Popular culture covers so much ground so fast now that it’s only natural to wish some smart operator would come up with a handy formula to help make sense of it all. Riding to the rescue is Grant McCracken, a writer and anthropologist whose book Culturematic attempts to break the ice with readers by admitting he once sat in a tub reading the ’60s counterculture bible The Whole Earth Catalog because he needed a bath and didn’t want to stop reading. Attempting a chummy, conversational style, McCracken often achieves a level of spoon-feeding condescension that would get him fired from an editorial post at Highlights For Children.
McCracken’s big insight is about “Culturematics,” his term for innovative moves that break new ground while hitting the sweet spot. These include Lonely Island’s Digital Shorts for SNL, fantasy football, Jackass, flash mobs, Burning Man, the “Man Your Man Could Smell Like” Old Spice ad campaign, Johnny Depp’s performance as Captain Jack Sparrow, Rube Goldbergian videos on YouTube, and Chuck Norris Facts. McCracken admits that the criteria for judging whether something qualifies as a Culturematic is vague, with much of it coming down to how something feels, and what it isn’t. He repeatedly insists that Culturematics can’t be “stunts,” which is an odd call for someone who has Steve-O in his pantheon.
And they have to go after their audience in a way that seems new. For instance, the Digital Shorts are Culturematics because, by creating work for the show and submitting it in finished form, Lonely Island was able to avoid being shut down in the planning stages by old-fart Baby Boomer producers who didn’t get it. Also, Andy Samberg and company did those shorts recently enough that they could promote their work online; that must be what gives them the edge over Albert Brooks, who also contributed short films to SNL during its first season, but whom McCracken never mentions. Other heroes include the folks behind the Negro Leagues Grave Marker Project, who “could have taken a more conventional approach” and “created a book or a documentary.” But instead of creating a solid object in a lame old “conventional” way, they just toured the country until they “got coverage on the front page of the New York Times.” Why would it have spoiled everything if they’d also recorded their journey in a book or film? “Well, yawn, that’s why,” explains McCracken. “Documentary, schockumentary.” Guess that settles that.
McCracken basically makes no aesthetic judgments, which makes it possible for him to declare Two And A Half Men/Big Bang Theory creator Chuck Lorre “perhaps the most inventive man in television” for the wordy vanity cards he attaches to his decidedly uninventive TV shows. McCracken does insist on a careful distinction between someone like Bethenny Frankel, whom he sees as pursuing celebrity for its own sake, and James Franco, a more purposeful multi-tasker. But he also singles out Gone With The Wind author Margaret Mitchell as doing it wrong because she “concentrated on her writing with what now looks like a single-minded focus,” just so she could write one book that everyone remembers—as opposed to a many-headed social-media butterfly like prepubescent Ruby Karelia. Boiled down, “Culturematics” just looks like a new term for throwing everything you can at the wall and seeing what sticks, and ignoring the fact that even the things that do stick are unlikely to stay there as long as Gone With The Wind.