While people stand in awe of great achievements in the sciences, arts, & sports, the truth is we really don’t love them- at least not like the way we want to curl up in bed & read them as we do a trashy genre novel, or doze off to them like some B-movie. Individuals, of course, can break the general stereotype. For example, I love & indulge the classic male American affair with BIG things: dinosaurs, skyscrapers, & astronomy- all sciences. I also love the arts of Erik Satie, Led Zeppelin, Winslow Homer, Salvador Dalí, Renē Magritte, Kurt Vonnegut, William Kennedy, Charles Johnson, Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, Rainer Maria Rilke, Robert Hayden, Robinson Jeffers, Orson Welles, Woody Allen, Stanley Kubrick, Martin Scorcese, & Auguste Rodin. But, I also love my New York sports teams: the Yankees, Giants, Islanders, &- yes, my Knickerbockers. Which I love more is debatable. But the masses lack the time, skill, acumen, & patience for these higher pursuits. Even as an artist, in general, I tend to feel a more deep passion for the lower arts- we all do. So much so, that we don’t even refer to these things as arts, per se. The word art- & its root ars- have such airs. We call them mere ‘entertainment’. In this lot I would include things as pro wrestling, demolition derbies, ‘genre’ fiction: Westerns, Romance, Sci Fi, Horror, Crime/Mystery, etc., B-movies from early Sci Fi to Godzilla to porno to slasher films, most pop music from heavy metal to bubble gum to soul to country to rap to disco, almost all radio & tv, the Internet, soap operas, etc. Still, far greater passion is felt, by folks, for these forms of art & their protagonists than their more airy equivalents- ever heard of 2nd cellist being stalked? Or conventions held for a great tap dancer? The reason is simple- average folk can relate more easily to these exploits which generally do not have ‘great’ participants nor requirements- i.e.- no specialness is required to succeed at most of these endeavors. Also, there simply is alot more ‘low’ than ‘high’ art so people can get acclimated more to the low. Indeed, I love a # of the aforementioned. Yet I am a great poet….there must be some conundrum? No. I rise to greatness in 1 lone endeavor. I am pretty average in most other respects. I am average in looks- for every person who would recoil in horror at my mien, or swoon over my charming mug, there are 999 folks who pay not a moment’s attention to my looks either way. I am no weakling, but far from a Schwarzenegger. I am not a gawk, athletically, but not a particularly good athlete- although I was ‘only’ the 26th cut from my High School basketball team out of the 84 boys who tried out, the 1 year I attempted to display my jock prowess. I also have fairly middle of the road tastes in most entertainment, food, politics, etc. So, I am far from immune from the Siren sway of the Lowest Common Denominator. But, what is it about the LCD that makes it so appealing that even noted intellectuals have had their share of LCD passions? I believe it is several things: 1- LCD appeal is rooted in archetypes, not stereotypes. 2) This allows for the ‘thing’ to not embody, but transcend, its time. & 3) The LCD thing also has a certain kitsch appeal, or a lack of self-pretension which often damns more serious, yet failed, higher arts. There are some other points I will touch upon that are present in some LCD things, but these 3 are present in almost all LCD things. Let me recount, now, some of my LCD passions & see if you see some commonalities.
Pro Wrestling: Growing up in
New York City it was hard to avoid this ‘sport’. In fact, in the
early 80s I snuck into my High School’s gym to witness many a live
show the World-Wide Wrestling Federation [WWWF] would put
on. Many a Saturday midnight in the 1970s was spent watching the pros
grapple on Channel 9- WOR-TV. Vince McMahon, Jr. was the announcer for
his dad’s company. I recall such 70s superstars as Bruno Sammartino- a
hairy bull of a man & great Champion, Stan ‘The Man’ Stasiak-
the Heart-Punch Specialist also spent time as Champ, Bob Backlund- a
Minnesota amateur wrestling great who spent 5 years as WWWF champ, Ivan
‘Polish Power’ Putski- a muscular fireplug, Tony Atlas- a black
bodybuilder who was the 1st wrestler to full press another
over his head, Tony Garea- a New Zealander- or Aussie (does it matter?)
tag-team specialist, Chief Jay Strongbow- a Ghost Dancing Native
American, Mil Mascaras- the Man of 1000 Masks from Mexico, Polynesian
High Chief Peter Maivia, Andre the Giant- a French 7’4”, 500 lb.
monster, George ‘The Animal’ Steele- a fat hairy bald man who chewed
ring posts, drooled, could not speak, & had a tongue of varying
shades (who in real life was an attorney), Haystacks Calhoun- an 800+
lb. fat man/country hick, & my personal favorite- ‘Superstar’
Billy Graham- the 1st of the steroidal wave of musclebound
grapplers! The shows, however, were wholly mediocre, as few Main Events
were shown on the tv show, or in the ‘house’ or ‘off’ shows’
that played Franklin K. Lane’s gym. But the ‘interview’ segments
were cheesy enough. It was never knowing who was gonna win- that
was obvious, as the difference between stars & scrubs, heels
(villains) & babyfaces (heroes) was great- but how the match
would play out. Would Hero A get Heel D into his famous submission hold?
Would Atlas press another wrestler? Would Andre the Giant fend off the
horde of 2 dozen midget wrestlers he took on in a handicap match?, etc.
In truth, however, most of the matches were a bore- too many fat, hairy,
out of shape guys with real (or real-sounding) names, or names like
By the 1980s Vince McMahon, Jr. (henceforth just Vince) took over the WWF [now merely the World Wrestling Federation] from his father & began transforming the decades-old entertainment into a ‘higher-concept’. The WWF began by crowding out old-fashioned regional wrestling companies like the National Wrestling Alliance [NWA] & American Wrestling Alliance [AWA]. For decades all of these companies had formed an oligopoly on pro wrestling- sort of like Mafia families that would not encroach on the others’ territories. Vince changed all that. By the end of the 1980s pro wrestling was bigger than ever & there were only 2 national wrestling companies left in Vince’s wake: his WWF & the newly formed WCW [World Championship Wrestling]- a conglomerate of the remaining regional outfits which tried to stave off Vince’s forays. That company was soon bought out by media mogul Ted Turner. Vince also tied in the WWF to non-wrestling personalities- tv stars like Mr. T & pop singers like Cyndi Lauper. He also reaped a fortune by producing quarterly ‘mega-events’ on pay-per-view cable-tv. The names of the events suggested the faux grandiosity: Wrestlemania, Survivor Series, SummerSlam, Royal Rumble, King of the Ring, etc. Compare them to The Odyssey, The Iliad, Ragnarok, Götterdammerung, etc.- just as names! Vince even brought back women’s wrestling from the dead (even as he, to his eternal shame, buried midget wrestling). No longer were the women merely old broads like Mae Young or ‘The Magnificent Moolah’. These women were pretty good athletes- typified by the aptly named champion: Wendi Richter. The stodgy old ‘managers’ of various wrestlers gave way to ‘personalities’- usually aging wrestlers like ‘Captain’ Lou Albano, ‘Classy’ Freddy Blassie, Bobby ‘The Brain’ Heenan, or Jimmy ‘Mouth of the South’ Hart & Paul ‘E. Dangerously’ Heyman of WCW.
But the biggest change came in the male wrestlers themselves. These wrestlers were now more muscle-bound, more ‘sexy’, & had real ‘personality’. The 1980s saw the WWF foist a # of superstars whose name value transcended the genre- albeit briefly. Among them were bad guy turned babyface- or face- ‘Hulk’ Hogan. This was a balding, 6’ 8’, 300+ lb., musclebound behemoth named Terry Bollea, whose prior heel incarnations [Silver Surfer, ‘The Incredible’ Hulk Hogan] in other wrestling leagues had failed. Hogan became a superstar who even co-starred in a Sylvester Stallone Rocky film, & briefly had his own action tv series. Other faces were Jimmy ‘Superfly’ Snuka- an acrobatic daredevil from Polynesia (or Brooklyn- depending on whose bio you believe!), & ‘Junkyard Dog’ – a black wrestler in a dog collar, who would howl like a hound (cringe time). There were classic heels: Andre the Giant returned to the ring as 1 after 20 years as a face, ‘Rowdy’ Roddy Piper was a kilt-wearing Hogan nemesis with a great gift of gab- he was hated for his perpetual cheating almost as much as the ‘All-American’ Hogan was adored. There was the ‘Iron Sheik’- a prototypical quasi-Arabic heel who played off the Iran Hostage Crisis & appealed to the ethnic stereotypes that still dog pro wrestling to this day. His great foe was the heel-turned-face Sergeant Slaughter- a huge brawling ‘supposed’ drill instructor from Parris Island. Another giant brawler was ‘The Big Bossman’- a supposed former prison guard from Georgia. In fact the most popular superstars (outside of Hogan) were those wrestlers who were neither good nor bad. Typical among them were an Elvis impersonator- the Honky Tonk Man, & Bret ‘The Hitman’ Hart- a skilled grappler, arrayed in pink, from a Canadian wrestling dynasty. 1 can see the archetypes abundant in just the brief names & descriptions I’ve given. But this was nothing new in wrestling. However, this era saw the rise of 2 superstars who rivaled Hogan, heralded the zenith of the steroidal epoch, & were both classic archetypes straight from the human subconscious.
The 1st was a huge [& previously hugely unsuccessful] behemoth who was larger, stronger, & more muscular than Hogan- his real name was Mark Calloway. But upon joining the WWF he took the persona of ‘The Undertaker’- a supposed dead man (zombie/ghost/vampire/devil) who rose from a coffin before each match & was accompanied by a manager named ‘Paul Bearer’. The strength & agility from a man his size was unprecedented; but despite spending the majority of his career as a heel, the Undertaker has been 1 of the top stars & draws in pro wrestling history. The other archetypal superstar to emerge was a pro wrestler who grew up not too far from me- Queens, New York’s own Jim Hellwig- a former body builder who took on the character of ‘The Ultimate Warrior’- a face-painted, musclebound, steroidal wildman, who charged into the squared circle, & simply brawled like few before or since. He was a new type of face- not really good nor bad- merely indifferent to the masses. He battled both Hogan & the Undertaker in running feuds that lifted pro wrestling to previously undreamt of heights. He pressed opponents overhead like the earlier era’s Tony Atlas, stomped about the ring, beat his chest, shook the very ring itself, & mumbled pseudo-philosophical snippets which made no real sense, but sounded like so much Lao-tzu mixed with aboriginal shamanism, that young males ate it up. & he made a killing financially before retiring from the ring. & there was another wrestler worth mentioning, as he was both Hogan’s greatest foe (& occasional ally), & a prototypical ‘gray area’ character named Randy ‘Macho Man’ Savage. His outrageouness, speech patterns, & Cher-like sartorial style were inimitable. He was a failed baseball catching prospect whose real name was Randy Poffo. But his most lasting contribution to the genre was that his ‘manager’ was a stunning brunet called ‘Miss Elizabeth’- whom he briefly was ‘married to- in the ring & out. The Macho Man’s curvaceous manager was, however, merely a herald of the super-babe female valets & wrestlers who would be instrumental in the late 1990s re-rise of pro wrestling, because the early 90s saw pro wrestling nosedive in popularity after assorted scandals wracked the WWF- charges of prostitution, sexual harassment, sexual abuse- both heterosexual (male on female) & homosexual (male on male), but especially drug abuse- most notably steroid abuse by Hogan, aided & abetted by Vince, saw the bottom almost totally fall out on the industry- including the rival WCW.
Ted Turner’s group rode the 80s crest with stars that nearly rivaled the popularity of Hogan, Macho Man, Warrior, & Undertaker. Among them were ‘Nature Boy’ Ric Flair- 1 of the genre’s all-time greatest showmen & consummate heel. Flair was Narcissus personified, & he was reviled & loved like few other wrestlers in history. Blond surfer dude [& former Ultimate Warrior tag team partner] Sting was a face-painted long-time face. Musclebound behemoths like Lex ‘The Total Package’ Luger & Sid Vicious- a major heel, bloated fan favorite Dusty Rhodes & his near opposite ‘Big Van’ Vader- a mountain of masculine mass with a startling agility, were also wildly popular for a time. But the WWF scandals affected WCW’s popularity, also- as well as smaller outfits such as the short-lived all-ladies circuit known as GLOW [Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling]. By the mid 1990s pro wrestling seemed an artifact. But the former ‘manager’ Paul Heyman started up his own company called Extreme Championship Wrestling [ECW] which featured younger, more athletic wrestlers, & real ‘storylines’- not just ‘feuds’. The wrestlers were now ‘involved’ with the scantily clad & bodacious females who escorted them to the ring- & occasionally wrestled each other, as the tv cameras followed wrestlers backstage & we saw the shows unfold as testosteronic soap operas- the matches were merely addenda to the ongoing agendas of the principal ‘characters’. Yet, the matches raised the level of brutality- both real & controlled- to heights the genre had never before attempted. Wrestlers routinely assault each other with chains, clubs, maces, & knives. They would smash up opponents’ cars & property, stalk their families, etc. But despite the popularity ECW was too small an outfit to compete; especially after WCW & WWF soon picked up on this new approach. For a few years WCW’s tales were even regularly pummeling the WWF’s in the ratings. But Vince soon proved why he was the greatest American promoter & showboat since P.T. Barnum. Anything ECW or WCW had done the WWF would top. Vince raided the 2 other leagues for up & coming stars & transformed failed wrestlers in each into stars whose popularity dwarfed that of even the 1980s stars. He discarded old-timers like Hogan & Macho Man, who fled to WCW. By the mid-90s WWF had most of the best young talent while WCW was almost a ‘senior’ circuit of wrestlers whose best days were well behind them. WWF’s youth allowed for an easy infusion of young pop culture. Having pop stars hanging about, & theme music, was good enough in the 80s- but not enough in the 90s. Now, mainstream rap & rock groups actually wrote songs for the wrestlers’ entrance.
The women wrestlers returned (after the early-mid 90s lull) more gorgeous, more athletic, & certainly more archetypal than ever- they were now divas & goddesses who took turns as the sport’s Champion, & graced many a cover of men’s, men’s health, & bodybuilding magazines. There were the drop-dead blonds: Rena Mero- aka Sable- who once appeared in a leotard which was little more than a thong bottom with 2 knit ‘hands’ covering her bodacious bosom- she did a Playboy spread before leaving WWF in a flurry of lawsuits claiming sexual harassment, & Vince’s desire to have her engage in a Sapphic storyline. However, she was the genre’s reigning Aphrodite till she left. There was Debra- a platinum blond who would unleash her ‘puppies’ [aka breasts] during a match, & her ‘assistant’ Miss Kitty (later the Kat)- another blond who seemed obsessed with finding ways to lose her clothes during a match. More recent goddesses have been Stacy Keibler- a thin leggy blond who waves her tight little ass to distract male wrestlers who oppose the team she ‘manages’- the highlight of any match being when a wrestler pulls down her shorts, exposing her brightly colored panties, & either kissing or spanking her sexy cheeks. Torrie Wilson is another ‘manager-cum-goddess’ who merely acts frightened, wears clothing that clings to her ample & luscious curves, & occasionally wrestles Stacy. There’s current [as of this writing] women’s Champ Trish Stratus- a busty Canadian knockout who had an ‘affair’ with the evil ‘Mr. McMahon’ [the persona of Vince, who with the rest of his family have emerged as ‘characters’ in their own right- involved in the storylines, which Vince foresightedly redefined as ‘sports entertainment’ in the early 90s, rather than sports. He did this to allay the damage from the earlier scandals & also win insurance company concessions by conceding that pro wrestling was- indeed- fixed.]. Other female wrestlers with immense popularity are Lita (real name Amy Dumas)- a bodacious auburn-haired former gymnast sexpot with large tattoos & an even larger Internet cult. Unlike most of the blonds, Lita is the ‘woman of action’ archetype. When her men: the tag team duo The Hardy Boys are in trouble Lita will wrestle even the men to save them. But the most outrageous of all female wrestlers is the now-exiled Chynna- a huge, butch, musclebound woman with a Betty Boop voice, & jet-black hair named Joanie Laurer, dogged by rumors of her many plastic surgeries, & true gender-bending nature, despite following Sable’s path to Playboy’s pastures (&, now, oblivion- for sexpots are a dime-a-dozen in Vince’s meat factory). She was the warrior princess (Xena, Wonder Woman, Amazon, Valkyrie) made real- a sort of Ultimate Warrior with tits!
But the biggest stars of all were still the men. The Undertaker got a ‘brother’- a wrestler who was a near twin, size-wise- yet even more muscular. The storyline had the Undertaker scar his baby brother for life- burning his face with fire. He was called Kane (the biblical Cain?)- & immensely popular. He fed off many of the Undertaker’s archetypes, plus a lot of the Frankenstein mythos. Current Undisputed Champ Chris (Y2J) Jericho was a blond bad-boy WCW castoff, with a great gift of gab, who has fluctuated between heel & face- currently a whiney heel, Jericho is best as a wiseass face (after taking over WCW, Vince for a while had 2 champs from the 2 leagues, until recently uniting them). Another WCW castoff was hairy, rotund, but well-loved, daredevil wrestler Mick Foley- known by monickers such as Dude Love, Mankind, & Cactus Jack. Foley was a fearless wrestler who retired at the very early age of 35 because his body gave out- he has a recurring role in the company as its ‘Commissioner’. He was so popular as the archetypal ‘average guy’ that several of his ‘memoirs’ have hit the New York Times bestseller list. Another current heel- 1996 Olympic wrestling champion Kurt Angle- is also a great gabber & prime time fool, who despite fluctuations in personae has become as popular as Y2J. There’s also an incredibly athletic former ECW wrestler named Rob Van Dam (RVD)- whose monicker comes from his martial arts skills & striking resemblance to martial arts action film star Jean-Claude Van Damme. Andre the Giant has been supplanted by the even larger & more athletic Paul (Big Show) Wight- 7’2” & 500+ agile lbs. But the 2 biggest stars to emerge in the late 1990s were a pair of black & white enemies who have taken turns being heels & faces, & whose popularity goes beyond any of their predecessors- in fact their name value falls just an iota short of real sports legends Michael Jordan, Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali, & Joe DiMaggio. The 1st is Duane Johnson- aka The Rock, The People’s Champion, & the Brahma Bull. He is the son of a former journeyman wrestler Rocky Johnson, grandson of High Chief Peter Maivia, & a former college football star. Originally a heel, The Rock has become the biggest black superstar pro wrestling’s ever seen, with a gift for gab that makes even Muhammad Ali’s old schtick seem tame. The Rock turned face a couple years back & reached even greater popularity. His actual wrestling skills are so-so- but in the ability to work a crowd he is nearly peerless. Johnson has even gotten film offers & hopes to become this decade’s answer to the 80s film action stars Arnold Schwarzenegger & Sylvester Stallone. The only wrestler to equal or surpass The Rock’s popularity was another WCW castoff that Vince recast. In the WCW Steve Anderson, aka Williams, was a blond surfer dude known as ‘Stunning’ Steve Austin. After injuries led to his being fired in the mid-90s by WCW, Austin shaved his head & adopted the persona of ‘Stone Cold’ Steve Austin (aka The Texas Rattlesnake)- a beer-guzzling, leather-vested, near psychotic antihero bad-ass. Austin was pivotal in the WWF’s revival. Although his wrestling skills were little better than The Rock’s, he feuded memorably with Mr. McMahon, as Vince cast himself, his son Shane, & daughter Stephanie as major Austin antagonists. Austin would curse, give the finger to the McMahons & the audience, & generally raise hell. After a brief recent stint as a bona-fide heel, [in which he resumed a feud with The Rock- this time reversing their earlier feuds by having himself the heel] Austin has returned to antihero status, & ascended to popular heights only he & The Rock have graced. These 2 stars- The Rock & Stone Cold- are the archetypal antihero. The Rock’s vainglorious preening, strutting, & 3rd person self-referencing also make him a meta-figure in an already postmodern camp soap opera, while Stone Cold’s cursing, catchphrasing, & disregard for civility also make him transcend the genre & appeal to stars in other industries.
But, despite all that, it was really the storylines themselves that generated the stars: the Austin-McMahon feud hit home with the everyday American need to want to tell the boss to ‘Fuck off!”, various coalitions between wrestlers vied for ‘power’, there were numerous ‘affairs’ between the male & female wrestlers [some real, others storyline], betrayals, a family feud between Vince & Shane, & the ‘marriage’ of Stephanie to blond musclebound steroidal superfreak par excellence heel Hunter Hearst Helmsley (aka HHH, Triple H, or The Game- probably the best single heel/villain in pro wrestling history- & long a tormentor & rival of The Rock & Austin) etc. Archetypes abounding in all of this brought ECW & WCW to their collective knees. Vince bought out the other 2 leagues, only to incorporate their demise into a storyline in which Shane & Stephanie ‘bought’ the 2 other companies & formed an Alliance against WWF wrestlers. WWF recently ‘won’ the battle & vanquished ECW & WCW- as wrestlers such as RVD, Booker T., & ‘Diamond’ Dallas Page have entered the WWF, while it awaits the WCW’s contracts with several big stars (Sting, ‘Big Sexy’ Kevin Nash, among others) to expire, & seek entry into the WWF.
1 need only compare the current popularity of pro wrestling’s ‘art’ vs. the sweet ‘science’ of pro boxing to see the roots of its success. Unlike pro boxing- which in the 1960s fragmented into numerous alphabetical ‘sanctioning’ organizations: WBA, WBC, IBF, WBO, etc.- pro wrestling has consolidated. Boxing removed itself from network tv in the early 1980s & lost touch with its fan base- seeking the big cable paydays. That lasted only a few years- as without free tv exposure would-be fans could not follow the careers of ‘name’ up-n-comer boxers- thus by abandoning free tv the sport lost its youthful fan base. By the early 90s young kids no longer dreamt of being the Heavyweight Champion in boxing- indeed few could name all or 1 of the ‘champs’ in any weight class. & save for the Mike Tyson sideshow (his recent assault & biting of Champ Lennox Lewis as Exhibit A), there was little drama. & while Tyson was imprisoned for rape there was NO drama in boxing. & no casual observer can rattle off the names of the top 5 draws in boxing like they used to do a Muhammad Ali, Joe Frazier, George Foreman, Sugar Ray Leonard, Marvin Hagler, Tommy Hearns, Roberto Duran, etc. But they know The Rock, HHH, Stone Cold, Y2J, etc. because, by comparison, Vince’s promotional genius went almost 180° away from pro boxing’s approach. On buying out his father’s company in the early 1980s Vince has been so in tune with the pro wrestling fan base that the WWF’s website: www.wwe.com even allows fans to log on & voice opinions on past & future storylines. Vince actively has sought to be on network tv to enhance the cable pay-per-view jackpots. He also saw that only by consolidating the genre could he boost its appeal. Simply put, boxing fragmented & disdained its fan base while pro wrestling consolidated & embraced its.
This is not to say that Vince has not had failures. A decade ago he tried to organize the World Bodybuilding Federation (WBF), which lasted less than a year. A year ago he launched the Extreme Football League (XFL)- which bombed after 1 season. But, despite his sometimes pernicious drives to monopolize wrestling, his indifference to the welfare of his employees (witness the 2000 death of wrestler Owen Hart- bother of Bret), his blatantly anti-union stance, the assorted sex & drug scandals, etc., Vince is peerless as a promoter- the true descendant of that other noted ‘scoundrel’ Barnum. With carnivals & circuses dying by their own quaintness, the WWF has taken ‘low’ entertainment to new heights. & despite the downturns which are inevitable the WWF seems to be the future of entertainment- not its similarities already with futuristic ideas of entertainment (see The Running Man Schwarzenegger film). It’s also very easy & brainless, as well as playing off archetypes in the human psyche: good vs. evil, women in peril, alliances & betrayals, etc. This is the stripped down essence of all drama- indeed, all art. But most of all, wrestling succeeds as entertainment (mixing the best of sports & melodrama) because it truly & demotically gives people what they want- performance art as eye candy! Plus, unlike actors, pro wrestlers have to give great performances each time out, lest risk serious injury- there are no phoned in performances on Smackdown! It is these aspects which mine the undying love of its fans- things which the ‘higher’ arts not only cannot replicate- but dare not, lest by their very nature lose all claims to that ‘higher’ ground.
Why do certain tv shows acquire ‘cult’ status- even if a ratings
disaster? Sticking with just American & British tv shows, is there a
commonality between such American cult favorites as (chronologically)
The Honeymooners, The Twilight Zone, Outer Limits, Gilligan’s Island,
Star Trek, The Fugitive, The Brady Bunch, the Mary Tyler Moore Show, the
Odd Couple, The Night Stalker, The Simpsons, the X-Files, & Nowhere
Man, & such British faves as Dr. Who, The Avengers, The Prisoner,
Monty Python’s Flying Circus, & Space: 1999? Well, some were
ratings hits: Gilligan’s Island, The Fugitive, the Mary Tyler Moore
Show, The Simpsons, the X-Files, Dr. Who, The Avengers, & Monty
Python were BIG in their day, & have thrived in reruns. But the
other shows were not hits. The Honeymooners, Star Trek, The Night
Stalker, Nowhere Man, & Space:1999 were notorious ratings disasters.
Star Trek’s tale of rescue is almost legendary in the industry. But,
the rest of the bunch were middle of the packers. So, obviously,
immediate appeal does not translate into sustained endearment. &,
forgetting about ratings disasters that few recall, why do some shows
that are smashes die a quick death once they are done? Since I am not in
the U.K. & unable to scope out such shows I will stick with
Americana this time, because- in truth- the only British shows to
‘make it’ in the USA are virtually all cult shows. That American
list would include shows like I Love Lucy, Dragnet, Bonanza, the Beverly
Hillbillies, All In The Family, Happy Days, Three’s Company, Taxi, the
Cosby Show, Roseanne, & Seinfeld. All of these shows were hits- some
like I Love Lucy, Bonanza, the Beverly Hillbillies, All In The Family,
Happy Days, the Cosby Show, Roseanne, & Seinfeld were # 1 smashes
for 1 or more seasons. Yet, only I Love Lucy inspires a loyalty that
comes anywhere near being called a cult (but misses)- why?
Is it the actors that make a cult? Well, Jackie Gleason, Rod Serling, Mary Tyler Moore, & Patrick McGoohan were big stars who proved their mettle before & after their shows left the air (1st-runwise). But, certainly Lucille Ball, Michael Landon, Carroll O’Connor, & Bill Cosby could lay claim to the same. So it must not be that. Perhaps it was overall quality? But both lists truly vary in quality. Was it the characters the actors portrayed? Can 1 really argue that Ralph Kramden, the Skipper, Marcia Brady, Felix Unger, Bart Simpson, Dr. Who, Emma Peel, or #6 are more enduring or well-written than Lucy Ricardo, Joe Friday, Archie Bunker, or George Costanza? Perhaps, but, again, I think not. Perhaps cults evoke more of the zeitgeist of their times- catchphrases & all? Probably not. While it’s true that, “One of these days, Alice!”, the Twilight Zone’s introduction, “Little Buddy.”, “Beam me up, Scotty.”, “Mr. Gra-a-a-a-ant!”, “Eat my shorts!”, “Trust no one,” & “Be seeing you.” instantly evoke their shows, alot of the cults lacked such. Yet the non-cult shows were not lacking in catchphrases: “Babaloo”, “Just the facts.”, “Meathead”, “Dingbat”, “Aaaaayyy….”, “the Soup Nazi”, & “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”. So it cannot be that. Is it certain types of shows? We have dramas, comedies, action shows, cop shows, sci fi, etc., scattered on both lists. So, is it all just a hit-or-miss proposition? I don’t think so.
There does seem to be a difference in the lists if 1 scans more closely: the shows that are cults, almost invariably, are shows that transcend their times while the non-cults reflect their times. Also, the cults’ characters or situations are almost always archetypes, rather than stereotypes, & a lot of the cults are kitschy- often with self-aware kitschness. Another factor, especially for cult tv shows, is that their 1st runs are usually brief. Perhaps these reasons are why many of the cult shows inspire such rabidity that conventions are held to appease the insatiable appetites of their fans.
Let’s return 1st to the non-cults 1-by-1. I Love Lucy was an almost wholly domestic, apolitical, & non-threatening sitcom. Was it a wonderful ensemble, crisply written? Yes, quite often in its early years (pre-Ricky, Jr.). But Lucy Ricardo has had a host of descendants- wacky women who screw up their daily lives in some way- & she was not really an original to begin with. Lucy Ricardo followed in a long line of female vaudevillean comic characters, & we pretty much know how that show’s characters will react to a given situation. Lucy screws up, Ricky hyperventilates, Fred & Ethel exchange insults, & on it goes. Yet, everyone ends up smiling- is this the Eisenhower years or not? Meanwhile, Dragnet’s impeccable policemen, devotion to duty, always winning in the end….I mean, is there ever any doubt about how Friday will resolve a case? Again- the fantasy of 1950s America embodied. Bonanza then fetishizes the Old West. The characters rarely show depth, & the whole zeitgeist of the show reflects the American yearning for a past that never really existed, all the while giving vast satirical possibilities to later Postmodernists who will cast it as a homosexual fantasy life. This is early 1960s white male country club Republican nostalgia at its zenith- a turn away from the coming mess the 60s would end up in. Bonanza’s later strains to incorporate social relevance only add to its fossil-like standing today. The Beverly Hillbillies was fed by, & fed off, a similar drive. It was 1 of the shows that focused on the ‘high concept’ comedy that the mid-1960s longed for- wacky characters, wacky situations, & almost all toilet paper-thin stereotypes. The need for brainless ‘entertainment’ during the Civil Rights/Vietnam/LBJ years was insatiable. Other notable examples in that brief transitional genre were My Mother The Car, My Favorite Martian, The Munsters, I Dream Of Jeannie, Bewitched, the Addams Family, the Monkees, & F-Troop. Again, there were some wonderful bits of acting & comedy mixed with some terrible shows & performances- but stereotypes abounded. Perhaps, only 2 shows transcended this genre of comedy: Get Smart & Gilligan’s Island. Get Smart has never reached cult status, although it was impeccably written, acted, delivered catchphrases like, “Would you believe….?”, & transcended mere stereotyping in its core characters by having the whole world become stereotypes- the rationale being that if everyone’s a stereotype then no one is. & it was right, & it worked! But its 1960s play off, & dependence on, the James Bond spy genre that peaked in the Cold war 60s has left this brilliant satire wanting in the wake of time. I’ll return to Gilligan’s Island in a bit.
But the Beverly Hillbillies, like most of these ‘high concept’ shows, was larded with its own stereotyped characters & humor that was very limited. 1 can only mine so much from the idea of the outsider trying to fit in. It’s why the more recent 3rd Rock From The Sun fizzled after a couple of years. All In The Family was a great, great show- an all-time great. But the reasons for its success in its time, as well as all the other Norman Lear shows of the 1970s, was almost wholly dependent upon the dour, depressed mood of the country during the Nixonian Vietnam/Watergate years. Had it arrived earlier or later- in more naïve (1961) or apathetic (1981) times than it did (1971) it would have bombed- despite its unremitting quality overall (this is excluding the post-Edith, Gloria & Meathead years, or the rank Archie Bunker’s Place show). Happy Days was a product of the post-Nixonian late 70s- a yearn to return to the bland Eisenhower years. The characters lacked depth & the show succeeded because of its nostalgia, & the curious popularity of Henry Winkler’s ‘Fonzie’ character. Three’s Company was just physical comedy (albeit some of the best the medium’s ever seen) laced with T&A. It was the zenith of a # of late 70s escapist shows which pushed sexual boundaries. But, a few decades later, it seems pretty much ado over not alot. Granted, John Ritter’s deft physical gifts lifted it above other 1970s T&A shows like Love: American Style, the Love Boat, & the like; but even its prime was just a year or 2. Taxi, however, was a wonderful ensemble cast with quirky characters, interesting stories, & some real emotional depth. But, its appeal was limited by the fact that its characters were too urban (Judd Hirsch & Danny DeVito), too wacky (Christopher Lloyd & Andy Kaufman), &/or too stereotypical (Tony Danza & Marilu Henner). That it was also so 1970s in its characters’ appearance & demeanor- well, the only real question is if its near-cousin Cheers will follow suit. The Cosby Show was sort of a Black 1980s answer to I Love Lucy. Reaganism recycled the 50s naïve-te without the nostalgia. The Cosby Show was inoffensive, dully written, & its characters were stereotypes of the Reagan era nuclear family- albeit dipped in chocolate. Especially when 1 compares it to Cosby’s earlier 1970s Saturday morning cartoon show, Fat Albert & The Cosby Kids, the Cosby Show’s flaws scream at you. Note, too, were how many edgy Fat Albert themes were watered down & recycled for his prime time hit. Whereas Fat Albert was the lone cartoon which depicted an urban setting (forget Topcat, will you?), as well as poor people you could identify with (regardless of race), the Cosby Show produced snideness & condescension toward anything real. This very artificiality is why people who recall it, if at all, now openly groan at the show’s missed opportunities- both dramatically & socially. That Cosby, himself, sneered at the socially conscious tv offered by All In The Family, & its brood, reflects how truly lightweight the whole enterprise was. Despite being a multi-year #1 hit, the show’s impact in tv history is negligible. So too was the multi-year #1 hit that took up The Cosby Show’s torch: Roseanne- but for different reasons. Roseanne was primarily a ‘slob’ comedy. Its characters were trite, dull, & repellant, the shows dull & preachy. Unlike its contemporaneous near-twin, the unapologetically raunchy Married With Children, Roseanne (person & show) thought it was more than it was. That it was merely a herald for the Bubba years of Clintonism seems obvious now. With the passing of those years the show has lost whatever relevance it had- if it ever did. The same tenets, basically, are true for Seinfeld- although much more slickly written & acted than Roseanne. Yet, its characters were classic stereotypes & the show celebrated such. The show ended its run less than 4 years ago, yet the shows, in reruns, look so tired. That the old Abbott & Costello Show from a ½ century earlier did many of the same skits & gags better only reveals how little Seinfeld offered. Despite being consciously apolitical & sort of removed from the 1990s that very fact seems to embody the 1990s. In a way Seinfeld suffered from the same long-term flaws the Beverly Hillbillies suffered from: i.e.- people will only watch quirky outsiders trying to fit in for so long- usually just a show’s initial run, if it ever gets that far!
These factors of long-term failure do not weigh upon the cult shows we have mentioned. Let’s start with the British. Dr. Who ran for nearly 3 decades. Its kitsch factor is high. That it is of the self-aware variety is another boon. Kitsch being ‘something that appeals to popular or lowbrow taste and is often of poor quality’. Yet kitschness seems a key quality in developing cults, especially if it’s that self-aware kitsch. Note the general barrenness of such from the aforementioned non-cult shows. The only show that even came close was Seinfeld, with its ‘self-aware self-awareness’- but that’s not kitsch, it’s a postmodernist’s attempt at developing kitsch, which has the mercurial tendency of never appearing when consciously sought. To be self-aware it should develop as a byproduct of the show, then be picked up on by the parties involved, & let free reign. The moment a show tries to control its kitsch- it’s doomed. Proof resides in the failures of many spinoffs from popular shows: AfterM*A*S*H, Frasier, Good Times, & Laverne & Shirley spring to mind. But, again, the best example of the difference between attempted & true kitsch is the Roseanne-Married With Children comparison. Dr. Who was a grand show, full of self-aware kitsch- from supposedly aerodynamic robots that creaked when they rolled, to the hammy acting, to some story arcs which truly invoked depth of emotion. 1 such episode I recall was a black & white episode, from the 1960s, which revisited the Shootout at the O.K. Corral. But, most fans, especially in America, recall the mid-70s Tom Baker years most fondly- & with good reason. His curly moptop & ungodly long scarf, plus his comely companions Leela & Romana. But most fondly recalled is the TARDIS (Time And Relative Dimensions In Space) machine, shaped like a phone booth. With this cheap, ingenious prop Dr. Who was able to be anywhere at anytime. Never were any of the prime characters stereotypes. They were archetypes. Dr. Who, most of all, in his many incarnations, was a Proteus who enlightened the varied masses, yet all the while attempting to hide his own flaws. This kitschness helped the whole show neatly disrobe itself of its era(s). Seen in 200 years it will have lost none of its Beckettian charm, dependent upon its bad sets, hammy acting, & clever stories. The Avengers was similarly kitschy- an asset that differentiated it from contemporary spy shows like Secret Agent Man, The Saint, & Mission: Impossible, which were all more serious. While there were a # of pairings the most fondly recalled is the John Steed (Patrick Macnee)/Emma Peel (Diana Rigg) duo. The pair would globetrot to foil over-the-top villains & exchange deliciously wicked banter (for its day). The key to the success?- chemistry. Steed & Peel were a parent-child:mentor/apprentice archetype. While the storylines are dated, the repartee is not, nor were some of the archetypes behind the villains & struggles. Unlike its American counterpart Batman, the Avengers has held up better through time probably because its kitsch was not intended originally, whereas Batman went The Monkees’ route & was intentionally kitsch- a basic nonsequitur.
The Prisoner is 1 of the all-time greatest tv shows ever made. I will be brief here, but deal more fully with this masterpiece in a later essay. The show is a Jungian dream- almost literally! A spy resigns from his job, is kidnapped, & held by an unknown group(s) in a remote Village. The lead, known only as # 6 (played by Patrick McGoohan- which led to the inevitable query of ‘Is # 6 John Drake?’- the character McGoohan essayed in Secret Agent Man) eternally battles differing # 2s- assorted heads of the Village who forever want # 6 to reveal his motives for resignation in return for his release. Even the 3 or 4 weaker episodes are excellent by most television standards, but the rest of the episodes (of the mere 17 total) are absolute platinum! Well-written, superbly acted, orgies of the human psyche help the eternal outsider/libertarian in his battle with the establishment/oppressors become an art of Classical worthiness. Why this show has taken root in so many lovers of intelligent television is no surprise. Kitsch?- in assorted things like Rover- the automated white balloon/blob Sentinel of the Village, a fortuitous budgetary concession. Self-aware? Listen to the dialogue. Archetypal? In spades. Its Kafkan situation is also timeless. I will delve deeper into this echoic well in a later essay, but this is a show that is classically cultic in all aspects. Monty Python’s Flying Circus is the rare variety/comedy sketch show that strikes so deeply into cult territory. Shows like the Benny Hill Show, the Carol Burnett Show, the Ed Sullivan Show, Saturday Night Live, SCTV, & especially That Was The Week That Was, etc. are almost testaments to their respective times. Monty Python was different. Its politics dealt with not just the issues of the day, but the motivations behind such. Its historical skits were rife with such. As for self-aware kitsch- only SCTV comes close. Still, it is the cult oddity in that it lacked archetypes- for its being a sketch comedy. Perhaps the archetype which defined it was its vaudevillian variety? Regardless, every rule breeds its exception- & this may be that very fine model! Space: 1999 was, in many respects, a bad show. Clearly a Star Trek wannabe that was not up to that snuff. Nonetheless, its kitsch factor is high- both acting & props, its archetype factor, as well: from Martin Landau’s prototypically impulsive yet introspective Commander Koenig, Barbara Bain’s healing widow Dr. Russell, Barry Morse’s aging genius Professor Bergman, to Catherine Schell’s shape-shifting alien Maya. The show has always been hammered by its scientific shortcomings, but a quarter-century on we ‘assume’ the universe is alot more unpredictable than we thought we ‘knew’ in the 70s. It has ‘legs’- in other words. That the show was short-lived (2 seasons) is another factor in its cultic qualities- rare is the cult that develops from long-running shows- they tend to tire the public’s taste, rather than whet it. This is, at least for cult tv shows, a powerful aspect in their LCD appeal.
Let’s tackle the American cult shows next; bearing in mind 4 of the main factors we’ve noted in the ‘cult’ formula: use or archetypes (settings & characters), timelessness, self-aware kitschness, & usually brief initial tv runs. The Honeymooners only produced 39 stand alone episodes in its 1 season on the air [forget the ‘Lost’ episodes gleaned from the Jackie Gleason Show’s many incarnations- none hold up to the Classic 39.]- Ralph, Norton, Alice, & Trixie are forever in their situations, endlessly reliving their Nietszchean nightmare-cum-joy. Far more than I Love Lucy these were also archetypal characters that have been recycled endlessly: the scheming but goodhearted protagonist, his slightly more ill-equipped buddy, the smarter companions/spouses, domestically set, & most of all- the single person vs. the world motif. Add in the nearly Beckettian spareness of the sets, the cheap backgrounds which almost evoke German Expressionism, the plethora of catch phrases, & the kitsch factor is very, very high. Plus, those last qualities also make the show more than just the 1950s. The Honeymooners was, arguably, the 1st incidence of truly great tv art on American television. By this I mean it was the medium of tv which allowed the show its greatness. Some of the early live dramas on tv were undoubtedly great art, but that was merely televised theater- The Honeymooners was tv through & through. The Twilight Zone was not a brief running show (although its 1980s sequel series was), but the primary force behind the show & most of its scripts, Rod Serling, was a master of the archetypal character & moment, usually twisted upon itself at the end. Think of the episodes you can recall & you will note that this series almost always went ‘deeply’ into archetypal symbolism. The nearsighted librarian who survives a nuclear attack only to break his eyeglasses, the convict imprisoned on an asteroid who falls in love with his android ‘mate’ only to be snapped back to reality upon its destruction at his parole, the young girl terrorized by her future self on a black stallion longing to prevent herself from making the wrong choice between her lovers, the aliens who cut off a few modern conveniences to test how quickly humans blame ‘the other’, the willful little boy who controls a town by whim of his telekinetic abilities, etc. Many other episodes were instantly engrained in the American cultural memory because of such archetyping. & the kitsch is supplied by the sometimes dated special effects, as well as some of the quirkier humor-laced episodes. Throw in the overall excellent quality of writing & acting & The Twilight Zone’s lasting appeal is easy to see. Outer Limits had alot of the same qualities that The Twilight Zone did, albeit the show was more uneven quality-wise. But, add in the brevity of its initial run in the 60s (discounting the current syndicated version that’s run for a few years) & it, too, has an undeniable appeal. That both it & The Twilight Zone’s stories were based on sci fi/fantasy is another reason both have flourished while similar anthology shows (even those of quality like One Step Beyond or Alfred Hitchcock Presents) have fallen with their datedness, as their tales transcend their Cold War roots.
Gilligan’s Island was a huge hit in its initial run, yet it was canceled after 3 seasons because the CBS network was ‘embarrassed’ by its success & wanted to give its time slot to a more ‘traditional’ Western: Gunsmoke. It was critically savaged, often by the same cultural critics who would rave over Absurdism in theater, or Abstract Expressionism in painting. Yet, this show is the closest thing to Absurdist theater tv has yet produced. All 7 of its characters are deep archetypes, they are NOT the often trivialized caricatures critics accuse them of being- even as they occasionally veer into stereotypes, by episode’s end they have retaken the mantle of individuality. The Skipper, Jonas Grumby, is authority- albeit a benevolent 1 whose character has depths the show hinted at: WW2 survivor’s guilt, self-esteem loss over the ship’s wreck, paternal worries over Gilligan & the other castaways, etc. Gilligan is the everyman factotum who serves the rest- is it any wonder he lacks a 1st name? Always pilloried by the others for his stupidity, Gilligan is the 1 indispensible male on the island because he is the proletariat- keep him happy & society is calm, if not perfect. Mary Ann Summers & Ginger Grant are the Madonna/Whore duality embodied. The former is also Hollywood while the latter is Heartland America. Mary Ann is the indispensable female character- that she never hooked up with Gilligan probably has less to do with the show’s 1960s-era propriety, or Absurdist bent, than the fact that if Gilligan & Maryann ever got together (he armed with her common sense, she with his tireless sticktoitiveness) the rest of the castaways would be superfluous in their Adamic world. The Howells are Elitist Capitalists- she an heiress, & he a ruthless industrialist. Yet, a number of episodes revealed these characters’ true feelings for each other. There are a number of episodes that also deal with the wealthy couple’s feelings of noblesse oblige toward their more unfortunate comrades. That their real world wealth is still accorded privilege in a place where coconuts are more valuable than gold, is a sly commentary on the human tendency for retaining the status quo, unless extreme circumstances arise. Only in the episodes in which imminent doom seems to be near, do the Howells ever experience demotic attitudes from the others. The Professor is Science/Academia- with all its pros & cons. That he is able to make Eden better is typical, that he is unable to facilitate their ‘escape’ from such is also typical. Another excellent, but brief, summary of this show’s archetypicality can be found at http://www.bserver.com/bunker/gilligan.html in an essay called: ‘Here On The Island, A Scholarly Critique of the Style, Symbolism, and Sociopolitical Relevance of Gilligan's Island’ by Lewis Napper. The show’s situation is also timeless & archetypal- think the Odyssey through Star Trek: Voyager. As for the 4th quality- kitsch- well, a scan of any dictionary may well include a reference to, or photo of, Gilligan’s Island. That the show was so seemingly bad it was great, & that it was damn funny, are only icing on the cake. The best part of the show was that its very abrupt cancellation prevented any neat & tidy resolution to the Castaways’ dilemma [forget the awful over-the-hill tv movies of the 70s & 80s]. The characters are forever there, forever attempting to leave, & forever foiled. Also, unlike the Beverly Hillbillies or Seinfeld, these characters are not outsiders trying to fit into society, they ‘are’ society trying to each fit in with the other. In short, the show is one of tv’s true masterpieces, & the medium’s lone Absurdist success.
Similar things can be said for Star Trek- the 1960s original show [the sequel series basically leeched off the original’s popularity]. I’ve treated some of this in a prior essay, so I will be brief. Like The Honeymooners & Gilligan’s Island, Star Trek’s cancellation has led to its Möbian dilemma & appeal: the cast is always ‘out there’- again, forget the big budget films. It is both kitsch- the hot bee-hived hair dos & miniskirts, the mediocre to bad special effects (which actually made the show somewhat more interactive because the viewer had to imagine certain things, rather than being wowed into acceptance)- yet timeless because of its archetypal characters & situations. Recall the episode where Kirk hunts down a cloaked Romulan ship? Classic 50s submarine film fare. Or the episode where Kirk must slay the dragon/Gorn lizard alien just to amuse all-powerful aliens? Doesn’t get more kitsch nor archetypal than that, narratively. In fact, Captain James Tiberius Kirk may be 1 of the all-time great fiction characters- transcending the ‘low’ genre he sprung from, & right there beside Gilgamesh, Odysseus, Arthur’s court, El Cid, & others. He is the HERO (boldfacedly damning logic, saving the day, & getting the babe!). The other 2 main characters: Mr. Spock (the Outsider who studies how to fit in- as well the ½-breed who must tame his id) & Dr. Leonard McCoy (the quintessential authority figure who disdains his power- as well the crotchety old man) are equally transcendent- especially in their repartee. The other 5 minor characters are equally archetypal: Scotty is the unsung hero stuck in the nether regions of the ship, who rises in the nick of time to save the day; Hikaru Sulu is the brainy Asian whose passions lurk just below surface; Pavel Chekov is the angry young man- a possible Kirk in utero that must be ever restrained from his youth’s wont to excess; Nyota Uhura is the sensitive passionate exotic woman all the men secretly desire, yet dare not approach. Being the communications officer also makes her the hub of gossip & sensibility. The least of the ‘main’ crew- nurse Christine Chapel is the dutiful, healing life-giving woman who restrains her desires for the Hero (Captain Kirk, if you’ve forgotten). All this & more make the 1st Star Trek show another undeniable classic. Together with Gilligan’s Island these 2 shows are perhaps 2 of the most deeply cultic tv shows ever made. I even did a poem that cast these 2 archetypefests together.
Another 1960s American show that transcends its time is The Fugitive. David Janssen’s Dr. Richard Kimble is obviously an archetype, as is the One-Armed Man. Kimble is the wronged lone avenger, disbelieved & shunned by society, out to avenge his wife’s murder (doing the wrong things for the right reasons), while his foe is the villain- deformed & ugly, missing a part of himself to make himself whole. Unlike some of the earlier shows whose cancellations led to their timelessness, this show’s NEED for ‘proper’ resolution fits the archetype perfectly. The characters & stories so transcend time that they have been redone into recent films & a new series. Though not truly kitsch nor short-running, this show’s continued appeal is so tied to its hunter/hunted motif [Lt. Gerard (Barry Morse of later Space: 1999 fame) on Kimble, Kimble on the One-Armed Man] that it carries the day. The Brady Bunch is another of those seeming exceptions to the rule, ala Monty Python. It did not have a short run, was a mild hit, was kitsch without a doubt- although self-aware?, is so tied to the early 1970s, & has characters with paper thin depth- depth being 1 of the prime differences between a stereotype & an archetype. But, if 1 grants the Brady Bunch’s kitsch self-awareness (it was produced by Gilligan’s Island’s Sherwood Schwartz), then perhaps 1 can fit its pale characters into mild archetypes: the perfect mom & dad who ‘know best’, the ever-cheerful & well treated servant Alice, Marcia- the beautiful popular eldest daughter, Jan- the brainy but resentful middle child, Cindy- the baby who’s always dismissed, Greg- the handsome, popular jockish eldest male, Peter- the clueless & anomic middle child, & Bobby- the youngest male always out to prove himself equal the others. Thin but passable archetypes make this show have 2 of the 4 ingredients- throw in the exception-to-the-rule clause & that’s as good a guess for why sequel series, films, & even Absurdist-style theatrical productions of episodes have been done. Remember, this show was from Sherwood Schwartz- the creator of Gilligan’s Island, & whatever 1 thinks of its merits, it does hold up better than its near twin- The Partridge Family. The Mary Tyler Moore Show needs no such exceptionalist clause to explain its cult appeal. Granted, it ran 7 years & was a hit, but the rest of the ingredients are there: strong archetypes- Mary as the ‘emerging’ heroine, Rhoda as the doubting sidekick, Phyllis as their personal nemesis with a good soul, Mr. Grant as the father figure, & Murray as the smitten- but forbidden- would-be suitor who keeps his emotions in check. Ted & Georgette are the comic relief- the court jesters. The stories almost always throw a wrench in Mary’s search for love & happiness, only to be resolved by her seeking & getting aid from someone else. The self-aware kitsch factor is so-so, but unlike All In The Family there is little tying the show to its time politically or socially- & unlike the later Seinfeld its apoliticality defies its time (recall this was the Nixonian Age where conspiracy obviated any reasonable attempts at apathy); therefore transcending it. While the show ended with a neat & teary resolution it still has very strong reasons for being cultic.
Its near contemporary- The Odd Couple- has MTM’s qualities & even more. Its run was on the short side- 5 years, & like the Mary Tyler Moore Show it was virtually apolitical- even in the few episodes with guest stars. The Felix Unger/Oscar Madison duo played by tv’s greatest comedy team- Tony Randall & Jack Klugman- are nearly perfect archetypal characters, flawlessly executed (Sorry Gleason/Carney & Hale/Denver fans!). Felix is the Classic feminine- concerned, neat, weak, obsessive, while Oscar is the Classic masculine- apathetic, sloppy, strong, devil-may-care. The supporting cast are also archetypes- Murray the cop is the ever-incompetent civil servant, Speed the classic card sharp/con man, Roy the everyman- an accountant!, Vinny- the anonymous supportive pal to all. The women in the duo’s lives are also archetypal- Felix’s ex- Gloria- is the dream wife, beautiful (ex-Playboy Bunny) & caring, while Oscar’s ex- Blanche- is the shrew with a heart of gold. The Pidgeon sisters- Gwen & Cecily- are the nearby sister Sirens (the classic male fantasy), while Miriam Welby & Dr. Nancy Cunningham are Felix’s & Oscar’s ever-reliable would-be girlfriends. Oscar’s secretary Myrna Turner is a standard jester character with some odd quirks. As for self-aware kitsch, the show has it- recall the episodes where Felix annoys football great Deacon Jones while filming a television commercial, or where Oscar sells Felix into Bobby Riggs’ bondage. All these ingredients are enough to rank this show with The Honeymooners & Gilligan’s Island as all-time cult sitcoms. In fact, this show is 1 of the few tv shows that never went downhill, or ‘jumped the shark’, according to the tv trivia site http://www.jumptheshark.com/ . This is another show, like The Prisoner, that really deserves a more extensive treatment in a later essay, & I will probably do so. In the meanwhile, trust me- it’s top-notch in all ways!
The next show- The Night Stalker- is almost the perfect example of all 4 cult ingredients: it only had about 20 episodes, scant more than The Prisoner!, because it was quickly canceled- thereby leaving Darren McGavin’s INS reporter Carl Kolchak forever hunting down monsters [Jack the Ripper, zombies, robots, werewolves, vampires, demons- could you get anymore archetypal?]. Kolchak is the prototypical wiseass outcast trying to prove himself right to his superiors & authority. His adventures take place mostly at night or in closed in places. Is this a symbolic interior drama? Its self-aware kitsch starts with the monsters & villains & ends with some of the dialogue- Kolchak’s rejoinders especially. These facts also make the show transcend its time. The show is ‘set’ in the 70s only because that’s when it was filmed- in reality the show is set in the everpresent. It bears a lot of similarities to the show & character Columbo- with several key differences that let The Night Stalker attain cult status- compared to Columbo The Night Stalker had a brief run & was dealing in a genre (horror) wont to archetypes, while Columbo was merely a great archetypal character dealing with rather stereotypical mysteries. The Simpsons treads on some old Honeymooners ground via a detour through the Flintstones. OK, at 13 years & running, it violates the brevity clause of cult tv. But it is probably the most hyper-self-aware piece of successful art ever produced in any medium or genre worldwide. It is also set in the ever-present. President Bush was there at the beginning & is still there now- yet not the same President Bush, although the Simpsons are still the same. Even the icons it lampoons are not really the icons themselves- but the archetypes these ‘icons-of-the-moment’ represent. Time is truly a non-factor both in & out of The Simpsons universe. The show not only transcends time, but is extrachronological! Then there are the myriad of characters: Homer the dim-witted dad with a good heart, Marge the wise, faithful wife, Lisa the studious good child, Bart the goodhearted yet wild child, the daft Grandpa Simpson, Patty & Selma- the awful sisters-in-law, Mr. Burns the egomaniacal boss, Smithers his repressed (& closeted) yesman, Moe the bartender’s crusty loser, Barney the town drunk who’s really a genius, Dr. Frink the mad scientist, Kent Brockman the dull, stentorian tv anchorman, Apu the immigrant who becomes more American than the Americans, the Felix Ungeresque Principal Skinner, the nymphomaniacal Mrs. Krabappel, nerdy bespectacled Milhouse, devout Ned Flanders, Nelson the bully & his pack of truant pals, & on & on & on….Another of the all-time great achievements of tv!
Another show that violates the brevity dictum of cult tv shows is the X-Files. But the rest of the ingredients are here in spades: archetypes abound- many episodes are classic Greek dramas. Then there are the characters- Fox Mulder [David Duchovny] as the ‘inside’ outsider & abstract thinking male, who is also the show’s Cassandra & Peter Pan. His partner, Dana Scully [Gillian Anderson], the level-headed female, a doctor/life giver, often victimized, yet intrepid. The villains are archetypes in The Night Stalker vein- all kinds of Freudian creepies, not too mention aliens (angels/demons?), & shadowy Men In Black types: Deep Throat- the turncoat who dies for his principles, & the Cigaret Smoking Man- nameless feller of the powerful, yet dreamer of simple pleasures. These deep symbolic undertones make it- like The Night Stalker- truly a show whose 90s-00s presence is happenstance; for it is really set in the everpresent. It certainly transcends its ostensible time, & its self-aware kitsch factor is revealed in a # of special episodes that break through its set format- recall some of its homages to film history or its COPS-episode? The last show on this list of cult faves is another single season show- made in 1995- Nowhere Man. This show has all the cult ingredients plus mixing elements of The Fugitive, The Prisoner, & the X-Files. It only aired 25 episodes. A man’s past is taken for him & he is hunted down (The Fugitive), he has had his identity, family, & past erased because a conspiracy needs information (The Prisoner), & they are tied deeply in with covert government operations (X-Files). The main character’s name is even archetypal (Thomas Veil), as well as his occupation (photographer/eye & recorder of facts). He is a loner & hero. The same self-aware kitsch that inhabit the X-Files fills this show’s dialogue & action. Like the 3 other shows the theme transcends its time & is set in the everpresent. The 1 detraction to the show was its very foreknowledge of its own doom- which allowed it to end its run by poorly aping The Prisoner’s end. Nonetheless Bruce Greenwood’s superb acting as Veil carries this show to cultic heights.
So, what common threads do we see between cult tv shows & pro wrestling? Well, 3 of the 4 things that make cult tv shows apply to the long-running appeal of pro wrestling. OK, brevity is out, but pro wrestling shares archetypal characters & stories with the cult tv shows, as well as a ubiquitous self-aware kitsch factor, plus it transcends its time with lineage going back to both the Roman Gladiators & Greek comedy & drama. Add in the fact that both cult tv shows & pro wrestling lack any pretense of striving for ‘high art’, & their appeals seem obvious. Yes, I know, 1 could argue that shows like Star Trek, The Prisoner, or the X-Files, aimed for ‘higher’ ground, but Star Trek & the X-Files are classic escapist shows, while The Prisoner is best explained as another of those exceptions that defines particular rules. Clearly the majority of these shows stumbled into excellent art, & the undying cultic love of their fans. An endnote worth pondering, before we move on to our next LCD phenomenon, is that cult tv shows are almost devoid of ‘straight’ dramatic shows. The hour-long dramas we have cited are all sci fi/horror/adventure- all ‘supposed’ juvenile genres. Yet, archetypes strike at the very center of things we experience for the 1st time in our youth. Straight dramas- be they cop shows, mysteries, medical shows, Westerns, family, historical- almost never develop cults because they tend to be too ‘of their time’ & don’t hold up well in Rerun Heaven, often veer into stereotypes not archetypes, lack kitsch- or if they have it are painfully obtuse in its acknowledgement, & tend to either fizzle too quickly or run far too long & run out of steam. Plus, they are always ‘adult’ in their varied approaches & genres. Especially true of this are the prime time soap operas- be they Peyton Place, Dallas, Knots Landing, Dynasty, Beverly Hills 90210, or Melrose Place. But, as we shall see, it is not the soap opera format that lacks cultic qualities, merely the finite prime time kind. Soap operas, & its direct predecessor- the serial, have long been hotbeds of Lowest Common Denominator affection.
Operas: Serial stories probably go back to the 1st
tales told around a fire. Greek myths (& all myths) probably started
out as such- certainly epic poems like The Iliad & The Odyssey did.
Even music & paintings have adopted this format in their many
‘movements’ & diptychs, triptychs, etc.- as well as sequence
paintings. But the serial form is perfectly tailored for the narrative
storytelling format. The 19th Century probably saw the zenith
of the literary form of this genre- the serialized novel typified by
Charles Dickens’ classics & Mark Twain’s globetrotting fare. The
1st ½ of the 20th Century saw this format reach 1
of its apexes 1st with long-running comic strips such as
Flash Gordon, Dick Tracy, Brenda Starr, etc., while the 2nd
½ with comic books- the natural descendant of comic strips. But it was
radio, film, & tv which have embraced the genre like no other
The modern serial/soap opera 1st took hold of radio in the 1920s & acmed during the Great Depression/World War 2 years. The term ‘serial’ was generally applied to ‘male’ genres like mystery/adventure/sci fi, while ‘soap opera’ was applied to ‘female’ tales of domesticity, love, etc. The term ‘soap opera’ derives from the advertisements of cleaning powders on these shows & the melodramatic tendencies the serial format forced the medium into. Typical radio ‘serials’ were The Lone Ranger, The Avenger, Doc Savage, The Green Hornet, & The Shadow. These fast moving archetypal adventures often had lone vigilantes out to mete justice to arch-criminals. Alot had sidekicks. Radio ‘soap operas’ included The Guiding Light- which still runs on tv, The Goldbergs, Against The Storm, & Ma Perkins- were all archetypal domestic dramas. But movies & daytime tv brought the twin forms their most popularity. The 1930s & 40s saw film serials really take off. Superheroes from the comics dominated: Tarzan, Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, Superman, & Batman, plus radio serial heroes like The Green Hornet, The Shadow, Zorro, & FBI G-Men. The biggest star of these serials was Olympic swimming champion Clearance ‘Buster’ Crabbe- who portrayed Tarzan, Flash Gordon, & Buck Rodgers. I must admit a fondness for this genre. I spent many a 1970s Saturday morning watching PBS reruns of classic serials with my Dad, who grew up watching Crabbe & the others. Watching these compact 15 minute dollops of adventure jaded forever my eye towards later, paler attempts to resuscitate the format in big budget film series like the Star Wars & Indiana Jones films. I mean, can a Wooky or C3PO compare to the Hawkmen, Killer Kane, the Clay Men, or most of all- Ming the Merciless? Darth Vader? Puh-leez!!!! Let us now turn to serials & soap operas on tv- mostly daytime.
As related earlier, prime time soap operas tend to have very short shelf lives, but daytime soaps are another matter since the best known have run for decades & the characters become, if not addictive, certainly easy to relate to. Let me turn personal for a moment & focus on some of the serial/soap operas I’ve watched for many years. The major American networks have had a few dozen over the years: The Edge Of Night, One Life To Live, All My Children, Ryan’s Hope, General Hospital, Port Charles, The Young & The Restless, The Bold & The Beautiful, Search For Tomorrow, Guiding Light, Secret Storm, Dark Shadows (the 1st & only horror soap opera), & many others with devoted followings that go on years after the shows have left the air. I will stick with the only 2 soaps I’ve watched regularly through the years: All My Children & General Hospital. But before I go there let me talk a bit on the 1st tv serial to hook me.
In the late 1970s a soap opera from Australia hit the American airwaves. It was about women in prison & was called Prisoner: Cell Block H. It was a show that was designed to be a ‘miniseries’- but its popularity prompted it to become an ongoing serial. I hesitate to use the term ‘soap opera’ since the show (during its brief American run) was far grittier & less campy than US daytime equivalents. In New York City it also aired at 11 am. My dad & I would watch it, as we did the old Buster Crabbe serials. Over the few months it aired it progressively was scheduled later & later on Channel 11- WPIX- until I lost track of it. It, apparently, ran for 8 years down under- but I am going to deal with only the 1st few months I recall of the show. The main characters were a sexy brunet schoolteacher who murders her abusive husband at series start. Her name was Karen Travers & she was given a life sentence. A blond, butch, chubby, lesbian murderess lifer named Franky Doyle had the hots for Karen- as did the kindly prison doctor- Greg Miller. Another new prisoner was a pretty but addled blond ‘kidnapper’ named Lynn Warner, who was disliked by the tough old murderess who ran the jail: ‘Queen’ Bea Smith. Other regulars were old timers Lizzy Birdsworth & Mum Brooks, sexpot blond hooker Marilyn Mason, young depressed Doreen Anderson, who is under Bea’s thumb, & a # of other background prisoners. The prison staff had a Governor- Erica Davidson, a dumb electrician who was involved with hooker Marilyn- Eddy Cook, & 2 guards (or ‘screws’)- bitchy Vera Bennett, who was also 2nd in charge & hated Bea, & a sweet guard named Meg Jackson. The actual early storylines were not so consequential, compared to the archetypes that were developed. After a few months Franky Doyle escaped prison & was killed & Bea got a rival bitch to feud with- Nolene Burke, sort of a younger Bea. But then the show was canceled (stateside, or at least in New York City) & I never got to find out what happened- although if you Google the show you can find out for yourself. But, back to the show & characters I recall. Karen was the prototypical ‘good girl’ forced into bad circumstances- that she was constantly threatened with sexual assault by Franky put the show’s protagonist in a state of danger. Franky was not just a ‘butch’, but also served as the show’s most complex character. She was the outcast who lashed out at society & loathed men. Yet, she revealed tender sides & a desperate longing for acceptance, which saved her character from blackness. Bea is both mother hen & stern ‘lawgiver’. Her antagonisms with nasty screw Vera aka ‘Vinegar Tits’ & Franky served to give Bea a purpose, & the prison- called Wentworth- an identity. The 2 male stars were mostly supporting characters- sort of the inverse roles females have been accorded in most fiction genres. Lynn was the virginal ‘little girl lost’- her eyes wide open to the dangers. Her character was almost too wimpy. The older women were basically stop-gaps, dramatically, but again the show’s use of archetypes are key to why I remember it & have forgotten so many other shows. Dismissing the brevity argument (if the show is taken in toto, but not if just referencing the show Americans saw), the 3 other cult tv factors are evident: archetypal characters & situations, a highly developed & self-aware kitsch (after all- women in prison?), & the tales certainly do transcend their setting- remove their accents & 1 could believe this was an American Women’s Prison any time in the last 100 years- the key being ‘believe’ that it was- it’s more manifest differences with the reality have no bearing on its ‘appearance’.
On to my plunge in to daytime soaps. In the summer of 1980 most of the kids in my neighborhood were on vacations for the summer, & I was bored. My sister Christine & her best friend Danielle were fans of the 2 soap operas All My Children & General Hospital. They got me watching & I’ve watched fairly regularly ever since. The 2 soaps are vastly different in approach & appeal. All My Children has always been a more ‘feminine’ soap- dealing with love, social issues, & more stable long-lasting characters. General Hospital has always been more ‘masculine’- dealing with adventure, conflict, & more bizarre characters. GH has always been preferred over AMC, in my book- but both shows have peaked & valleyed over the years. Let me guide a reader through over 2 decades of each soap. Lets go alphabetically & deal with AMC’s tales, characters, & LCD appeal. AMC is set in a small Pennsylvania town called Pine Valley. The major characters have revolved around model-cum-business tycoon Erica Kane (played super-campily by Susan Lucci since the show’s 1970 inception), the families of Dr. Joe & nurse Ruth Martin, billionaires Adam Chandler & Palmer Cortlandt, & Brooke English- a reporter-cum-magazine publisher. Note that these characters are all wealthy- 2 of the main ingredients of (especially) American soaps is that they portray the rich & beautiful’s lives as disasters. Aside from the eye candy provided by the super-babes & ultra-studs, watching the rich & beautiful suffer is an American bourgeois passion! A show like Prisoner: Cell Block H would never even be attempted here. Over 20+ years Erica Kane has veered between bitch & likable character- although she’s best when bad; although never TOO bad to turn off her fans. She has gone though more husbands & lovers than Elizabeth Taylor. She emotionally abused her mother until the actress playing her died a few years ago. She has 2 daughters: the younger is named Bianca Montgomery & currently Erica is on trial for murdering Bianca’s lesbian girlfriend. The other is the older daughter she gave up for adoption- Kendall Hart. This character was memorably played in the mid-90s by current Buffy the Vampire Slayer star Sarah Michelle Gellar, & was as bitchy & conniving as Erica. The character left when Gellar’s real-life feud with Lucci boiled over & Gellar struck out for the tv &/or film stardom which eluded Lucci. The character has recently returned with a new actress in the role- for how long 1 never knows, although the actress is older & prettier than Gellar, & oddly enough, looks a lot like Lucci while sounding exactly like Gellar! Erica Kane is 1 of those characters that is larger than the soap- ala Alexis on Dynasty, or JR on Dallas. She is the classic narcissistic diva- whether sympathetic or bitchy.
The Martin clan has given rise to another soap archetype- the bad boy with a good heart. The character was Tad ‘The Cad’ Martin- Joe’s adopted son- the consummate gigolo in his mid 1980s re-emergence played by Michael Knight. His flings with mothers & daughters, his failed marriages- all because of his infidelities, his disappearance & re-emergence during a ‘twins’-type storyline, all have made this character a treat to watch through the years. Other actors & characters have tried to fill the ‘bad boy’ shoes- but none with the élan of Tad. The only other noted development in the Martin clan is that, like Happy Days’ on primetime, there is a son of Joe Martin’s who simply ‘disappeared’ from the soap & its history. This is often a staple in the genre when a particular actor or character does not work- suddenly ‘poof’- they are gone without explanation. But the twins storyline- another soap given- has been played admirably by former Bonanza star David Canary- as West Virginian billionaire Adam Chandler, & his retarded sibling Stuart. Adam is the megalomaniac archetype, the would-be devil- although like Erica, not TOO devilish nor evil, while Stuart is the naïf. Adam & Stuart have both been married multiple times- to usually much younger women. & Adam keeps having progeny- even as he ages & impregnates another ‘babe’, or as children he has ignored/abandoned through the years re-enter his life. His primary enemy has been Palmer Cortland- aka Pete Cooney- another West Virginian billionaire who did Adam’s sister wrong decades ago. Palmer has married many woman, & like Adam fathered many. The early 80s saw many juicy storylines for his beautiful blond daughter Nina & her put-upon (by Palmer) husband Cliff. By the late 80s Palmer’s niece & nephew, Dixie & Will Cooney, became major characters. Dixie married & divorced Adam after bearing him a son, & then later married & divorced Tad multiple times- for his constant infidelities. Currently she is about to divorce Tad again. She is the long-suffering heroine- an archetype that goes back eons. But 1991 was a highlight in AMC’s run for Dixie’s brother Will, who turned bad (impeccably so- portrayed in a great performance by Patrick Stuart), became a rapist, & inspired a murder mystery by being killed by another archetypal character- Janet (from Another Planet) Green, the look-alike psychotic sister of Natalie Green, yet another archetypal character- the bad girl turned good. AMC usually does this very heavy-handedly by having the bad girl raped. In fact, this happens a lot on soaps in daytime & prime time. Natalie was raped by Adam’s nephew Ross (who was Palmer’s son), & Gloria Marsh (1 of Adam’s young bodacious blond wives- & former con artist) was the woman Will Cooney raped. The last of the major characters, upon whose axis Pine Valley turns, is Brooke English- an even more extreme example of the classic put-upon heroine than Dixie. As wonderfully portrayed by Julia Barr, Brooke has had her children die, husbands cheat (including Adam- as she & Erica Kane have been rivals & taken turns being married to several of the same men), & borne the son of Tad Martin. Currently she is involved with her old flame- the dashing & archetypically heroic ‘Pulitzer Prize-winning’ reporter Edmund Grey. Other notable characters with shorter story arcs have been soap opera’s 1st black supercouple Angie & Jesse- she rich & he a street thug- whose run ended with Jesse’s death in the mid-80s. Jesse has been recently brought back as Tad’s Guardian Angel- another soap archetypal storyline. There was the 1st inter-racial supercouple- Hispanic good girl Julia Santos & black bad boy Noah Keefer, & an AIDS storyline involving Stuart’s 1st wife Cindy.
Always greater than the characters have been the storylines. AMC- the feminine soap- has always had its characters serve the story. Tad’s travails started with his rapist biological father Ray Gardner- who raped Ruth Martin. He was given up for adoption & then taken in by the Martins. His mother Opal has had affairs with many rich men & her daughter Jenny Gardner (Tad’s sister) had a love story end in archetypal tragedy- a spurned lover’s revenge. Several characters have had abortions, dealt with psycho-emotional problems, racism, & the recent ‘coming out’ of a main character Erica’s daughter Bianca is merely the latest in AMC’s archetypal storylines. The remaining factor that ensures the show’s cult status is its kitsch quality with such humorous characters as Opal Gardner, her affair with con artist ‘Professor’ Langley Wallingford, Langley’s wife Phoebe (Brooke’s aunt), current scheming blond supervixen Greenlee Smythe (an Erica Kane in the making- deliciously played by Rebecca Budig), Janet Green, & the occasionally hilarious storylines these characters get involved in.
General Hospital is the masculine counterpart to AMC. While it has had its share of self-aware kitsch- the Cassadine family’s repeated attempts to take over the world, extraterrestrials, Lucy Coe’s misadventures, the Quartermaine clan’s bickering- it has been notable for its masculine adventure qualities, & it character-driven storylines. Over the last 2 decades the major families in the upstate New York city of Port Charles have been the Quartermaines, the Spencers, the Cassadines, the Scorpios, the Baldwins & the Hardys. I 1st started watching during they heyday of ‘Luke & Lauramania’- when archetypal antihero Luke Spencer was on the run from his mobster boss Frank Smith. His paramour was another archetype: bad girl-cum-good Laura Baldwin- who left her husband Scotty for Luke- the man who (you guessed it) raped her. Neither actor (Tony Geary & Genie Francis) who portrayed the duo was particularly good at the time- nonetheless the story vaulted soaps into a prominence never seen before nor since. The duo eventually married (to boffo ratings), had assorted James Bondian adventures where Luke saved the day (& once the world) repeatedly- usually helped out by his best buddy Robert Scorpio- an Australian spy for a CIA-type outfit called the WSB (World Security Bureau). Whereas Luke was an antihero, Scorpio was a classic hero. When Luke & Laura left the show in the mid-80s another alliterative super-couple stepped in to continue the high adventure tales: Frisco Jones & Felicia Cummings. After a brief early 90s lull in adventure Tony Geary returned to GH- but not as Luke (for Genie Francis refused to return until 3 years later), but as his identical cousin Bill Eckert (the soap twist on the ‘twins’ tale where a distant relative or stranger miraculously shows up & usually none of the other characters seems to notice the resemblance)- a much deeper & well-acted character than Luke; consequently the character & his clan were dead & gone from the show after a few years as the more ‘dynamic’ Luke returned with Laura & their male child Lucky. A few years later the Cassadines returned & Lucky found out he had a brother- Nikolas Cassadine. Laura had had a child with 1 of the Cassadine brothers while she was ‘off-show’ in the early 1980s. The last few years have dealt with the Spencer-Cassadine family feud which dates back to the 1981 ‘Freeze the World’ storyline involving the Cassadines & Spencers. Luke Laura divorced, but nowadays seem to be reuniting.
Robert Scorpio lasted a decade on the show before his early 90s exit. The actor, Tristan Rogers, who portrayed him became as big a star as Tony Geary. Robert became police commissioner, found a ‘lost’ bad boy-turned-good brother Mac (double archetype alert!), married several times & had a child with an ex-wife he later remarried- Anna Devane (another ex-spy) whose character now toils on AMC, as all the ABC network soaps operate in the same ‘universe’ & often crossover. Robert & Anna had a child named Robin. The duo ‘died’ tragically in the early 90s so that the actors could leave the show, although both Anna & the duo’s killer have returned to life on GH & other ABC soaps. In the mid 90s the orphaned Robin contracted AIDS from her 1st lover (Stone Cates) & that character’s death was a major storyline. His employer was another male stereotype- a Mafia boss named Sonny Corinthos (played by the excellent Maurice Benard- who had played a major character named Nico Kelly on AMC in the 80s). The Pacino-like aura of the character & actor launched a # of high-profile stories & romances throughout the 90s. Sonny has become the major male star of the show as of the last few years & currently is embroiled in his ne-er-do-well dad’s life’s disaster- he has recently ‘found’ a ‘lost’ sister he nevr knew of. The major female star is Sonny’s current ex-wife Carly Benson (performed wonderfully by 1st Sarah Brown, & now Tamara Braun). She is the daughter Luke’s sister Bobbie Spencer (an ex-prostitute & reformed bad girl, herself) gave up for adoption. She has been the show’s premier & archetypal bitch & best character the last 5 years. She has cut a swath of destruction & sexual steam throughout the show’s fictional locale. 1 of her affairs was with stepfather Tony Jones (Bobbie’s then-husband & brother to Frisco), while another was with AJ Quartermaine, the rich kid who impregnated her. They married, divorced, & Carly has constantly schemed to keep their son Michael away from him- her latest scheme is having Sonny adopt AJ’s child.
The whole Quartermaine clan emerged in the late 1970s as a billionaire brood of wacky characters whose squabbles & banter veer from the intensely dramatic to the comically hilarious. Every Thanksgiving the clan orders pizza instead of turkey. The heads of the clan are Lila & Edward Quartermaine (AJ’s grandparents). Lila is probably the most beloved character on the show- if not all US soapdom (as played by British Anna Lee). She constantly pardons her family’s sinning, including Edward’s philandering. Edward (1st played by David Lewis & now John Ingle- 2 excellent actors!) is the scheming patriarch- ala AMC’s Adam or Palmer- who uses his money to bully his children: Alan (a Dr. at the hospital- the titular General Hospital), Tracy- 1 of the genre’s great bitches (as played by Jane Elliott), an illegitimate son Jimmy Lee Holt from Indiana, & a black son named Bradley Ward- who was murdered (via mid 1990s flashbacks) in the 1970s. Bradley had a son named Justus whose clan was briefly on the show, but the character was never fully developed. The other Quartermaine grandchildren have been developed. Tracys’ son Ned Ashton has seen many adventures & wives (& an affair with his aunt- & Alan’s wife- Monica), but it’s Alan’s children with Monica that have seen the most growth. Alan & Monica’s marriage has provided much of the show’s domestic drama over the years. Their frequent infidelities have usually been well-written, as was a breast cancer storyline in the mid-90s that resulted in Monica & Alan adopting the daughter of a breast cancer victim Monica befriended- this is the youngest child Emily. She has 2 older brothers- Jason, who was a good guy gone wrong after a car accident by alcoholic AJ caused irreparable brain damage. After recovery Jason turned to a life of crime by becoming Sonny’s henchman. He also had flings with Carly & Robin. AJ is the show’s loser- at love & life. His plans almost always fail. He is the archetypal Charlie Brown. Recently he got an older sister as Skye Chandler- the adoptive daughter of AMC’s Adam- arrived to announce she was Alan’s natural child. The Skye character spent time on AMC & another ABC soap One Life To Live. She is another scheming archetype who is compelled by her ‘wound’ of being discarded as a child, & a need to fill that gape- this another archetype predating soap operas.
The other 2 main families- the Baldwins & Hardys- have scant representation on the show these days. Scotty is Laura Spencer’s 1st ex-husband & spent time on GH’s spinoff soap opera Port Charles- as did his sometime lover Lucy Coe- surrogate mother of his child Serena. She hooked up with another GH castoff, Kevin Collins- a shrink. He was the twin brother (ahem) of Dr. Ryan Chamberlain (both played by Jon Lindstrom)- 1 of the show’s great serial killer characters from the early 90s who was obsessed with the Felicia Cummings character. This archetype has been exploited by GH several times to great effect. Along with murderous- but ‘honorable’-mob bosses, & the occasionally murderous megalomaniacal capitalist, serial killers are a soap opera staple for bad guys. While ‘bad’ female characters are usually campy bitches, these ‘bad’ males serve as archetypes of Death itself- as well as to weed out ‘lesser’ or unpopular characters whose actors’ contracts are up. A few years earlier another serial killer stalked GH. His name was Grant Putnam- an aspiring doctor who had been drugged & kidnapped by a KGB-like organization called the DVX. They were enemies with the WSB & the DVX substituted a surgically altered look-alike (another variation on the twins archetype) in Putnam’s place, as he was shipped off to a mental hospital. The ‘fake’ Grant was in on a # of the show’s mid-80s spy/adventure storylines with Frisco, Felicia, the Scorpios, & Jimmy Lee Holt. But the ‘real’ Grant escaped, swore vengeance on the ‘phony’ Grant, killed a few people, & was shipped back to the asylum. A few years later he was conveniently ‘cured’ & released (if the insurance rates in the soap world matched those in the real the professions of medicine & law would never have evolved, as their practitioners are chronically incompetent- a law on soaps/serials is this: the characters must always do the dumbest thing possible to further the dilemma along into greater dilemmas! It’s a variant on the horror film genre’s dictum of the main character(s) always investigating things no sane person would without police of other authorities behind them.), killed a few more people, & terrorized Anna Devane & Robin with a black pit bull terrier named Satan. Ever the hero, Robert saved the day. But in between Grant’s 2 appearances was perhaps the most original & interesting serial killer in soaps history. The reason was because- unlike with Grant & Ryan- the audience was left in the dark for over a year as to the killer’s identity. It turned out to be Bobbie Spencer’s step-daughter’s husband, Kevin O’Connor. The fact that the character (played with chilling ease by Kevin Bernhardt) seemed perfectly normal, falsely accused (as the character tried to avoid detection with a ‘double jeopardy’ clause) until his secret life (murderer & lover of his alibier Lucy Coe) was exposed, really paid off. The saga of Kevin’s attempts to paint his wife Teri as the killer came to a fitting finale at the edge of a- yes, a cliff! But, in truth, GH is character driven. On AMC even Erica Kane does not transcend the storylines she is given, but on GH persona holds sway. As example, all 3 of the psycho killer characters were originally short-term characters that took off. & 1 of the show’s most noted villains- Cesar Faison, Robert’s & Anna’s ‘killer’- was a minor character (ex-DVX spy) in the alien storyline whose persona has had him turn up as a major character a # of times in other storylines related to Bill Eckert, Anna & Robert, & most recently the Cassadine/Spencer feud. Also, most of the over-the-top adventure tales have been driven by a need to feed the popular male character’s fan base: Luke, Robert, Frisco, Mac, Jagger Cates (the older brother of Stone, played by underwear model Antonio Sabato, Jr.), Sonny, & most recently Jasper Jacks. Each of them has had archetypal stories: Luke as the hunted, then later the presumed dead returning hero (The Odyssey), Robert’s incorruptible assorted crime-busting (Sherlock Holmes meets Eliot Ness), Frisco’s international derring-do (James Bond), Mac’s following in Robert’s footsteps, Jagger’s brooding iddic mystery (a staple of 30s radio serials), Sonny’s antihero angst (can you say James Cagney meets Al Pacino?), & Jacks’ do-gooding millionaire bent on protecting the powerless (Bruce Wayne?). As popular as some of the female characters have been it is the archetypal male component that has kept GH popular.
Add all these features together & it is no mystery as to why most of the longest running soaps have endured & have slavish devotions. As with pro wrestling & the cult tv shows, these forms of ‘low art’/’entertainment’ touch your average person in ways most higher arts (which almost require elevated intellectual fascination & participation) do not. Add in their general lack of pretension- the cheesy sets, clichéd romances & dialogue- & you have archetypal heaven. In fact, there is no better way to really learn narrative technique than in the Narrative 101 of soaps & serials. The difference between a typical soap opera/serial & Hamlet/Othello is not genre, but the ability of the language & characterizations to rise above the expected. But are not there LCD things that sink below the expected? The unexpected, or the Unexplained?
Phenomena: Surely these things/sightings/events/phenomena
have little to do with the aforementioned things? On 1st
blush perhaps- but let’s peer a little deeper. I will address the
varied aspects of Unexplained (or psi or Forteana) more fully & in
more detail in later essays, but here let me show how easily this
phenomenon links up with the other issues & things presented. Of
course, 1 needs to acknowledge that Carl Jung had UFOs pegged in 1 of
his final books Flying Saucers printed over 40 years ago:
‘As we know from ancient Egyptian history, they are manifestations
of psychic changes which always appear at the end of one Platonic month
and at the beginning of another. Apparently they are changes in the
constellation of psychic dominants, of the archetypes, or 'gods' as they
used to be called, which bring about, or accompany, long-lasting
transformations of the collective psyche.’
Jung goes on to basically assert that UFOs & their occupants have basically replaced the god, demons, & angels of older myths & religions. In Jung’s day the dominant archetypes in ufology were represented by Cold War versions of angels & demons. The angels were represented by archetypal blond humanoid aliens (Blonds or Nordics) who were coming to earth to warn humanity of its propensity for destruction. Their acolytes were hoaxers known as Contactees (or more properly frauds who set out to bilk people of their money- indirectly via book sales, & directly via assorted schemes to bring alien wisdom into suckers’ lives, in assorted ways). Foremost among these were the infamous ‘Professor’ George Adamski- whose Edgar Rice Burroughs-tinged fantasies about the moon, Mars & Venus displayed too amply how he spent his youth. The paranoia over THE BOMB was dominant. A feedback loop occurred after the 1947 watersheds of Kenneth Arnold’s 1st ‘modern’ sighting of flying saucers & the soon-to-follow Roswell Incident, in which US government collusion, cover up, or co-operation (depending on your level of paranoia/resentment) with extraterrestrial entities gave rise to another re-emergent archetype- the demon; represented by sinister G-Men types called Men In Black (MIBs) who threatened, harassed, or otherwise ‘silenced’ UFO witnesses. But, this archetype was mainly an American phenomenon. Elsewhere, the UFO archetype was less focused- all sorts of weird monsters were seen in the presence of these levitating disks. Other countries reported gigantic aliens, aliens less than a foot tall, in all hues, some with tentacles, elephantine trunks, multiple mouths, eyes, etc. The difference between ‘American’ aliens & ‘foreign’ aliens was striking.
But, by the late 1960s & 1970s American aliens had lost their initial archetype. In a time of changing mores many different archetypes emerged- if 1 can call the all-over-the-physiognomous map aliens archetypes. But by the mid-70s disillusionments with the world & American government over the Vietnam War & Watergate, a new archetype emerged in American sightings- 1 which crept into other countries’ aliens, & which is only now, after 3 decades of dominance, beginning to give way to another archetype that the masses can embrace. Of course, I am referring to the Abduction phenomenon. The 1st ‘classic’ case was the 1961 claim of Betty & Barney Hill, who cast in stone the idea of short, effete, gray aliens with black & bugged eyes, who can alter time & space, yet who need to ‘study’ lowly humans to ‘save their race’ from genetic doom. Usually these wee fellows are in the service of the formerly ‘good’ Nordic aliens, or the sinister ‘Reptilians’ (archetype alert!). While other ‘abductions’ predate the Hills’ claim it was theirs which opened the psychic wells. Earlier claims of contact were somehow revised on the fly to retrofit the new archetype. Many folk stepped forward to relate, in bestseller after bestseller, how they were abducted in their childhood- each claim supposedly earlier than the Hills’ & earlier than the previous book’s claimant. Even the dead Roswell aliens’ appearances changed to fall more in line with the Gray archetypes- that of the Protean shapeshifer- in line with fairies, wee folk, incubi & succubi (as they almost always appear at night, paralyze their victims, & engage in sexual activity/abuse). Cases that did not fit into this archetype were soon ridiculed & relegated to the tabloid. The Gray archetype, meanwhile, has inspired 100s of ‘serious’ book-length studies from psychiatrists who believe, to amateurs who live in paranoia. The 1980s even saw a brief near-respectability for UFOs & Abductionists- the reason? Whitley Strieber’s blockbuster ‘true’ book on his life as an Abductee: Communion. A few years later when Strieber admitted it was merely a device to propound the novel (& bestselling sequels) the crest had passed. Meanwhile, the ‘cult’ that follows these goings-on still far surpasses that of pro wrestling or any cult tv show- even the melodramatically fervent Star Trek tribes! But, recent years have seen the Gray Abductors influence on the phenomenon fade. The USA seems to have reverted to the archetypal interregnum of the 60s where all sorts of aliens are now reported, although it waits to be seen how the 9/11/01 Attacks will skew American tastes toward aliens.
A sub-phenomenon of UFOs was the 1960s attempt to place them & other psi events in a ‘true historic & scientific’ context. The classic book in this genre was astronomer Jacques Vallee’s Passport To Magonia- a fascinating read of the whole spectrum of psi phenomena. But, the attempts of Vallee, & later Dr. J. Allen Hynek, were soon hijacked by a man who would reap millions in book sales. His name was Erich von Däniken, a Swiss charlatan whose book Chariots Of the Gods? (& its sequels- which have sold dozens of millions of copies) posited that alien visitations (labeled ‘ancient astronauts’- a 1960s buzzword) predated 1947, all the way back to Biblical times & earlier! Von Däniken, & his cult, altered photographs, changed facts, distorted myths, & so totally screwed up history that even the swift, & accurate debunkings of his factoids could not slow him down. This was the 1960s, after all, & American youth was easily gulled into this ruse which fed off of synergy & symbiosis. In fairness, von Däniken was not alone in this exploitation- the known hoaxes at Gulf Breeze & by Billy Meier similarly reaped their progenitors beaucoup moolah! But, this cult of von Däniken branched out into other best-selling cults- Zechariah Sitchen’s Seth books, which posited alien cahoots with ancient Egypt, lost planets & such; the ‘Philadelphia Experiment’ mythos- which posited that the pre-nuclear US military had tinkered with time warping invisibility cloaks which left the crew of a ship mad; the Bermuda/Devil’s Triangle cults- in which every known shipwreck was somehow tied to ‘vortices’ of unknown energy concentrated in spots around the world’s oceans; & the ‘cattle mutilation’ phenomena- tied variously to aliens, demonic-like creatures (called chupacabras in Latin America), & Satanic cults. These archetypal myths all flowered & wilted within a few years of their inceptions. But, in the process, they left ridicule in the wake for any ‘real’ scientist who wanted to plumb mysteries. The most recent of this cultic wave has been the crop circle phenomenon. But the early instances of enigmatic circles which left irradiated & bent crops which could not be explained soon gave way to hoaxers whose zeal to hoax led to overelaborated cryptographs which lacked the earlier circles’ radiation.
But these cults all had commonalities: they all tried to use science to prove their claims, they all backdated their phenomena to make it seem that these new ‘waves’ had ancient roots, & they all made heavyhanded usage of primal human archetypes mixed with ‘science’. Ancient astronauts played into the ideas of gods seeding the cosmos, & guiding the primitive cultures. It also tied in to the recurring scientific theory of cosmic Panspermia. The Seth books played into the idea of gods not just seeding the earth, but fathering humanity. Its usage of lost planets tied in with assorted theories of the sun’s having unknown planets or companion stars (the Nemesis hypothesis) which periodically sent swarms of comets or asteroids toward the sun, pummeling the inner planets. This played right into the Luis & Walter Alvarez comet/meteor/asteroid Impactor theory for the extinction of the dinosaurs at the K-T Boundary 65 million years ago (where the Cretaceous Period & Mesozoic Age gave way to the Tertiary Period & Cenozoic Age), & other repeated (seemingly recurrent) ancient mass extinctions, as well as the evolutionary idea of Punctuated Equilibrium. These insidious conflations of the absurd with cutting edge science proved very effective. The Philadelphia Experiment is the classic appeal to invisibility, admixed with Manhattan Project-style jargon. But it set the stage for the Conspiracy mindset that led to Roswell, the ‘Majestic 12’ coverup, Kennedy assassination, Watergate, Iran-Contra, MIBs, Abductions, right up to the 9/11/01 preamble to war. It also ties into previous paranoid mindsets involving Rosicrucians, Jewish bankers, the Illuminati, the Vatican, Prester John, Nostradamus. & the Freemasons. The Triangles cult is the appeal to old Davy Jones & company, Atlantis, Mu, Lemuria, Leviathan, the Deep. That this ‘phenomenon’ was discovered only during the crest of the space program- when the culture was saturated with techno jargon betrays its provenance. The cattle mutilation cult dovetailed ancient ritual superstitions with the modern fears of genetic sampling- possibly for cloning or eugenics. Lastly, the crop circles were a nice blend of the old- from the American Moundbuilder societies & Stonehenge- with the new- the ecologic Gaia theory of a polluted earth crying out for mercy & modern chaos theory as applied to weather patterns.
But none of these phenomena- nor the brief Uri Geller-led telekinesis craze of the 70s- challenged UFO’s dominance as a LCD factor in many people’s lives. But 2 other Unexplained phenomena did. The 1st was the Life After Death field. This included sub-genres such as life extension (vitamins/steroids/sexual abstemy), ghosts & contact from the dead (a revival of Victorian Spiritualism, ouija boards, photos & tape recordings from the dead, Spontaneous Human Combustion, ghosts, hauntings, & exorcisms- led by the bestselling books & hit movies Rosemary’s Baby, The Exorcist, The Omen, & The Amityville Horror), sightings of the Virgin Mary, statues that bleed/weep, televangelical faith healing, Kirlian photography, Voodoo, Santeria, fortune telling, prophecy (Nostradamus & Edgar Cayce), & stigmata. Its manifest religious overtones latched on to these many archetypes & made it more palatable than Gray rapists from space. But, its subsequent lack of scientific paraphernalia left it unable to displace ufology as the dominant LCD appeal to disreason- at least in the USA.
The same was not true, however, of ufology’s greatest rival for Fortean (named after that chronicler of the weird, Charles Fort) dominance: cryptozoology. This is the study of cryptids- or mythic creatures. It is a close relative to exobiology (the study of extraterrestrial life- currently an inactive field, save for the true believers in flying saucers). As with many of these fields there are 2 dominant camps: 1 is the hairy biped camp, which includes the Asiatic wildmen, Himalayan yeti (Abominable Snowman), North American sasquatch (Bigfoot), Jersey Devil, & other such primate-like creatures, all of which seem to reek of ungodly horrid stenches. Bolstered by the relatively ‘recent’ discovery of gorillas a century ago, this camp holds on to the feeling that proto-humans somehow escaped detection & headed for the hills- literally! They have avoided us for eons. Like many other psi fields, backdating is rampant, as is hoaxing. Especially in the case of sasquatch it seems that American folklorists wanted to Americanize the Asiatic wildmen- a direct descendant of the mythic character Enkidu from Gilgamesh. It was not until the 1950s that tales of Bigfoot/sasquatch circulated. Subsequently, claims of earlier mention surfaced- most notably in ‘supposed’ Native American oral legendry. But, likely, as with the African tales of the Dogon tribe’s astronomic knowledge of the star Sirius’s companion star, it seems that native mythologizers simply wove in freshly fed tales that ‘fit’ into a past these disconnected people were trying to re-connect with. A more similar provenance can be found with the ‘myth’ of Paul Bunyan. Bunyan was not a genuine ‘myth’ of the 19th Century logging camps. Rather, several logging companies in the early 20th Century thought that an amalgam of the various mythic super-loggers would make a nice icon for the industry- so they invented Bunyan & subsequent writers backdated the mythos, either consciously or not- generally by relying on the ‘oral’ histories of aged lumberjacks. That these men incorporated non-existent myths into their own personal remembrances shows how easily humans meld fact with fiction, & how nearly 100% unreliable ‘oral’ history really is. Similarly, trackers of the yeti felt a need for an American counterpart &, likely, the real origin of the ‘myth’ is from the post-World War 2 years of an America feeling a need to mythologize its genesis. Note how this dovetails with the 1950s tv craze with Westerns.
The other rival camp in cryptozoology is that of water monsters. This was especially fueled by the 1930s re-discovery of the supposedly ‘extinct’ coelocanth fish. Included in this group are giant Man-O’Wars, squids, & octopi, assorted USOs (Unidentified Submarine Objects), & most famously lake monsters. The most notable, of course, is the Loch Ness Monster (Nessie). Its cousins include the Lake Baikal monster, Chessie (from Chesapeake Bay), Champ (from Lake Champlain), Mkele Mbembe (from the Congo), Ogopogo (from Lake Okinagan in British Columbia), & a # of monsters which inhabit the Great Lakes/St. Lawrence basin (Larrys?). Again, this invokes Leviathan, dragons, dinosaurs, etc. Given that these deep bodies of water are virtually unexplored, these creatures fill our archetypal human need to populate the Void- be it with surviving post-K-T plesiosaurs or mososaurs, ancient whales, giant eels, or snakes. Spurred on by masses of rotting flesh that occasionally wash ashore, narwhals & the manatee families’ relation to merfolk myths, & whales that beach themselves, the idea that monstrosities await us in the waters is so primal & sexual an archetype that I need not elaborate.
But neither camp has been able to get science to validate its views. Despite some noted attempts to scour vast forests with tracking devices, expert huntsmen, & the like, not a single humanoid has been tracked down, much less brought in ‘Dead or Alive!’ Equally, multimillion dollar efforts to sonically dredge the areas that house the water monsters have been singularly fruitless. The idea that ancient humans or dinosaurs survived extinction plays right into the same arenas of the human psyche that the Life After Death crowd does- except on a grander level. The appeal of the cryptids lies with the fact that previously ‘unknown’ creature- some quite large- are discovered by Western Science every few years. The most recent boon to this field has been the recent discovery of new large creatures that inhabit deep ocean trenches. The most impressive is a creature that seems part crustacean (crab/lobster) & part cephalopod (squid/octopus). Yet these creatures are ‘only’ 12-15 feet long- not the mammoth size of the many water monsters, not to mention unable to physically survive anywhere but in the incredibly pressurized depths of the deep sea. Similarly frustrating to validate have been cryptids that do not fit into the hairy biped nor water monster categories. These are such creatures who have glowing red eyes: the Dover Demon; can fly: giant sky amoebas; have glowing red eyes & can fly: Mothman; can swim: Frogman; are black: giant wild cats & dogs; & the aforementioned Chupacabras. Also, included in the cryptid category is that specialty of Charles Fort, himself: strange rainfalls- usually of small animals: frogs, fish, rodents, grasshoppers, rotting flesh, squirrels, lizards, etc.
But, as with all the other LCD categories we have seen, the same prevalence of archetypes dominate & draw people to them. The only real difference with the others is that instead of being patently, & admittedly, fictional, these LCD areas are ‘supposedly’ real. Let’s turn, now, to another ‘real’ thing that appeals to the LCD tastes we all have.
Music: Sex, violence, bigotry, godlessness, hatred- all
these have been posited as springing from the bowels of ‘pop’ music-
the supposed inferior cousin to the elevated ‘music of the spheres’
that Classical composers gifted us with. All the claims are very weak.
In fact, 1 of the last century’s earliest forms of ‘pop’ music has
since been accepted as a ‘high’ art. I mean, of course, the
overanalyzed & mostly turgid music known as jazz. Don’t get me
wrong, there is some good jazz- personally I prefer swing & some of
the more rock-n-roll like jazz of a group like the Jazz Messengers.
However, that makes me an oddity amongst poets, who generally fetishize
jazz, coffee, & booze- 3 things I have no liking for. But jazz’s
acceptance into the pantheon of Haute Couture follows a not-too
unpredictable pattern of 1 generation’s garbage being venerated by
succeeding generations (in another vein the early comic strip era is now
being hailed as a higher- if not ‘high’- art form than previously
supposed, as strips like Little Nemo In Slumberland, Krazy Kat, &
Pogo reap praise from in & out of high art circles). Even now,
country music from the 1st ½ of the 20th Century
(see the praise lavished on the recent film soundtrack for O Brother,
Where Art Thou?) seems to be following jazz’s path to apotheosis,
with early rock-n-rollers from the 1950s & 60s not far behind. Acts
like Chuck Berry, Little Richard & Carl Perkins draw comparisons to
Classical composers & opera singers. Gordy Berry’s & Phil
Spector’s ‘Motown Sound’ draws comparisons to the best of European
folk balladry (&, in truth, this ‘black’ music is far more Euro
in origin- scant trace of complex Afric rhythms can be found). Its vocal
harmonies are the major reason for its success, for like most pop music
its lyrics are a succession of clichés. But the voices of a Smokey
Robinson, Diana Ross, or Marvin Gaye transcend the banal lyrics. In
fact, success in pop music almost invariably depends upon the music
transcending the lyrics. Unlike poetry, music lyrics are not dependent
upon both supplying ideas (the intellectual component) & rhythm (the
emotional aspect). Rhythms are provided by the music, & given the
brevity of the form & its need for mass appeal it is no wonder that
pop song lyrics- rock’s clichéd refrains, rap’s simplistic rimes,
disco’s every utterance, soul’s endless ‘soul-searchin'’- are
generally atrocious, yet infectious- cliché is king & known as a
‘hook’. Even ‘supposed’ great lyricists like Bob Dylan, Carole
King, or Joni Mitchell, upon deeper inspection, are barely able to rise
above egregious cliché in their song stylings. The truly inventive
lyricist- like a Jim Morrison, Paul Simon, or Fred Durst- fares better,
but even those lyrics make for shoddy poems if read without the music.
Yet, since song lyrics need only haul ½ the weight of poetry, &
benefit from the emotional import provided by the background music,
let’s examine the success & failure of a wildly popular rock band
from the 1970s & 80s, 1 whose artistic & popular arc: Foreigner.
This is a group with undoubted LCD appeal. Their song lyrics were very much mostly typical strings of clichés, but the group went through 3 distinct periods: the early (late 70s) hard rocking period which made them stars, the middle (early 80s) balladeering period which made them superstars (ala similar arcs followed by Journey, REO Speedwagon, Yes, Genesis, Def Leppard, Boston, Kansas, & Styx), & a late (late 80s & beyond) period of pallid musical oblivion (ala the aforementioned bands). In truth, I really liked Foreigner growing up; granted, they could not hold a musical candle to slightly earlier rock bands like Led Zeppelin, The Who, Deep Purple, Ten Years After, Chicago, Black Sabbath, etc. But, they were better than the above parenthesized bands because their early period was the best: harmonies which rivaled or surpassed the best Motown offered, short pungent hard rocking melodies, occasionally laced with deeper ideas. Let me compare the 3 periods of Foreigner & relate them to why pop tastes (musically, & perhaps beyond) are so predictable.
I still recall the 1st time I heard a Foreigner tune: I was 12 years old, & in Mr. Helmut Tschoegl’s Junior High School art class. A classmate turned up a radio he had & I was infected with the hissing harmonies of ‘Cold As Ice’: a 1977 Top 10 hit that 1st gained the group recognition. A few weeks ago I bought a used ‘Best Of’ CD of the band & the memory of that initial song rammed its way back. As with the rest of the 1st album, the titular ‘Foreigner’, the song titles are a raft of clichés: Feels Like The First Time, Cold As Ice, Starrider, Headknocker, The Damage Is Done, Long, Long Way From Home, Woman Oh Woman, At War With The World, Fool For You Anyway, I Need You. & guess what? The 3 biggest hits were the 3 songs with the most clichéd titles: Feels Like The First Time, Cold As Ice, & Long, Long Way From Home. But most of the songs were very well-constructed musically. Compared to the disco craze of the day, the songs were throwbacks to the late 50s pop of a Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard- short, scorching, & clichéd lyrically- yet mixed with synthesizers & a hard rock beat. Their virtues were evident. Feels Like The First Time changes rhythms often, has complex & competing harmonies, & a lot of little musical throwaway effects that make the song interesting to listen to. Enough to overcome lyrics as: ‘I would climb any mountain/Sail across a stormy sea’. Cold As Ice was an even better & briefer tune with gorgeous harmonies, plus being a harder rocker with more abrupt changes in rhythm. Lyrics like ‘It happens all the time/You're closing the door/You leave the world behind/You're digging for gold/Yet throwing away/A fortune in feelings/But someday you'll pay’ proved no problem for the well-constructed melody to overcome. Starrider is a scientific meditation that should have gotten more airplay, Headknocker a blues-tinged rocker, The Damage Is Done a piano-based ballad, & Long, Long Way From Home a bluesy rocker on runaways with many melodic abruptions, but lyrics like: ‘But still I'm alone/Waiting, hours of waiting/I could feel the tension/I was longing for home’. Woman Oh Woman & Fool For You Anyway were lighter love songs- but, again, with musical abruptions, while At War With The World & I Need You were harder edged rock songs. The band’s appeal was simple to understand & their debut sold millions of albums. But, the group was still locked into the appeal of white middle class teenaged boys. To gain superstar status pop acts must appeal to all ages & ethnic groups. But, the band’s next 2 albums followed the 1st album’s formula & furthered along the band’s appeal with young white males.
The 2nd album, 1978’s Double Vision, also had short tunes with a hard rock edge, some ballads, & abruptive changes in the songs’ melodies. The 3 big hits exemplified this: Hot Blooded was a saucy blues-tinged rocker which overcame: ‘You don't have to read my mind, to know what I have in mind/Honey you oughta know/Now you move so fine, let me lay it on the line’, Double Vision a very hard driving & abruptive song loaded with musical doodads that overcome, ‘This time I had a good time, ain't got time to wait/I wanna stick around till I can't see straight’, & Blue Morning, Blue Day another rocker which makes ‘Blue morning, blue day, won't you see things my way?/Blue morning, can't you see what your love has done to me?’ palatable. It also had love ballads which were better than your average pop ballad- & consequently were not hits. It had another song on runaways called Lonely Children & ended with a blues rocker reminiscent of I Need You called Spellbinder. The 3rd album, 1979’s Head Games, also featured 3 hits & a handful of engaging, short, & diverse rockers. The hits were Head Games- another rocker loaded with enough musical inflections & doodads to overcome ‘So near, so far away/We pass each other by 'cause we don't know what to say’, Dirty White Boy a hard driving rocker which defeated ‘I'm a loner, but I'm never alone/Every night I get one step closer to the danger zone’, & Seventeen- another harmony-laden tune which dealt with, ‘You left me broken/You left me stranded/The way you play this game of love/It's just plain underhanded’. The rest of the album was made up of hard rockers- the abruptive Love On The Telephone, the funky Women, the clichéd yet brutal I’ll Get Even With You, & a terrific ode to drag racing: Rev On The Red Line. It also featured 2 lighter ballads: The Modern Day & Do What You Like, plus another science-related lament- Blinded By Science. Yet, the band was still a white boy’s band to love. While the 3 albums were somewhat unique in contemporary rock music for the complex & beautiful harmonies, the band was too diverse in its musical pursuits- even given their penchant for trite lyrics. In order for the band to transcend their niche they would need to get blander- & this was for a band punk rockers already labeled as corporate rockers! In truth, the band’s 2nd & 3rd albums each sold millions, although each successively less than the other, & their debut. It’s a pattern followed by movie sequels, as well. To achieve a breakthrough the band would have to water down its penchant for rock & get more pop. This was a formula for success pioneered with the mid-70s mega-selling album Frampton Comes Alive!- wherein the previously struggling blues-rock musician became a pinup bestseller by toning down the bluesy edge into banal pop.
Foreigner’s 4th album, 1981’s 4 (yes, simply the number 4) was the band’s equivalent of Frampton Comes Alive! or Michael Jackson’s Thriller. While the album had 2 hits which were rockers: Night Life- a hard-driving tune with all sorts of abruptions & musical sparkles, & Juke Box Hero- another effective & abruptive tune, it was the album’s 2 mega-hits which defined & charted the band’s road to superstardom (&, subsequent oblivion). Urgent- a disco-tinged rocker with a little brass thrown in. While not a really bad song, the refrain of the word ‘urgent’ over & over was a big comedown from the earlier harmonies, plus it made disco-tinged lyrics like ‘Got fire in your veins/Burnin' hot but you don't feel the pain/Your desire is insane/You can't stop until you do it again’ harder to ignore. Add in the pseudo-jazz brass & the song was a definite pointer of worse to come. That included the album’s, & band’s biggest hit (to that point): Waiting For A Girl Like You- a slow, dull, & sappy love ballad with none of the verve nor lightness of their earlier, forgotten love songs. With a turgid refrain of ‘I've been waiting for a girl like you/To come into my life/I've been waiting for a girl like you/A love that will survive/I've been waiting for someone new/To make me feel alive/Yeah, waiting for a girl like you/To come into my life’ the song barely missed #1 status due to Michael Jackson’s string of Thriller hits. But the downward trend continued with the album’s 5th & 6th hits: Luanne- another shallow & pale ballad larded with ‘I write letters that I never send/I keep the words to whisper to you someday/I don't know where and I don't know when’, & Girl On The Moon- a soft swishy & dull ballad laden with ‘I wish she'd come back tonight/Like a star shining bright/I don't know where she's from//She's like a girl on the moon/A girl on the moon/She's like a girl on the moon/A girl on the moon’. The rest of the album was a mixed bag, but the die was cast- never would the band rock as hard as on Juke Box Hero or Night Life.
Their next album would retain the sap of 4, but discard the hard-edge. Consequently the original fans of the band soon left after the release of 1984’s awful Agent Provocateur. The band’s 1st #1 hit was I Want To Know What Love Is, a terribly mawkish ballad laden with this sap: ‘In my life there's been heartache and pain/I don't know if I can face it again/I can't stop now, I've traveled so far/To change this lonely life’. But the telltale sign that the group’s vitality was gone was this song’s use of gospel singing backup- & a black diva screeching Whitney Houston-like behind lead singer Lou Gramm. You ALWAYS know a rock act is finished when they seek to diversify by including black musicians or singers (especially gospel singers) to show their ‘crossover’ appeal- think Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Paul Simon, etc. The rest of the album was similarly mawkish, yet despite the #1 hit, the whole album did not do as well as 4. The band’s last 3 albums- which included a temporary replacement of lead singers- were terrible artistically, & worse commercially. The band’s creativity was toast- Inside Information, Unusual Heat, & then Mr. Moonlight buried them.
OK, you say, thanks for the brief tour of your teenaged musical tastes, but how does this relate to the prior theses on transcending the times, self-aware kitsch, archetypes, & a short duration ensuring a LCD appeal? Let’s answer that. My contention is that Foreigner is recalled in rock circles, if at all, because of its early period which had musical elements that dug into the collective psyche of a small part of society, yet avoided the sell-out aspects of its later dreck- which was more across-the-board popular in the short run, but now dismissed in the long run. Here we run in to a dilemma, as opposed to our other avenues of art/entertainment. Pop music, like wrestling, appeals to the LCD tastes of its times by crafting its appeal over a wide spectrum. This ensures an audience/market. However, unlike wrestling, music- as an industry- goes through cycles of contraction & expansion- both artistically & financially. There are times when music sells less per capita than other times- these tend to be inter-regnum times when new genres are brewing & not fully emergent. Think rock-n-roll pre-Elvis, the early 60s pre-Beatles, the early 70s post-Beatles, the early 80s post-disco & pre-Thriller, the early 90s post-hardcore rap & pre-hip hop, as well as post-hair band & pre-grunge, as well as now- the early 00s post-bubblegum & pre-_______? Note, as well, that almost all those times were iffy economic times. The financial boom times are what is in between- the heydays of Elvis & doo-wop, the British Invasion & Motown, corporate rockers & disco, hair bands & rappers, grungers & neo-folkies like Jewel, & Joan Osborne. Note, as well, the correspondence to economic booms most of these phat musical times coincided with. Yet, musical excellence tends to bear little relation to the financial cycles. You can basically calibrate that yourself with some of the acts I’ve mentioned. Yet we’ve seen that wrestling has followed a near straight-line towards consolidation of its creative & financial bases. It lacks the fluctuations, at least creatively, that pop music endures. Consequently, its fan base is much more hardcore than the relatively diverse base of acts your average pop music fan follows. In other words, a fan of wrestler A is far less likely to switch allegiance to wrestler B than a fan of pop act A is to drop them for pop act B.
Let’s now compare pop music to cult tv shows & soap operas. We’ve seen that the 4 aforementioned qualities of transcending the times, self-aware kitsch, archetypes, & a short duration best fits the cult tv category, but only the last 2 seem valid in explaining most pop music acts’ appeal. This is probably due to there being so much pop music out there that unlike tv shows pop acts really can only capture their times- not transcend it. This limits most acts. Yes, there are exceptions- like the Grateful Dead. But, despite their touring till Jerry Garcia’s death in the late 90s, the band was a relic & truly more in line with the cult tv shows due to their kitsch flower-children, drug-culture ways. Most acts become painful to watch as they age- think Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, or even Mick Jagger. So, most pop music embodies its times- lest it not be pop? Few are aware of the kitsch value they may or may not have- Village People & Boy George aside. But pop acts’ short duration & archetypal imagery- lyrically & occasionally musically- seems to fit the bill. & here’s what they share with soap operas: they are fabulously rich people- often very attractive (especially if female)- who fuck up their lives to such a degree that they become pop creatures we marvel at like latter-day freak shows, carnival acts or- yes- pro wrestlers! Think of Jerry Lee Lewis’s dalliances with incest, Elvis’s innumerable oddities. John Lennon’s obsessions, Diana Ross’s vanity, Jerry Garcia’s drugs, Ozzy Osbourne’s bat, Kiss’s whatever, Michael Jackson’s everything, Prince’s rune, any rappers’ rap sheet, etc. Is this a Jenny Jones Show panel- or what? & like unexplained phenomena pop trends & acts tend to wax & wane in discernible patterns. Let us now apply these factors in explaining Foreigner’s place in pop music annals. But remember that many of the same elements could be applied to many acts that ‘make it’, then disappear- including your own favorites- whatever they were.
1st off, Foreigner came in during the lean creative times of disco & corporate rock & their appeal was, despite critical comment to the contrary, because they differed from those 2 poles. Their zenith of popularity was during the inter-regnum early 80s, yet their own creativity had peaked & they began their quick slide to musical horror, ending in the glory of the vapid hair band days of the late 80s (Poison, anyone?). The band lacked any real kitsch in their personae; so much so that when I mentioned the lead singer’s name a while back (who?) it was probably the 1st time you even thought of 1 of these guys as an individual- go ahead, name another band member. Their dozen or so year run was relatively brief- especially compared with acts like the Rolling Stones, Diana Ross, Pink Floyd, etc., but about on par with the decade or so logged in by the Beatles, Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, etc. But, creatively there was the mere 4 year/4 album run between 1977 & 1981. This era is the 1 that will draw fans to upcoming (you know it’s in the works) reunion tours. Let us briefly examine this band’s use of musical archetypes & relate them to the overall usage of such in pop music in general.
Let’s look at the 1st 3 albums- the period the band made its deepest & most lasting impression. I believe these albums & songs are remembered for the archetypes, not just lyrically, but because Foreigner was expert at little seemingly throwaway musical gestures that were like mnemonic pieces of Velcro- they were very much Masters of Musical Mnemonics. From the 1st album, Feels Like The First Time is an archetypal song in praise of the lover, but it’s the multi-layered harmonies, synthesized pop overdub, &- especially the near-orgasmic repetition of a grunted ‘Uh!’ in the refraining outro that sticks- the grunts are generally not heard until you listen for them. The song is memorable because the music not only recapitulates the lyrics’ archetype, but underscores it subliminally. Cold As Ice uses this technique to achieve a different end- just as memorably. It is the archetypal lover’s lament, but its harmonies are even more important as the hard, crashing, emphasized sibilance of the word ice in the refrain feels like a heavy curtain crashing down- it’s over!, is the subliminal message. The hiss also hints at the disdain felt by the lamenter. Add in the 2nd subliminal of the 1-note hard piano playing to underscore the serious monomania of the lamenting lover & the rather banal lyrics almost become a comic tautology, superfluous because the tune so dramatically emphasizes anger, resentment, & disdain. Long, Long Way From Home also takes an archetype- the lonely waif- & transmutes it into something memorable. The song starts right off with a ferocious synthesized backbeat which sounds like vortex sucking the listener into the tale- & approximating the downward slide of most runaways, then quickly barks out its lyrics: ‘It was a Monday/A day like any other day/I left a small town/For the Apple in decay’ A later backbeat & brass horn mimics the bright lights & seedy club atmosphere where many runaways end up in as prostitutes. The song also has a ferociously warbly synthesized bridge section which wobbles its way louder, curiously mimicking the possible inner lack of confidence of a runaway. But, again, these are subliminal effects in the song’s construction that only reinforce what the lyrics say. It’s this melodic & musical reinforcement of the already strong archetypes that makes these songs memorable. While the rest of the album’s songs ranged from so-so to excellent, the reason these 3 songs became hits, but moreso hits that people immediately recall with a fondness, is because of this deft construction.
The 3 hits from Double Vision were also reinforced archetypes. Hot Blooded is the archetypal entreaty to a lover, where the wooer sings his praises. The song’s drumbeat is a lot harder & more primal than the 1st album’s 3 hits. Of course, this is King Kongian breast-beating! The song changes & veers in its rhythms several times, & there is a guitar burst that several times repeats & sounds almost like something swelling (a hardon?), but this song reinforces its archetype not only by the bong-like thumping, but with its ever decreasing in volume antichoral outro, with the effect that it’s almost like a saucy old man muttering under his breath- or even the old Max Fleischer Popeye cartoons from the 1930s, where Popeye would mutter some exceedingly racy things for the time. Here’s the outro- the chorally shouted ‘Hot Blooded’ followed by the softer antichorus. ‘Hot blooded, every night/Hot blooded, you're looking so tight/Hot blooded, now you're driving me wild/Hot blooded, I'm so hot for you, child/Hot blooded, I'm a little bit high/Hot blooded, you're a little bit shy/Hot blooded, you're making me sing/Hot blooded, for your sweet sweet thing’. Note how as each repeton gets softer in sound, it gets more direct in deviant intent. Double Vision is an angry ode to drinking (or drugging)- another archetype, of life & rock music. The song’s protagonist is feeling worried & wearied, & longs to let go. The opening of the song is an insistent beat which suggests the daily duress we all feel. Then there’s the abrupt, almost woozy-sounding synthesized bangles of the refrain which seems acid-like, & mirrors the simplistic lyrics: ‘Ooh, double vision, I need my double vision/Ooh, It takes me out of my head, takin' me out of my head/Ooh, I get my double vision/Ooh, seeing double double, double vision/Ooh, oh my double vision/Ooh, double vision/Yeah-ah, I get double vision, ooh . . .’ As the outro fades it seems like the effects of the booze or drugs wearing off. Again, the song’s construction underscores the archetype. Blue Morning, Blue Day also underscores its archetypes- this time it’s another spurned lover biting back. Again, the harmonized refrain of ‘Ah-ah-ah’ evokes accusation as well as disgust. Plus the song’s opening synthesized beat evokes the marking off of time, as if the breakup was a plan. A similar underscoring follows the 3 hits of Head Games. But in the mega-hits of later albums- especially, the sappy love ballads like Waiting For A Girl Like You, I Want To Know What Love Is, That Was Yesterday, Say You Will, etc. this musical underscoring of the lyric clichés is lacking, & the clichés descend to stereotype, rather than archetype, because of it. In plain terms- the later albums had more hits, but less good songs.
Now, I am not a musical expert- this is merely a lay theory as to why the Foreigner songs that were hits are remembered more dearly than their later mega-hits, which were more along the forgettable formula pop lines of Diane Warren. Similar cases could be made for why Diana Ross’s Supremes songs stick, yet her post-Supremes songs (save for Mahogany) don’t. Or compare the Yardbird/Cream/Blind Faith Eric Clapton vs. his 1990s treacle. Or the Beatles vs. their 4 individual’s pursuits. Or Jimmy Page’s songs for Led Zeppelin vs. Coverdale/Page. I believe examining these different songs & artists would reveal the same reasons I found for Foreigner’s early smaller artistic & commercial successes being held more fondly than their later, bigger successes. Similarly, some of Foreigner’s even better, more complex early songs (which I liked the most) never became hits for the very fact that they explored areas other than the archetypal sex, drugs, & rock-n-roll motifs that the hits did, & underscored. The thing, then, seems to be that pop music handles clichés better than deeper themes- by deep I mean philosophically or intellectually, not archetypally- oddly enough. It is true that some of this may have to do with the waning of creativity that occurs with age (a topic I tackled in my essay on the Divine Inspiration Fallacy). But the primary reason, I believe, is that the lack of mnemonic bells & whistles in the later songs was why their clichés became stereotypes (& forgettable), while the earlier songs’ clichés are archetypes (& memorable).
Up: I hope
that this essay has made readers see some of the connections I have seen
& surmised as being part of what makes Lowest Common Denominator
pleasures so beloved vis-à-vis the ‘higher’ pursuits. Granted, the
posits an essay of this sort makes are hardly subject to scientific
proof or disproof. But if it gets a few juices flowing, I will have
succeeded. Obviously I have left a huge load of LCD ground uncovered.
Missing are such things as tv talk & courtroom shows (a darling of
the white, black, & brown trash sets)- from the insidiously wicked
Cult of Oprah to the revelations of Lesbian Midget Incest on Jerry
Springer; assorted LCD film favorites- be it plain old porno, Godzilla
& Oriental monster films, the Hammer films, George Romero, Roger
Corman, Stephen Spielberg, George Lucas, Ron Howard, Abbott &
Costello, the 3 Stooges, 1980s teen slasher films, 1950s sci fi films,
etc.; children’s tv from
the Little Rascals, Howdy Doody, Kukla, Fran, & Ollie, through 1960s
Japanimation like Kimba the White Lion, Gigantor the Space Age Robot,
& Speed Racer, through the decades of Hanna-Barbera cartoons,
through the social conscience era of Fat Albert & Schoolhouse Rock,
through the Sid & Marty Kroft era (H.R. Pufnstuf to Land Of The
Lost), through the 1980s tv commercials-as-kids show era (He-Man,
Smurfs, Thundercats, etc.), through the PBS offerings (Sesame Street,
Zoom, The Electric Company, the several Canadian DeGrassi series, etc.),
to today’s slightly more intelligent era of whole cable networks
devoted to kids programming. Also absent are some kissin’ cousins of
pro wrestling: motocross, demolition derbies, & Monster Truck shows
(Robosaurus Lives!); as well as comicbooks- especially the archetypal
superhero vein which mines & re-mines Classical myths with
characters as Superman, Lex Luthor, Spider-Man, The Hulk, Spawn, Batman,
the Joker, The Punisher, The Flash, Wonder Woman, & even- yes- the
Norse Gods of Asgard! But most, especially, in this essay, I’ve let
float free a raft of LCD poetry- from the PBS dreck specials of Bill
Moyers, through the politically correct pap of a David Mura, Nikki
Giovanni, Carolyn Forché, etc., through the assorted Dead White Male
dronings of a Hayden Carruth or David Citino, through the greeting card
verse of celebrities like Art Garfunkel & Leonard Nimoy, or
‘real’ poets like Maya Angelou & Susan Polis Schutz. Simply,
I’ve got plenty of time to devote other essays on these topics, as the
themes I’ve chosen, I think, make vivid & direct illustration of
this essays’s posits: that LCD things tend to be based on very
real & vivid archetypes, which tend to allow the LCD things
transcend their times, while often engaging in self-aware kitsch.
We saw how pro wrestling evokes much of the same aspects that comicbooks do- that of Classical Gods- iconic, willful, liable to change personae in a flash- as well as its lineage to the freak shows of yore. We’ve seen cult tv shows follow a fairly straight-forward formula (although that’s debatable, lest more shows would consciously pattern themselves on those lines- the formula may need to be struck upon unconsciously!) to public consciousness. We’ve also seen how serials/soap operas appeal to our earliest desires in storytelling, as well as our baser Schadenfreude towards the rich & beautiful. We’ve seen how the unexplained conjures deep animal fears & humanistic hopes, & how pop music that works its way into our collective psyche, like cult tv shows, follows a certain- albeit different- formula.
We’ve also seen how these very LCD things often ascend into the higher arts within a generation or 2- see jazz, comic strips, & science fiction writing. Ask yourself this- is there any 20th Century Classical composer that inspires the devotion, or the influence in other arts, of a John Coltrane, Miles Davis, or Louis Armstrong? Well? Aaron Copland- please. Not even George Gershwin strikes as deeply as the aforementioned trio. Ask yourself this- what writers are held in deeper esteem & more reverently- Philip Roth, John Updike, Alice Walker or Isaac Asimov, Frank Herbert, or Arthur C. Clarke? Not to mention earlier sci fi writers like Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, & Edgar Rice Burroughs, who launched a whole new genre. It may be worth noting, if you have not already, that simply because something has LCD appeal does not, de facto, mean it’s ‘bad’ art. In fact, LCD appeal is more closely linked with a lack of pretentiousness than poor quality. & all their uses of archetyping twine their way into the mind & hang like nettles on a fuzzy sweater- as example, during the course of writing this essay I had, on successive nights, dreams which involved 2 soap opera characters I had not thought of in years: General Hospital’s serial killer Dr. Kevin O’Connor, & All My Children’s loony killer Janet Green. I would venture to guess, in fact, that alot of what both art historians & critics, & the masses, will consider ‘great (high) art’ (or science or philosophy- for we’ve grazed these in this essay) in 2102 will be what is now considered LCD- & much of it discussed in this essay. & the aforementioned lack of pretense serves to, shall we say, ‘sweeten’ most of this great art, etc., & make it palatable to the masses that are turned off by the arrogance of the elites. In effect, LCD appeal is the lump of sugar that often makes the bitter medicine of artistic excellence go down. But, like most of the ‘higher arts’, most LCD things are just plain shitty!
A final point, that I would like to end this essay on is that because LCD things blatantly appeal to a simple human concept that ‘higher’ things snub as trivial &/or juvenile, they are dismissed. That thing? F-U-N! Fun. Fun is often the missing element in ‘higher’ pursuits. So saturated with the claimed ‘pursuits of truth’ or the ‘suffering for art’ mythos are the bastions & defenders of the ‘high’ things, that almost never is fun a component that traverses their spheres of recognition. Yes, LCD things that perdure make use of archetypes, but they are in the service of having FUN. 1 of the manifest, & great, flaws of such pompous & ill-wrought thinking as that propounded in recent decades by Joseph Campbell, & his tribes, is that art (in its varied forms) springs up from DEEP places that portend DEEPER things. Even children’s tales are larded with meanings that your average dolt never suspects. & while certain of these claims are true- to varying degrees, as a whole, they are just so much bunk. A Campbell could never admit (assuming that he really could discern) that a tale told round a campfire was just a lark, or a hoot (i.e.- FUN). No, there had to be some DEEP meaning, symbolism, or such, which revealed things of the teller, the listener, the society, the gravity on a planet orbiting a star in the 3rd arm of the Andromeda Galaxy on Candlemas in 1632!- or so their gustations drone. Instead of seeing that art (& the other domains) 1st sprung from the human desire (possibly need?) for FUN, which the Campbellians deem gauche, they see art springing from scientific &/or philosophic fundaments- aka TRUTH. Who’d’a thunk 7 little letters as –daments could blind so many seemingly intelligent folks from what is so manifestly out there?
Yet art is not the real province of truth, although it can be on occasions. The domains to which truth rightly & fundamentally belongs are science & history/journalism, for art is at its core FUN, aka entertainment, which can reveal truths, but need not do so. & all the propagandists for the ‘higher’ arts (& pursuits, generally) despise that fact, so try to puff themselves on the corrupt notion of art’s indispensability, all the while the relentless tyranny of the functionary proves art no necessity- merely a soothing addendum to living. So rapt by their perverse dictum are the ‘high artistes’ that they fail to overlook the manifest logical outcome of the fact of art’s non-necessity: that art’s being unnecessary only bespeaks its greater power, because if it is just a desire, not a need, then it necessarily has to be greater in its power & allure to compete so successfully with the many human needs more vital & indispensable to human survival & well-being. To need something bespeaks weakness & dependence. To desire something bespeaks strength & liberty. Fun is only possible when there is time enough not to pursue needs. The unspoken philosophy of those Campbellians, & other drones who diminish the worth of LCD pursuits, is this: All humans are weak, scared little creatures who need to look to the ‘higher’ callings of our inner angels to save us from our baser selves. We NEED art. I say that’s nonsense- at least insofar as the superlative qualifier All. While many, if not the majority of humans are what the Campbellians claim (in part or toto), those who pursue art, especially the LCD sort, understand overtly or implicitly that to do so acknowledges human strengths, meaning we are then free to pursue our many (& often silly) manias; a primary 1 of which is- FUN!
It’s fun to gaze at the rich detail of a mammoth Frederic Edwin Church nature painting. It’s fun to watch William Shatner hammily overact when yet another all-powerful alien presence makes him double over in pain. It’s fun to listen to the über-crash & ultra-swoon of Wagner. It’s fun to read about foul-smelling man-apes that tease & frustrate the oh-so serious hunters who pursue them. It’s fun to read a great sonnet by Rainer Maria Rilke- even as it enlightens you. It’s fun to laugh your ass off at Peter Sellers in Dr. Strangelove, Or: How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Bomb, even as it enlightens you. & why are we drawn to such fun? Or just FUN itself? ‘Aha!’ scream the Campbellians, 'there is a fundament beneath all the fun.' Well, no, not unless you consider plain old relief from diurnal do a fundament, & even if you do it’s hardly a shatterer-of-worlds revelation. Yes, it can sometimes be something as easy & simple as that. & that’s NOT trivial. It may not be cosmos-destroying, but just because a thing is not fundamental does not mean it is trivial. The real fun comes in trying to grade all the sundry levels between what is trivial & what is fundamental- no? &, speaking just por moi- that’s FUN! & it can be good or great, too. Again, probably not. But, 1 must realize people will almost always choose what is fun over what is good or great (usually associated with a lack of fun), the trick is in hitting that dufecta: ‘And they’re off….’
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