By Malcolm X Abram, Akron Beacon Journal –
So, do you remember when people wanted to be famous for something?
As kids growing up in the ‘60s, ‘70s and ‘80s, most wanted to be a famous athlete or actor or world-renowned doctor. But there was usually an object following the adjective “famous,” implying that a person must actually do something that other people find notable or interesting to garner notoriety.
Those days are gone, baby.
These days, “famous” means an ability to carve out a spot in pop culture for any reason or length of time. Fame is its own reward, and if one isn’t too picky about how that fame is acquired (and increasingly it seems that people aren’t), then we’re all one viral video, inflammatory tweet or famous sibling away from achieving 21st-century fame in this big ol’ constantly churning ball of events, people, news, non-news and random crap we call American pop culture. And, while many folks believe it is the only culture America has, our mainstream pop culture is arguably our country’s biggest contribution to global culture.
Just like our great United States of America — which theoretically welcomes the world’s tired and poor, its huddled masses yearning to breathe free — American pop culture is a sponge, taking bits and pieces from its many subcultures, often ripping out the guts of what made those subcultures interesting, and repacking it for mass consumption, something at which Americans are historically awesome.
All kinds of formerly sub- and countercultures are subsumed into American pop culture, as has always been the case, but it seems to happen at an increased pace for better and for worse.
It took punk rock nearly two decades to go from scary youth-driven counterculture to being part of the mainstream (“pop-punk!” yeah), but the electronic music subgenre dubstep, which began to spread to the states from Europe in the mid-2000s, has already become the soundtrack to nearly every active wear/energy drink/ super cool car commercial on television, perhaps the clearest sign of mainstream acceptance.
Add the fact that the concept of not “selling out,” once a clarion call of hippies, punks and hip-hoppers, is now the desired endgame for many aspiring artists. It’s a primary vehicle for getting one’s music into the mainstream, suggesting that the “Mad Men” (who now include women and people of color) have ultimately won.
While nerds may not have climbed to the top of the high school food chain, nerd culture — traditionally as exclusive and us-against-them as any — has been creeping into the mainstream since the ‘80s. That’s when comic-book-based films became blockbusters, television shows such as the Star Trek reboot were hits and there was a proliferation of Nintendo and other video-game consoles.
Heck, there’s even a high school in Pennsylvania designed and built in the shape of the Millennium Falcon (if you don’t know what that is, you’re simply not nerdy enough), solidifying the permeation of both nerd and pop culture into the “real world.”
Other examples: The popular show Glee has “gleeks” (a contraction of glee and geeks), several of the protagonists of Judd Apatow movies (“Superbad,” “The 40 Year Old Virgin,” “Knocked Up”) could be safely called nerds and/ or geeks, and the basic premise of the recently released “21 Jumpstreet” reboot. In that film the undercover cop (Jonas Hill) who was a nerd in high school is now one of the cool kids, and his partner (Channing Tatum) who was a cool jock then is now considered an uncool social anachronism.
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Even pornography has wormed its way into the mainstream. One of the most common sources of Internet-related humor in American pop culture is porn, and people who have never seen a 1970s-era pornographic film know that the “boom-chicka-wow-wow” used in an ad campaign and often referred to in contemporary TV and films represents the standard wah-wah-guitar sound common in porno music of that era. And they perhaps even owned one of those “Porn Star” T-shirts that were hot several years ago.
They also know that a porno, excuse me, a celebrity sex tape is how Kim Kardashian (arguably the pinnacle of being famous for being famous), and by extension the entire Kardashian clan, got their notoriety. Many don’t care.
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I’m not just talking about millennials, many of whom seem to not have a B.S. detector when it comes to the stuff that is marketed toward them. But there are plenty of grown folks who should know better who spend time discussing the screeching harpies of shows such as VH1’s “Love & Hip Hop” and any show with “housewives” in the title whose cast members consist of people who are notable only for the people with whom they have sex.
Stripper culture is mainstream, with stripper poles turning up in sitcoms and pole-dancing classes replacing jazzercise.
Hip-hop has helped fuel this with a few years’ worth of odes to strippers and their ambitions (T-Pain’s “I’m in Love With a Stripper” being an obvious example).
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I’ve been in downtown Akron, Ohio, on a Thursday night when the 18-and-up clubs are hopping and seen phalanxes of young college co-eds in skirts that could easily be mistaken for fancy hand towels and platform stiletto heels that veteran Atlantic City hookers and strippers would (possibly literally) kill to have.
Interestingly, their male counterparts don’t seem to feel the need to try nearly as hard to attract attention (except perhaps the few remaining mooks still wearing those elaborately decorated, egregious and ugly Ed Hardy style T-shirts.)
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Growing up in the shadow of the 1960s with boomers constantly informing me of their generation’s awesomeness and my generation’s apathy, I was raised with a healthy skepticism of mainstream pop culture even as I absorbed much of what it had to offer, and watched its marketing with a jaundiced eye.
Likewise, when many of those same freak-flag-flying boomers transformed from free-lovin’, pot-smokin’ hippies into trickle-down economics-loving, power-tie- wearing yuppies, I took that as a sign that much of what we were inundated with from television, movies and radio was simply B.S.
Today, that no longer seems to be the case. The Internet, YouTube, Twitter and other social media with user-generated content (and, yeah, that includes some porn sites) and our society’s increasing need for attention and/ or validation, has turned Andy Warhol’s famous 15-minutes-of-fame line into “in the future, everyone will be part of pop culture for 15 minutes.”
Perhaps Frank Ocean, the R&B singer who recently revealed that his first love was a man without suffering nearly the homophobic backlash he would have a decade ago, crystallized the current state of affairs when asked whether he was worried about leaking his own album “Channel Orange” on the Web and whether he was excited about having a single on the pop charts.
“No,” he replied, saying he doesn’t make music to have hit singles on the charts or on the radio. “I make pop culture.”