Right out of the gate, 2010 looked to be a very promising pop culture year. Back in January, at one of the early American Idol auditions, we were introduced to aspiring contestant General Larry Platt, who regaled the judges with his seemingly-improvised yet totally-infectious original composition "Pants on the Ground." Before America's favorite non-plussed judge Simon Cowell could say "I have a horrible feeling that could be a hit," pretty much the whole country was on board with General Platt's effort to dis all those people with gold in their mouths, their hats turned sideways, looking like a fool with their pants on the ground. (Jimmy Fallon did a great "Pants on the Ground" version as Neil Young.) That is just to say, the Crazy Bar was set high early on in the year. Thankfully, this is America, and we can always go crazier.
The "pop culture" list is a difficult one to compose, as there is so much mutual contamination between pop culture, politics, arts and letters, sports and other "real" news. I mean, who would've thought that one of the biggest political events this year (the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear) would also be such a big music concert, slang-and-slogan-generator, television phenomenon and pop culture celebrity-fest? Popular culture is a funny thing-- quite often, a hilariously funny thing-- and it is shaped and reshaped at light speed. Here's a look back at what flashed in the pan in 2010:
Tiny Little Thumb Judges The World
We might as well begin with that ubiquitous little icon that has come to serve as the New Millennial's Ballot Box. Back in April when Facebook decided to wean its 500 million users off of the "Become a Fan" button, they replaced it with a little thumbs-up icon called the "Like" button. Almost immediately-- because, as we all know, the Facebook method of "weaning" is to yank the bottle away and destroy it-- it became possible to "like" (but never to "dislike," though one can "unlike") practically everything, from movies and music and actors to hobbies and cities and snarks (e.g., "if you don't want a sarcastic answer, then don't ask a stupid question"). The Like button is a strange, but immensely influential, experiment in direct democracy. It's everywhere now, and has come to function as the pictorial shorthand for positivity (whether genuine or ironic). More than any poll or survey, Facebook's little thumb is the thing to consult if you want to meaure the pulse of popular culture. Oh, and by the way, you can even "like" this blog!
Facebook Founder Doesn't "Like" Facebook Movie
Since we're on the topic of Facebook, 2010 also gave us the blockbuster film ("The Social Network") about Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg's meteoric rise to wealth and influence. The basic premise of the biopic was that Zuckerberg, who invented the world's first and largest "social network," was himself a bit socially retarded, if not outright antisocial. Now, if you've ever actually met one of those college IT-geeks who thinks staying up all night writing code or playing video games is the greatest thing ever, you may not have found "The Social Network" to be all that world-shattering. I'm guessing just about anyone would be a little miffed if they were caricatured on screen like Zuckerberg was in this film... but, hey, those are the breaks when, at a mere 25 years old, you've already risen to a level of influence that commands a cinematic rendering. Although he had nothing to do with the film's creation and initially swore off seeing it, Zuckerberg admitted in his most recent "60 Minutes" interview that he had changed his mind and accompanied the entire Facebook staff to see "The Social Network." I saw the movie, too, and I thought it was facinating-- not so much for the totally unsurprising expose of Zuckerberg as for the story of Facebook itself. With a half-BILLION people logging into the same social network every day (multiple times a day for most of them), I think Facebook belongs up there with the printing press and penicillin for Inventions that Most Dramatically Changed Human Life. So, who cares if the boy-genius behind it all doesn't blink and is a little weird? Tiny little thumbs-up for this movie. I *LIKE.*
G.T.L. (Gym, Tanning, Laundry)
The most unlikely rise to pop culture stardom this year came to the cast of MTV's reality show "Jersey Shore," which chronicled the drinking, the smushing, the fist-pumping, the dancing, the eating, the fighting and the making-up of a bunch of 20-somethings who were sooo stereotypical "Jersey" that you just knew they had to be real. There was the drop-dead handsome DJ with the immovable gelled hair, Pauly D. The fiery vixen but loyal friend JWOW. The star-crossed smushers, meathead Ronnie and his sweet on-again/off-again girlfriend Sammi. The endearing and lovable trainwreck Snooki. And watching over them all-- cooking the meals, negotiating the arguments, managing the household, enforcing the GTL routine-- was Mr. Six-Pack Abs himself, Mike "The Situation." This year was the second season of "Jersey Shore," but I've been watching it from the beginning. It's really, really good. Critics find the show très gauche-- full of undereducated, oversexed, alcoholic misfits-- but what they miss (I think) is the way those misfits manage to take their collective dysfunction and fashion something like a functional family out of it. Looking beautiful and partying hard are certainly top priorities for this crew, but even those are in the end subordinate to friendship and loyalty. These are young people with good hearts, even in their most directionless moments. "Jersey Shore" is fresh to death.
Jessica Can Do Anything Good
The viral video "Jessica's Daily Affirmation" is my hands-down favorite of this year's pop culture phenomena. In it, a little girl climbs up on her bathroom counter and excitedly shouts a list of everything that she likes about her little life. And it's a pretty impressive list. Jessica likes her school, her haircut, her pajamas, her WHOLE HOUSE! When she's done, she climbs down from the counter, mumbling to herself "I can do anything good. Better than anyone." Yes, of course, Jessica is irresistably "cute"... but she's also strong and enthusiastic and fearless and bold. There's just nothing about her impromptu Manifesto that doesn't warm your heart. After viewing her performance a few months ago, I was so taken with it that I wrote an "Open Letter to Little Jessica" on this blog in response. Jessica is 12-yrs-old now (and was interviewed about her reactions to the video going viral), but for everyone who saw this video in 2010, she'll always the 4 or 5-yr-old standing over the bathroom sink in her eminently likable pajamas. Here's hoping that more kids grow up in a world where they are moved to shout like little Jessica!
It Gets Better
Unfortunately, not every kid does grow up in a world like little Jessica's, a sad fact that we were all reminded of this year when several suicides by LGBT teens made headlines. As the rest of the country debated gay marriage and DADT (the still-in-effect "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"policy of the United States military), a lot of young queer people suffered the ostracism and harrassment that is too often passively permitted to torture the psyches of gay youth. In September, syndicated columnist Dan Savage started the It Gets Better Project, designed to provide some encouragement to young people struggling with their LGBT identities. The idea was simple: let young LGBT kids know that they are not alone, they have support, and no matter how hard their situations are now, it will get better. Dan Savage and his partner Terry posted the first video, but it has since been followed by similar messages from Tim Gunn (from "Project Runway"), pop star Adam Lambert, comedienne Kathy Griffin, Presdent Barack Obama, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, Chris Colfer (from "Glee"), a bunch of Google employees and Facebook employees, Bishop Gene Robinson, and even Kermit the Frog. At first I was a bit torn about this project, because the truth is that for a lot of people, it doesn't get better... you just get stronger. But the more videos I've seen, the more I think this might be one of the greatest projects ever. It's important, timely, community-building, educational and, hopefully, life-saving.
iPad iPositively iPleases iPeople
Steve Jobs (again) gave us the Grown-Up Toy of the Year in 2010 with his introduction of the iPad. And as much as I am loathe to condone the further Applefication of our lives, this is a pretty cool toy. It's a half-inch thin, less than 2lbs, the size of a standard sheet of paper... and it can do almost everything that a regular laptop can do. Like its cousin the iPod, it's a product for sophisticated media and graphics connoisseurs. And like its other cousin the iPhone, it is largely "apps"-driven. The only drawback? The iPad comes with a pretty hefty $500-$900 price tag. (But, hey, Macintosh has built it's entire business around the "pay for convenience, for convenience pays" principle.) From the people that I know who have gone iPad already, the news is almost entirely positive. There's just no denying that in 2010, whipping an iPad out of your purse or bag was the indicator of cool, hip and connected. Even still, I want to register AGAIN my (increasingly tired and mostly ignored) complaint about devotees to the so-called "Mac community": People, it's a product, not an identity.
Professorate Ironically Fights Battle With Hoi Polloi Using Snarky Cartoons
[Full disclosure: before I begin my snarky comments about this, I have to admit that I also created one of these cartoons several months ago, before this thing got huge.] Leave it to academics to take something fun on the internet (like the text-to-movie app created by Xtranormal), go all OCD with the thing, and start fighting a million petty office squabbles with it. These videos had been popping up intermittently for a while when, all of the sudden a couple of months ago, they literally exploded. It's hard to locate the exact tipping point, but I think it came with the "So You Want To Get A PhD in the Humanities?" video, in which an idealistic (but naive) undergraduate is mercilessly ridiculed (ahem, "advised") by her sober-minded and realistic (but jaded) professor. Once that cartoon went viral, the gloves were off. Other disciplines joined in with their own variations-- Political Science, Physics, Economics, Business, Law, Film-- each involving a little more cathexis than the one before, each a little more littered with "inside" professional jokes, each just as snarky, ironic and depressing. It's like the entire United States professorate had a really bad case of gas, and it just belched it all out at once. Still, it was funny and probably more than a bit therapeutic. (If you want to read a smart and interesting analysis of the whole phenomenon, I recommend my friend Theory Teacher's blog posts about it here and here.) The story-behind-the-story is, of course, that higher education-- especially the humanities-- was allegedly "in crisis" in 2010. I think the jury's still out on that one, but don't be surprised to see it on the list next year. Sigh.
Make-a My Dreams Come True
Despite all the hype about Twighlight: Eclipse, I think the Movie of the Year was Christopher Nolan's Inception. I saw the movie when it came out, and I posted my review of it on this blog already, so let me try to say something different here. I think Inception, which was just an "okay" movie as far as content goes, was one of the most visually stunning films I've ever seen. (I didn't see Avatar.) And Christopher Nolan can always be counted on to make the movies that people keep talking about afterwards. So, it's no surprise that this CGI-fest about dreams and dreams-within-a-dream and dreams-within-dreams-within-a-dream-- with a little conspiracy, intrigue, romance, and familial tragedy thrown in for good measure-- was what moviegoers were talking about for a lot of 2010. Like Memento and The Matrix and Waking Life and other quasi-philosophical films, Inception forced people to stretch their minds a bit and ask some big questions. Can someone plant an idea in my mind so deep that I think it's my own? Can I tell the difference between dream and reality? Do I have a moral obligation to truth? Those are big questions, good questions, that everyone should ask. Still, the best comment I heard about Inception (posted in the comments section to my review of it) was: "if one goes to all the trouble to make a machine that can put you in other peoples' dreams, one might as well make it wireless. I'm just sayin'." Now, THAT's deep, man.
The Girl Who I Don't Know Anything About
Not since the Harry Potter series have I felt so completely out-of-the-loop in terms of literary fads. In 2010, it seemed as if practically everyone (other than me) had read or was reading Stieg Larsson's Millenium Trilogy, a series of crime novels that includes The Girl with the Dragon Tatoo, The Girl Who Played With Fire, and The Girl Who Kicked the Hornet's Nest. And also not since Harry Potter have I seen a literary series so quickly made into films. Alas, I haven't read the books and I haven't seen the movies, so all I can do here is acknowledge from the sidelines that Larsson and his Girl were definitely pop-culure phenoms in 2010. Well, maybe that's not all I can do. I do have a very smart friend (Dr. Trott) whose literary taste I trust who did a series of blog posts about Larsson's Millenium Trilogy. So, um, go check that out, I guess. Sorry I can't be of more assistance on this one.
The NBC program "Community" started to creep its way into our pop-culture hearts last year, when it introduced us to Greendale Community College's bunch of ne'er-do-wells and their wacky Spanish professor Señor Chang (seriously, one of the most hilarious television characters EVER). The show was consistently original and smart in its first season last year, but this year creator Dan Harmon took it to a whole new level. "Community" now joins "30 Rock" in the category of "meta-sitcom," trading in meta-humor with almost endless (though often cleverly disguised) television, film and pop-culture references. "Community" still incorporates all of the slapstick and caricature that make a sitcom a sitcom-- it never meta gag it didn't like!-- but it's just soooo much more intelligent than the other stuff out there. This is definitely a show for television connoisseurs-- or, uh, nerds-- and I'm confident that some of its characters (Abed and Troy, for example) will go down in TV history as truly memorable.
And, finally, what would a 2010 Pop Culture list be without...
Stewart and Colbert Are Seriously Funny
Thank goodness Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert aren't completely serious. And thank goodness they're not totally kidding, either. This October, the nation's two Satirists-in-Chief combined forces to organize the Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear in Washington, DC, which they endlessly pitched and lampooned in the months leading up to it on their shows, The Daily Show and The Colbert Report. A quarter-million people showed up. That's right, a QUARTER-MILLION PEOPLE showed up to an anti-politics political rally organized by two talk show hosts from Comedy Central. As John Mellencamp would say, ain't that America? The truth is, Stewart and Colbert rank right up there with the Facebook "Like" button as the most reliable gauges of pop culture. If you don't know what they're saying about something-- politics, economics, celebrity, science, law, entertainment, and who is or isn't a Nazi-- you don't know sh*t. If America ever deigned to compare itself to France, we'd have to acknowledge that Stewart is our Sartre, Colbert our Molière. They've been holding strong to their prominent pop culture spots for many years now... but 2010 was the first year, I think, that we saw so much of the gravity that lies beneath their clowning.
If anything happens in the next couple of weeks, I'll amend this list. But, for now, that's Dr. J's 2010 Year in Pop Culture.