Welcome back to AVQ&A, where we throw out a question for discussion among the staff and readers. Consider this a prompt to compare notes on your interface with pop culture, to reveal your embarrassing tastes and experiences, and to ponder how our diverse lives all led us to convene here together. Got a question you’d like us and the readers to answer? E-mail us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
So I was recently visiting MySpace and an ad visually blared in my face: Christina Aguilera’s album Keeps Gettin’ Better: A Decade Of Hits. I still think of that girl as a child. What pop-culture event made you feel old? —Tobias
Nothing in pop culture makes me feel as old as the rapidly changing methods of presentation. I will never have children solely because I would have to acknowledge to them that VCRs were invented in my lifetime and that I remember an era when people didn’t get to re-watch films unless they visited a revival theater. I can already see their disbelieving theoretical faces, as stunned as I was as a child when my own parents told me they remember when television was invented. Hoo boy. Time for my Geritol. And Blu-ray makes me feel like people who invested heavily in 8-tracks must have felt when cassingles became popular: “Hey, didn’t they just invent the last big innovation in presentation, like, five minutes ago? What’s up with this?” If I needed any more help feeling old, though, Beloit College in Wisconsin puts out a much-circulated “mindset list” every year explaining what freshmen starting college this year have grown up with or without, often in pop-culture terms. For instance, there are people about to start college who were born the year The Silence Of The Lambs came out.
For me, it’s not the year people were born that freaks me out so much as the years they were in elementary school and junior high. I still remember how much the world changed for me between fifth and ninth grade, and again from ninth to 12th. Yet when I talk with college students—which I do frequently, since my wife’s an academic—I have to remind myself that movies and TV shows that debuted just the other day (from my perspective) came around when they were just becoming teenagers. I chat regularly with a college sophomore who’s a big Lost fan, and who was 13 years old when Lost’s pilot episode aired. Last year, when I went to see the most recent Harry Potter movie, I was surprised by how many college-age kids were there, until I remembered that most of them were 7 or 8 when the first book came out, and 10 or 11 when the first movie opened. The pop phenomena that have spanned the bulk of these kids’ lives give me pause. Incoming college freshmen have never known a world in which NBC wasn’t airing new Law & Order episodes. Let that rattle around in your head for a while.
I just had this particular shock. Walked into the living room and saw a freeze-framed image of Mickey Rourke, all baby face and slicked-back hair, on the TV. Me: “What are you watching?” Noel: “Diner.” Me: “Oh, should have recognized it—I’ve seen that movie in whole or in part half a dozen times.” I started walking down the hall, and was suddenly brought up short by another image in my head, arising unbidden: the age- and experience-riddled face of Rourke as he appeared in The Wrestler and at last year’s Golden Globes ceremony. Rarely have I been confronted so viscerally with the passage of time. The comparison between the two faces seemed to stretch the 30 years that separated them into an eternity. And even though I didn’t see Diner until a decade after its release, when Rourke was already all Harley Davidson And The Marlboro Man and on his way to the unrecognizability of Double Team’s Stretch Armstrong-esque villain, it still made me feel like the gap between my own high-school years and my middle age was unbridgeable. If only something could have stopped the progression and sent DT’s Stavros or Buffalo ’66’s bookie back from the brink, back toward something closer to human. Instead, the path from Boogie Sheftell to Randy “The Ram” Robinson ran, in retrospect, depressingly straight. If that’s the shortest distance between two points, then I can’t help but feel that we’ve all come further than we want to admit.
I went into the movie Prime not knowing much about it beyond the cast and crew involved. The plot, I discovered, involved an overly protective Jewish psychiatrist (Meryl Streep) scandalized by her son’s romantic relationship with a shiksa nearly 15 years older than he. Said shiksa: Uma Thurman. Leaving the movie, I realized Thurman had aged out of the virginal object-of-desire parts and into older-woman roles without me even noticing. (That’s not meant as a slight on her still-quite-considerable attractiveness, mind you.) Is it possible that the woman draped so memorably on the cover of Rolling Stone’s 1989 Hot Issue was now, gasp, verging on middle age? And, hey, wait a minute, she’s only a couple of years older than me, so that means… Sigh.
As (I think, though I would be overjoyed to be proven wrong) the oldest person who’s going to answer this question, just about everything makes me feel ancient these days. I cringe at showbiz obituaries of artists I still think of as being in their prime, and any mention of the age of my rock and hip-hop icons is sure to send me into a spiral of despair. The idea that Chuck D and Bono will both be 50 before my next birthday is almost unthinkable. I, too, am gobstruck at the notion of Uma Thurman playing older-woman roles, and unlike Keith, I’m older than she is. Even going to the grocery store makes me feel decrepit, since they always have those little placards that say “If you were born before [insert year you would have to have been born in order to be 18 now], I cannot sell you cigarettes.” The idea that someone born in 1992 can want and eat solid food, let alone vote and buy Marlboros, is infinitely depressing. But perhaps the worst reminder that I’m now in an extremely undesirable demographic is watching American Idol. Since they lowered the maximum age for contestants from 30 to 28, the majority of the show’s participants are literally young enough to be my children. I’ve even got seniority on the host and one of the judges. With each season that passes, I feel like I should be watching from a hospital bed.
I do a pretty good job of still channeling pop culture that makes me feel young (’80s music will always make me think of being a little kid and looking up to the babysitters who had the names of the hottest bands written on their binders) but a superficial example of pop culture making me feel old is that I now judge pop stars’ hair. Like that kid Justin Bieber. You could argue that it’s highly ironic that a Beatles fan would take issue with a hairdo like his, but it isn’t the look of the hair that bothers me, it’s the extreme time and care that goes into making it look so girly and mussy. For some reason, the image of that boy sitting for hours in the dressing room getting his hair blown out fills me with rage. Why can’t kids these days have hairstyles that make sense, like that of Kid from Kid N’ Play, or Vanilla Ice, or Chris Kirkpatrick from ’N Sync’s early days? Hmph. I’m also going to have to add Ke$ha in there, because while I can appreciate the beats of “Tik Tok” and its value as a mindless club tune, I just saw her on Idol performing a song that largely lacked melody and just involved her talking in a horribly annoying voice. I just asked the question my parents used to ask about artists I liked—“She’s considered a musician?”
I touch on this a bit in my Better Late Than Never? entry on A Clockwork Orange, but there’s one thing that’s been making me feel older than dirt lately: punk rock. The funny thing is, punk also makes me feel young, and not just in a nostalgic way—but every time I throw on The Damned or Battalion Of Saints or Born Against (which is still fairly often), it makes me realize how little rebellion I have left in me. I mean, I support our president with a passion, and I feel a rash coming on every time I hear some Tea Party nutjob preaching down-with-the-government bullshit. When the hell did I become so pro-establishment? It’s a pretty far cry from when I used to get beat up for wearing a Bad Religion T-shirt. Not that you’ll catch me in a church anytime soon—but even in that regard, I understand and even appreciate the role religion has in human existence, even if it ain’t my thing. Can I still rock out to The Damned’s “Anti-Pope,” though? Definitely. My joints just creak a little when I’m doing it.
Look. I’m only 29, but stuff in pop culture makes me feel old all over the place. First I learn that MTV’s target audience specifically cuts off at 24, which means I’m five years past what they want. Every time I realize I’m older than The Simpsons, that it debuted while I was alive, I feel old. And, hell, Nathan’s whole Then That’s What They Called Music! feature really makes me realize just how thoroughly I’ve wasted what are supposed to be the best years of my life. The Now! volumes he’s covered so far correspond roughly to my senior year of high school and freshman year of college. I remember just how much all those songs were a part of my life, even if I didn’t particularly like them—how the whole world seemed to be a giant bevy of opportunities reaching down to cater specifically to me. As I’ve mentioned in one of the comments sections for one of those articles, “Hey Leonardo!” was written about a girl I sort of knew of (though I doubt she knew I existed), and in small-town South Dakota, that’s like an audience with the president. Reading Nathan’s articles and listening to the songs reminds me of a lot of terrible music, yes, but it also reminds me that, while I still have time to catch up, I’ve wasted a lot of years doing some pretty stupid shit.
We spent our last night at this year’s SXSW at the Perez Hilton party drinking an inordinate amount of “Perez Punch,” a suitably fruity concoction that goes down a little too easily. At some point, R.E.M. came up (I don’t remember how) and cross-pollinated with our discussion of the Swagg.com ladies working the party. This, of course, led me to asking a couple of them what their favorite R.E.M. record was, because that’s something sober people do all the time. The first one, who was 22, had no knowledge of R.E.M., so she couldn’t name an album or even a song. The second one, 24, was vaguely familiar with the band (I think she knew a couple of the hits), but also couldn’t name an album or song she liked. As I told Josh and Marc Hawthorne when I returned, those women were 6 and 8, respectively, when Monster came out—never mind Murmur, which came out before they were even born. So the three of us stood there, drank our punch, and felt old—because, apparently, we are.
I feel like a bit of an ass answering this question. I’m one of the youngest people on staff, and I’m pretty sure my mere presence and ignorance of early-’80s blockbusters routinely makes my co-workers feel old. But you’re only as old as you feel, and holy crap, do I feel old every Tuesday morning when it comes time to compile the day’s Videocracy chart, specifically the endless stream of vloggers. I know I’m firmly entrenched in the millennial generation, what with the Twitter and the Facebook and the constant gazing at my reflection in shiny objects, but this is one aspect of youth culture that is just lost on me. Are there really kids out there who want to watch Vacant Stare Girl pull things out of her purse for eight minutes? Or who find Floppy-Haired Guy’s shrill “comedy” anything but depressing? Or who don’t want to throw their computer through the window at the mere sight of Fred? (If none of these names ring a bell, I envy you.) Granted, kids have pretty much exclusively terrible taste and always have, but I really don’t know if I can forgive them for Fred. I guess there are a couple of vloggers out there doing interesting things—saucy Aussie Natalie usually gets a pass, and even the obnoxious Phil earns points for trying to make the news interesting—but the whole YouTube culture of favoriting and following and video responses and vlogger cameos seems as self-indulgently insular and off-putting as 4chan at this point. I don’t know, I just don’t get it. You kids have fun, I’ll be over here on Twitter with the grown-ups.
I’m going to get super-depressing and morbid here and bemoan the imminent death of the cornerstones of my childhood. Video stores of both the chain and independent variety, record stores, newspapers printed on actual newsprint, comic strips that are actually funny and vital and relevant, film criticism; as a kid, I thought they’d all be around forever. Now they’re all on the cultural endangered-species list. I spent many of my formative years working at Blockbuster, so every time I see a Blockbuster franchise has gone out of business, I feel as if a little bit of my childhood has died with it. Another thing that makes me feel anxious: people telling me they grew up reading my work. Whenever I’m told that I’m all, “Dude, I’m only 33! I’ve only been doing this for 13 years! I’m too young and radical and in-your-face for you to have a long history with my work!” Then I try to prove my youth and vigor by performing a series of awesome skateboard tricks, at which point I invariably throw out my hip and feel even older than before. It’s a vicious cycle, really.
My seventh-grade science teacher, during a science experiment that produced purple smoke, made a couple of wavy, groovy gestures and announced with triumph, “Purple haze, man!” We 12-year-olds all looked at him blankly, so he repeated it. “Purple haze, man! …Jimi Hendrix? Purple Haze?” Nothing. We all just chalked it him up to being weird, and only got the joke a few years later when we got around to figuring out who Jimi Hendrix was. I think about this often now that I teach as an adjunct instructor at Northwestern. That stale memory coupled with being around 18- to 21-year-olds has caused me not only to self-consciously excuse myself for being old when making any reference to anything even remotely old, but also to neurotically worry that any references I make to anything current will be read as a strain to be cool. (Are you guys following Breaking Bad? Because I am, because I’m awesome!) It’s a lesson in awkwardness, really, and it just gets worse the more aware of it I become. And while it’s strange to me that students in college were born during the grunge years that defined my early taste in music, it’s the smaller things that always catch me off guard. One: They’ve never seen commercials for The Clapper. I forget why I mentioned this in class, but it descended into me singing “Clap on, clap off” and doing a frantic search for the clip on YouTube. Two: These kids have no knowledge of the sound a dinky camera makes when charging up the flash. It’s such an exact, distinct memory for me, and now it’s a generational divide.
I have two much younger sisters: I was born in 1975, Alex in 1985, Brittany in 1987. I talk to Brittany a lot (Alex doesn’t like the phone), and am reminded pretty consistently that the place where my mainstream-pop consciousness basically tuned out—1993 or so—is right around where theirs begins. Mostly this means that I get to explain that, say, the looped breakbeats from “Ashley’s Roachclip” and “Funky Drummer” were ubiquitous in 1990 the way Auto-Tune is now. (Do give a listen to Rich Juzwiak’s superb “No Enigma” mix for further proof.) It’s actually helpful, though, because Brittany knows a lot about music and helps place things for me that I missed.
I tried re-reading Stephen King’s Dark Tower series last fall. It’s something I’ve been wanting to do ever since the last book came out, because whatever problems I had with the series, the thought of going through the whole thing in, let’s say a month, was tremendously exciting. The Gunslinger, The Drawing Of The Three, and The Waste Lands were important when I was a kid. King’s near-impossible ambition, the decaying worlds, the romantic mystery of a group of desperate heroes driven to do battle with forces they can’t ever hope to understand, that giant robot bear with a satellite dish on its head… I read these novels over and over, and my best friend read them, and until Wizard And Glass came out, there was never a week where we wouldn’t talk about what we thought might happen next, and how we really hoped whatever it was would happen soon. So knowing the whole series is available now is a little bittersweet, because while it’s nice to have things finished, I felt younger when I wasn’t sure Roland’s quest would ever end. Re-reading them now (listening to them, actually, since it’s easier to find time for the audiobooks), I noticed the plot holes, the inconsistent mythology, and King’s distracting love of made-up words, and I couldn’t help knowing that it would all get worse in the later books. (Although I did love The Dark Tower.) So the magic isn’t there like it used to be, and that makes me feel a little older, because I realize that while I can find more elaborate, better-constructed fantasy worlds, those worlds are never going to take hold of me like they used to. But you want to know what really stung? Getting to Eddie Dean, easily my favorite character, in Drawing Of The Three, and realizing that when he first enters the series, he’s 9 years younger than I am right now.