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.

Advertisements

Good Things Come to Those Who Hate

“Don’t hate the player, hate the game,” is a phrase oft-uttered by people struggling to articulate the sentiment that if a system is corrupt, then one must operate within the laws of that system even if that means appearing to act in an undesirable way, until such time that they can break out of the system. Sort of like Neo learning the rules of The Matrix, before breaking them and becoming Jesus. And for the record, actively hating the two Matrix sequels is a waste of hate. They are never going away, and if the ‘game’ is the Hollywood studio system, which throws money at sequels, prequels and remakes left, right and LeftRight 2: The Centre, then the ‘players’ would be the Wachowskis. So don’t blame them, even if the Architect was a tedious character. Sorry, I just had to get that off my chest. I’m a Matrix sequel apologist. Back to hatred.

A few months ago, it became popular on Facebook to allow an app access to your profile, and tell you the most common words used in your status updates, as a representation of the overall message you put out (and probably as a test of people’s levels of trust in a computer programme they’d never heard of, but could give them some easily obtainable information, in exchange for free reign of the most personal online representation of their life). Since I have just the right mix of self-obsession and self-awareness, I gave it a go, but decided not to share the results with anyone, so I could still feel superior to those who had. Once I’d handed over my mother’s maiden name, the app told me one of the most frequent words I used was ‘hate’. Part of the reason the word crops up so much is that comedically it’s easier to say something’s shit than to give it praise. You only have to look at how many stand-up comedy routines, sketches, talk show anecdotes and YouTube vlog rants (or mentions of Gogglebox in these blogs) there are about how something purportedly great is actually shit to see that it’s a popular stance to take on a topic when trying to be funny. It’s much harder to make people laugh by saying how much you love something. It’s easier to make someone laugh by saying how much you hate romantic comedies than it is by saying how much you love period dramas. And people would rather hear you talk about how videogames are a load of old toss, instead of hearing you talk about how Lego is by contrast actually incredibly stimulating and twenty-five is nowhere near too old to be constructing a scale plastic model of the Batmobile.

But why is this? Why is hatred funnier than praise? In my first year of university, one of the first creative writing tasks we were given was to write a poem, about anything. I wrote a poem called ‘Ode to an Iconoclast’, in an attempt to satirise people who try to seem discerning and cool by openly condemning broadly popular parts of pop culture, for example saying they thought The Shawshank Redemption was rubbish. It seems strange to me that criticising something is considered both funny and cool, because in a surface sense, funny people are sometimes seen as cool, but in stand-up comedy, the comedian shouldn’t be seen as cool, he’s the idiot, the buffoon, the opposite of cool. So why isn’t it more popular to say that you think something considered unpopular is actually brilliant? What if I started saying, in all sincerity, why I think that Katie Price’s ‘novels’ are the apotheosis of literature, or why Coldplay are better than Bob Dylan, or that no movie has ever reached the perfect, dizzying heights of X-Men Origins: Wolverine?

Do you see what I’ve done there? Even in speculating on the idea of praising things that are considered shit, I’ve given myself the opportunity to list things that I think are shit, for the purposes of comedy. I’m shameless.

But it would be an interesting thought to, without a layer of irony, use comedy as a delivery system for unpopular positivity towards something. Something harmless of course, I’m not suggesting it would be a good idea to earnestly convince people of the merits of mass shootings through laughter. But perhaps something like, why I think The Matrix sequels aren’t as terrible as everyone thinks.

Furthermore, this very blog entry is a condemnation of how easy it is to use hatred for comedy, thereby taking a stance against it. I’m doing the very thing I set out to dismantle. I have unplugged. There is no spoon.

Before I finish, it would be very unfair of me to reference a rubbish ‘poem’ I wrote at least five years ago, and not let you read it. So here is a poem which, while positioned in satirical contrast to the target of this blog, is sadly not so subtle about it. Here, submitted for your disapproval and ridicule, is ‘Ode to An Iconoclast’:

Like The Beatles do we?

Well I think The Beatles are shit

Their songs all sound like nursery rhymes

How were they such a hit?

I hated The Shawshank Redemption

It’s the worst film I’ve ever seen

My friends say I should go to the cinema more

And that I should own more films than just Mr. Bean

Yes, I have read Catcher in the Rye

It left me feeling bored and bereft

Admittedly, I didn’t quite finish it

But there were only about 80 pages left

I find Shakespeare drab and one-dimensional

I can’t understand a word he said

Wherefore this and bodkin that

It’s impenetrable, superfluous and I’m glad he’s dead

What is all this hype about The Wire?

‘The best program on TV’ it’s been named

‘Top that!’ they say, ‘there’s nothing better!’ they say

‘Three words’ I say, ‘You’ve Been Framed’.

*Holds for applause*

Next time on the Bandwagon – Tony promised me he never touches the stuff, and I believe him. So, it was probably just a dizzy spell.

How To Be Happy

“Don’t Worry,” begins the famous chorus sung by Bobby McFerrin. “Be Happy,” it continues, no hint of information on how to follow through on this order, instead flying off into a digressive series of ‘oohs’ to distract from the lack of instruction. Instead he simply lists a set of issues people encounter that would be genuine causes for ‘worry’, but insists that worrying will actually ‘make it double’, as though the concept of ‘having no place to lay your head’ is quantifiable and subject to mathematical processes.

How does one achieve happiness then Bobby? Because frankly, the only reason I pay my rent is because I’m worried that if I don’t, I’ll have nowhere to live. “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” Cheers Bobby, now I’m homeless. Oh Bobby, by the way, I found a lump while taking a shower, what should I do? “Don’t Worry, Be Happy,” yeah you’re right, it’s probably nothing. If I ignore it, it might just go away. Worry and happiness are not mutually exclusive concepts; if they were, rollercoasters would be fucking dull. The whole reason we enjoy thrill-seeking behaviour is because of the risk involved, which causes a release of adrenaline, without having to do anything too dangerous like climb up the side of an angry bear, or parachute into a cannon.

But that’s just fleeting happiness isn’t it? What we’re talking about here is long-term fulfilment, contentment, a feeling that you know your place in the world and have achieved something of note, and that’s not a feeling that comes from watching exciting television or eating chocolate, despite aggressive marketing campaigns to the contrary. And with this more profound level of happiness comes a more elusive route to achieve it, because while almost everyone enjoys sitting down to watch a good movie, I know for a fact that my lifelong goal of becoming a comedian, while not unique, would be downright inconvenient for my imaginary next door neighbour, Paul. If I started suggesting that in order to feel happy, he should start trying to make roomfuls of strangers laugh, he might very well give up fishing, a past-time that I know for a fact (because I made him up) Paul loves very much. And what would his children think of their 53-year-old father, a man with no previous interest in comedy, if he suddenly started trying to make it on the circuit with material about misunderstanding microwave instructions on ready meals? “Pierce film with a knife? The number of DVDs I’ve ruined…”

But then what would make him happy? Does he even care? Is it enough for him to watch EastEnders every night, with its rolling cliff-hangers and no resolution, like a perpetually delayed orgasm that builds into 30 years of addictive agony? Or does he want something more? Maybe Paul always wanted to write short stories about cowboys, or start up his own knitting website. If he’s looking for happiness through a television screen, he’s looking in the wrong place, unless he stumbles upon back-to-back adverts for SquareSpace and a local sale on wool, and that’s rather unlikely. If only because SquareSpace seem to frugally limit their marketing, steering clear of TV, and only choosing to sponsor every single podcast I’ve ever listened to.

Typing ‘How’ into Google yields a list of potential common completed searches, and top of that list is, ‘How to be Happy’, which shows that people don’t know how to achieve their own happiness, but also that many are after a quick-fix solution, hoping that by following an easily-digestible list on the internet, they can make their life complete. I think there’s something to be said for the idea that the baby boomer generation and those that came before, didn’t pursue these wacky goals because the options just didn’t exist to them. Now we fetishise people who work in the hardest-to-crack industries, thinking happiness lies that way, simply because they are the makers of the very entertainment that used to keep us so blissfully ignorant.

What happened to the kids that wanted to be firefighters, scientists and astronauts? Not deterred by the fact that, statistically speaking, no one has ever been an astronaut. I have no idea if this generalisation is true; presumably loads of kids still want to do these jobs, but a whole lot more think that happiness comes from the wrong places, like bullying or ITV2.

I’m not one to talk. Like I said, my ambition is to be in an industry that nurtures self-doubt and owes a lot to TV. So far it’s making me happy, but I know what Paul would say (because I made him up), he’d say, “Once cooked, stand for 1 minute? Fuck that, I’ve just got back from work, I’m sitting down!” (End to rapturous applause. Paul leaves the stage. Curtains.)

Next time on the Bandwagon, I invite twelve greengrocers over to my house for a debate on apostrophes.

 

TV & Other Drugs

The year is 2016. Honestly, check your phone. The Sopranos came out in 1999, The Wire came out in 2002, and if you’re sitting there, reading this, and you still haven’t watched either of them, don’t worry.

It’s okay.

I mean, I’ve had the entire boxset of 24 on DVD for about 6 years for some reason. I’ve only ever watched the first season, partly because it’s difficult to enjoy a show that openly advertises the amount of your life you have to sacrifice in order to watch it. ‘The following takes place between the hours of 2:00pm and 3:00pm, during which time you could easily call your mum, do some washing, go for a short jog, and read the synopsis for this episode on Wikipedia.’

The idea of the boxset is quite daunting, with a lot of pressure for us to watch any remotely acclaimed drama or sitcom.  “Have you watched 72 hours of narrative set in the same place about the same characters with variations of the same storyline continuing until the showrunner, network or viewers got sick of it? What do you mean no?”

The idea of the physical boxset is pretty much non-existent now anyway, with streaming services rarely displaying television shows in any sort of box, usually preferring squares in an abstract space. Even boxes are no longer cool.

And the more people that ask you if you’ve watched a boxset of a show, the less you want to actually watch it, because now it’s just revision for a potential conversation/exam, which you already know the correct answer to, but still have to read the textbook anyway.

“Have you seen The Wire?”

“Yes.”

“It’s good isn’t it?”

“Yes.”

“Correct. You may go.”

The only way to avoid this situation is to jump on board when the shows first air, risking the possibility of watching hours of an absolute drek pile, just so you don’t have to catch up at a later date, and ride on the coat-tails of more insightful viewers than you, taking snippets of opinion from people with too much free time.

So, to save you that time, here’s some primers for how to respond when confronted with the topic of some acclaimed TV shows:

The Sopranos

DO SAY: “I think that cut to black was to demonstrate the uncertain nature of the gangster lifestyle, the two likely possibilities showing the dichotomy of being both a family man and a criminal.”

DON’T SAY: “They just stole the ending from Inception.”

Breaking Bad –

DO SAY: “Walter White is the perfect anti-hero, his descent into corruption fuelled by his ostensible selflessness just shows us how far we can follow a character into the depths of human evil.”

DON’T SAY: “Of course, if it had been set in England, it would have been one episode long, what with our NHS! Am I right!?”

Arrested Development –

DO SAY: “Mitch Hurwitz subscribes to the comedy archetypes of matriarch, patriarch, carpenter and clown, but the roles are constantly changing, while always staying true to the characters.”

DON’T SAY: “Isn’t that the one where The Fonz plays a lawyer?”

I also blame Netflix for trying to reclaim the word ‘binge’ as a good thing. Bingeing means indulging to excess, not just doing something lovely for a bit until you’ve had enough, it means doing it more than you should, more than is good for you. A bad amount. I don’t think a word associated with eating disorders and alcohol abuse is the best one to use to demonstrate your USP. “Too much telly! More telly than you should really have! Binge on it, consume it until your eyes vomit!”

Remember the days when you’d actually wait a week in between episodes of a TV show, with time to ruminate on the plot points, considering the possibilities of how the story could advance, discuss with your friends? If anything this means serialised television doesn’t need to be as deep or involving, because it doesn’t need to keep you hooked for a whole week of not watching it. For Netflix or Amazon, the next episode is just there, poised beneath your cursor. At least they don’t need to waste five minutes at the start telling you what happened in the previous episode, or waste five minutes at the end, teasing the next episode.

 

Next time on the Bandwagon, if all dogs are male, and all cats are female, then what about snakes?

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!