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Thoughts on Pop Culture [Jan. 7th, 2011|01:10 pm]
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Quiet Riot - As I walked into work this morning an 80's metal song, Quiet Riot's "Cum on Feel the Noize" came up on my ipod. I love this song for its rhythm and melody but while I was listening it occurred to me that the lyrics are slightly more clever than I'd given them credit for.

The most memorable line from the song is, "Come on, feel the noise! Girls rock your boys!" I have several happy memories of road trips, belting this out with my friends and of course changing it to, "Girls, fuck your boys!" That was the fun of the lyric and was clearly intended. Because "Girls" is stretched over several notes, the [f] of "feel" aligns at the same point musically as the [r] of "rock," in the subsequent line but [f] is already in our heads and it's easy to hear "fock" which of course becomes "fuck." It's a cute way of getting your audience to hear a word that you're not allowed to say, if not exactly subtle. For contrast.

That's not the part I found clever, however. Instead, I like the use of the word "rock" itself. Why? Because we can't hear heavy metal music and not think of rock and roll, which was itself a euphemism for sex. It's all too easy to forget nowadays that the term rock and roll referred originally not to a musical style but to the sexually suggestive dancing that accompanied such music and was reminiscent of two people rolling around together, making the bed rock. I don't know if this was Quiet Riot's intention - I would not be surprised if they were simply using rock to refer to "rocking out to music" while taking advantage of its phonetic utility - but its historic slang entendre amuses me.



Taylor Swift - I've ranted about Taylor Swift before. More than once. In general, my objections to her have been predicated on her tendency in songs to 1) describe generic scenarios in an attempt to be universally acceptable but instead create a ring of falseness and 2) describe a generic romantic concept as both an ideal and realistic. The combined effect results in songs that are misleading and harmful to the intended teen and pre-teen audience. I truly consider exposing girls to those Taylor Swift songs to be just as destructive and developmentally harmful as exposing young boys to pornography: both have high potential to result in a distorted and potentially damaging view of relationships.

Two "recent" songs go against the mold I describe (and by recent I mean over a year old. Hell, Swift has released an entire album since both of these). The first is 15" and the second is "Today was a Fairytale." I'm particularly impressed with "15" because it overcomes one of my main criticisms of Swift: that she uses romantic cliches to avoid being sincere with her audience. In "15" she exposes herself at great length, recounts what are clearly some formative and painful experiences, and demonstrates how they not only made her who she is now but how she became stronger as a result. It's bittersweet at best, but all the stronger for it. Most importantly, it becomes easier to identify with Swift and her trials because it's so personal; for all her specificity about given individuals I imagine there are very few people who can't recognize themselves in the context of a scared adolescent whose place in the world is changing, the desperation to make friends, the thrill of a first love and beginning to date, the pain of first heartache, the sympathy of friends going through the same experiences, or the bittersweet feelings that accompany looking back on those days. I'm sure this was a hard song for Swift to write but I'm impressed with her for having the ovaries to open up like this and expose herself to the world. The result is, in my opinion, her best work by miles and miles.

As for, "Today was a Fairytale," I can't say that I enjoy the song but I do think it's an improvement if she wants to create teen pop romance songs. While Swift falls back into her habit of using romantic cliches, here she acknowledges the cliche. I would utterly loath this song if it weren't for the chorus, the oft-repeated title line. Fairytales aren't real. By identifying this romantic day as a fairytale Swift is keeping down expectations that the cliches she describes are to be expected. At the same time she identifies the day as one in which a fairytale happened, a day in which the cliches came true. In doing so, she provides hope that everything she describes can come true. Perhaps not for awhile, perhaps not for everyone, and certainly we shouldn't expect it, but it's possible. That's a very delicate mix of pragmatism and optimism, and one that I expect most young listeners won't consciously pick up on, but one I hope will unconsciously shape their world view, hopes, and aspirations. I may not like this song, but I'm glad it exists.



The New Edition of Huckleberry Finn - By now most people have heard about the new edition of Mark Twain's classic, Huckleberry Finn. If not, now you have. The edition is accurate except it replaces each instance of the word "nigger" with "slave."

My initial reaction to this news was outrage, then mixed, then back to outrage again. There is value in producing a version of Finn without using "nigger," and that value is that the book is more acceptable. Huckleberry Finn was the fifth most-banned or challenged book in the US from 1990-1999 (link) and according to the new version's editor is the fourth-most classic of all time, and language is usually the reason cited. If "nigger" appears in the book, many people won't get to read the book. If it's replaced, many more people will who can then take away Twain's lessons about and racism America. Surely making the book more accessible is a good thing, right? After all, the book can't help people it doesn't read.

The problem with that argument is that using the word "nigger" is a crucial aspect to Twain's confrontations of racism. As the editor said in his NPR interview, it's an ugly word. It upsets people.

Good!

People should be upset when they see or hear that word. It's supposed to be offensive! Racism is offensive! I am offended by people who judge based on race. I am offended when I read a book that uses the word nigger. In high school I was as offended by having to read a book that used the word "nigger" as I would have been if I read a book that used the word "kike."

Oh wait...

While I can't link to a survey, I remember my eleventh grade English teacher, Mr. Topper, the man who made me want to be a literary scholar, telling us that communities whose schools banned Huckleberry Finn had higher incidents or hate crimes than communities whose schools taught the book. Now I'm not saying that reading Huckleberry Finn prevents racism, but I am pointing out that there is a correlation and I suspect they have a root cause. A community that's afraid to address racism in literature or the classroom is unlikely to be able to confront racism in other contexts. When teachers called in to NPR to discuss the new edition their anecdotes about people upset over the original's language were usually parents. By not teaching the original version, by not confronting the hateful language within, parents are hiding their discomfort but it never gets communicated to their children why it's uncomfortable.

Nigger!

Does it make you angry?

Good.



Easy A - Last night I watched Easy A, a high school dramedy about a girl who gets a fake reputation as the school slut and chooses to embrace her reputation. It's a good movie and one I'd been looking forward to, though it falls a little flat. It certainly aims high and, judging by the superb cast, the prospect of working on the film attracted a lot of talent who I believe expected the movie to do a lot better than it did (according to Wikipedia it barely hit Sony's sale projections).

The movie is interesting for several reasons. The first is its frank discussion of teenage sexuality and slut shaming. The difference in how the boys Olive (supposedly) sleeps with are treated and how she is treated are obvious and striking; it's handled with no subtlety and no desire for such. The film fails to ask why, however. My belief - and I say this as a 27 year old man - is that it is similar to the helmet vote of major league hockey. Allow me to explain.

Studies have shown (citation required. I got this from a TED talk) that if professional hockey players are given the choice to wear a helmet or not, few will wear them. Likewise, if they vote openly about whether to institute a helmet rule, the majority will vote against such a rule. If the vote is secret, however, players will unanimously vote in favor of a helmet rule. The reason theorized is that a helmet places you at a disadvantage by blocking your vision, reducing hearing etc. That's fine if everyone else is suffering the same handicap (i.e. if helmets are mandatory) but few players will voluntarily accept such a handicap alone. Likewise, the players don't want to appear weak so they don't openly vote for helmets. When no one's watching, however, they protect themselves while keeping everyone on an even playing field.

Slut shaming works similarly. Theoretically, a girl who will have sex when other girls won't will get a larger share of male attention. The other girls then either need to become more sexually active, which many are uncomfortable with or not ready for, or lose the chance to pursue those boys. Slut shaming is an attempt to dissuade girls who are sexually active from using that sexuality to gain a social advantage or to make them so socially unappealing that boys won't pursue them in spite of their sexuality.

In other words, slut shaming is an attempt to control the sexuality of others.

Spoilers through the rest of this post

I love the end of the film when Olive declares that her sex life is no one else's business. In the end, that's the only way to combat slut shaming. It was this scared and judgmental community that created the lie about Olive's sexuality in the first place (in the form of Olive's best friend!) and only by forcing them out of all discussion of her sexuality or lack thereof can Olive reclaim her independence. This allows her to make her own choices in a way that had not heretofore been possible, even before the lie.

I like the message: your sex is your business.

Overall, I thought this was a very solid movie. It was funny, extremely well-paced, witty, featured memorable characters, and had a positive message. The only thing I didn't care for were the constant nods and winks to the audience about the history of teen comedies and dramas. From aping the look and style of Mean Girls in everything from Olive's faux-red hair to the sharp cut-away editing, to the breaking the fourth wall references to John Hughes movies, each such incident jarred me as a viewer. Every time one of these things happened I was suddenly aware that I was watching and analyzing a movie rather than enjoying it and dissecting later. Which is a shame; this was a good movie but it could have been a great movie and keeps what could have been the next Fast Times at Ridgemont High or Mean Girls as just another teen comedy.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: beloitst
2011-01-07 07:36 pm (UTC)

Re: Taylor Swift

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So I'm curious, what are some female artists whose music you DO approve of for teenage girls? (Current pop culture, not past).
[User Picture]From: suburbaknght
2011-01-07 10:35 pm (UTC)

Re: Taylor Swift

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Fair question. It's easy to criticize what's wrong but harder to give suggestions to improve. I actually think that I addressed the issue here, saying what I like about these singles from Taylor Swift. Beyond that... I don't know much about which singers are being marketed to children so it's hard for me to be specific. Likewise, I don't know much about the singers so I have to go by the individual songs I've heard. Furthermore, there's the issue that what's appropriate for a sixteen year-old is different for what's appropriate for a thirteen, ten, or six year-old child, male or female.

That was a quicker Google search than I expected, though the results are a few years out of date.

Gotta say I don't find most of the songs or artists objectionable (at least the ones this old man recognizes). The only one I'd really be concerned about is Pussycat Dolls down at the bottom, and that's more the singers than the song.
From: (Anonymous)
2011-01-08 03:55 am (UTC)

Re: Taylor Swift

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You're right that what's appropriate at 16 isn't the same for what's appropriate at 13 or 10, etc. I just continue to believe that you've unfairly singled Taylor Swift out of a whole mess of female pop stars whose songs, and personality, are far more damaging. If you're going to condemn Taylor Swift, you have to condemn the entire Disney Princess genre, because in the end, no matter how strong the heroine, she ALWAYS lands the prince.
[User Picture]From: suburbaknght
2011-01-08 06:30 pm (UTC)

Re: Taylor Swift

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[User Picture]From: beloitst
2011-01-08 03:55 am (UTC)

Re: Taylor Swift

(Link)

That reply was totally me, not logged in.