Please note: This was originally supposed to the be the end of the show I just did. So it’s a bit way long when written out and may be a bit rambly. I’ve edited it down some and tried to make sure it seems focused but you’ve been warned…
I was talking about Saved by the Bell the other day. And well, thinking about it really brings something home for me. First of all, we really need to stop making live-action TV shows with minors, because there has never been a cast, I think, on earth, that was not horribly scarred by this. Neil Patrick Harris survived. We can maybe call Danny Bonaduce a survivor NOW, but that’s about as far as you get.
Diff’rent Strokes, of course, were all criminals at one point, or on drugs, or both. And, funny story, Diff’rent Strokes, the two black kids, they’re did all right in the end, mostly. White girl? Dead of an overdose. That’s the reality of Diff’rent Strokes for you right there.
Punky Brewster, I don’t know whatever happened to her. She got tits, that’s the last thing I heard, maybe she was swallowed by them, I don’t know, haven’t heard much about her.
Winnie Cooper went on to get a degree in math. Her and Neil Patrick Harris should little have survivor clone babies together.
But, man, most of these shows, and you look back at Saved By The Bell — you have Dustin Diamond, who, of course, has become Dustin Diamond, which is not a fate I’d wish on most people I meet. Then you have Elizabeth Berkley who thought she’d have a movie career if only she’d stripped hard enough, and was proven wrong by the universe… not that all of us didn’t figure that one out early, but she had to prove it to herself.
So, we really do need to stop putting minors in TV shows because no good comes of it.
But bigger than that, Saved by the Bell is, these days, this thing that we, and I use the word “we” loosely because you won’t catch me doing it, but that we go back and remember fondly.
And you have Dora the Conquistadora, which, by the way, Nickelodeon, call me — if anyone out there is working for Nickelodeon, let me know — I really want to do a historical adventure spin-off of Dora the Explorer called Dora the Conquistadora.
But anyway, Dora the Explorer, recently they had to come up with a new version of Dora, and I don’t know if it’s on the air yet or not, where she’s 12, and going off and getting different adventures, because the audience for Dora grew up but they still liked the character, so we’re gonna age the character with her and have both versions of the character running at the same time. This sounds like a good idea on paper, but it leads me to a weird problem.
Pop culture, and I say this as someone who studies the stuff and makes money writing about it – part of my living is in pop culture – but pop culture is a dead thing. Pop culture doesn’t exist. Pop culture started as an artificial concept back in the 50′s, with what was then ‘pop music’ – popular music. It what was on the radio. It was Elvis, and pop culture was a selection of popular things of the time. I Love Lucy was pop culture. The key to pop culture is the fact that pop is short for ‘Popular.’ It is of its time. Pop culture is not a thing that is eternal. Pop culture is a thing that is of the moment. By definition, pop culture is “that thing of the moment.” It’s the top 40 hit, it’s the hot TV show of the day, it’s that great comic that everyone reads, which is none of them right now, god help me, it’s the novel that everyone knows. That’s what pop culture is.
Except, we crossed a line, and I don’t want to use the phrase but I’m going to, a digital divide of sorts, where we were able to store information to such an extent that the past never dies. It never has to, ever again in human history, go away. And that happened, unluckily for us, and by us I mean those of you who are in your late 30′s, that happened for us when were about 16. Our version of popular culture was cemented in time and brought forward with us, and we were the first generation to have that happen.
Generations previous to us, pop culture moves on. You remember it fondly, 20 years later someone makes a shitty movie based on a shitty TV show you barely remember, and you like it because they can change everything, because hey you can’t go back and watch the original stuff anyway.
That doesn’t happen any more. The Charlie’s Angels movies are publicized by re-releasing the original TV series on DVD. They have to admit that the original thing happened. You can’t do a remake any more without admitting the original happened, because the past doesn’t die, we pull it forward. We were the first generation to really have that happen for us, which is why it used to be pop culture was a youth-oriented thing, which is why it didn’t happen until the 50′s. It wasn’t until the 50′s that advertisers figured out that youth culture is the thing that makes the money.
That’s how pop culture worked. It was The Beatles, it was Elvis, it was suddenly youth culture spending all the money. Kids were getting jobs, the economy was good, people had houses, so you had disposable income.
Kids didn’t have disposable income in the depression. They had income, and their lives were considered disposable. That’s a different concept. That’s back when you had things like street urchins, for god’s sakes. I miss Street Urchins. Fond, fond memories of street urchins.
Regardless, we have culture now, and it doesn’t die. We don’t allow ANYTHING to die. When I was a kid, I’d wake up in the morning and I’d watch cartoons, if it was the weekend, I’d watch things like Thundarr. You go forward and when I was in my college-type years I would talk to people about Thundarr, it was this awesome thing, I remember Thundarr! We’d all sit around and be all “Yeah! Thundarr’s awesome!”
Nowadays, you can go and watch Thundarr again and remind yourself why, really, it wasn’t.
And I think it’s a bad, horrible thing, because pop culture is of the moment, and by cementing it in place, you destroy it. You destroy any power it ever had. You can’t create anything now that is going to honestly be pop culture because you can’t create anything now without knowing it’s never going to go away.
Take comics. Back in the 50′s and 60′s, when you would buy a comic, you read the fucking thing, and it’s gone.
You give it to a friend, it self-destructs ’cause it was on crappy paper, whatever it is. The dime-store novels which, at the time, dime store novels were a revolution. That was the first time – those paperbacks were the first time where literature of any sort – and you can argue whether or not any of those novels should be considered literature – but it was the first time that literature of any sort was mass-marketed.
Before the printing press, you had a few people who knew how to read. You get the printing press and suddenly you get a bunch of people who figure out how to read, and books were these hard cover, leather-bound things.
Rich men had libraries. Poor people had a bible in their community center. Suddenly you had these paperbacks that were easily distributed and would cost literally a dime, hence “dime novels”, and anyone could pick up a book and read it, and you end up with these popular books, this pop culture of novels because you bought them, you wrote them, and for the writers, you got paid dick, but the novels were half the length of a novel today, and they would come out every week, there’d be new novels.
So you’d go out and you’d buy this new novel and you’d say “oh, I like this pop culture thing. I like this novel today, maybe the guy will write another one” and they’d actually have studios of people writing novels under one house-name, so it seemed like they’d always have these novels, churning them out.
You don’t get art that way, but these were never supposed to be art. You still had art happening over there. So who cares. If you have these dime novels that were disposable crap, and then you have your big, thoughtful, David Thoreau things happening alongside them.
But, you have this culture that builds and grows, while on the front of it, you have this popular culture for the masses, not that the masses didn’t deserve the higher culture as well, or that the people who ingested higher culture didn’t also didn’t ingest popular culture, but that’s what made the difference.
Once all culture becomes pop culture, there can be no more pop culture. No more pop culture. It doesn’t exist. You can’t have pop culture if it is the only culture there is. Bruce Campbell said a bunch of years ago that there are no more A-list movies.
He was asked if he was upset that he never got asked to do the big A-list Hollywood big-budget movies. He said there hasn’t been an A-list movie in a decade. There are just B-movies with better budgets.
And that wasn’t the snark of a man who has not realized his dreams, because, fuck you, he’s Bruce Campbell, it’s more that he realized, and still does realize, that culture isn’t culture, it is just pop culture that is this eternal thing that now, thanks to us, can never die, and all it can do is sprout.
You cannot create a new show for kids, you have to age Dora. You can’t rework an old concept and bring it back to life, because we can find the old one faster. So you’re not allowed to retell the same story, and people get pissed. And that sounds obvious. “Well, why would I want to see the same story, I’ve already seen that,” sure. But the idea used to be, for instance in comics, Spider-Man would fight The Rhino, then two years later Spider-Man would fight The Rhino, and it’d be pretty much the same issue.
And that was fine. They would actually reprint, sometimes, some of the old issues as filler stories when they needed to hit a deadline, and that was acceptable, not because no-one cared, or because “Oh, we’ll just take the same shit,” but because they didn’t have the old stories accessible to them.
And you had turn-over. You read these comics when you were 8 to about 12 or 14, let’s say, and then you’d move on and read other things. Not there weren’t some people who read them when they were older, or that there is anything wrong with being older and reading them, but what you didn’t have the people were like “Well, 300 issues ago, Spider-Man fought The Rhino, and it was pretty much like this.” Well, no shit!
A) it’s Spider-Man.
B) It’s a guy called The Rhino.
C) Really, it’s Spider-Man fighting the Rhino. The tiny strokes change, the big ones don’t.
Ideally, they were written for kids. People wonder why kids don’t read comics now. It’s because they’re being primarily written for thirty-year-old white men.
And that’s dangerous because we’re not writing comics aimed at the 12 year old any more, often. We don’t know how, for a lot of the value of ‘how’ because the audience aged and the comics aged with them because the past never dies and popular culture doesn’t leave anyone behind, and so the new generation coming in had nothing to latch on to in comics to call their own.
And I am telling lies, there are, of course there are, people creating comics that can and do aim them at 12 year olds and younger and older and anywhere in between. But they are also, it feels, the exception. Really, it feels as if there has been a lot of damage done.
So we’ve potentially lost at least one generation of comic book readers if not two, and we’re never going to get them back. Not to the same degree. They’ll go see the Avengers movie, that’s fine, that’s new to them. That’s actually being aimed at them.
So you’re bringing them into the movies – which again is great – but they’ll still don’t seem to buy the comics and so you have an entire industry that kind of lopsided and in danger of dying, which, comics as a medium will never die, but comics as the mainstream industry that it is – you know, your Marvel and DC comics, runs that risk because they’re being mostly aimed at a generation that eventually will, people like me, they’re gonna die. We’re gonna get old and we’re gonna die. If you aim that stuff at us, what happens when we die? There’s no one to replace us. So that industry just threatens to fade away.
The only people interested in work in that industry, and again I’m talking mainstream American comics like Marvel and DC stuff, all right, starts to threaten to be the people who are already the fans, which means suddenly your creation base and your fan base are the same thing. So now you have people who are writing comics for the guy sitting next to them. This could lead down a road that is a clusterfuck of epic proportions.
And before you think, “I don’t read comics, fuck that, this doesn’t apply to me,” TV ain’t exactly different.
How many versions of the CSI type of show were there? When I was a kid, we had the same cop and hospital show 40 times, but it had different names. There was Emergency. There was St. Elsewhere. There was Hill Street Blues There was… some other shows who’s name I don’t remember at all, because they aren’t Emergency, St. Elsewhere, or Hill Street Blues. But they were all the same show on some level.
And granted, Hill Street Blues and St. Elsewhere where very much prime examples of what you could do, they were not the same thing, they were glorious examples of TV, but still they were procedural shows. You could do them and call them something else and they would come by for a few years and they would die off and no one had to see them again and so the same people who had created those shows and the same people who wrote those shows would go on, slap some new paint on it and do another “new” show, and get to re-use a lot of the same story lines.
Where as now you have something like Law and Order, which ran, I think, 45 seasons. It managed to do this in only ten years, which is a testament to Law and Order.
It had all the spin-offs and all this, and it had to pay attention to it’s own continuity and you had the characters you had to pull forward, you couldn’t reuse the plots because people would notice and… dear god, it’s fucking Law and Order, who gives a shit? No one should give a shit. The show is not designed to have a shit given about it.
But, because of the way we have ruined pop culture itself by demanding it become this beast from hell that is all eternal, all seeing, and all knowing, we can’t escape ourselves. So we end up every year with less and less distinct new shows, and less and less new grown music, and movies, and books that are satisfying because we are training ourselves to never accept the same thing twice. Which is ludicrous.
Look. I liked Die Hard. I loved Die Hard. All right-thinking people loved Die Hard. It’s a glorious example of what you can do with an action movie. And yes, sure, sequels happen but they didn’t used to happen this badly or this often, and the problem is you have something like Die Hard 2, which is the same movie but in an airport.
Back in the days of Die Hard, you had Die Hard, you had Beverly Hills Cop, you had Lethal Weapon. These were all action movies that were also funny, that had the same sort of tenor, and instead of getting one, you got three. But now you’ll just get Die Hard, then you’ll get Die Hard 2 because they know you liked Die Hard, and because pop culture is not allowed to evolve, it’s only allowed to pull forward, therefore you must like Die Hard 2.
Now we’re gonna get Die Hard 5. Instead of finding someone else to do this and starting over, they’re gonna do Die Hard 5 soon, because we are training ourselves to accept, and we are being trained to accept, only the same thing done bigger and bigger each time instead of getting something new done the same as the thing that was old, which sounds ridiculous but it worked for generations.
There are entire movie sites dedicated to “this scene here is just a reference to that scene there.” 95% of the time, if you liked that entire site, who’s name do I not only not remember but don’t want to remember, you have a problem, because yes, sometimes that’s true. If you’re watching a Tarantino film, yes! Sometimes that’s true. But for the most part, there are only so many chords on a guitar. There are only so many ways to shoot a fight scene. There are only so many ways to shoot a car chase.
Chances are, over the course of sixty years, two people are going to independently film the same car chase. Doesn’t mean the second guy was ripping off the first guy, it just means there are cars, and they go down a street, and they kinda gotta go fast. How many ways do you want to do that? And there are a lot of them. We’ve seen a lot of them. But after a while, you reuse one, just naturally.
It’s part of the problem with music copyright right now. Sampling is illegal. Ok, except there are only so many chords. Within what western music thinks of as a chord progression because, trust me, we’re not alone in how we think about how this works, there are only so many chord progressions that work. So you have The Beatles who used 3 chords, fantastically, but they pretty much rung those 3 chords dry.
If you want to write a 3 chord rock song now, good luck not getting sued by Yoko Ono. And that’s a horrible, horrible thing.
It means that going forward, music stops being able to have new voices have the same field of play as the last people. Not that I expect two people to write Hard Day’s Night exactly note-for-note the same, but there are certain notes that come out in it.
Lady Gaga did Born This Way, and yes when I heard Born This Way I thought she was doing that Madonna song, Express Yourself. But I cannot tell you honestly in my gut if she basically hit on the same chord progression and such or if she was trying to redo a Madonna song.
You don’t know either. Any guesses you make are based on what you think of Lady Gaga. Which, honestly, unless you know her in person, has dick to do with how she writes music.
So, we’re all coming at this assuming theft every single time. And we’re destroying the culture we’re trying to enjoy as we are walking along it. We’re walking hand-in-hand with culture, we’ve already destroyed the entire concept of popular culture. Now we’re trying to destroy what’s left of culture by saying that anything is theft.
At the point where every movie shot is compared to every other movie shot, every song is compared to every other song, and every single bit of instrumentation is, “Well they got this snare and high-hat hit from this other song fifty years ago, and this book is, plot-wise, very much like this other book,” yes! And probably that book is Shakespeare.
But Public Domain has a reason to exist, and Disney is one of the main reasons we have the copyright hell we have, because they would take public domain things, put their own spin in it, call it theirs, and try to lock it down so that no one could touch it. Try to do an animated film based on the Jungle Book, I dare you, because they have the rights to it. The Jungle Book is public domain. Not Disney’s movie but the original.
But hey, let’s take Robin Hood. Robin Hood is about as public domain as you get.
Robin Hood was not originally written down. Robin Hood was a story that started verbally. So good luck figuring out who owned that. Back then, no one owned a story, it was whoever was telling it the best. But at some point various bits of Robin Hood get written down, and eventually someone at Disney says “We should do this.” You would think, if you wanted to make an animated version of Robin Hood, not with foxes, but just people, animated you could do it.
Chances are Disney would try to stop you, because they feel that they own Robin Hood, at least the animated versions of it. You can do a live action Robin Hood, and many people have, but, as far as Disney goes, for instance, and in case you think I’m kidding about how fucked this all is – or worse that it’s only Disney doing it – Warner Brothers did a movie based on a very popular book called The Wizard of Oz.
Warner has since sued people for using the term “Flying Monkeys” and having blue flying monkeys and stuff and all this. Little funny fact, the flying monkeys in the Wizard of Oz movie are never named “The Flying Monkeys.” That term is not in use, it’s in use in the book, which Warner’s does not own. The blue kind of colorful monkeys that people try to use and usually get away with, although sometimes Warner’s does threaten, are based on the art that was in the original version of the book, not on Warner’s monkeys. But Warner feels it did the movie and therefore owns all concepts of The Wizard of Oz. To the point where Disney, is doing a movie called The Great and Powerful Oz, which is a prequel to the book, keep in mind. Warner’s is trying to sue to stop the movie from being released because as far as they are concerned, they own The Wizard of Oz on the screen.
They own their Wizard of Oz on the screen. It’s a musical, the book wasn’t. But this messed up bending of copyright leads to the thinking that they own all of this.
This is the kind of sickness that we’ve let into our lives through legislation, through… just… everything. On the one hand, as a content creator, I’m like “Well, I create shit, I want to get my money. I’m owed my money.”
If any of you took one of my books and printed it and put your name on it, I would sue you to protect my copyright. But once I’ve made my money for it, which I’m fairly owed for creating it, that’s it. I don’t need to leave it to let my heirs for two generations, 75 years now, I don’t need to let 75 years of my family get the money from my stories.
Maybe that’s mean, but fuck ‘em, they can go and get jobs. The money a lot of these people make, they’ve already made their money, they’ve already made their riches.
Bono’s kids are not going to want for any money, regardless of if they make a cent off his music once he dies. They’re already set. They don’t need more. They really just don’t. And by ensuring that they are the only people that can keep that stuff around and all those chord progressions and all those little lyrics, they ensure that no one can step close to it.
That’s dangerous for what’s left of culture. And it leaves me in a horrible place, because as a content creator, I’m forced to go “I want to protect my copyright, but not really some days,” and as someone who makes part of their money, not only by creating content but specifically creating content about popular culture, I have to do all of that knowing that, to a certain extent, all that I’m doing is bullshit.
That by telling you funny stories about pop culture and all of these things, I’m perpetuating that pull forward. Now, In my head, at least, part of the reason I do it is to bring back that tradition of “lets talk about things”.
When I talk about Mr. T cartoons, when I talk about Thundercats, when I talk about Transformers, I don’t go back and re-watch them. I talk about them as they were for me, as they existed then, because I don’t need to pull them forward.
They’re there for me like they were when I was a kid. They’re there for you for as they were when you were a kid. You don’t ever need to go back and watch Jem. You know Jem. And the version of Jem in your head is the version you want to have. Because when you come at any media, you come at it at an age, at an experience, at an emotional place, and when you go back, that overwrites. The version of Jem that you fell in love with is the only one you should ever have. Going back to it now is doing a disservice to yourself. Going back and watching any of this is, to an extent, is a disservice. Which, I understand, means I should stop re-watching Ghostbusters every few months. That’s not going got happen.
But I also am aware that every time I do it, I, on the one hand, add to my internal mythology of Ghostbusters, my layers of relationship with all of that film. But I also chip away at the foundation of that same thing.
I went and saw Ghostbusters in the theater. I grew up on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Dana’s house, the apartment building, most of it – it’s on the Upper West Side, it’s in the 80′s on Central Park west, but the top floors are actually a building in Philadelphia, they just matted them in. But most of the building is on the upper west side.
This is important, because it’s on Central Park West. When I went to go see Ghostbusters, went to see it in the theater, walked down Broadway. There was a Loews, it’s on like 84th St. It’s still there.
This is the theater where I saw Ghostbusters, Lethal Weapon, Die Hard, Dirty Dancing – I’m gonna toss Dirty Dancing in there. Damn right I’m going to toss Dirty Dancing in there. Hudson Hawk, and if I’m losing you by mentioning Dirty Dancing and Hudson Hawk… we have issues.
This is the theater I grew up with, this is my home base theater. I saw Empire Strikes Back, where I saw Search for Spock, this is where I saw all of these films, so many of the films from my youth, this is where I went.
So I went there one day to see Ghostbusters. I knew nothing about it, except it was called Ghostbusters. I assumed there was some ghosts, they got busted. That’s all I knew.
I went in there to see Ghostbusters, saw the film fell in love with it. Mind was blown by this film when it came out. I was, I don’t know, probably twelve when Ghostbusters came out. This was the most amazing thing ever created by man or beast. I was going to Catholic school then, and I was suddenly all “Fuck scripture. GHOSTBUSTERS! This is fuckin’ real! When I grow up I want to be Peter Venkman.”
I’m still working on that, for the record. Until the day I die, I will work in being Peter Venkman.
That’s what Ghostbusters did to me, it changed who I was, on a very deep, personal level, which sounds ridiculous but it’s true. And you know, if you saw Ghostbusters in the theater, and you were the right age, you know it’s true. If you’re a little older than me, if you went to see Star Wars for the first time, or got to see the first Superman movie in the theater, and you were twelve, you know that it’s true. It changed who you were. Permanently.
But here’s the thing. Walking back from the theater – I was with my sister – we decided to cut east a little bit and walk back along Central Park West, innocently. We’re walking along and we notice this familiar looking building.
And we suddenly realized this was the building they used in Ghostbusters. I don’t think I’ve ever been as delighted to be put on this Earth as in the moment that I realized that the building in Ghostbusters was a real building, and that I could visit whenever I wanted. It wasn’t like anything actually happened to the building, but it’s that special connection. Again, that will be with me for the rest of my life.
I watch Ghostbusters now and I’m like, “this is this awesome film” and all of those years of history and the times I’ve watched Ghostbusters with friends that had never seen it before, the time I saw Ghostbusters when I was blindingly drunk and insisted on reciting the entire movie to my cat. Luckily, only my cat was present.
All of those times when I watch Ghostbusters, they’re all there for me, but every time I watch it, a little teeny bit of how I felt and remembering being in that seat and watching the film when it was first shown is nibbled away at, I lose a little bit more of that memory.
Every time I watch the film.
I still do it, I do it to myself. Same thing with Back to the Future. Good lord, when I first saw that film. My father wrote science fiction, I grew up with science fiction in my life, so time-travel stories… old hat.
We used to occasionally watch Dr. Who on PBS. I’m an old hand. Time travel… whatever. But time travel? In a DeLorean? 88mph? That shit was new. That was exciting, and that was something special.
And I watch Back to the Future now… it’s still an amazing film but there’s some weird level that it eats away at the first time, even as it adds to it. That makes me sad. There’s a level of sadness with that.
I actually reread almost every book I read, I rewatch every movie I own, I listen to every bit of every bit of music I ever bought, even if I don’t like it, at least 3 times. Because, that first pass through, you’re experiencing it for the first time, it’s new, it’s just getting into your head.
The second and third times you’re able to watch and understand things, and I do firmly believe that, but I also know that every time I do that I’m changing my experience, for the better and for the worse. And as someone who makes some of their living dealing in pop culture, it’s kind of like I’m that guy making watches with radium so they glow in the dark and I know that every watch I make, I’m killing myself a little bit more.
I, to a certain extent, ruin my own enjoyment of the things I’m talking about while I’m talking about them, because I keep having to go back to that well, and I bring other people with me, which is kind of unfair, I suppose.
I’m just marching you all at gunpoint down to the same place I am.
But, it also helps. You talk about it with other people, you’re sitting around the campfire, that’s the most human thing in the world, that’s part of why I always wanted to tell stories, because one of the primal concepts of humanity is sitting around a campfire, telling stories.
That’s what humans did. We banged rocks making music, and we told stories. That’s humanity. That’s culture. That’s what we’re based on.
The idea that we’ve come so far that we can ensure that we never lose any of those stories, we never lose any of that music, sounds great at first.
But we’re not paying attention to the cost, and there is one. But we need to really start analyzing that cost for real, before, at least on a personal level before I really start thinking: we just need to get rid of everything around us until we’re reduced to some rocks and some fire again, because that shit worked.
Still, I think a lot of this can and will be solved by just talking about it. By having enough of us all think about it and discuss it. A decent enough sized group of us and we can make a dent in all sorts of problems. This is how we invented everything – including of course, all of our culture. So we have to do that. We have to pull this all together and see what we have and what it costs and where we actually go from here. That’s the job for tomorrow.
But for right now, right this second, what do we have? We have stories. We have music. We have some shared time.
And that’s going to be enough, more than enough, at least for today.