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Wrestling Sikeston, MO 1938

Stop calling it “pop culture.”

There was a time when we made the distinction between pop culture and high culture. The highbrows went to the symphony and the lowbrows went to the armory for professional wrestling. But there is no more high culture. It is defunct. We need to stop making a distinction that no longer exists.

It isn’t pop culture, it is just culture.

One of the problems is that we don’t really understand what culture is. Most people think of culture as synonymous with taste in entertainment. If some people are entertained by a Bartok string quartet, others are entertained by South Park. But neither the quartet nor the cartoon are culture: They are two tastes in entertainment.

Culture — real culture — is the software we run our society by. It is what we collectively believe is “true.” More it is the sum total of what we believe is true, turned into rules to operate by. At one time, we believed in a bearded sky-god who told us what was right and wrong. Some people still believe and they are now a “subculture” within the larger one. The larger culture now believes what it hears on Oprah or Jerry. We run our lives accordingly. We look for closure, we seek the inner Atilla the Hun and his management strategies. HHH with belt

Everything we do is based, at some level, upon culture. Whether we spank our children, allow divorce, execute criminals and outlaw abortion. It is all based on culture, and culture all based on what we collectively think is true. At a time such as now, what we believe is rather jumbled. It is not coherent or unified. Religion becomes a buffet menu of attractive options. There is not a single unified belief system. The closest thing we have is the widely held belief that all cultures should be respected. But such a belief, at its heart, acknowledges the absence of a single believable system.

So, the argument isn’t between so-called high culture and low culture. It’s all culture. But, much worse, what we’re developing is a system of two opposing cultures — two vision of what each side believes is “true.”

One side calls itself “conservative,” although that is really just a convenient handle — it isn’t really conservative. It is a primarily rural culture, insular and cut-off from the rest of the world and the time it lives in. And, what is more, happy to be so cut off. It eyes the rest of the world with suspicion, even hate. Like the dragon in his cave, with his arms circling his horde, and scowling at anything outside in the sunlight.

The other culture is more cosmopolitan, but not necessarily more intelligent. It tends to believe in the goodness of humanity and the brotherhood of man, forgetting that brotherhood is Cain and Abel. It is more open to progress, but doesn’t always recognize good progress from bad ideas.

If one side is hard and miserly, the other is soft and gushy.

A curse on both your houses.

(One is forced to accept that the ironbound statistical truth that fully half the American populace has an I.Q. below average. It takes only one person with an I.Q. only one point above average to join and make a majority in this so-called democracy. And if you’ve ever met anyone with an I.Q. of 100 — the midpoint and the average — you know that is no great shakes. Overall, humans are just dumb monkeys.)

Anyway, these are two immiscible cultures, and the fact that Congress seems unable to compromise derives from the two cultures, and not from mere policy disagreements. Two umwelts, two completely different understanding of the nature of the world.

And both sides claim pop culture: that messy, energetic, imbecilic, entertaining system of rock-and-roll politics and television theology. It’s just that on one side the television theology comes from Kenneth Copeland, and on the other side it comes from Oprah.

In Victorian times, the symphony and ballet were seen as truer than the dime novel and music-hall comedy. The hoity-toity ran society according to the standards they learned from Tennyson, Carlyle or John Ruskin. The hoi-polloi followed along, reading crime stories in the popular press or sentimental novels. Christopher Daniels flying leap

The new bifurcation of taste and culture is not so vertical. Instead, everything is horizontalized; nobody is any better (or in this view, smarter, or wiser, or more fitted to solve a problem) than anyone else.

The old bifurcation is dead. It was a legacy of those awful Victorians. The last vestige of it is the tails and white tie our symphony conductors wear, and the gowns and dinner jackets symphony patrons wear to the concert hall.

But let’s face it. The symphonies are all near bankruptcy all across the nation. Art museums attempt more and more dumbed-down populist exhibits, hoping to boost attendance.

In a way, they are both irrelevant to the new split.

So, roll over, Beethoven, and tell Tchaikovsky the news.

Lyndon Johnson

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.

Lyndon Johnson showing us his surgery scar; the invention of the ice cream cone; the first televised professional wrestling. The latest is Miley Cyrus and her Wrecking Ballmiley cyrus wrecking ball

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.

Howie Mandel

Howie Mandel

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. johnny carson golf swing

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 T-shirt category also includes vanity license plates and bumper stickers. yellow kid

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.” atlantic city elephant

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.

Genevra Delphine Mudge

Genevra Delphine Mudge

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.

1939 – New York World’s Fair invents the future we are now stuck with. worlds fair

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.

Eddie Rommel

Eddie Rommel

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.

Carol Doda

Carol Doda

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.

1998 – The epic saga of Monica Lewinsky begins, making the distinction between People magazine and the national political agenda meaningless. zimzamcola

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. janet jackson nipslip

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.

art critic cap copy

I first recognized that the common baseball cap had taken over the world the second time I drove through eastern Washington, through the vast green and blowing wheat fields of the Palouse. The first time, in the early 1980s, all the farmers and ranchers wore curl-brimmed Western hats, either straw or felt. There was a distinctly cowboy feel to the agricultural workers.

But a few years later, these same wizened, leather-skinned and toothpick-thin men wore the duck-billed “gimme cap” of their local John Deere dealer or seed company.

johndeerecap

The artificial romance of the cowboy was gone for good. The gimme cap became standard.

If we think of Abraham Lincoln in his stovepipe top hat, or Harry Truman in a gray fedora, we are more likely to think of Bill Clinton in a ballcap. Fashions change.

You can still find the gimme cap in rural America, where it gives its wearer an honest day’s labor, but it is in the city that the cap has grown up. A John Deere cap on a farmer means one thing, but the same hat on an advertising company’s art director means quite another.

He is showing off his sense of hipness.

In fact, it is precisely this sense of irony that gives the ballcap — on MTV or on a city lawyer’s weekend head — its cache. We wear the caps to say something other than what the caps seem to say.

I know. I have had a ballcap collection going for something like 20 years, always looking for the corporate logo or bumper-sticker slogan that can be read ambiguously.

My collection is nothing like it used to be: As we get older, our need to express ourselves to strangers weakens and seems less important. Yet, I still have some of my favorites:

There is a DeKalb Seed Company hat with its logo of a flying corn-on-the-cob. I have always taken this as something of a personal totem. Anyone who has read much of my writing will recognize this immediately and have a good laugh.

Dekalblogo

Then there is the red cap with the giant “X” across it. Such hats were the rage when Spike Lee’s film, Malcolm X, came out. But most of its wearers were Black. I wore the hat nonetheless, and when asked about it, I always said it wasn’t about the Black Muslim leader, but was rather a tribute to my favorite chromosome.

O also love the suede gray, elegant cap with the winged “A”  on its front that was sold to advertise the Tony Kushner plays, Angels in America. It is a very butch hat for so subtle a play. It implies a great deal, but its message is only readable to a very few.

My favorite cap recently has been the gray and black Nixon hat. When I wear it to the ballpark, I tell people it honors Otis Nixon, my favorite of all former Atlanta Braves centerfielders — a very large and distinguished group of alumni. Nixon is also a charter member  of my personally selected “All-Ugly” squad. Lord, I enjoyed watching him play.

otis nixon

The perfect gimme cap, though, has the logo of the Shakespeare fishing gear company on it, written in an elegant script as though it were the signature of the Elizabethan playwright. When I wore it, my highbrow friends assumed it was in honor of the author of Hamlet; my more sports-minded friends took it as an endorsement of a rod-and-reel. It was perfectly ambiguous.

I wore that hat out and its replacement is a little less perfect, for added to the signature is the slogan “Since 1897,” which flattens some of the irony.

shakespeare logo

Many gimme caps are promotional items, meant to hawk a new movie or rock band. The most misaimed of these has to be the A&E network cap, with the logo on the backside, so it can be worn bill-back in home-boy style. What used to be the Arts and Entertainment network has given up completely on art, and given over to rednecks making duck calls, or chasing wild pigs across Texas. Artless.

Of course there are people who wear their caps with no sense of irony at all. They don’t mind advertising the Nike swoosh or their favorite baseball team or their brand of cola. They are left hopelessly behind. We read their lives like a book. The irony is meant, instead to hide, while revealing to the initiated.

The non-ironic ballcap is the equivalent of one of those oh-so-earnest bumper stickers that the politically committed paste on their cars. Yes, we care about whirled peas, and our gunless hands will be cold and dead. We should not be so one-dimensional.

But giving out a more complex message, the wealthy Hollywood actor, Tom Selleck can wear the blue-collar Detroit Tigers hat and pretend to be one of the proletariat.

Brooklyn cap

Which is why I choose the Brooklyn Dodgers cap, or the sky blue of the “Oral & Facial Surgical Center of Corinth, Mississippi,” or the plaid Bear Surf Boards cap.

It makes you think twice.