great TV’.
But what about elements of pop culture which require a decent level of knowledge of pop culture itself in order to enjoy it? Metatextual or post-modern pieces, such as parody, satire or homage. You couldn’t enjoy an episode of Community or the movie Hot Shots in a vacuum. A lot of alternative comedy subverts traditional forms, and so relies on some knowledge of the genre to understand what’s being commented on. And not even for comedy. Just take a look at the trailer for Ready Player One, which basically looks like the most expensive fan film ever made, The Phantom Menace notwithstanding. At first glance, I couldn’t glean any information about the story from the trailer. It seems like it’s being marketed on nostalgia and plain old recognition of existing properties – “Did you like Star Wars? Well it looks like this film does too!” Could it just be a ploy to use an overly familiar set of logos and references as packaging for a mediocre story? Basically ‘The Big Bang Theory: The Movie’, or the commercial equivalent of ‘you had to be there’.
To make up my own mind, I read the book Ready Player One to see if there was a substantive basis of a story. I wanted to see if the the pop culture references were a garish accoutrement, like putting googly eyes on the Mona Lisa. Or if, as the trailer suggested, the references themselves were the whole point; a movie built on a house of cards, specifically a game of Top Trumps where the only category you’re allowed to play is ‘brand recognition’.
To be honest, it’s a little of both. The story requires the main character to educate himself on 80s pop culture in order to complete his hero’s journey, so they are presented as necessary for the chosen narrative, but equally the entire time you’re reading it, it feels like the author is peering over your shoulder, waiting for another ostensibly obscure reference to crop up, so he can elbow you in the ribs and bark, ‘Remember? From before!?’

But it’s still enjoyable. And if you pretend this is a singular problem with this book/movie then I’d suggest that it just seems like the logical end point of a culture obsessed with self-referencing, and increasingly scared to venture money or intellectual effort in a new idea. We shouldn’t chastise a child for saying a swear word if they’ve grown up hearing their parents use that language, we should tell them why swearing is lazy and unimaginative, even if it is hugely fun. If we didn’t want Dr. Frankenstein to make that monster, we should have disposed of our corpses more carefully.
Just to clarify, that was a metaphor, and then a pop culture reference, both used to illuminate the same idea. Which did you prefer? I liked the one with the thing from a movie in it.
Commenting on pop culture can be fun and interesting (and not commenting in the Gogglebox way, where you just say ‘that’s sad’ or ‘that was funny’, like an audio description service for psychopaths), because it’s still culture, but with a qualifier of assumed familiarity. And if we’ve got a problem with that, then we should stop constantly watching reboots like some sort of robot. Robocop for example. Which is a robot, and was a reboot. And is a pop culture reference.
How funny.

 

Next time on the bandwagon, I listened closely to all of The Beatles’ back catalogue on Spotify to listen for hidden messages, and it turns out that Paul McCartney isn’t dead, but physical media is.

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Twenty-Six Years of Solitude

“No man is an island. Islands are generally cohesive masses of land surrounded by bodies of water, with their own climate and eco-system, rendering it quite unlikely for them be sentient or in any way gendered.” – John Donne in a pedantic mood.

“Oh God Tim, stop writing about negative emotions. It’s fucking depressing.” – You.

“I’ve started this entry with way too many quotes.” – Me.

I was going to work my way through the remaining deadly sins I haven’t covered yet, but thought I’d take a detour to write about loneliness. Partly because it’s an interesting topic, and partly because I think it shares something in common with boredom, and what a great idea to tread such similar ground two posts in a row.

Loneliness is surely a symptom of our biological and sociological need to exist surrounded by a decent number of other people, due to safety in numbers, a wider and therefore more robust gene pool, and recognition that a one-person game of Cards Against Humanity is basically just reading. No longer living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle means that loneliness is now less life-threatening (two-person trapeze acts notwithstanding), and only really affects our sense of well-being, and more directly our likelihood of procreation via tandem genital action. We’re constantly surrounded by people, and even let technology take the difficulty out of interaction, which seems like a sufficient substitute, but (as any episode of Black Mirror or indeed any entry of this blog, will tell you) ultimately damages your ability to do the same thing in the real world, while also making you less inclined to. Social media may seem like a good simulated antidote, but it’s very much like walking with a limp after breaking your leg. In the short term it alleviates the pain, but you’re doing more harm than good overall, and you really should see a doctor please, your foot’s gone black.

There seems to be an antiquated image of masculinity attached to the idea of loneliness, through the prism of ‘solidarity’ and the ‘lone wolf’ archetype. This seems to have come to prominence, not only through Wolf from Gladiators (remember how great he was because he was angry?), but also through 80s action movies, where ‘one man’ must do everything he can to stop the evil baddies, because being alone is great, and needing assistance is weak and lady-like. Just look at the jacked action stars from those days up to now. Are we expected to believe they got to where they are totally on their own, instead of with the help of several personal trainers, dieticians, friends, family and steroids? Sure, a ‘one-man army’ sounds impressive, but it’s probably very unfulfilling emotionally. I imagine John McClane would have loved to have someone to pick glass out of his feet for him. But sadly, he’s a real man, which is why his relationships with his wife and children were so healthy.

These crazy movie characters were out on their own because they were portrayed as being special, unique, misunderstood ballistic geniuses. And that’s certainly a road to loneliness, feeling like we’re all snowflakes, that can’t be put into a box. As kids we were always told how special we were (or I hope you were, unless I was the only one, in which case I actually am special. Oh wow, this is a lot to take on. Doctrine? Oh I don’t know, be good to each other, love thy Neighbours, even if it is a terrible soap, it needs your support. Umm, sacrifice a child every so often, but only a really shit one, like one of the ones that wipes its nose on its school jumper instead of a tissue. And worship me every day, I’m desperate for approval. But if I ever have a son, he’ll just be a regular guy probably, don’t start ignoring me). The only alternative of course is an admission that we’re all largely the same, but the basis of most art is to communicate what feels like a unique experience, only to have people recognise their own seemingly unique experience in said art. If people just accepted they were the same anyway, maybe no-one would bother. You’d go to draw something, write something, sculpt something, say something, and come to the conclusion that anybody else could do it too, so what’s the point?

And isn’t that another sort of loneliness? The feeling of being lost in a crowd, not being seen? And what about our loneliness as a species, resulting in SETI, and science-fiction wherein we make contact with aliens. We want to find another species out there, so we can feel comforted by the fact that Reljax from the planet Grenknork also gets sad sometimes and wonders whether anyone actually reads his blog.

I guess the way to combat loneliness is to force yourself to talk to others, even though loneliness can feel self-perpetuating. Talking to friends and family etc. helps me, even if that is just on Facebook – it’s better than sitting and wishing.

In recent memory I would say the most loneliness has hit me was after the break-up of a long-term relationship a few months ago. We lived together for a while afterwards until I found somewhere else and moved out. With the help of my parents, I moved my stuff out over the course of a day, us ferrying my belongings from the old place to the new in two cars over several trips. With the last car load full, I said goodbye to my ex with a confusing feeling of finality, and finished moving out. With too many books, not enough clothes, furniture and odds and ends unloaded into my new bedroom, and my parents having helped as much as they could, they left me to reorganise this new piece of land.

For a long time after they’d gone, I was in my bedroom, where I am now, feeling more alone than I had in at least a few years. I didn’t know what my life would be from that point on. Who would I tell about my day, or about that interesting titbit I heard while listening to a podcast? Unpacking all of my belongings just reinforced how many of my hobbies were purely solitary; reading, playing music, stand-up comedy.

I don’t even have a good, satisfying ending for how things got better, but they did. I’d already started writing this blog at that point (see if you can spot the undertones of bitterness in my blog about Valentine’s Day back in February), and certainly having an imagined audience was useful. But more useful were actual people. Not the ones on social media, but the ones I saw in real life, as often as possible to get through it. I know, boo-fucking-hoo I went through a tough break-up in my mid-twenties, what a precious little snowflake I am. But that’s the point. I wasn’t different, I was like everyone else. Everyone understood, and I wasn’t alone.

Next time on the Bandwagon, I get off my emotional high-horse, and tell the story about another relationship, during which we had an argument on Halloween, and I stormed out dressed as Tintin.

Happy Endings

Right then, the real first blog post. With actual content and thoughts instead of just writing a blog about a blog.

Here goes.

What’s the one thing that separates us from animals? Part of me loves it when people use a phrase like that, as though there is only one thing, not an almost infinite number of things. Animals don’t wear slippers, unless they’re forced to obviously. Animals could never have invented Argos. Animals don’t play the spoons. Animals don’t get nostalgic for periods of time they weren’t even alive for. Animals don’t write meandering blogs. You see my point. But one discernible thing we do that animals don’t, is tell stories for entertainment. Not just lying, which some animals can actually do. For example, a chimpanzee called Nim Chimpsky had learnt sign language after having lessons with a human. Apparently, when he got bored of the lessons, he would lie about wanting to go to the toilet so he could be excused. A lot of children at my school tried the same trick in French class, they just didn’t bother saying it in French. There’s another thing animals can’t do. French.

Dishonest chimps notwithstanding, animals don’t tell stories, and because humans do it affects the way we see the world. We try to frame everything through the lens of narratives. You are the hero in your own novel, or TV show, or straight-to-DVD-movie if you have low self-esteem.

Think of the number of times you’ve heard something to the effect of “Honestly, they should make a TV show/sitcom of my life! The things that happen to me are mad! Yesterday I fell over at work!”

I don’t know who ‘they’ are, perhaps TV executives with no understanding of the medium in which they work. But if someone made a TV show of my life, even I wouldn’t watch it. A typical day in my life is not exciting, interesting or narratively satisfying.

Today for example, I went to work, did work, had lunch, did more work, came home, wrote this post up to the words ‘low self-esteem’, watched Jessica Jones while eating dinner and then started writing again. If at the start of my day, I had seen a fortune teller who’d told me I would never ever write another blog post in my life, or events coalesced in such a way that me eating lunch was somehow a harbinger of me watching TV, then maybe I’d think ‘isn’t it weird that my day seems as though it’s been structured by an idiot that thinks he has some insight into television but actually doesn’t.’

If, on the other hand, I saw Krysten Ritter punch someone so hard in the chest they actually died, I might think ‘someone should make a television show about her life’, but probably only after the police investigation and lengthy trial she would no doubt endure.

Because we think in such a way, every piece of entertainment is put through this story arc filter. Even this blog post is expected to have a satisfying end that ties up all the loose strands of my rambling. Something that mentions animals again, maybe an animal that thinks someone should make a TV show about it.

But this blog post won’t end how you think it should. Just like life it keeps going on and on. No obvious goal is achieved, aside from arbitrary ones which are set on the way, and as much meaning as you try to inject, the ending can still be abrupt, confusing and unsatisfying.

 

Next Time on The Bandwagon:

Sharon accuses Kev of kidnapping a Koala! Meanwhile Tina is knee-deep in shed catalogues! Don’t miss it!