Mon December 30, 2013
What Monkeys Eat: A Few Thoughts About Pop Culture Writing
When I was first explaining what I wanted this blog to be like in 2008, I shared with some folks at NPR a theory I have had for some time about writing about popular culture. It goes like this: If you think monkeys are fascinating and you want to understand and be of value to them, it's not enough to be an expert on what monkeys should ideally eat. You have to understand what monkeys actually eat.
And the same is true of culture. It's good to know and think about what people ought to watch and read and listen to, ideally; all that is good stuff, and worth talking about, and worth arguing about. But it doesn't change the fact that there's a whole other universe of things that people care about and watch and like or get angry about, and whether they ought to or not, the fact that they do — and they way they do — tells you something about them.
So while it is true, as we've explained, that Monkey See refers in part to the unique place of monkeys at the junction of anthropology and comedy, it is also true that the way monkeys originally made their way into the naming conversation was that deep down, I wanted to call the blog What Monkeys Eat. (With myself as chief monkey, don't get me wrong. It's not a put-down.)
Justin Bieber, Duck Dynasty, Breaking Bad, Gravity, and — yes — even Miley Cyrus twerking are all examples of what monkeys eat. Some good, some bad, some completely baffling. But all things that are making their way into a lot of people's thinking, and provoking all kinds of conversations that we might not have otherwise.
That's my own answer to the age-old question of why anyone writes about pop culture, which recently came up in this piece about important versus unimportant stories. How did we get to the point where we're spending so much time with stories that aren't about "war or peace or anyone's ability to find work," but instead on "fluff"?
The question seems directed less at cultural criticism — why write about television, why write about popular film — than about cultural stories of the moment. Why have conversations about trivial things? Why not limit your conversations to important things?
It's true that diversion and distraction are part of the reason too, no question, as is amusement. Sometimes funny stories are just funny stories, and funny writing about silly things is just funny writing about silly things. But that's not the whole story.
Consider the case of Marco Rubio and the water bottle. In and of itself, that story is, indeed, very silly: A Man Drinks Water. But to me, it seemed like a story about how spontaneity is in such short supply in politics that in highly choreographed settings, even small, meaningless things seem fascinating simply because they are unplanned. The water is not important; the authenticity craving that, once identified, could be transformed into a strategy? That's potentially important. And if you think people are interesting the way a student of monkeys might find monkeys interesting, the way that resonated with people doesn't have to be good or bad; it just is. You've heard of "I think, therefore I am." This is more, "It is, therefore I think about it." This kind of thing is often less like gem-polishing and more like seismology. You feel the vibration, and you analyze it, rather than ignoring it on the basis that nothing broke.
The same is true — even more — of the Duck Dynasty story. There are over 750 comments on a post I wrote about that story, even though the post was really very mild. And in those comments, you will see multiple and profound cultural divides that touch on issues of region, class, religion, race, sexuality, trust, authenticity, and power. Duck Dynasty is not important, but that story exposed that divide and, just as importantly, shows how easy it has become to exploit it.
The utter lack of importance of the underlying subject, in fact, is exactly what tells you how close to the surface and at how high a temperature these conflicts are simmering. In fact, it is often those conversations about seemingly insignificant cultural issues that (for me) sheds light on what makes larger issues of war and peace and the economy so difficult to address.
People absolutely make decisions about where to get information based on who understands and relates to them culturally. People absolutely decide they believe this person or that person based in part on whether they know anything about country music or hip-hop or hunting. It would be crazy to believe that the level of anger and frustration that exploded in discussions about Duck Dynasty begins and ends at Duck Dynasty. We're positively poaching in it, and it's poaching politics, high art, the environment, foreign policy and every other area of public policy. That story and the reactions to it create a sobering snapshot of a lot of people who are really, really, really angry.
The big picture, always, is just that: it's a big picture. To get perspective on a huge, world-shaking issue like climate change or war often requires a view from the sky. And when you read great writing about it, it feels exactly that way: like you're looking at the world from a spy satellite, and huge things suddenly make sense and click together like Legos.
Writing about popular culture is more the view from the ground. It's looking around at the people you both live with and walk past, looking at what they're listening to and reading and thinking about, whether it's what they ought to be thinking about or not.
In short, you don't have to like the resonance of a moment in order to acknowledge it. And how you write about it is always going to matter more than what you're writing about. (Don't believe me? Remember The Story Of Egypt's Revolution In Jurassic Park GIFs?)
It's always going to be possible to write well about small things or badly about big things. It's easy as pie to write dumb, destructive things about war or the economy or hugely critical issues — things that have the capacity to be far more of a scourge and a danger than somebody writing any of the really intelligent pieces that went around about Miley Cyrus twerking. (That, by the way, stoked all kinds of interesting conversations around race, gender, appropriation, tradition ... sometimes a twerk is just a twerk, but sometimes it is emphatically not.)
So no, Justin Bieber is not important. But Justin Bieber is, and for me personally, it matters what's being said, not just what it's being said about.