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« Too Busy for Theology at the Moment | Main | Mini-Elsewhere »

January 07, 2005

Popular Culture has Passed Me By

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

I recall a time when I was tuned-in. Can you recall similar days? It was a long while ago now for me. But for a few years, I had an intuitive feeling for why popular-cultural-things were going the way they were. The jokes and styles made instinctive sense to me: why one movie worked and another didn't; why one song stirred up excitement while another made people laugh.

Then, one day in my early 30s, I felt popular culture speed by me. Whoosh -- like an 18-wheeler passing a bicyclist. I'd been in the lead, and now I was eating diesel smoke.

I started to have to observe, to figure things out, and to ask for advice and insights. Contempo popular culture began to puzzle me. I did my best to get used to being a has-been -- and it can be tough to admit that your moment has passed when your moment has never come. But I chuckled about it gallantly anyway. I said to friends things like: "You wake up one day, and a pop star has died from a heroin overdose, and millions of people are in deep mourning -- and you haven't even heard of the guy!" Yuk yuk.

But on the plane flight back east from California a week ago, I woke up to the fact that even that particular older-but-wiser phase is over. Now I'm simply without a clue.

Jammed into my economy seat, I was flipping through a stack of tacky celeb mags that The Wife had bought for the flight --

By the way, do you find you can do any substantial reading while on a plane? I can't, and never have been able to. I used to think that I should be able to get Real Reading done during airplane hours. Yet whenever I'd try to focus in the way that Real Reading requires, I'd fall asleep. Then I'd be cross with myself for wasting all that potentially-substantial time: what was wrong with my willpower? Ah, youth: time of passions and aspirations. These days, I've abandoned the fight. Why aspire to the impossible? Now, it's magazines, mysteries, crossword puzzles and dozing, all the way from Kennedy to LAX and back.

-- so I was thumbing through a stack of tacky magazines whose purchase I was glad to be able to blame on The Wife. And I realized that I recognized fewer than half the celebrities whose careers, lives, and plastic surgeries the magazines were smacking their lips over. Fewer than half! Even the figures whose names I was familiar with seemed to have lived through several lives since the last time I'd heard gossip about them.

Picture me leafing through The Star. My mind was going something like this:

  • So there's an Elisha Cuthbert as well as an Eliza Dushku? Well, that explains a thing or two, I guess. Do you suppose there are people who can tell them apart?

  • Goodness, but that Kirstie Alley girl has really let herself go! Wasn't she 25 and pretty the last time I checked?

  • When exactly did people start giving boys the name "Topher"? What's that all about?

  • Hey, that's kinda sweet: Brad and Jennifer are seeing each other! Who knew?

  • Wait: you mean Mandy Moore and Lindsay Lohan are two different creatures?

How tuned-in to popular culture do you guys feel these days?

Best, if irrevocably out of it,


posted by Michael at January 7, 2005


So you're out of touch with the latest celeb news; have you suffered any ill-effects from this? Any withdrawal pains? Or, instead, has the quality of your life improved?

Years ago, when I withdrew from pop culture, I felt as if I were retreating from the world. I then discovered the world as it is, not as pop culture dresses it up to be, and I realized that pop culture is really just a means to insulate us from the real world. There's so much to savor in life as it's lived outside the unnatural glow of the pop culture spotlight that it just seems wasteful to squander our precious time living vicariously through celebs.

Posted by: Outer Life on January 7, 2005 3:33 PM

I think the reason it's hard to do anything substantive on an airplane is that they keep the air pressure at the equivalent of a fairly high altitude, like 6,000 feet. I typically don't adjust to high altitude until after a night's sleep, so I don't adjust during a four hour plane ride. One minor help, however, is to wear earplugs to cut down on the enormous amount of white noise in an airplane.

Posted by: Steve Sailer on January 7, 2005 3:46 PM

What popular culture? All I see is a cacaphony of sub-sub-cultures. I don't think the minority really following the Affleck/J-Lo soap opera is a tenth the size of the cohort wondering "Who Shot JR?". I suppose teenage girls are still fashioned and peer-group centered, but I would never attempt to understand teenage girls.

On the other hand, MTV does seem like a Kaleidoscopic Broadcast from Mars and I really don't get the intellectual appeal of comic books.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on January 7, 2005 4:14 PM

At 42, I'm in the same boat, but I do know that Topher is short for Christopher.Knowing that makes it seem reasonable and not some new age parents' punishment.

Posted by: beloml on January 7, 2005 6:08 PM

I read _War and Peace_ while in flight. A stewardess once asked me what book I was reading. I showed her, and her comment was, "Wow, I saw the movie, and it was _good_!"

Posted by: Jaz on January 7, 2005 7:08 PM

Part of the problem is today's celebrities are pretty damn dull, like a thousand and one Jeffrey Hunters.

But I've always been out of it.

I remember when I was in elementary school the Buffalo Bills got some football award. Everybody was talking about OJ Simpson, and I said "Who?"

Later, in junior high school, the first of the Naked Gun movies came out. Everybody was saying "It's got OJ Simpson in it!" and I said "Who?"

By high school everybody was saying "Can you believe they arrested OJ Simpson?" and I said "Who?"

So there we have sports, film, and current events, and I'm in the dark on all three. Maybe I'll feel defeated when I start caring?

Posted by: Brian on January 7, 2005 8:31 PM

I have the same problem on airplanes. The Lady Friend totes nearly half a dozen magazines (Oprah, Martha Stewart, Comso, Better Homes, etc.) and spends the flight happily ripping out articles and recipes for future reference while I stare out the window. She can't understand how I can simply sit and stare. Actually, neither can I. But the best I can manage is something of the intellectual depth of a car mag.

Perhaps the lower air pressure has something to do with it (an interesting thought), but I'm inclined to blame the cramped seating. That is, there isn't much room to spread out and relax. Plus, especially if the passenger ahead of you reclines his seat, it can be hard to position reading material in front of you. Especially large-ish format books or magazines. Maybe moreso if one wears those blended bifocal lenses.

And dittos re pop culture. I recall that when I was a late-teen or even into mid-20s, it all seems *so obvious*. Yet, here were these media moguls hiring "youth consultants" to track / explain trends. How lame! What was wrong with those fogeys? Well, you know the rest of the story; imperceptibly, I "lost it". And like other posters above, these days I couldn't care less.

Posted by: Donald Pittenger on January 7, 2005 8:54 PM


Can someone tell me when ValleyGirl Speak went out of fashion?

(Although, truthfully that era fit my pre-teen daughters more than me. Texas is a long way from Los Angeles)

Posted by: Cowtown Pattie on January 7, 2005 11:09 PM

When I see covers of magazines such as People or US and I don't recognize who the 'star' is I feel a sense of relief.

Posted by: carter on January 8, 2005 1:03 AM

When I realized I had departed to "out of it" is when I stopped (and it seemed to happen overnight somewhere in the mid-nineties) having the vaguest idea who the hell the person on the cover of "Vanity Fair" was, or why I should care. It went from being someone I knew every month to being someone I swear I'd never heard of. And then I realized I didn't care if I found out.

But I'm so out of it that I don't know half the names you just mentioned in your own post. Who the hell are Mandy Moore and Lindsay Lohan, anyway? At least I have figured out that Jessica Simpson and Christina Aguleira (sp?) and Britney Spears are, by all reports, three different people. Christina's the darkhaired one that nobody cared that Madonna kissed, right? :)

Posted by: annette on January 8, 2005 10:48 AM

So there's an Elisha Cuthbert as well as an Eliza Dushku? Well, that explains a thing or two, I guess. Do you suppose there are people who can tell them apart?

I couldn't recognize them, but I know Eliza Dushku has dark hair, and Elisha Cuthbert is a blonde. Also, "Dushku" is the Albanian word for "Oak".

Your confusions about Lindsay Lohan and Mandy Moore is even more out-of-it than you think, because Mandy Moore has been a star for at least four years whereas Lindsay Lohan only became a star this year with "Mean Girls".

"Topher" is an incredibly stupid name. I assume his name is "Christopher" and he thought he'd shorten it in a weird way to make himself more interesting.

I have no idea who Jeffrey Hunter is. (age 22 here)

Was Kirstie Alley ever pretty? I've seen a lot of Cheers reruns and I didn't know she was supposed to be pretty. Was she pretty or famous before Cheers?

Posted by: Cryptic Ned on January 8, 2005 11:13 AM

Boy, guess crypticNed has definitively drawn a line in the "out of it" sand for the rest of us. Was Kirstie Alley ever pretty? How's that make you feel? (To Ned: in 15-20 years, someone is going to say: was Reese Witherspoon ever pretty? Remember this moment then! :))

Posted by: annette on January 8, 2005 12:30 PM

Outer Life -- Gorgeously put, tks. I'm hoping to arrive at a similar place sometime soon. Meanwhile, I keep being distracted. Probably the last vestiges of youth. Serenity beckons.

Steve -- That sounds really plausible. Some people have told me that those noise-canceling headphones you can buy help a lot on planes too -- they block out most of the white noise, and so you get much less groggy. The airpressure thing too ... Oh, maybe I should just drink a lot of wine and sleep my way cross-country.

Bob -- Is that what's become of popular culture? All tips appreciated, tks. Everyone's his/her own niche market these days, I guess. An improvement over old-style popular-culture or not? Pluses and minuses, I suppose.

Beloml -- Oh: Christopher. Now I get it. Still, what kind of person would choose to go with "Topher" rather than "Chris"? I suppose I should be more amused than I am by the way Americans love their distinctive (and often made-up) names -- we're all special in our own way, and so our names have to be too! But this morning I'm feeling cranky about it. What's wrong with "Jennifer" or "Chuck"?

Jaz - Wow, you've got some really powerful ability to concentrate. On a plane I'm in such a zonked state that leafing thru a Macintosh magazine stretches my abilities.

Brian -- So which fields are you tuned into? Or maybe it's a kind of bliss letting 'em all go? ...

Donald -- I know a few people who love traveling by air, but The Wife and I both experience it as a form of torture. She's a nervous flier, and like you I hate the cramped quarters. The routine of going to the airport, waiting around, being searched, enduring the stupid TV monitors everywhere these days ... It all seems designed for maximum zonking-me-out. I used to try to squeeze a bit of livin' into a day when I was traveling by air. But nowadays I've given that up. I figure: my whole goal today is to get from place X (my apartment, maybe) to place Y (the relatives' place, maybe). And I'm going to do my best to make it thru the day in the least awful way possible. No ambitions beyond that. No exercise. No heavyweight reading. No plans at the end of the day. Nothin'. We even get to the airport very early, just to minimize stress. "Getting to where we're going" becomes the big and only achievement of the day, and the only scheme I try to execute. FWIW, of course. Seems to help minimize the annoyance level, at least for me. Hey, doesn't it sometimes seem that getting older involves an awful lot of giving-things-up? It ain't all bad, thank heavens.

Pattie -- Has ValleySpeak gone out fashion? Wow, once again I've been behind the curve. When did young girls give it up? It's funny it should be going out of fashion now, because some of the girls who did grow up ValleySpeaking are now fullsized grownups, and are starting to rise over me at work. Very topsy-turvy and odd having superiors who ValleySpeak. What behavior fads are the young girls going for these days? I notice a lot of face-pulling -- grimacing (in charming ways), eye-rolling and eye-popping (in charming ways). I'm just guessing but it's behavior that seems to come from ... I dunno, popular TV shows, maybe? (Rolls eyes, grimaces.)

Carter -- That's the voice of wisdom speaking.

Annette -- Yeah, that's another one of those key moments, when you no longer recognize the people on the cover of Vanity Fair. VF as an indicator of your own maturity -- pretty funny. Now that I think about it, it's been a couple of years since I even looked at an issue of VF. It's been a couple of months since I've been in a movie theater. Wow, I really am getting out of it. "2Blowhards -- a place where people who are out of it but OK with that, and who are somehow still interested in the arts, more or less, can hang out and swap war stories." Well, we could do worse for a theme, I guess. BTW, if you know who and what Jessica Simpson is, you're a lot more tuned-in than I am.

Ned -- Let's cut to the chase: do either Eliza or Elisha (or whatever their names are) do nudity? And is Mandy or Linsday supposed to be the troubled one? As far as I can tell from the celeb rags, both girls enjoy falling out of their tops, so maybe both of them have a future in front of them. Maybe we have an inadvertent sex-tape scandal to look forward to. Jeffrey Hunter was a midlevel star in the '50s who had prettyboy bland looks and who was a bit of a joke -- he was Mr. Anonymous Manlyguy. He was most famous for playing Jesus in the overripe superproduction "King of Kings." Jesus -- one of the tougher roles for an actor's reputation to survive. Kirstie had a bit of a movie career before "Cheers," and (although she did have a kind of surly, pugnacious quality) was thought to be pretty hot for some years. Odd the way that some forms of beauty and hotness don't really translate over time. Hard to imagine now how incredibly sexy models like Cheryl Tiegs or even Cindy Crawford once seemed. But at the time something about them resonated with the general mood. Same with Kirstie, maybe.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 8, 2005 1:08 PM

bob mcmanus: Watchmen. Buy it. Read it. If you still don't understand the intellectual appeal of comics afterward, probably you never shall. (Or, seeing as he just passed away, pick up one or two books of Will Eisner's work.)

Cryptic Ned: Jeffrey Hunter was a handsome, bland actor in the 1950s and 1960s who died at a very young age. (Brain tumor, I think.) He's mostly remembered now for being in a few John Ford westerns -- The Searchers is the best of them -- and among geeks for playing the first captain of the Starship Enterprise in the original pilot for Star Trek. He also played Jesus in one of the biblical epics of that time (King of Kings, I think).

Posted by: Ian Hamet on January 8, 2005 1:14 PM

Jeffrey Hunter was the "King of Kings" guy? I could not have told you that. I guess I thought Tab Hunter was Mr Manlyguy. BTW--how's Tab for a stupid name? Rock? Rory? Guy? I went to college with a guy named Gray Tweedy. Topher might just be the latest in a long line, is EXCEPTIONALLY dumb.

Posted by: annette on January 8, 2005 2:09 PM

About airplane never fails. I always load my briefcase up with the idea of getting loads of writing or reading done. Somehow it never happens quite that way. Sometimes I just don't feel the heck like doing anything but doze or sink into my contemplations. Also, the seats are cramped, and with the briefcase jammed under the seat in front of me, it's hard to get into the briefcase to get stuff as I need it. A lot of my reading is in foreign languages, so there's some large dictionary involved as well as the book I'm reading that has to be juggled in the cramped confines. But all too often, especially on longer flights, they turn the cabin lights off so they can show a movie. Or on overseas flights, they just turn the lights off so people can sleep. There are individual spotlights above each seat for people who do want a light on, but they're glaring if you're in them and using them seems to bother people around you. Sometimes I think it's a wonder I get as much reading done on airplanes as I do, but it's haphazard and in snatches. Still, it seems like such a nice idea in theory...a three-hour stretch of time in which you can't do anything else but read a book.

As for popular culture, I'm hopelessly out of things. I hear ads for a supermarket chain on the radio featuring an actress who's supposed to be famous; the ads are premised on her being famous and people being amazed to see somebody so famous like her shopping at that grocery store...and I've never heard of her. I believe the name is "Patricia Heaton," but I have no idea what show she's on or anything else.

And at the grocery store, I see tabloid newspapers and gossip magazines whose covers are emblazoned with headlines about celebrities called by their first names, as though that's all I need to know. I'm supposed to know who Brad and Jen are and be interested in what they're up to off screen, I guess.

I think what happened is that I faded out of watching much broadcast TV around 1968. Before that, I could have told you who was hot and who was not. Nowadays...I use my TV mainly as a display unit for tapes and DVDs piped through it, but I'm sometimes mildly amazed to realize that there's a whole universe of television wafting through the ether with news and entertainment just waiting to be captured by my TV set's rabbit ears...if I ever change the channel away from Channel 3 where the video comes in. Maybe if I experimented with that capability, I might find out who Brad and Jen are, or see what this Patricia Heaton person actually looks like.

Kirstie Alley I have heard of...she played a pointy-eared character of Vulkan heritage in the second Star Trek movie, and fit the part because of her rather hard-edged beauty. She was replaced in the role in the third movie by another actress who was cuter and not nearly as effective because of it. Now, that's the kind of popular culture I do know it's a shock to see Kirstie Alley in the gossip magazines now something like 200 pounds heavier.


Posted by: Dwight Decker on January 8, 2005 5:12 PM

Hey Dwight--

So who was 'hot' in 1968? A few guesses I have--Barbara whatsherface from "I Dream of Jeannie", Katherine Ross, the Beatles and Stones, the Who, Steve McQueen, Batman, Janis Joplin, Joe Namath, Marlo Thomas, the Temptations, Grace Slick and Jefferson Airplane? Jane Fonda? Laugh-In? Am I close?

Actually, not such a bad list compared to what we have today, is it?

Posted by: annette on January 8, 2005 5:39 PM

For the longest time -- well, not really, but dimly, for some obscure while -- I was assuming that Mischa Barton was a male Russian ballet dancer...

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on January 8, 2005 5:40 PM

The shortest explanation I can find: You are out of it *because it's pretty much all junk.*

Posted by: Toby on January 8, 2005 6:08 PM

So which fields are you tuned into?

I live behind a niche market veil of ignorance. Awaken me from a deep slumber and I'll probably be able to tell you what city Dylan played the night before; I always know which silent films Kino has just put out (140 Edison films on four disks come February! Yay!); I watch Significant Others religiously, although no one else seems to watch it or indeed has even heard of it.

And of course, being a bloghead, I know all about Oil-for-Food and Darfur and Rathergate.

Yet move beyond my interests and it's impenetrable darkness. Never seen a single episode of The Sopranos, Sex In The City, CSI, Survivor, American Idol; haven't watched TV news in three years; not quite sure who the Depsperate Housewives are, etc.

How does one market to a person like me, I wonder? I do indeed buy stuff, afterall, but I never see commercials or rarely read print ads.

The latest theory calls our brave new world Gecyberschaft, unfortunately. We've moved beyond Gemeinschaft (community) and Gesellschaft (contractual society) and now we're bunched by common affinities, geography be damned.

Posted by: Brian on January 8, 2005 6:17 PM


That's a pretty good list for the later '60s in general, but for 1968 in particular might have to be refined somewhat. Batman (the TV show) had already peaked, faded, and died by then. I don't think Barbara Eden was being much heard from by that point, either, as "I Dream of Jeanne" was fading a bit. The Jefferson Airplane and the Temptations were around, though, but I think Janis Joplin was a little later. Certainly Marlo Thomas and her TV series "That Girl" were making a splash...and Laugh-In was huge, even briefly making a star out of Tiny Tim. The Smothers Brothers show was big around then, not least because of the controversy.

Of course, my memory has faded somewhat, but if you had asked me then, I could have told you exactly what was groovy (even though I was one of the more out of it kids around -- you knew these things just by being young then).


Posted by: Dwight Decker on January 8, 2005 6:23 PM

Umm, Elisha Cuthbert I think did nudity, Eliza Dushku does not. I know these things.

Eliza Dushku was a guest star in the Joss Whedon Buffy/Angel world for several years. Smart, tough, cynical, husky-voiced and very limited acting range.

I know nothing about Cuthbert and ain't about to look her up.

Posted by: bob mcmanus on January 8, 2005 9:34 PM

Jeffrey Hunter was a midlevel star in the '50s who had prettyboy bland looks and who was a bit of a joke -- he was Mr. Anonymous Manlyguy. He was most famous for playing Jesus in the overripe superproduction "King of Kings."

Oh, wow. I thought Jeffrey Hunter was the guy who played Basquiat and the Latino guy in Shaft, and was wondering why you considered him to be uninteresting. Turns out that was Jeffrey Wright.

Posted by: Cryptic Ned on January 8, 2005 11:42 PM

Mandy Moore is 20 and supposed to be quite well-adjusted, after starting out as a pop star and then not being a pop star anymore after the somewhat critically acclaimed "How To Deal" and "Saved!".

Lindsay Lohan is 18 and supposed to be an immature party girl. She's only been in movies that nobody likes except teenagers, except "Mean Girls" which I guess some adults liked.

Posted by: Cryptic Ned on January 8, 2005 11:45 PM

I should note that I have no idea who Mischa Barton is. Stars of TV shows are a closed book to me.

Posted by: Cryptic Ned on January 8, 2005 11:45 PM

Well, whaddayaknow? I just saw the cover of "Entertainment Weekly" and there, right on the cover, is Lindsay Lohan. She's topless and the headline on the cover discusses how much she has "endured." Think I can actually motivate to read it?

Posted by: annette on January 9, 2005 9:14 PM

cryptic ned -- Linsday Lohan has only been a star since "Mean Girls"??? I'm as out of it as Michael but even I know better than THAT.

Posted by: JT on January 10, 2005 1:33 PM

Brian -- as I inch closer to the age of 35, I've finally figured out that demographic scale the advertisers like to use. I didn't want to leave the coveted 18-35 slot until I realized that, once you're 36, you're generally able to sort quality from flashy junk and can no longer be so easily manipulated and sold to. I hope. At any rate, leaving that group doesn't seem so bad now.

As for Jeffrey Hunter, well, I've always found him kind of cute and don't know what he did to deserve the beating he's getting here! Maybe I just feel bad because he died stupidly -- he fell off a ladder and hit his head. That's a sad end for anyone, nevermind a movie star.

Posted by: Scott D on January 10, 2005 3:29 PM

Y'all should feel encyclopedically educated compared to me. I heard of may be 10% of the names mentioned.
On the other hand, you will have no idea who the "Kino" orTatyana Drubich was. Not that you'd missed much.
Anyway, thanks for the crush course; hopefully after studying the links I'll feel only half inadequate conversing with my son ("Mom, it was in the mid-seventies, you should at least know THAT" - "Sorry, kitty, my 70's stuff's from another country")
Interesting subsubject, perception of beauty types over time - and across gender and geographic borders, too. I have long-standing disagreement with above-mentioned individual, a beauty conniosseur, about Charlie's Angels in general, and Cameron Diaz in particular. In my view (and my female Russian-speaking friends agree) she not only looks very common without even an hint of piquant touch like the rest of them, but that perpetual froggy-mouth grin makes me doubt she posess elementary reasoning abilities.
Needless to say, my son thinks I'm downright blind.

Posted by: Tatyana on January 10, 2005 3:42 PM

Cuthbert was Keifer Sutherland's daughter on 24. Her first starring vehicle was last year's "My hot neighbor is a porn star" teen comedy The Girl Next Door. Haven't seen it, but did note that it got some very bad and some very good reviews - often an indication that a film is interesting, if nothing else. No idea if she's done nude, but I'm guessing not.

Bob - I thought Dushku's range was pretty limited, too, I until I saw the Buffy ep where her character, Faith, and Buffy traded bodies. Her Sarah Michelle Gellar imitation was spot-on.

Posted by: John on January 10, 2005 4:58 PM

Tatyana---"about Charlie's Angels in general, and Cameron Diaz in particular. In my view (and my female Russian-speaking friends agree) she not only looks very common without even an hint of piquant touch like the rest of them, but that perpetual froggy-mouth grin makes me doubt she posess elementary reasoning abilities."

LOL! Obviously, Justin Timberlake disagrees with you about her froggy mouth grin and reasoning abilities. Hmmmmm...maybe that proves your point!

(PS--I'm so out of it that when you first mentioned Charlie's Angels I thought you meant the seventies original, and I thought, gosh, I dunno, I think Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith were rather piquant. Then it occurred to me---OHH, the movie...).

Posted by: annette on January 10, 2005 5:19 PM

Tatyana---"about Charlie's Angels in general, and Cameron Diaz in particular. In my view (and my female Russian-speaking friends agree) she not only looks very common without even an hint of piquant touch like the rest of them, but that perpetual froggy-mouth grin makes me doubt she posess elementary reasoning abilities."

LOL! Obviously, Justin Timberlake disagrees with you about her froggy mouth grin and reasoning abilities. Hmmmmm...maybe that proves your point!

(PS--I'm so out of it that when you first mentioned Charlie's Angels I thought you meant the seventies original, and I thought, gosh, I dunno, I think Kate Jackson and Jaclyn Smith were rather piquant. Then it occurred to me---OHH, the movie...).

Posted by: annette on January 10, 2005 5:19 PM

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