About ten years ago, when O.J. Simpson was famous only for football, his name came up in a conversation at the office. “Who’s that?” I asked. Mouths dropped open and all eyes turned my way. Unbeknownst to me (but apparently beknownst to all other sentient beings on the planet), the person I had just inquired about was one of the best-known people in the United States, perhaps the world. My reputation was sealed.
A couple of years ago, we had a French exchange student stay with us. She was weak-kneed over Leonardo DiCaprio, who had just starred in the smash hit, “Titanic,” and whose picture was plastered all over the United States and, apparently, all over France as well. When his name first came up in conversation, I said, “Who’s that?” Hard to believe, perhaps, but true. More recently, I betrayed the fact that I had never heard of the financial wizard, Warren Buffet.
I suppose I could defend my lack of awareness of O.J. Simpson by explaining that I don’t follow football. Perhaps I could use the same line of defense to explain why I had no idea, more recently, who Warren Buffet is – I don’t follow financial markets. As for Leonardo DiCaprio, well, I don’t go to the movies very often (although I do go occasionally). Oh, I can hear what you’re thinking: “What, do you live in a bubble??” Well, sort of.
I must admit that, looking back, my pop-cultural cluelessness amazes even me. I don’t really know quite how I managed to live in this country and not have heard of O.J. Simpson, or Leonardo DiCaprio. (Warren Buffet, well, maybe.) One major contributing factor, however, is that I don’t watch commercial television. Not watching commercial TV is like exiling oneself to an alien planet, pop-culturally speaking. All the commercials that everyone else is treated to ten zillion times a year, I haven’t seen, and this has been true for years. Likewise, I haven’t seen the most popular (or any other) commercial TV shows for years. And we have a TV. I can hear what you’re thinking: “What do you do with it? Use it as a planter?” Well, no. We watch public television, sometimes. And we use it for the VCR, sometimes. And that’s about it.
Almost. Every once in a very long while, we do watch something on a commercial station — like the Olympics or the World Series. It’s at these times that I’m reminded why I do this only very occasionally. I find commercial TV, the commercials in particular, exceedingly annoying. It is my casual observation that the percentage of time devoted to commercials has grown over the years (I used to watch commercial TV years ago). I’ve also noticed that many of the commercials are more “hopped up.” It’s as if the ad men think we’ve all been “sped up” and that we’ll enjoy commercials that have likewise been sped up — that we’ll be bored if asked to look at a visual image on our TV screens for more than a couple of nanoseconds. The amount of time devoted to any single image in these commercials has gotten so small, in fact, that I cannot focus on one image before it’s replaced by another. I assume there’s a reason these commercials are now made this way, but I cannot imagine what it is. (Some type of subliminal manipulation of the human mind, no doubt.) They must “work,” otherwise they would have been abandoned as a tool to pry our money from us, but to me they’re only an irritant. And so I choose not to watch them, or the TV shows embedded in them.
I react to much of popular American culture in a similar way. I find much of it to be loud, abrasive, in-your-face, and not very interesting. I’ve noticed that when I switch from WETA, our local public radio station, to WTOP, our local news-traffic-and-weather station, the volume automatically increases. WTOP just broadcasts louder. And everything that is said on WTOP is said more dramatically than anything that is said on WETA. WTOP gives you news as it happens. WETA just gives you news. But although WETA is not as loud, what it says is more interesting. WTOP shouts, “Listen to us!” WETA simply speaks, but has more substantive things to say. (If you’re wondering why I ever switch to WTOP – I switch to get the weather every ten minutes on the eights. I switch about once a day – unless I find that I was daydreaming right through the weather forecast, which happens often – in which case I am reassured that there will be another one in ten minutes, and another one ten minutes after that, ad infinitum on the eights.)
Back in the (infamous) sixties, hippies used to talk about “turning on” and “dropping out.” The “dropping out” part referred to the much disdained mainstream American society. The idea was that one could simply drop out of it, or tune it out, like a radio station — not pick up the signals, so to speak. Switch to another “cultural channel.” Mainstream America was considered not worth tuning in to, and perhaps even hazardous to one’s mental, emotional, and “spiritual” health. Looking back at the sixties from the vantage point of the year 2000, what the hippies tuned into when tuning out mainstream American society now seems singularly unimpressive. (If the truth be known, it didn’t seem all that impressive back then either.) But I shared their assessment then that what they were tuning out wasn’t much worth tuning in to either. And it doesn’t appear to have improved in the intervening years.
Switching periodically to popular American culture gives me a glimpse of that world without being inundated by it and drowning in it. And I’ve noticed an interesting, if disturbing phenomenon. Each generation of performing artists seems to feel the need to “push the envelope” in precisely those places that their parents’ generation pushed it to make their parents’ generation feel uncomfortable. It seems to be thought to be necessary to ratchet up the level of violence, or the explicitness of sex and sexuality, or the sheer in-your-face abrasiveness or outrageousness to distinguish yourself from your predecessors — in much the same way that teenagers do the things they do to separate from their parents, to define themselves as something beyond simply the fulfillment of their parents’ wishes for them.
Popular culture in this country is notoriously youth-oriented, and appears to be forever driven by the desire to separate from the parent mainstream culture. But the mainstream culture of today was the youth culture of yesterday, and defined itself by pushing the envelope of the culture that was then mainstream. Just as youth culture is doing today. Pushing the envelope. We are much more explicit and graphic (to say nothing of prolific) in our depiction of sex and violence than we ever used to be, a trend that is virtually guaranteed by this endless process of the culture trying to outdo itself. What was once outrageous and shocking is now passé. I shudder to think what the future holds that will make the currently outrageous and shocking itself seem passé.
Over time, as this process continues monotonically, the envelope expands in directions that seem designed to make us more and more uncomfortable in our own culture. And because culture is what binds us together, it’s sort of like being uncomfortable in one’s own skin – if you’re no longer young. It’s easier to be comfortable with changing styles and mores if you’re in the group doing the changing. But when the young grow up, they’ll most likely start to feel uncomfortable too. (It seems that there’s nothing unique about any particular cohort – each one feels unique in youth and then looks back from middle age, sees another cohort that has replaced it as the “youth cohort,” and reassesses things.)
Of course, it’s the very openness and freedom of our culture that allows this process to continue. In fact, ours is one of the most free and open cultures in the history of humankind. And this is good. At least, I think this is good. Traditional cultures don’t have this allowance for change, good or bad. The point of expression in traditional cultures is to express what the culture has always expressed, in much the same way it has always expressed it. While this may be comforting, it’s a bit monotonous, to say nothing of stifling. It’s nice to have the freedom to express oneself, perhaps in a new way. In our culture, you have the freedom to make a complete ass of yourself if you so choose, and some people do.
But there’s the rub. We have virtually unbounded freedom to express ourselves — and out of that comes all manner of things, some of which are new and wonderful, and many of which are crass and tasteless. Perhaps that’s just the price we must pay. Perhaps to unearth a few fine cultural gems we must sift through seemingly endless dirt and gravel. And perhaps this is, in the last analysis, better than sitting around admiring the fine cultural gems that were unearthed hundreds or thousands of years ago. But (I can hear you thinking) who am I to decide what’s crass and tasteless? Just another person, like you. I know what I like, and I know what I think is crass and tasteless. No one need agree with me.
Nor do I necessarily always agree with the priests and priestesses of the world of high culture. In fact, the essentially egalitarian nature of popular culture is one of its most appealing features. People watch and listen to what they like. If only a few people like something, it fades away. If lots of people like it, it stays around, at least for a while. But what lots of people like, apparently, I don’t. And that’s okay, as long as I get to “choose my channel,” or turn it off altogether. And so I choose to be pop-culturally illiterate.
Mostly. As it turns out, I’m not entirely disconnected. There are some bits of popular culture I really like – a few commercial TV shows that I think are very clever. Years ago, I watched all the episodes of M*A*S*H in reruns. I loved it. I deem it a cultural gem (even though I could still have done without the commercials). More recently, my son asked if he could watch Seinfeld in reruns. After over a decade of saying “No commercial television,” we finally relented and said, “Okay, Seinfeld once a week.” Seinfeld is one of the few shows that I had heard repeatedly is very clever. And it is. Interestingly, when the commercials come on, my son, who usually watches television sprawled on the floor in front of the set, lifts his foot and podiatrically turns off the sound. Like mother like son, I guess.
So as it turns out, I’m not totally pop-culturally illiterate after all. I know who Seinfeld is. I know who O.J. is. I know who Warren Buffet and Leonardo DiCaprio are. But I’m sure the time will come again when I will innocently ask, “Who’s that?” and grins will once again form as those around me, who, like all other sentient beings on the planet, know who that is, regard me with amused incredulity. That’s okay. It’s a small price to pay for the freedom to be able to choose which signals, in the vast and complex jumble of cultural signals that are broadcast today, I want to pick up and which I want not to pick up. If the time ever comes when they just pipe this stuff directly into our brains, I’m in trouble. But until then, I’m good.
 The song “Anything Goes” expresses this phenomenon well. A snippet:
“In olden days a glimpse of stocking
Was looked on as something shocking,
But now, God knows, Anything Goes.
Good authors too who once knew better words,
Now only use four letter words
Writing prose, Anything Goes.”