This week’s question comes from reader Barret LeBlanc:
“A while back I was watching Aliens for umpteenth time while getting some work done. I kept it on while the credits were rolling because I was distracted... until the credits ended and the screen went completely black. Then I heard the undeniable sound of a scurrying face-hugger. I never knew about this for 30 years. What detail of a piece of pop culture did you not notice until years or decades later?”
I recently replayed the first Mega Man X game for our On The Level feature, and I was shocked to discover how many cool little extra details Capcom’s designers had snuck into every corner of their 16-bit debut. Levels interact with and tie into each other in weird ways, enemies will laugh at you if they manage to get off a hit, and bosses have oversized animated reactions that only play if you happen to strike them with their elemental weakness. (A classic bit of Mega Man design that’s only emphasized by watching the robot bastards go flying.) My mind got really blown, though, by the fact that the big honking airship from the game’s opening stage—the one that drops off a Boba Fett rip-off in mecha armor to kick the crap out of you in case all this SNES power had gone to your head—actually reappears later in the game, as the flying fortress where one of the level bosses (Storm Eagle) hangs out. Maybe I was just too dumb to notice as a kid, but that one little detail blew my grown-up mind.
Growing up listening to sample-based music gave me a weird relationship with music history; the half of rock history I didn’t absorb through my dad’s records I got through tiny cut-up portions on beat tapes. To this day I’ll hear a weird millisecond drum loop that I know intimately and realize I’ve been listening to it for decades via some Group Home album cut. The best example of this I can think of is A Tribe Called Quest’s “Lyrics To Go,” off Midnight Marauders, an album I’ve been listening to more or less monthly since, oh, 1993. I had always assumed those easy vibes swirling through the track were lifted from something, but it wasn’t until I saw the group’s excellent documentary Beats, Rhymes & Life that I realized Q-Tip had also sampled Minnie Riperton’s angelic high-note on “Inside My Love” and stretched it like gossamer over the entire four minutes of the track. It’s this sort of ambient effect that I’d been hearing for years and years; now I can’t listen to the track without zeroing in on it.
Christian themes in pop culture products are fairly obvious to people who have even a little schooling in the Bible. I am not one of those people. The result is that I absorb whole albums, films, and novels without ever picking up their religious allegory. For example, in middle school I was a fan of the Christian rock band Switchfoot. I think it was even a religious friend who introduced me to them, but did I ever connect their tunes to Christian themes? I did not, despite use of extremely biblical signifier words like “salvation,” “redemption,” and “providence” that featured in their most popular songs that I knew all the lyrics to. It wasn’t until my fandom fizzled that I realized, “Oh, they’re talking about God and Jesus.” The super-obvious Jesus representation of Aslan in The Chronicles Of Narnia, similarly, went way over my head: He’s just a good-ass lion who sacrifices himself. I learned about that years after I read the whole series. (The White Witch could’ve crucified Aslan on a cross and I still probably wouldn’t have gotten it.) And if I thought that at age 29 I’d pick up on this stuff more than when I was a kid, I was proven wrong on a recent viewing of East Of Eden. When the credits rolled and my partner and I discussed the film’s merits, he politely informed me that the whole plot, broadly, comes from the Bible’s Cain And Abel story in the Book Of Genesis. (I had to look that up—I definitely did not know where that story—chapter?—was from.)
I still find myself regularly surprised that the people I watch, listen to, or read are related to other people I watch, listen to, or read. Here’s a recent example: Watching the first three episodes of Castle Rock, I caught myself thinking, “Boy, that warden sure sounds like Joan Cusack,” only to scan the credits and realize it’s her sister Ann Cusack. Hollywood runs on nepotism, but this just keeps on happening: I watched Anthony Arkin play loyal Dupont Circle Travel employee Stavos for six seasons of The Americans, yet only near the end of the show’s run did I put it together that he was the brother of Adam Arkin and the son of Alan Arkin. And Adam Arkin directed several episodes of The Americans! Clearly, the only way forward is to just assume that all famous people are, at the very least, cousins, like Melissa and Jenny McCarthy. Otherwise, I’m just going to stumble through life with a mind perpetually blown by easily researched biographical information like Keith Carradine being Martha Plimpton’s dad.
Super Mario Bros. 3 is the first game I remember ever seeing, let alone playing, and I’ve gone back to it dozens of times. But despite its constant presence in my life, it took me an embarrassing amount of time to notice the game’s nifty visual motif: The whole thing is a stage play. I remember hooking up my childhood NES during a college summer break and finally seeing all the pieces come together. It starts with a curtain raising and the Mario brothers on a black backdrop. The title card comes crashing down as if dropped in on ropes. The lights come up to reveal the full set, and the stage elements start casting shadows (a visual detail that persists through the game). And all that is just in the tiny introductory scene everyone mashes buttons to skip through; the rest of the game brings platforms hanging from unseen rafters, sets for Mario to walk behind, and a closing-credits curtain call. I didn’t think much of it at the time, but this concept started spreading across the internet as a silly fan theory, eventually making its way to Shigeru Miyamoto who seemingly confirmed the whole adventure was one seriously intricate performance.
In the SpongeBob SquarePants episode “Tea At The Treedome,” SpongeBob meets a new friend named Sandy Cheeks, a squirrel who lives in an underwater dome with a big tree in it (a.k.a. the eponymous Treedome). SpongeBob is baffled when he learns that Sandy breathes air, since he’s an underwater creature, so he asks Patrick to explain what it means for someone to breathe air. Patrick thinks SpongeBob is saying that Sandy “puts on airs,” so he tells him to act fancy by sticking out his pinky finger. As a kid, I thought this was just Patrick being silly, like he assumed breathing air was something that fancy people do, but no, it’s actually Patrick being much smarter than normal. Now that I’m a SpongeBob-watching adult, I know that “putting on airs” really does mean that someone is acting fancier than they really are, so based on Patrick’s misunderstanding of SpongeBob’s question, he’s actually giving good advice. What’s fancier than sticking out your pinky while drinking tea?
I remember really enjoying the movie My Cousin Vinny as a kid. Not on an obsessive level or anything, but something about Marisa Tomei winning an Oscar solidified the idea in my kid brain that this was a comedy I should remember, and so I watched it repeatedly during the ’90s on VHS and whenever it would pop up on cable. That’s how I learned there was an Italian word for dummies, which I assumed was spelled “yutes,” because Joe Pesci’s New Jersey lawyer repeatedly refers to the “two yutes” in the case he’s working, prompting confused looks from the judge—which is why I thought the humor was simply Vinny relying on an old Italian word no one knew. “But Alex,” you might reasonably say, “Didn’t it register that your premise doesn’t make sense as a joke? That, in fact, he was saying the word ‘youths’ with a thick Italian/Jersey accent? The real explanation makes a lot more sense than your reasoning.” To which I would simply mention that my significant other made a lot of fun of me recently upon a rewatch, when the source of comedy in that scene finally dawned on me, so just give it a rest already.