Archive for the ‘Culture in General’ Category

Pop Culture Mysteries: The Truth is (Maybe) Out There

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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.

D.A.'s "Ready 'n' Steady" bubbles under the Hot 100 on June 16, 1979, then bubbles its way into oblivion three weeks later.

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.

The bat that Bobby Thomson used to hit the "Shot 'Heard Round the World" is in Cooperstown, but the location of the ball is a mystery.

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.


What Might ’00s Nostalgia Look Like? An Exercise in Future-Retroism

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There’s no way to confirm this empirically, but it feels to me like ’90s nostalgia has exploded in just the last year or so. Nickelodeon announced an upcoming ’90s nostalgia programming block, NBA jerseys of the era are all the rage, and amazingly excellent blog posts that you should read are being devoted to its cultural relics.

Already available at CafePress, despite the incorrect punctuation

Of course, this should not have surprised me. As I mentioned in the kids’ sports movies post and as others have pointed out, nostalgia for a decade begins two decades after it like the clockwork of this watch (see? ’90s nostalgia is inescapable all of a sudden!).

So we know ’90s nostalgia is big right now and will likely only get bigger as the ’10s go on. Trust me when I say I approve of that. But for this post, I want to try to travel into the future. To 2020, to be exact, when according to the aforementioned ancient Mayan nostalgia calendar that hasn’t been wrong yet, nostalgia for the ’00s will kick into gear.

You might find it hard to imagine, today, what anyone could be nostalgic about, and I’m right there with you. But I have no doubt that no one in 2001 really knew what kind of form ’90s nostalgia would take at the time either. While acknowledging that difficulty, I’m going to attempt to predict, at this very early time, what ’00s nostalgia might look like.

How will I do this? Not very well, is likely to be one answer. But as for my methods, I think there’s enough to be learned from the common themes in the well established ’70s, ’80s and now ’90s nostalgia movements/industries to develop certain nostalgia indicators, if you will.

I think a key thing that characterizes objects of nostalgia is that they are often not the cultural items that are considered actually great. I don’t think anyone says “I love ’70s movies, like, ‘The Godfather.'” That’s not to say they necessarily have no actual merit, it just means they might be things that don’t immediately ensure cultural endurance.

In that way nostalgia is a concept that shares a lot with the tenets of pop art. It’s as much about resurrecting what’s been discarded as it is about determining what had merit. Something from the past that satisfies both these conditions will quite likely be deemed nostalgic. Something discarded that wasn’t all that good has a decent chance too. And even a few things that endured because they had merit might, but only if they are extremely indicative of their time.

So based on those ideas and what I know of contemporary nostalgia, I will attempt to figure out what from several different areas of culture in the ’00s will be viewed as such. You might have heard of retro-futurism, the artistic concept of utilizing motifs based on what the future was thought to possibly be like in the past. This is going to be the opposite. Join me now, as I take a future-retroistic journey to 2020…

The first thing I’d like to discuss is the Internet. I think the few years after 1995 when the Internet was truly a wild frontier, the “Netscape Era” if you will, is pretty fascinating. But I feel sure that in the future the ’00s will be seen as the golden age of the Internet.

The Internet is becoming more and more the media norm every day. If the 2012 presidential election is not the last one to be covered in newsprint, I think the 2016 one definitely will be. Every facet of Internet media has gotten more corporate and slickly produced, from digital editions of newspapers to YouTube to the way music is downloaded.

The ’00s will end up looking like a pretty special time in Internet-land: a time when blogs were vibrant and mostly noncommercial but still well read and commented upon, when social networking became an exciting new youth-driven thing, when a whole new culture that would eventually take over the worldwide mainstream really began to take root.

I imagine this shirt could be a prime example of ’00s Internet nostalgia. So could lolcats or any other meme that seems indicative of the time before the Internet really “grew up.” Hell, I think computers themselves could be items of nostalgia by 2020. I don’t want to give any support to Apple’s suggestion that the iPad is “magical and revolutionary.” But I do think the combination of tablet PCs, ever more powerful smartphones, and the fact that the Internet will probably be ingrained into almost every product might make the concept of hunkering down with your laptop a thing of the past.

I wanted to mention the Internet first also because I think its presence will affect future nostalgic views of many other things too. Which brings me to TV. Similarly to what I mentioned about computers, I feel certain the idea of watching a show at a specific time because that’s when it airs will be extinct pretty soon. You can already see this happening everywhere, what with Hulu and Netflix streaming and so on, and of course we have the Internet to thank for those wonderful things.

As for the actual content of nostalgic ’00s TV, I could imagine reality shows that are starting to taper off in popularity a bit like Survivor (currently in its 22nd season, by the way) being a big part of it, especially if reality shows are not the networks’ bread and butter anymore by 2020.

But the most fervent nostalgia comes from those were young during the decade in question. There’s moderate ’90s nostalgia for Friends or The X-Files, but extreme nostalgia for everything Nickelodeon did in the decade. And what is the equivalent in the ’00s? I think the answer is the Disney Channel. That’s So Raven and Phineas and Ferb will be seen then the way Clarissa Explains It All and Doug are now. Of course, future Nickelodeon-style nostalgic shows could also be from…Nickelodeon itself, which has still been the most-watched basic cable channel for years.

And I have to disclose that the inspiration for this post came from when I was thinking up a trivia question about The O.C. and was amazed at how evocative of a different time it felt, despite the fact that it only debuted eight years ago. I couldn’t quite place my finger on exactly why that was, but it probably had something to do with the endless stream of indie rock that was on display.

“Indie” music (I put that in quotes because “indie” became just a genre, not really a reflection on the type of label one was signed to) will, I imagine, become a large part of ’00s music nostalgia. And while a lot of it doesn’t really rock that hard, the truth is that by 2020 we might be long past hearing anything that could be considered “rock” at all in the mainstream.

As for ’00s pop, if you ask me which pop stars will be objects of nostalgia and which won’t, I can’t say confidently except that I feel certain Britney Spears is going to have a huge revival at some point. She has every element of future nostalgia written all over her: enormous initial success, a long descent into being tabloid fodder and not particularly culturally relevant, but a past repertoire of sugary pop gems waiting to be re-appreciated in the future.

To return to indie rock for a second: While Death Cab for Cutie and the Shins may have been featured in the preppy world of The O.C., the indie movement they represented was inextricably linked to hipsterism. Love them or (as almost everyone seems to profess, even if they seem to be one) hate them, I think in the ’20s they could very well be seen as the definitive fashion trend-setters of the ’00s.

A common criticism of hipsterism is that it is a regressive culture, concerned only with recycling stuff from the past, and while that might be true, I don’t think it means it hasn’t produced distinctive fashion elements. Enormous glasses, skinny jeans, beards—I suspect all these will be revived as ’00s style in the future.

Another hipster-begun trend is the aforementioned wearing of ’90s NBA jerseys. I am not immune. And while thinking about this post, I decided to purchase, on eBay for $1.25, what I thought will be a future item of ’00s nostalgia. Although recent events make the Sacramento Kings’ imminent relocation look less likely, the point remains: defunct teams ALWAYS become objects of nostalgia, with a fervor that certainly outstrips people’s feelings toward those teams when they were around. (If you don’t believe me, check out the winning bid for this item.) So expect teams that are likely to be moved soon, like the Kings or the Phoenix Coyotes, to be treated the way the Vancouver Grizzlies or the Montreal Expos are now.

I think it’s interesting that the hipster jersey trend focuses mostly on basketball rather than other pro sports; I’m guessing this is because the ’90s were when the NBA really settled in as a global presence after its big gain in popularity in the ’80s. (Space Jam, whose sublimely ’90s website is still online, couldn’t have hurt either.) Will one particular sport dominate ’00s nostalgia?

I don’t think it will be hockey, despite it having an interesting journey this decade from positioning itself as the game of the future to almost going extinct after the devastating cancellation an entire season. I also don’t think it will be baseball, which seems like it can survive and thrive through anything, including steroid scandals.

I think if there is one sport that might attract nostalgia in the ’20s it could be football. And the reason I say that is because football might be poised for a decline in popularity over the next 10 years. The brutal toll the game takes on its players in the form of concussions and other injuries, all too often leading to serious problems later on in life, has been coming to light recently. As this column points out, it would not be surprising for football to go the way of boxing, going from dominant to fringe as the sport’s dangers become more and more well known. I suspect that if that happens, vintage NFL jerseys will gain a certain nostalgic quality as totems of a cultural element that was once dominant before a fall from grace.

And speaking of people who fell from grace (even if they didn’t deserve that grace in the first place), let’s talk about the defining political figure of the ’00s, George W. Bush. No, I don’t think in the future Bush will become thought of warmly by the general public, but conservatives will surely try to Reaganize him. And in a way that will be appropriate, because I think the political culture of the ’00s will be seen very much the way the ’80s are now.

That is to say, as a nation gripped by a moderately irrational fear of a less-powerful-than-they-seem enemy. Just swap out the Soviet Union with terrorists. I think we’ll look back and laugh at ourselves for having to take our shoes off at the airport and that this will be reflected in lighthearted movies taking place in the decade. That being said, I think compared to the ’80s this element of ’00s nostalgia will be a little less pronounced, mostly because the terrible events that did transpire were realer than the Cold War was. This shirt and this album cover/band name might be possible today, but I doubt there will ever be a band called “Alan Qaeda and his Qaedets” or something.

Before I finish this post, I want to add a brief coda about one thing. I seriously think there is a possibility that ’00s nostalgia could be less profound than that of the ’70s, ’80s or ’90s, but not because anything about the decade lends itself to being anti-nostalgic, because I don’t think that’s possible. No, I think that could happen—I know it sounds silly, but I am being serious here—because there is no agreed upon way to say “’00s” in speech.

“Aughts,” “Naughts,” “Ohs,” “Zeroes”—all are logical in their own way, but none have the inescapably understood meaning that “nineties” does. Without this universal shorthand, might someone not bother trying to describe something to someone else as being very “’00s”? Of course, that assumes everyone will not come to agreement on a term at some point, which seems unlikely given that none was reached during the decade itself, but not impossible.

Personally, I vote for “two-thousands.” It makes the most sense to me since you begin the spoken form of each year in the decade with those words, and I don’t think ultimately it would be confused with the term for 2000-2099, since if precedent holds the century will be known as the “twenty-hundreds” anyway.

The ’10s don’t have an obvious way to say them either (“teens,” I guess) so write down these three things to look forward to in the ’20s: a clear and obvious way to say the decade (roaring “twenties”!), ’00s nostalgia, and being able to look back on this post to see how wrong I was about it. I can’t wait!