September 07, 2004

Unfortunate Moments in Popular Culture

WE WERE driving home one recent night when the radio station to which we were listening began, without any warning whatsoever, to broadcast a song by The Eagles. As we have always found this particular Eagles song a bit silly, it got us to thinking: did this unfortunate mess of a tune represent some kind of watershed in American cultural history? And even if it didn’t, what in hell were these people thinking when they wrote it?

Therefore, we thought it fitting to pick a few Unfortunate Moments in Popular Culture and put them before our readers, so that our readers could help us understand things and events which we don’t entirely understand. We know that life was radically different in the decades before we were born, but still – we had no idea how much so.

In any event, let us commence:

UNFORTUNATE MOMENT No. 10
The Eagles Release “Lying Eyes”
1975

The chorus to this unfortunate song, which grates on our nerves something fierce every time we hear it, is as follows:

So she tells him she must go out for the evening to comfort an old friend who's feeling down.
But he knows where she's going as she's leaving, she’s headed for the cheating side of town.
You can’t hide your lying eyes, and your smile is a thin disguise.
I thought by now you'd realize, there ain't no way to hide your lying eyes.

Our question: what in hell is the cheating side of town? We mean, come on. Are we to believe some sort of weird socio-economic divide separated a municipality into sections for its respective adulterous and non-adulterous residents? We could believe such a thing were it 1875, and adultery was not something one formally acknowledged in polite society. But in 1975, polite society was on the verge of drowning in its own decadence, due to a horrible combination of social and economic problems.

It’s one thing to suffer some weakening of the traditional family unit, or to face society-wide issues with social disease. But in the Seventies, those things were just part of the problem. In 1975, according to the Government, unemployment was at 9 pc. So was inflation. The bear market of 1973-74 played havoc with stock holdings, and inflation added to the pain that came with that downturn. And as if all that wasn’t bad enough, people couldn’t even buy gasoline. Clearly, social and economic forces drove this unfortunate soul – whom, we learn from the song, is looking desperately for monetary security – to a life of moral turpitude. Therefore, we can determine the song is a Cultural Watershed, as the woman’s behavior clearly points to general societal malaise as a whole.

The song’s still crap, though. There’s a great way to hide one’s lying eyes, and that is with a good pair of sunglasses.

UNFORTUNATE MOMENT No. 9
Alanis Morrissette Releases “Ironic”
1996

An oft-mentioned criticism of Ms Morrisette’s song is that the events she describes in the song are not in fact ironic, but merely unfortunate. For instance, in one line, Ms Morrisette clearly depicts the agony and trauma which exists when one buys a particularly messy item at Taco Bell: all one needs is a knife, but one ends up with that useless plastic spork thingy. (The proper phrase, we have learned, is runcible spoon, but never mind). As it turns out, a Massachusetts firm trademarked the word spork in the Seventies, thus proving that all bad things may have a common ancestry.

In any event, it is clear that whomever wrote “Ironic” did not know the meaning of the term. After all, our above example is not an example of irony, but rather a hideous descent into a maelstrom of suffering not seen since Tantalus was cast into the underworld. It is true that one could interpret Ms Morrisette’s lyrics as an indictment of certain Canadian societal trends. Ms Morrisette, after all, is Canadian, and while Canada claims to have a health care system, it is not really a health care system at all. However, the fact that Canada failed to do anything about this immediately after her song was released is prima facie evidence that “Ironic” is not a Cultural Watershed. Instead, it is just crap.

UNFORTUNATE MOMENT No. 8
“Dragnet” Attempts to Get Pretty Cool and Far-Out
1967-1970

This is a tough example for us to bring up, because we quite like the old Dragnet show, which is not really the old Dragnet show, but never mind. After all, how can anyone not root for Joe and Bill, guardians of the Swell Post-War Order, as they fight a tough but losing battle against the forces of nihilism, despair and sloth?

The only trouble was when they fought a little too hard.

We are sorry, but it was quite jarring for us to watch as Joe and Bill would foil smugglers and murderers in one episode, and then in the next spend the entire thirty minutes arguing about pot with the Church of Groovy Psychedelic With-it-ness (Reformed). Perhaps we are being a bit harsh – after all, the show did try to let God-fearing adults know what they were up against – but we have to think this episode and others like it prompted lots of groans during “rerun season.”

Speaking of groans, from exactly what department store display did they find the actors to play the teenaged characters? We recall one such episode that so appalled Mr Kepple he spat out the word “robots!” at the screen in disgust. (That would be the episode with “Blue Boy,” who before you get any ideas, suffered from a different affliction than one might think.) We know they didn’t spend a lot of money putting on the show – there’s a reason why Joe and Bill were hardly ever out of uniform – but even we can’t believe they set out to find actors who had trouble managing even one dimension of a character.

But we digress. Clearly, these episodes of Dragnet – which we have no doubt were once thought pretty cool and far-out, son – were a Cultural Watershed. Arguments which would have convinced people back in the Fifties no longer held any weight, and the end result was that Joe and Bill couldn’t seal all the holes in the dam. Had Joe and Bill realized this would happen, they might not have smirked when the protesting hippies told them they would be the ones someday writing the laws.

UNFORTUNATE MOMENT No. 7
“Captain Planet and the Planeteers” First Airs
1990

The writer James Wolcott recently confessed that when hurricane footage is shown on the television, he finds himself rooting for the hurricane. This is a particularly unfortunate thing to say in public, and similar to us saying that if Mr Wolcott -- God forbid -- contracted dengue fever, we would root for the plague seeping through his veins. But of course we would not ever say or do such a thing, because that would be rude and insensitive. Indeed, we wish Mr Wolcott lives to be 110.

In his badly-thought out post on the subject of hurricanes, Mr Wolcott refers to “Gaia,” which in our book is a Key Sign that a writer Has Strong Views when it comes to environment matters. As for the popularity of this neopagan Earth-spirit concept, we blame it solely on “Captain Planet and the Planeteers.”

“Captain Planet” was a regrettable attempt on the part of a certain businessman to raise awareness about environment issues. The plot, readers will recall, centered around the fact that Gaia – who was incarnated as an actual spirit – could not stomach the devastation being wrought upon, well, Gaia. Clearly the best thing to do was send a set of power rings to impressionable youngsters, who when they weren’t acting like a mini-United Nations, used these rings to summon some green-haired Communist from … somewhere. Anyway, Captain Planet would then run around unlawfully hindering industry and progress, while the kids would lecture adults about the proper balance between development and conservation.

All that said, though, we must classify Captain Planet as a Cultural Watershed, as it was in the late Eighties and early Nineties that people got really concerned about environment issues. Plus, the show somehow stayed on the air for six frickin’ years. How the devil did that happen?

UNFORTUNATE MOMENT No. 6
The 55-mph Speed Limit Introduced
1974

Our theory about the 55-mph speed limit is that someone who always took the bus to work thought this brilliant idea up. Either that, or they were frustrated that they couldn’t get any action despite having sunk a high percentage of their salary into that puke-colored AMC Gremlin. And even though folks back then should have noticed these things, we have no doubt this 55-mph speed limit proposal was undoubtedly given Considerable Official Support before it got kicked up to The Powers That Be.

Therefore, on behalf of everyone here at The Rant, we’d just like to say, “Way to go, wide-lapel pleather-wearing Seventies-era policy-wonk team! Thanks for all those wasted hours spent in the back of our folks’ car as we drove from Michigan to Pennsylvania! Thanks for letting our insurance firms charge us more money when we were caught boosting the speed up to a sinful 65 or even – gasp – 70 miles per hour!”

A friend of ours did note today, however, that the 55-mph speed limit did prompt Sammy Hagar to write a song about the idiotic idea. Also he -- Mr Hagar, not our friend -- jumped around in some kind of weird yellow jumpsuit. Therefore, we must say this was a Cultural Watershed.

UNFORTUNATE MOMENT No. 5
Bad Rap Music Gains Popularity
Mid-to-Late 1980s

While we are not music historians, we have to think the increasing popularity of rap music – which began in the Eighties – kicked off a particularly unfortunate trend in the music itself. By that, we mean popular rappers began to focus on the fact they were making significant sums of money from their music. Therefore, instead of actually writing lyrics that told a story or spoke to their listeners, many rappers focused on the fact they were making bank something fierce. Worse yet, the popularity of rap made it possible for incompetent morons to make rap records, despite having absolutely no talent whatsoever. Ice, ice baby, you … you got what I need. But you say he just a friend.

Now, while we recognize that many Kepple-haters may attack us for our position on the issue, we can assure readers that we actually kind of like rap music. Good rap music. In fact, we would go so far as to say Dr Dre’s “California Love” is the best rap song ever written. But “California Love” has a good beat, and has good background music, and has good lyrics. Much of the rap music today does not have any of these things. Instead, the music often … well, let’s just say it comes up a day late and a dollar short, because you don’t want to hear our twenty-one questions. Fortunately, however, there is enough good rap music to ensure this is not – we hope – a Cultural Watershed. However, if the trend continues, there is danger of this happening. Get on the floor.

UNFORTUNATE MOMENT No. 4
Wall Street Decides Greed is Good
Mid-1980s

Back in the Bad Old Days, before disclosure requirements and all that, we learned a few pointers about investing. One key lesson we learned was that we ought take analysts’ recommendations with a great deal of salt. Another lesson was that whenever we saw a stock touted in the press, we had to assume the person touting it – and all of his friends – already owned shares and were waiting for the thing to shoot up. A third was that hype was just often that: hype.

Unfortunately, back in the Eighties, not enough people on Wall Street saw fit to mention these things to all the small investors. Even worse, few of the small investors were listening to the people who rightly shout Mayday about such things once every couple of decades. Then all the Wall Street types became like rock stars once the market started to pick up, and people started earning insane salaries, and lots of folks thought cocaine was a good thing. We have to think this irrational exuberance helped create the conditions which led to all that regrettable stuff in the late Nineties and afterwards. So we must, by necessity, term this a Cultural Watershed.

UNFORTUNATE MOMENT NO. 3
John and Yoko’s “Bed-in for Peace”
1969

There are plenty of moments in time when celebrities saw fit to damage their careers by sticking their noses in politics. But if we had to pick one point where this trend started to get out of hand, it would be John and Yoko’s “bed-in for peace.” Not so much for the event itself, but rather the example it set.

It used to be that celebrities were only political when it came to supporting a war effort. Then it got to the point where you had some overtly political but annoying celebrities, but the majority remained apolitical. We would suggest that John Lennon was one of the first to truly bridge the gap: a formerly non-political celebrity turned anti-war activist. Sadly, Mr Lennon did not write up an essay on how to do the job correctly, as a lot of today’s celebrities could’ve used it.

Readers will recall that in video of the “bed-in,” John seemed to have a great time with it all, while at the same time making his point pretty effectively. Plus, he and Yoko didn’t get defensive and upset whenever someone else criticized them; a big contrast between today’s spoilt stars, many of whom run around whining about censorship when people disagree with them. Why exactly later generations never realized the effectiveness of Mr Lennon’s tactics is beyond us, but we have to say: it’s a Cultural Watershed, darling Sean.

UNFORTUNATE MOMENT NO. 2
Logan’s Run debuts in theatres
1976

Christ, if this is how people in the Seventies saw the far future, no wonder everyone engaged in so much anti-social behavior. No amount of condemnation can truly provide justice for the movie-going public who spent their hard-earned to see this miserable, wretched, horrible waste of celluloid. Everything in it sucks. Everything – down to the horrible Seventies-era décor and frickin’ escalators – escalators, for God’s sake – makes us recoil in disgust and horror. It is a mockery of science-fiction.

The worst part is that there’s talk of a remake. Oh, God. Not a Cultural Watershed. Definitely not.

UNFORTUNATE MOMENT NO. 1
Government Imposes Wage and Price Controls
1971-1974

We need some help from our elders about this one. What exactly were otherwise reasonable people thinking when they thought wage and price controls would end up cutting inflation in peacetime? We know that wage and price controls were somewhat helpful in curbing it during the Second World War, but that was, well, during the Second World War. Spending 40 pc of GDP on a war for the nation’s survival, and borrowing most of that money, necessarily caused inflation. (That’s roughly the equivalent, in this day and age, of having the Government spend $20 trillion over four years). But during peacetime? To fight inflation running at six percent? What the hell?

Now, we like to think we are educated; and indeed, we have a year’s worth of economic training under our belt from a top university, plus a lot of self-study we have done on our own time. That said, it was not until tonight that we ever heard of this “Cost of Living Council,” which apparently went about telling people what they could pay workers and what they could charge for goods. It was not until tonight we heard of bare store shelves and farmers drowning their chickens rather than send them to market. And then they kept the price-control system for oil and natural gas, which was the big concern anyway, when the wage and price controls didn’t work? What the hell? Weren’t people trying to Whip Inflation Now or something?

We just don’t get it. We don’t get why people thought it was a good idea, why people went along with it, and why no one apparently got all that upset with it. We’d have spent our increasingly-worthless dollars on a steady supply of pitchforks and torches. Ah well. In any event, this is definitely a Cultural Watershed, because this truly represents the Giant Economic Malaise that existed in the Seventies – a wretched and horrible decade that, as we have hopefully shown in this little exercise, contained much that we ought bury in history’s dustbin, and bury deep.

Posted by Benjamin Kepple at September 7, 2004 10:14 PM | TrackBack
Comments

I'm obviously not elder enough: I still don't understand Wage and Price Controls, and I had a bit more than a year of economics study [not counting self study].

I suppose that we can console ourselves with the thought that at least they're not producing a remake of The Munsters. Oh... wait. Nebber mind. ;]

Posted by: Ironbear at September 8, 2004 11:12 PM

I just don't understand why they thought it'd be such a great idea. Didn't they realize the Soviet statistics were crap? Didn't people remember those GM-produced cartoon pamphlets of "The Road to Serfdom?"

Ah well. As for the Munsters remake: Dear God in Heaven.

Posted by: Benjamin Kepple at September 9, 2004 09:48 AM

A decent list of obscurities. I would have liked to see commentary about Right Said Fred's spanish version of "I'm To Sexy" or how Sam never returned home on "Quantum Leap" or how "Beat Street" and "Breakin'" brought to the light that ghetto boys can dance while wearing bad 80's clothes and carrying around disturbingly massive boom-boxes.

Posted by: RAD at September 9, 2004 09:52 AM

My God -- I had no idea Right Said Fred was inflicted on the Spanish-speaking peoples of this world.

Posted by: Benjamin Kepple at September 9, 2004 12:17 PM

I always considered the cheating side of town to be a metaphorical place. Do you take all song lyrics literally? If not, why these particular ones and not others?

You must hate Paul Simon. ;)

Posted by: dan at September 9, 2004 01:32 PM

Hi Dan,

To answer your two-part question: No, and because I really didn't like these songs, that's why. :-D

Of course, even if one looks at the songs objectively, one must conclude that "Lying Eyes" is at best mediocre and "Ironic" is still quite stupid.

In the latter case, it is not just run-of-the-mill stupidity we're talking about either. It is stupidity from a strange world. Maybe it's the Top 40 world, and maybe it was Alanis' true first time around. However, I think such stupidity has been surrounded by the sound of similar lyrics in the marketplace. Not that there's anything wrong with that, of course -- it does sell, and I like Top 40 music sometimes. That said, though, I would generally save my praise for the angels in the architecture, spinning in infinity.

Posted by: Benjamin Kepple at September 9, 2004 04:14 PM

That's what I had guessed (that you didn't like the song to begin with).

Amen and Hallelujah!

Posted by: dan at September 9, 2004 05:39 PM

I dunno, dan. I agree with Ben. But I always hated the Eagles, so there ya go. ;) They're kind of a bluegrass rock band for Top 40's listeners, without the raw grittiness of The Outlaws or other bluegrass bands.

Indeed, Ben. "Dear god in heaven" pretty well sums up my feelings on the Munsters movie. And there I was thinking that Starsky & Hutch was as bad as it could get...

Posted by: Ironbear at September 13, 2004 05:29 AM