When Something to Be Desired was in regular production, we created a pair of Halloween specials. For a show that revolved mostly around people talking, these exercises in stunts, squibs and decomposing makeup were a nice change of pace. If you’ve never seen them before, indulge yourself — zombies, vampires and sarcasm, oh my!
But what (or where?) is the mainstream? And when does a creation of the culture become popular enough to qualify as “pop culture” — and to whom?
If we start with Wikipedia (because we must), we learn the following:
“Mainstream is, generally, the common current of thought of the majority…. It is a term most often applied in the arts (i.e., music, literature, and performance). This includes:
- something that is available to the general public;
- something that has ties to corporate or commercial entities.
As such, the mainstream includes all popular culture, typically disseminated by mass media. The opposite of the mainstream are subcultures, countercultures, cult followings, underground cultures and (in fiction) genre.”
Given this definition, let’s deconstruct it further. For example, the opening sentence: “Mainstream is, generally, the common current of thought of the majority.” Thus, in order to be considered “mainstream,” a thing must be thought of:
- by the majority
For example, swing music was “current” 60 years ago, but it’s not “commonly” enjoyed “by the majority” today, so we can conclude that swing music is no longer mainstream — although it once was. This means that mainstream has a shelf life dependent upon the immediate popular tastes of “the majority,” as epitomized by fashion. (“When does something become retroactively cool?” is a discussion for another time.)
But there’s another spot of vagueness in the whole debate: how do we define “the majority”? Are we talking about the entirety of the world’s population? If so, then only the most basic concepts like food, water and shelter can be considered mainstream, since I doubt most of sub-Saharan Africa has ever seen Star Wars or an NFL game. Or maybe we mean the majority of Western (or Eastern) culture, AKA the majority of geographically separate citizens who still share a common lifestyle? Or do we mean the majority of a certain country, a specific gender or an age-defined demographic?
NASCAR is mainstream among the red half of America. Richard Dawkins is an international expert and best-selling author whom the majority of NASCAR fans have probably never read. Have either of them reached a critical mass of popularity across enough demographic segments to be considered “mainstream”? (Can something ever be mainstream if it polarizes the population, or must it be universally embraced?)
Iron Man, a film based on a semi-popular comic book (which is a literary subculture, according to the above definition), is the 53rd largest-grossing film of all-time, out-earning all of the X-Men films, which are based on a better-known property. Since film is mass media, whereas comic books are not, does that mean the character of Iron Man has finally escaped the alternative media ghetto and can now be considered mainstream? Or would he have to reach the heights of Spider-Man 3 at #13 all-time, or The Dark Knight at #4? What’s the Mendoza line for the mainstream?
CNN and Nightline regularly quote tweets from their Twitter followers. Facebook helped power the “Super Duper Tuesday” election extravaganza in February 2008. Does mass media’s use of a social media tool mean that specific tool can now be considered mainstream? Or does one tool’s reach raise awareness of social media itself to mainstream heights?
Perhaps none of these questions have clearly-defined answers, and this is all an exercise in semantics. But if we’re interested in how the world around us perceives what we’re doing — and how we’re influenced by what the world around us is doing — it helps to understand our own presumptions and expectations. Otherwise, you’ll never know when those UGGs you insist on wearing have gone out of style.
Yesterday, someone started a Twitter game called #uncertainmovies, in which people alter the titles of films to make them sound more vague or less definitive. (Examples: “Some Like It Lukewarm” or “Split Decision at Nuremberg“.) Since I’m both a film buff and a compulsive personality, this is the kind of meme that can simultaneously eat up my whole afternoon while alienating most of my followers, who become alarmed when I get too prolific.
Considering I came up with nearly 30 of these yesterday, followed by another 20 while I was out running errands, I figure it’s better to spare my followers the hassle and just post the ones I still find personally amusing here:
- The Mediocre Life Coach of Oz
- The Bourne Ultimatum… Unless You Want to Talk About It
- The Good, the Bad and the Ones With Great Personalities
- The Last of the Mohicans Who Bothered to Fill Out a Census
- Disinterestedly Seeking Susan While This File Uploads
- Any Given Sunday That We Aren’t Having Dinner at Your Mother’s
- Not In the Hallway, Lola, Not In the Hallway
- That Thing You Occasionally Do
- A River Runs Through It on Some Maps That Have Yet to Be Cached by Google
- It’s Not a Bad Life, Although “Wonderful” Might Be Pushing It
- Star Trek 2: The Heretofore Unseen Peevishness of Khan
- The Lion, the Witch & the Family Heirloom Most Likely to Be Undervalued on Antiques Roadshow
- The Greatest Story Ever Told, If You’re Into That Sort of Thing
- She’d Like to Have It But, Honestly, She’ll Take What She Can Get
- Yeller, Who’s Getting Up in Years But Still Has an Occasional Burst of Speed
- A Clockwork Fruit Genetically Engineered by Monsanto
- Gone with the Slight Breeze That’s Unavoidable Because the Fucking Yankees Burned the Whole Goddamn House Down
- Moderately Attractive Woman (If You Like Horses)
- Hang ‘Em High, But Not So High That Joe Can’t See ‘Em Because He Forgot His Glaucoma Medication
- Boyz N That Section of Town We Usually Try to Drive Around
- Willy Wonka and the Gluten-Free Carob Factory That Meets LEED Standards
- The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas That Doesn’t Involve Toll Roads
- Arthritic Tiger, Hidden Gecko
Now, here’s hoping I’m not gripped by another spurt of arbitrary inspiration until my real-life deadlines have passed.
Remember the ’80s? Those were my formative years, so their influence is hard to shake, but I can’t help but recall the ’80s as the last time in Western culture when fun was generally acceptable.
I grew up reading comic books like Batman and Spider-Man, and watching cartoons like G. I. Joe and Transformers. And while each of those entertainments occasionally intertwined with “adult themes” — Crisis on Infinite Earths, Kraven’s Last Hunt, the 2-part “There’s No Place Like Springfield” episode of G. I. Joe when Shipwreck is brainwashed into believing he has a wife and child who then dissolve into ectoplasm and drive him insane — their tone was generally upbeat, optimistic and action-packed. Sure, bad things might happen, but you were always a “G. I. Joe-teams-up-with-Cobra-to-defeat-a-mutual-enemy” moment away from overcoming cynicism with the possibility of a bright new future where our differences weren’t so great, and everyone could just get along — at least until the next episode.
Then the ’90s happened.
Suddenly, the garish burlesque of hair metal was rendered immediately irrelevant by grunge, and pop culture never looked back. The rarefied ’80s tendency by some artists to take cultural icons more seriously — Watchmen, The Dark Knight, Batman: Year One — was just the preamble to a new generation of brooding, tortured anti-heroes incapable of enjoying life — and, by extension, making the enjoyment of life seem childish.
And now, here we are at the dawn of 2010, a quarter-century removed from the heyday of Saturday morning cartoons and stories with happy endings. Movie superheroes are barred from wearing multicolored costumes. Video games have evolved from technicolor adventures into something more sinister. Grunge and gangster rap have never truly relinquished their grip on the pop radio culture, resulting in the enduring popularity of ’80s nights — the last time anyone could dance without feeling guilty.
Recent cinematic reboots of Batman, Spider-Man, The X-Men, G. I. Joe and Transformers have maximized the eye candy, but they consciously eschew any semblance of fun, instead focusing on survivalist action. To be “cool” in this new era is to be as emotionally detached and battle-ready as possible, which means there’s no time for friendship, romance or self-expression — unless all of these happen as desperate accidents while you’re doing something more important, like saving the world from giant killer robots. (Even the new Freddy Krueger lacks the vaudevillian sense of humor that made the original Nightmare on Elm Street series worth seeing through covered eyes, now reduced to another joyless exercise in pathological revenge.)
It’s not like others haven’t noticed, either. Half the humor from ultra-satires like South Park, Family Guy and Robot Chicken is derived from contrasting the innocence of youth with the stark vagaries of reality. But as cynical as their humor is, it’s also wistful, reminding us of a time when high school wasn’t a hotbed of sociopaths and wrestlers didn’t try to murder each other.
Sure, the ’80s were absurd. But they wouldn’t resonate as strongly as they do today if they weren’t also one thing that modern culture refuses to be: unashamedly, unabashedly and unironically fun.
Then think back a moment to the cultural icons of our recent past. Would Star Wars have been a generational touchstone without a heart at the center of its android shell? Sure, Luke’s the brooding one with the weight of the galaxy on his shoulders, but Han Solo’s the rule-breaking class clown who gets the girl.
Didn’t we learn anything from that?
A few days ago, a friend asked me if I’d ever heard of Person X. I hadn’t. Neither had he, until Person X contacted him regarding an upcoming social media workshop that Person X is organizing for Pittsburgh’s newspaper industry. Considering my friend and I are two of the 30+ organizers of PodCamp Pittsburgh — and that we’ve been doing it for 4 years now — we found it odd that someone we’d never heard of was purporting to offer organized social media instruction to an entire industry.
A little Googling revealed that Person X has a Twitter account with 20 followers and hasn’t updated since September. Obviously, this trips my bullshit detector. Not that these alone are signs of a socially inept person, since plenty of people don’t have time for Twitter. But not many people at the “teaching an industry how to use social media” level are this lax in their social media footprint, either.
Of course, what you or I may detect as bullshit may go completely unnoticed by the very people most in need of a social media education. Or, in other words, we’re at risk of the field being dominated by people who know nothing, because their target audience knows even less.
One Man’s Expert Is Another Man’s Pool Boy
Personally, I don’t care if you want to call yourself an expert, guru, thought leader or tastemaker. Irritating though you may be, your success or failure will be determined not by your personal branding but whether those you’ve fooled into believing you once are willing to pay you to be fooled again. Sooner or later, you run out of suckers.
So, do we need some kind of social media expert verification system? I don’t think so.
First of all, any such system would be inherently distrusted by anyone who feels s/he knows at least as much as the people handing out the certificates. As much as we all claim social media is a democracy, we also understand it’s a meritocracy — and if you need a special web badge to prove your legitimacy, it’s only because your expertise doesn’t already speak for itself.
Second, those of us who believe in our own legitimacy already understand what that legitimacy looks like. We can spot the frauds and douchebags by the things they say and do, and our BS detector is reliable enough to keep us from lending too much credence to those whose actions suggest they may not be deserving of our greater attention. In short, a degree won’t convince me you that know what you’re talking about, but your portfolio could.
Lastly, any system that confers legitimacy can still be scammed and exploited by those willing and able to do so. And if you’re already inflating your reputation in order to fool potential customers, fabricating legitimacy isn’t much extra work.
You Can’t Tell the Hornswagglers Apart Without a Scorecard
On the other hand, an expert verification system would be useful for anyone who can’t tell the tutors from the charlatans because they don’t even know what questions they should be asking. Since those of us who already make a living in the industry can’t even agree on what kinds of ROI we should use to measure our own successes, how could anyone not in the industry know which benchmarks to use as they seek this same knowledge?
Of course, none of this would be a problem if the people soliciting instruction from social media “experts” were willing to pay for it. But because so many of the curious are either small business owners or employees at companies where all new expenses must be resoundingly justified, it’s understandable that these folks would go looking for bargain-basement education in order to cut costs. And those bargain basements are where the film-flam men tend to camp out. (Not that “penthouse-level” instruction is always much better, since penthouse rent means someone has to pay for it. But at least you have the option of paying $1000 to a guy whose name you may have heard before vs. paying $49.95 to someone you’ll never hear from again.)
Here’s Looking at You, Expert
Meanwhile, if you are someone who could reasonably be considered an instruction-level social media practitioner, and you’re wondering why you’re not landing the speaking gigs and webinar crowds that these relative know-nothings seem to be enjoying at your expense, maybe it’s because they’re better self-promoters than you are. Which is ironic, since social media is almost always, at its root, an exercise in self-promotion. It’s just that those of us who see the field as “something more” are also reluctant to reduce it to the level of an infomerical in order to get ourselves jobs.