If it weren’t for popular culture, some people say, America would have no culture at all.
But that’s a bad rap. Popular culture is America’s one great gift to the world. If Greece gave us logic, democracy and high art, America in her 200-year infancy gave back Good Golly Miss Molly, the moonwalk and Flav-R-Straws. Who is to say this isn’t an even trade? There is a dynamism in pop culture that makes European high art look positively flat-footed. Pop bounces; it’s witty, clever and brash. It explodes in your mouth like Pop Rocks. And if you get bored with the latest incarnation of pop, another will be along, like a bus, in 15 minutes.
Hey, you can’t dance to Wagner.
Pop culture is so persuasive that virtually every nation on Earth yearns to assimilate it whole. T-shirts and jeans have become the international habiliment, as American English has become Earth’s lingua franca.
How did it come to be this way? There are many mileposts on the way. They are the Great Moments in Pop Culture.
Some might say pop culture is made up solely of great moments, since the concept of great moments is by itself a pop phenomenon.
More great moments: the first waffle; the invention of tassels; the day Hanna met Barbera; black-velvet Elvis; and instant replay.
Each was a defining moment in a culture that redefines itself every moment of existence.
There was Nixon saying, ”Sock it to me” on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In; the first TV couple sleeping in a single bed; paperback books; Ron Popeil’s Pocket Fisherman.
In a sense, the perfect incarnation of pop culture is the Madonna-Lady Gaga axis. It is the phenomenon that most accurately describes what America is all about.
In Europe, class traditionally has defined who you are and what you can be, but democratic America is about social mobility and the rock-hard belief that no one is better than anyone else. When they called America the land of opportunity, they meant not only the land of $60-million no-cut contracts, but the land that lets you inflate your breasts with silicone, join the Hair Club for Men or rise from Bedtime for Bonzo to president.
European high culture is divided into the seven arts: painting, music, dance, literature, theater, sculpture and opera. Critics in the 20th century often add an eighth: cinema. But all are longhair and, when properly appreciated, require uncomfortable clothes, usually worn by audience and artist alike.
American pop culture requires no more than shirt and shoes for admission, and sometimes not even that. High culture is French wine; pop culture is a twist-off cap on a Lite beer.
But pop culture, too, is divided into seven components. They might be the race car, top hat, old shoe, wheelbarrow, iron, thimble and terrier of Monopoly, but they’re not.
The real seven lively pop culture components are: Horses, Roman Numerals, Dirt, Nudity, Cheese, Hair and Golf. Any aspect of pop culture fits into one of these categories.
Let’s take and examine them one by one.
Hair, for instance — by far the largest category — includes rock and roll, television evangelists and local TV news anchors. Howie Mandel is included as the negative of the proposition, an honor he shares with an increasingly large number of pop icons in the brotherhood of the shaved head.
Boxing falls under Hair, via Don King.
Horses includes everything from Hoot Gibson to Mister Ed to that ’78 Chevy with 300 horses under the hood.
Richard Harris also fits here.
Roman Numerals take care of the Super Bowl, Halloween movies and Thurston Howell III.
Under Cheese we can find most of the American diet, from pizza to cheeseburgers. Fondue is here.
But so is reality TV: Not much is cheesier.
Nudity brings us Madonna (of course), Playboy magazine, Robert Mapplethorpe, Danielle Steele novels and Sports Illustrated.
Dirt is self-explanatory: It is gossip, and includes not only People magazine, Entertainment Tonight and Kitty Kelley, but also the entire political process, especially as it has devolved into the intellectual equivalent of mud wrestling.
And, of course, Golf. Johnny Carson’s monologue punctuation, the nation’s space program (golf is first interplanetary sport), the late Mr. Blackwell’s honorees and anyone else who wears tasteless clothes.
Name any pop phenomenon and you can find a home for it in one or more of these resting places. The Simpsons, for instance, falls under Hair, based on the tonsures of Bart, Lisa and Marge and the lack of same in Homer.
Sally Rand’s fan dance or Betty Grable’s legs fall under Nudity, along with Bernie Madoff (under the Emperor’s New Clothes clause).
And where the eggheads add cinema (as opposed to movies) as a late-developing fine art, we must point out that pop culture has added T-shirts. T-shirts are the personal communication medium of an age that no longer writes complete sentences.
The history of the message T-shirt is really as old as The Yellow Kid. Often considered the first comic strip, The Yellow Kid premiered in 1895 in the New York World. Unlike modern strips, with dialogue in balloons, the Yellow Kid’s words first appeared on the front of his shirt.
The Yellow Kid’s creator, Richard Outcault, later felt his dialogue was uncomfortably constrained by the device and invented the word balloon as a solution. It was one of the great moments of pop culture.
A POP CULTURE TIMELINE
It’s tough to decide where to begin a list of pop culture’s greatest moments. Should it be 59 B.C. with the first newspaper, in Rome? Or maybe 1530 with the first state lottery, in Florence?
Gutenberg’s printing press got three No. 1 votes in the coaches’ poll.
Even more likely candidates are Shakespeare’s Henry IV, Part 2 in 1598, which prefigured our current sequelitis, or the first newspaper correction, printed in 1721.
But I decided the real start of pop culture was one year before the Declaration of Independence. Pop culture is almost perfectly coexistent with (and maybe codependent on) the nationhood of the United States.
Nothing in this chronology is made up. These things happened.
1775 – Carbonated water is invented by John Mervin Nooth.
1801 – Elisha Brown Jr. makes a cheese weighing 1,235 pounds; six months later, it is presented to President Thomas Jefferson at the White House.
1812 – First lawn mower (horse-powered) is patented by Peter Gaillard of Lancaster, Pa., making golf possible.
1823 – John Wayne gets his first role, when James Fenimore Cooper publishes Pioneers. Wayne, Gary Cooper and even Clint Eastwood would not have been possible without Cooper’s “Leatherstocking” tales, including The Last of the Mohicans.
1825 – Thaumatrope is invented, early movie predecessor. Others: Phenakistiscope, Zoetrope, Zoepraxiscope. Americans become intoxicated with Greek-derived words.
1848 – Dentist’s chair is patented by M. Waldo Hanchett of Syracuse, N.Y.
1854 – Accordion is patented by Anthony Faas of Philadelphia
1857 – Joseph C. Gayetty of New York City invents toilet paper, made of manila hemp. With his name watermarked on each sheet, it sold at 500 sheets for 50 cents and was known as ”Gayetty’s Medicated Paper – a perfectly pure article for the toilet and for the prevention of piles.”
1860 – Dime novels hit the newsstand when Ann Sophia Stephens writes Malaeska: The Indian Wife of the White Hunter.
1869 – Dr. William Newton Morrison creates a gold crown for a tooth, making Hip Hop videos possible.
1882 – First building shaped like an elephant is built, by James V. Lafferty in Atlantic City, N.J.
1886 – Dr. Pepper, Coca-Cola and Hires Root Beer hit the market.
1894 – First movie theater is opened in New York, by Thomas Edison. First films are bodybuilder Eugene Sandow lifting weights and doing exercises, and Buffalo Bill mounting a horse and shooting his pistols. Cut to Arnold Schwarzenegger and Clint Eastwood.
1896 – First automobile accident, as a Duryea Motor Wagon hits a bicycle rider in New York City.
1896 – Chop Suey concocted in New York by Chinese Ambassador Li Hung-chang’s chef, who devises the dish to appeal to both American and Oriental tastes.
1898 – First woman driver, Genevra Delphine Mudge, takes to New York’s streets. In 1899, she knocks down five pedestrians, initiating the creation of a new profession: stand-up comedian. Laughs on them: She became first woman race car driver.
1911 – Painted lines first run down center of road, in Trenton, Mich.
1922 – Belvin W. Maynard, ”The Flying Parson,” gives first sermon from an airplane, broadcasting from his Fokker over Tupper Lake, N.Y.
1926 – Electric toaster is invented by McGraw Electric Co., Minneapolis, under trademark Toastmaster. Pop Tarts not far behind.
1930 – First cow flown in an airplane, a Guernsey, goes aloft with corps of reporters and is milked during flight. Milk is sealed in paper containers and parachuted over St. Louis.
1930 – Twinkies are invented.
1935 – First parking meters, invented by Carlton Cole Magee, are installed in Oklahoma City.
1935 – Beer is first sold in cans.
1937 – First perfumed newspaper ad page appears in Washington, D.C., Daily News.
1937 – Spam is introduced by Geo. A. Hormel Co. as a health food.
1937 – First vanity plates are sold, in Connecticut.
1938 – Teflon is invented; Ronald Reagan is 27.
1940 – Arno Rudophi marries Ann Hayward above Jamaica, N.Y., in first parachute wedding.
1940 – Meat wrapped in cellophane is sold for first time, at A&P.
1940 – M&Ms are introduced, as a candy for the military.
1949 – UFOs hit headlines with first of a spate of sightings. Air Force investigates 244 sightings, says there are no flying saucers. Someone at Wham-o manufacturing company has a brainstorm.
1950 – ”If the television craze continues with the present level of programs,” says Daniel Marsh, president of Boston University, ”we are destined to have a nation of morons.” Aaron Spelling is 22.
1952 – Fish sticks are invented.
1953 – Playboy debuts with nude centerfold of Marilyn Monroe. John F. Kennedy is 36.
1954 – TV pictures are first transmitted from a blimp, for Tournament of Roses parade.
1956 – Edwin Americus Rommel becomes first major-league umpire to wear glasses.
1959 – Aromarama is introduced in movie Behind the Great Wall with slogan, ”You must breathe it to believe it.”
1959 – Plan 9 from Outer Space makes Aromarama redundant.
1960 – Nevertheless, Mike Todd Jr. develops Smell-O-Vision for Scent of Mystery.
1960 – First presidential debates on TV demonstrate importance of a clean shave.
1961 – Newton Minow, chairman of FCC, calls television ”a vast wasteland.” Bob Denver is 26.
1963 – Pop-top is patented by Ermal Cleon Fraze of Ohio.
1964 – Veg-o-matic is introduced.
1964 – Carol Doda displays first silicone breasts.
1965 – First TV husband and wife to share a bed are seen in NBC’s Please Don’t Eat the Daisies.
1968 – Beatles leave for India to receive instruction from Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. They complain of bad food. Ringo returns early; so does Mia Farrow. White Album follows.
1977 – First parade in which all marching music is supplied by transistor radio, Fourth of July at Streamwood, Ill.
1979 – Space Invaders video game released by Bally.
1989 – Tass, the Soviet press agency, reports alien creatures have landed in a space vehicle in a park in Voronezh, 300 miles southeast of Moscow, and a crowd describes one alien as 9 feet tall with three eyes. Tass insists it is not a hoax.
1990 – Strangest Dreams: Invasion of the Space Preachers, a TV movie shown incessantly on USA cable network, pretty well sums it up.
1990 – Hubble Space Telescope glitch proves next TV hit should be “Optometrists in Space.”
1991 – The World Wide Web is introduced, presumably also, the first cute kitten video.
1991 – The Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings demonstrate that despite the introduction of the Web, pornography is still in the VHS dark ages.
1994 – Tonya Harding discovers way to pop culture fame by knee-capping rival figure skater Nancy Kerrigan at Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.
1995 – O.J. Simpson trial brings rhyming poetry to the tongues of lawyers.
1998 – Shakespeare in Love beats out Saving Private Ryan, Thin Red Line, Elizabeth and Life is Beautiful for the Best-Picture Oscar, proving that in America, nobody — and nothing — is better than anyone else, and even the least can win an award.
1999 – Nation goes nuts chewing its fingernails over Y2K.
2002 – Iranian-made pop Zam Zam Cola is dubbed official soft drink of the Hajj.
2003 – Real-life “hobbit” discovered in fossil remains of Homo floresiensis.
2004 – Massachusetts becomes first state to legalize same-sex marriage.
2004 – Martha Stewart goes to prison.
2004 – At Super Bowl XXXVIII, Janet Jackson perfects the nip slip, which goes on to become one of the defining memes of the millennium. Since then, you can’t be a real celebrity without a nip slip playing on the internet.
2005 – French surgeons carry out first successful human face transplant.
2005 – Cartoons of the prophet Muhammad published in Denmark. Uh-oh.
2006 – Pluto demoted to “dwarf planet” status.
2006 – Vice President Dick Cheney shoots his friend in the face while quail hunting.
2006 – Singer Britney Spears one-ups Janet Jackson, and raises the ante on celebrity sex exposure, getting out of a car without underwear, a ploy later adopted by Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, among others.
2008 – Opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics scare the bejeezus out of America, which realizes that perhaps, just perhaps, it’s now on the downslope of history.
2011 – Congressman Anthony Weiner attempts to get in on the act by sexting a photo of his weiner, which must be the male equivalent of the Britney move. Fame follows, or rather notoriety, and resignation from Congress.
2013 – Now running for mayor of New York, Weiner again looks to Britney Spears for career guidance, following the advice of her hit song, Whoops, I Did It Again. TV talk show hosts consider this a gimme.