Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Future Memories of Disposable Culture

One of the cool things about having kids is trying to figure out what kind of people that they're going to be in the future. My daughter isn't two-years-old yet, but for some reason I have it in my head that she's going to be a judge. My great-uncle Al was a judge and I always thought that it was a cool profession to have—not cool enough to go to school and do myself; but apparently cool enough to day dream for my daughter.

When I'm not looking at robes and gavels on line, I also wonder whether what she's experiencing now will become some of her treasured nostalgia in the future? There are three things that she is obsessed with at this moment: “Thomas the Tank Engine”, “Clifford the Big Red Dog” and all things “Sesame Street”. For awhile she was digging on “The Wiggles” and “Yo Gabba Gabba”. But like all fads, they fade as the Wiggle craze has been done for about three months and today she wanted no part of YGG, going so far as to yell, “No! No! No!” when DJ Lance Rock started to walk on the screen.*

* Admittedly, I am a bit crestfallen about this new turn of events. Even though there are like 40 episodes of YGG and I've seen them about 50 times a piece, I still like them. The animation is cooler than anything on TV, the bands that they have on each show are pretty good and even their guest stars are funny—the whole experience is like a 23-minute hipster guide on raising a kid. At some point, I'm going to have to figure out how to get Muno, FooFah and the rest of the gang back into our lives.

Anyhow, while I don't expect her to remember all of these shows; ultimately she is going to remember some of them. And how will these memories regurgitate? Will she be in some dorm room in about 18 years wondering whether the creators of Clifford were “really, really high”? Or will she sit around and wistfully recall the emotions and the safety of watching “Sesame Street” with her mom and dad in their bed; seemingly devoid of any problems?

I wonder these things because both scenarios are ones that I have participated on many an occasion.

Drunk (or other altered state) talk rarely gets better than finding a (seemingly) obscure cultural touchstone and examining the hell out of it. Before the Internet, when I was in college, I've had long conversations with relative strangers over the old-school McDonaldland characters (Mayor McCheese, the Big Mac, Cap'n Crook, Grimace to name a few) and why they aren't used in advertising any more.*

* The reason is pretty simple—Thanks Internet!—in the early 70s McDonald's hired Sid and Marty Krofft's company to come up with a bunch of characters that would resemble their popular Saturday morning characters. Or they may have asked to use the characters—like HR Puffnstuff—themselves to sell hamburgers, I forget and I'm too lazy to look it up. Any way the negotiations broke down and McDonald's just decided to rip off the Kroffts with characters that looked similar and put them in nation-wide advertisements that ran nonstop.

Of course this brought a ton of litigation on McDonald's head and they paid off the Kroffts and decided not to use the more egregious examples. Mayor McCheese (who, BTW is a bobblehead on my desk at work) looks almost exactly like HR Puffnstuff. It's hard to see how McDonald's thought that they'd get away with it.

On the surface, talking about these things may seem like nonsense. Who cares whether Hong Kong Phoeey was voiced by Scatman Carouthers and does that mean that HKP had the Shining too? Does it make a difference that Orko was just added to the “He-Man” cartoon so that kids would find the show funny as well as action-packed, even though he had the opposite effect? Maybe the answers to these questions are that it doesn't matter at all, but to people who grew up with this stuff, it does.

And the reason is that despite a technology boom that has theoretically connected more and more people together, we're all still alone. Watching television or movies, listening to music, reading are mostly solitary activities. And while you're doing these things, your mind is at work trying to make sense of it all.

Why the hell can't Cobra shoot straight? Why does the Riddler always tip Batman off? Are My Pretty Ponies really an allusion to the mundane life of Playboy bunnies? (The last question is something that I may explain later—but it will be worth it)

When you are able to find and connect with people who share similar questions about experiences that you have, it's a revelation: I'm not crazy! There are people who think about this stuff too! Bonds are formed, friendships are cast. The disposable culture of one generation is the glue that holds society together.

In another half-generation, the kids of today are going to be talking about the intricacies and hidden meanings behind “Hannah Montana” and “Bob the Builder”, will be convinced that Jeff was probably the gay Wiggle and wonder why everyone in the world of “Thomas the Tank Engine” was incredibly cruel. If we are somehow party to these conversations, we'll probably see it as nothing more than the idiot ramblings of youth.

But it's much more than that.

All I know is that if I'm in front of a judge one day in the very distant future, I'm going to say, “My name is Byron, your honor. I like to dance!” I'm sure that he or she will rule in my favor.

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