Pop Culture Mysteries: The Truth is (Maybe) Out There
The media explosion of the past 50 or 60 years has led to a big increase in the amount of what anyone might call art or entertainment. (Not that everyone would find all of it artistic or entertaining, of course.) The invention of all our familiar mass communication technologies enabled that, and I revel in living in a world that’s completely flooded with pop culture. Come to think of it, that’s sort of a crucial theme to this blog.
What I think might be overlooked is that not only has a great deal of culture been created in this time period, but so has a stupendous amount of information relating to that culture. We’ve formalized things in a way that probably didn’t seem necessary or practical in past eras. It’s interesting to imagine what a medieval lute player would think of Slayer or what the Knickerbocker Club would think of modern baseball. But I also wonder what they’d make of the 117 different Billboard charts or a college football ranking system that takes into account six different computer-generated data sets.
Details play into our understanding of culture more and more, and Wikipedia and the Internet in general put them at our disposal with a minimum of effort. The ease with which facts can be learned has made it possible for netizens to be obsessed with ever more specific minutia. There are dusty Web backwaters where you can learn all about every conceivable piece of Calvin and Hobbes merchandise. About the lifetime winning percentages of all six Legends of the Hidden Temple teams. About the academic validity of the writing on blackboards in school-set pornographic films.
One side effect of all this, for me anyway, is a heightened fascination with those facts that still manage to fall through the cracks. If you have a basically proficient command of Google and something is still a mystery to you, chances are it is a mystery to society as a whole. Unsolved pop culture mysteries remind me of the vastness of time, in the face of a world where we expect nothing to still be hidden. Here are a few of the ones I find the most intriguing.
What was “Ready ‘n’ Steady,” and what happened to it?
Joel Whitburn is a meticulous record collector and researcher whose mission it is to own and catalog every record that has appeared on the Billboard singles charts since they were invented in 1958. He now has them all, except one.
For three weeks in June 1979, a song called “Ready ‘n’ Steady” by an artist called D.A. appeared on the “Bubbling Under the Hot 100” chart (which was, at the time, simply positions nos. 101-110). It debuted at #106, went to #103 then #102, then dropped off the chart—and apparently off the face of the Earth.
No one is known to own a copy of the record or know what the song or artist even was. Whitburn, the authority in this area who has tracked down literally everything else, is totally stumped. He now says he isn’t sure whether the record exists at all.
But the evidence is right there. What makes the “Ready ‘n’ Steady” mystery especially confounding is that for a song to come close to the Hot 100 a song has to be, you know, popular. That no one would own or have much knowledge of, say, a legendary unreleased track like “Carnival of Light” is unsurprising. But songs get on the Billboard charts by having their records bought and being played on the radio. People have to have bought it. Radio stations have to have a copies stashed in their libraries. Someone has got to at least remember the damn thing, right? …Right?
There is one other possibility, one that would be pretty bizarre, though maybe no weirder than a charting song disappearing without a trace. That would be that the song never actually existed in the first place. Who knows why or how a fictitious entry could make it on the chart (for three weeks at that). Could it have been a copyright trap to determine if someone was copying their information? Mapmakers add fake towns to their maps for this purpose sometimes, but since Billboard wants its proprietary chart information to be repeated as much as possible, I don’t see how this could be. Could it have been an inside joke by a rogue Billboard employee? You can’t rule it out, though if that was it, they really should have thought harder about making up a jokier sounding title.
What happened to the “Shot Heard ‘ Round the World” ball?
On October 3, 1951, a legendary baseball moment occurred. Down 4-2 in the bottom of the ninth inning of a playoff game to determine the National League champion, Giants third baseman Bobby Thomson hit a three-run home run to end the game, defeat the rival Dodgers and propel his team into the World Series. It was a shocking turn of events that enveloped the Giants’ home stadium the Polo Grounds in complete bedlam, with Giants fans rushing onto the field in a state of euphoria.
Lost amid the insanity was the fate of one crucial object: the ball. It landed in the left field bleachers and hasn’t surfaced since.
There have been many conflicting stories. One man claimed the ball had been given to him as a child by a family friend, and the ink on it indicating it as such was determined to date from the period. Two eyewitnesses who are visible in photos of the event testified that they saw an African-American boy catch the ball in a glove and run away. An obscure book from the ’50s claimed the ball ended up with a woman named Helen.
One of the most intriguing accounts came from filmmaker Brian Biegel, whose film and book “Miracle Ball” present fairly convincing evidence that Helen was, of all people, a nun. This Sister Helen insisted all her possessions (including, presumably, the ball) be thrown into a dump after her death, and Biegel suggests this was because she was breaking the rules of her order to even be at the game in the first place.
That there’s recently been so much interest in finding this “Holy Grail of Sports” and that in 1951 whoever ended up with the ball didn’t think it important to come forward then or possibly ever, shows how much the concept of memorabilia has developed. Antiques Roadshow, eBay, Pawn Stars and other cultural elements emphasizing the collectability of things has transformed the significance we place on historical objects, and probably on contemporary objects as well.
What’s so interesting about that is that this is all happening right as objects would seem to mean less than ever before, in the age of e-books, mp3s and paying at Starbucks via mobile phone. I wonder if all this has alerted people to the increasingly few things that cannot be digitized. Historical items fall under that category of course, and I’d bet that as society grows more and more digital historical objects will grow more and more interesting to people, as the very concept of tangibility becomes more alien.
There are other mysteries in the world of antiques and collectables, but none about something so crucial to American pop culture. Indeed, Don DeLillo’s magnum opus Underworld immortalizes the whereabouts of the ball as mythic. Huge industries have sprouted up recently dedicated to knowing the truth about old things. But deep down, perhaps even subconsciously, I think people yearn for there always to be a bit of mystery concerning the past. And the chances that the Shot ‘Heard Round the World ball will ever leave that realm seem very slim to me.
What is the origin of the vocal sample in DJ Shadow’s “This Time”?
I’ve discussed music sampling on this blog several times before. And while I’m disturbed by some of the more shallow uses of the technique, I’ve also mentioned some artists whose sampling I think is really artistic and interesting, such as “plunderphonics” groups who construct entire albums solely out of obscure vinyl samples, like the Avalanches. A similar if less dance-oriented artist who preceded the Avalanches is DJ Shadow, who the Guinness Book of Records credited with creating the world’s first completely sampled album with 1996’s Endtroducing.
Ten years later, DJ Shadow released a tepidly received album called The Outsider that was a good deal less sample-crazy. But its lead track, “This Time (I’m Gonna Try It My Way)” was built around one of the most peculiar samples ever.
Puff Daddy may have been happy to copy Led Zeppelin and the Police, but it’s apparent that more creative DJs try to outdo one another in finding the most obscure samples possible. The vocal sample on “This Time,” however, might be some kind of trump card, because no one, including DJ Shadow himself, knows who it is.
Apparently, it was found on a demo reel in an abandoned studio in the San Francisco Bay Area, labeled only with the name “Joe” and the year 1967. If Joe, or anyone who was aware of him making this recording, is still alive, they either haven’t heard this song or haven’t come forward.
The genesis of DJ Shadow and Joe’s track is a testament to the power and mystery of recorded media. How amazing, and strange, is it that a person can write a song and lay it down one day only for it to be both forgotten yet preserved, awaiting rediscovery without any of its original context, for decades?
Considering how much people know about obscure vinyl recordings—the videos breaking down the samples in Avalanches and DJ Shadow songs linked earlier attests to that—something like “This Time” makes you realize how much in fact how much culture we don’t remember. How much has been lost, forgotten or as of now hidden is, to me, incredible to think about.
What is “It doesn’t DO anything! That’s the beauty of it!” from?
Take a look at that quote. Does it sound familiar? I asked this question of six or seven friends and they all said it did. Apparently people across the country and world all do. So…what is it from?
Can you place it? Don’t worry. No one can. It has bedeviled the Internet for years and some truly epic attempts to figure it out have been made to no avail. Willy Wonka, the Simpsons, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy—some guesses are more prevalent than others but nothing has proven correct. Investigators have scoured deep into the annals of pop culture looking for the line, and occasionally something reasonably close from a source that is today mostly obscure like this will show up.
Of course, that misses the point. The seeming ubiquity of “It doesn’t DO anything! That’s the beauty of it!” ensures that it can’t be from something most people are not likely to have seen. Chances are that it sounds familiar to everyone because everyone has heard something that sounds similar to at least part of it somewhere. Why this particular phrase has such a strong associative effect like that, and furthermore how and why and by whom it reached the public consciousness for being such, are sub-mysteries of their own.
I think this one is amazing because it’s a mystery so mysterious that it strongly challenges one’s perception of the mystery’s premise in the first place. It’s probably not truly a question seeking an answer at all, it’s more likely a vast sociopsychological phenomenon that creates a mystery without any any possible solution. You can try and try to find the answer, but ultimately you really can’t do anything with this one. And you might just say that’s the beauty of it.