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Friday, January 3, 2014

Why Pop Culture Matters

Florida Sen. Marco Rubio's mid-speech swig from a small Poland Spring water bottle during his GOP response generated instant reaction in social media circles and on cable television. (Screenshot)

NPR’s Linda Holmes says people were fascinated by the Marco Rubio water incident because it was an unscripted, spontaneous moment in an otherwise predictable process.(Screenshot)

If you think the life of pop culture writer is fluffy and involves watching movies and listening to music, well, you’re partially right.

But NPR’s pop culture blogger, Linda Holmes says that studying pop culture has an important social function — what we pay attention to in pop culture is how we say what is important to us.

Take the debate over “Duck Dynasty,” whose star was suspended after he made homophobic remarks.

As Holmes writes in her blog, Monkey See:

There are over 750 comments on a post I wrote about [Duck Dynasty], even though the post was really very mild. And in those comments, you will see multiple and profound cultural divides that touch on issues of region, class, religion, race, sexuality, trust, authenticity, and power. Duck Dynasty is not important, but that story exposed that divide and, just as importantly, shows how easy it has become to exploit it.

The utter lack of importance of the underlying subject, in fact, is exactly what tells you how close to the surface and at how high a temperature these conflicts are simmering.

She compares writing about pop culture to studying monkeys.

If you want to understand monkeys you have to study both what they should eat and what they actually eat.

The same is true for people and culture, you need to look at what they should consume and what they actually consume.

“If you want to understand people, like monkeys, you have to understand what they’re actually doing,” Holmes tells Here & Now’Meghna Chakrabarti. “You’re looking horizontally at the society around you and what people are surrounding themselves with, because everybody knows that those things effect the way you think, whether they should or not.”





OK. So we're going to do something a little different right now. I'm going to start this segment by telling you what we're not going to do because originally, we were going to talk about the year ahead in pop culture with Linda Holmes, host of Monkey See, NPR's pop culture blog. And I was on the phone with Linda about it, and she said this interesting thing, that really, there's no such thing as the year in pop culture, only your year because pop culture, by its very nature, is something that you're constantly curating by yourself. You're curating your own experience, which, of course, then made me wonder why write about pop culture at all then if it's such an individual thing?

Well, Linda has a great answer to that, too, and she's with us now. Hi there, Linda.


CHAKRABARTI: So on the blog, you've written that pop culture writing find its reason for being somewhere between monkeys and value? What do you mean?

HOLMES: This is true. I have this theory that if you were really interested in monkeys, and you wanted to understand monkeys and be of value and use to them, you would not only have to understand what monkeys should ideally eat, you would also have to understand what monkeys actually eat and how it affects them and why they make those choices because no matter how much you know about what they would ideally do in your ideal universe, they don't always do it. And that is the way pop culture is to me. Pop culture is what monkeys eat. And, of course, for the purposes of this, I am the chief monkey. So it is in no way intended to be a putdown of anyone.

CHAKRABARTI: Oh, they are highly evolved and sophisticated creatures, whether literally or metaphorically in place of humans.


CHAKRABARTI: But we do, quote, unquote, "eat a lot of stuff." I mean, you've pointed out in blog posts of the past, what, Justin Bieber, twerking, "Duck Dynasty." I mean, there's that age-old criticism that none of this is actually important stuff.

HOLMES: Well, it's not important in a vacuum. I am the first person to acknowledge Justin Bieber, in a vacuum, in a closed environment, is not important, and neither is twerking and neither is "Duck Dynasty." What makes these things important to me is how people react to them and how people take them in and make them part of kind of the worldview that they hold, and that is important. Popular culture is what people are swimming in and sort of poaching themselves in all the time. And as that kind of a medium, it matters a great deal.

CHAKRABARTI: OK. Poaching seems to be also an apt metaphor because sometimes I think the stories do get a little overcooked but...

HOLMES: Of course. Of course.

CHAKRABARTI: But this is NPR, after all. So let's deconstruct a couple of examples. They're from opposite ends of the spectrum, but you've written about both of them. First of all, listeners, if you remember back in February of last year when Florida Senator Marco Rubio gave the Republican response to the State of the Union address. And there was that moment where he had to take that really conspicuous drink of water and he sort of leaned away from the camera to get his little plastic water bottle but kept looking at the camera. Well, that moment, well, just cue the social media snark if anyone remembers. But, Linda, to real students of pop culture, you say there was a meaningful story there. What was that?

HOLMES: Well, what I saw in that story was the best possible proof that presidential debates, like television and movies and everything else that we take in, have become so choreographed and so meticulously planned that anything that you know was not planned suddenly has this massive appeal because people have this giant craving for anything that's authentic. Everybody's had that moment, right? You're talking, and all of a sudden, there is not a drop of saliva in your mouth. Everyone understands what - that that's happening in an unplanned, spontaneous, human way. And that's what that story really communicated to me, was that people are just thirsty for anything that feels real.

CHAKRABARTI: Yeah. But, Linda, I mean, I - what I hear you being is really generous about that moment because what I remember is, like I said, all the snark that really characterized the response to Marco Rubio just taking a drink of water. I mean, it wasn't quite as thoughtful as you are. I mean, most people are just like, that was hilarious. Why did he do that?

HOLMES: Well, but the question is, what makes that hilarious? A guy drinking water is not funny. What makes that funny? Nothing makes that funny except the fact that he is so mortified. You can see it in his eyes because you can see the moment when he figures out how far away the bottle of water is. What makes that funny is its spontaneity. It's absolutely true that a lot of people went at that moment in kind of a nasty, snipey kind of way. But I think that underlying that is a sense of humanity, and I mean that. And that's what I get out of a lot of these stories is that they speak in some way to humanity.

CHAKRABARTI: Right. I guess I'm beginning to see why we really need pop culture critics because we need someone to sort of point at the monkeys who are pointing at the other monkeys and say, hey, you're pointing. That means something too.

HOLMES: Exactly. Exactly.

CHAKRABARTI: OK. So there's a more recent story as well that you've written about, Linda. That's the entire "Duck Dynasty" controversy, when one of the Robertson clan, Phil, made these very bigoted remarks and was pulled from the show by A&E. And that really - his remarks enraged a lot of people; him also being pulled from the show really enraged a lot of people too. But through a pop culture lens, why does this story matter?

HOLMES: Again, it doesn't matter in and of itself. "Duck Dynasty" is a reality show on A&E. You know, relatively speaking, not that many people watch it despite the fact that it's considered very popular. What you see when you look at that controversy is a very real cultural divide. And if you looked at, for example, just the comments that I got on the blog when I wrote about that, we got something like 750. It's probably 800 comments now about that story, which is very unusual for that blog. And what you saw there was a lot of different people with different views who were united in how massively angry they were about this seemingly very unimportant story.

And that story - no, whereas perhaps you can take a little bit of a more generous look at the Rubio water bottle business, this story, really to me, spoke to a very deep set of cultural divides about regionalism, religion, sexuality, race. He also made a bunch of comments about race. That divide is very, very real. And that divide - you can see that divide and its intensity and how easy it is to exploit through looking at that unimportant story.

CHAKRABARTI: And, Linda, just to prove to listeners that we're never that far away from the news on HERE AND NOW, I should also note that a couple of days ago, A&E reinstated Phil back on the show. And the family...

HOLMES: Ultimately, yeah. Ultimately, that suspension did not amount too much.

CHAKRABARTI: Right. And the family also said on New Year's Eve that they had learned a lot. So, you know, probably a lot of deconstruction to happen there with even that response. But, Linda, finally, I suppose I'm beginning to sound a bit like a dog with a bone. But I do wonder that perhaps the highest of the highbrow among us might say that even by acknowledging these stories, you're still just perpetuating them.

HOLMES: There is always that argument. And I struggle a lot with which things are worth talking about because you think you can have a good conversation about them and which things really are just whipping people up to be angry. And I do try to stay away from stuff that, really, I don't even think you can have an interesting conversation about. I believe you can have an interesting conversation about most things, but not all things.

CHAKRABARTI: But all in all, I think the most compelling thing is that writing about pop culture seems to be really writing about people.

HOLMES: Right. And if you want to understand people, like monkeys, you have to understand what they're actually doing. You're looking kind of horizontally at the society around you and what people are actually surrounding themselves with because everybody knows that those things affect the way you think, whether they should or not.

CHAKRABARTI: Well, the always thoughtful Linda Holmes is host of NPR's pop culture blog, Monkey See. Bookmark it because it is really worth a regular read. Linda, thank you so much.

HOLMES: Well, thank you so much.


BEASTIE BOYS: (Singing) Brass monkey, that funky monkey. Brass monkey junkie, that funky monkey.

CHAKRABARTI: Going out with the Beastie Boys.


The Beastie Boys.


CHAKRABARTI: From NPR and WBUR Boston, I'm Meghna Chakrabarti.

YOUNG: I'm Robin Young. This is HERE AND NOW. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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