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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On the Originality of the Species

Brief disclaimer, in the following entry, I may well refer to myself as a ‘creative’ or ‘creative person’. If this comes across as pretentious, I apologise. It is merely intended to come across as fiercely accurate and self-aggrandising.

People who work in some sort of creative capacity are usually seeking one or more of the following; recognition, an increase in proficiency of their creativity/skill, the opportunity to explain their creativity/skill in a patronising manner to a non-creative lay-person (referred to in creative circles as ‘social furniture’), and of course, originality.

Some of these can be achieved by attempting another; a talent for originality can encourage the practise required to reach greater proficiency, which means it becomes a bigger part of your life and you talk about it to people, leading to recognition as an insufferable, self-absorbed bore.

But isn’t originality a myth? Hasn’t everything been done? I mean Christ, I’m only writing about originality because I just finished reading a book about it. If I were really being original, I’d write about a totally new subject, such as the aerodynamics of salad tongs when fired through crepe paper, or whether candles are basically chips if you’re a Madame Tussaud display. Not interesting topics, but original I’d wager. And is originality a worthy enough end alone? Would it be unoriginal to communicate a familiar feeling to an audience as a way to vindicate that feeling? Or is originality important only as the vessel?

What if I were to expound the well-worn subject of the inferiority of aeroplane food in a totally new and unrecognisable way? Perhaps by suggesting that we have no other high-altitude food to compare it to so maybe we should be grateful. If we found that things tasted amazing on a hang-glider, then we’ll talk. Is that necessarily parody, or is there always a new way of studying any subject in a way that makes it appear new? And is there any point if you end up reaching the same conclusion?

As an exercise for how difficult it is to be totally original, I thought I would try to come up with a brief idea for 5 stories that I don’t think have ever existed before. Here’s what I came up with:

  1. A giraffe is spontaneously transported to the centre of an alien planet and learns to control it from within via the use of Jenga.
  2. Time and Space realise their relationship is disintegrating and hope that having a child will rekindle things. The child is called Stephen and he becomes a groundskeeper for a golf course.
  3. The year is 1782, but everyone is convinced it is 1783 already. Hilarity ensues.
  4. A series of time lapse photographs of grazing cattle becomes sentient and runs for president.
  5. Sweden unveils a new national anthem that tacitly ostracises cheese-lovers. People who claim to be addicted to cheese have to face the reality that they simply have no personality.

I’d like to think that some of these seem pretty original, if unworkable as premises for stories. And certainly I can trace the lineage of some of these ideas to my own influences. In hindsight, number 3 is similar to a fake documentary short I wrote about an 8-year-old girl who thinks she’s 9 and subsequently requires surgery. And number 5 is probably just me thinking cheese is overrated.

A lot of stories we know owe at least something to a previous iteration, and I don’t just mean the idea of there being ‘only seven stories’ or as the ending to The Amazing Spider-Man posits, only one story: ‘who am I?’ which seems rather apt for a film that itself had trouble reconciling its own identity. I mean that I can’t get my head around the creativity of the first person, for example, to use time-travel as a story conceit, as it inevitably leads to the exploration of ideas of free will and determinism, as well as the idea that more people than you’d expect seem to be up for murdering their own grandfather just to prove a point.

It feels so familiar a device now, but the originality required to be able to describe something as weird as moving through time in the wrong direction astounds me. I thought a good analogy for that is a story I heard about how Native Americans were apparently unable to see Columbus’ huge ships approaching them due to having no precedent for structures of that size or shape. I liked how that seemed to illustrate the reticence with which people can react to new ideas. However, upon further reading, I discovered that story to be a load of horseshit popularised by a pseudo-science documentary, misinterpreted from a cherry-picking of John Banks’ journal of Cook’s expedition to Australia, in which the natives can very clearly see the ships. Maybe that’s the key then. Take an original idea, twist and misinterpret it beyond recognition from its source, and present it as something new.

I’ve always wondered if it’s possible still to come up with such an original and multi-purpose idea as time travel for use in fiction. I just don’t like the thought that we’ve reached a point where nothing new can exist. What about teleporting limbs as a sci-fi concept? Send your leg to Spain for some reason, or send your arm to draw cocks in moon dust? If artists borrow and geniuses steal, maybe it’s just for idiots to convince themselves they should bother trying anything new. But look me in the eye and tell me you wouldn’t want to see a movie of a giraffe controlling an entire planet with Jenga.

Next time on the bandwagon, something unoriginal, cliched and derivative. Or a story about turning all the faberge eggs in the world clockwise by two degrees and seeing if anyone notices.