You Had To Be There: A Theory on Pop Culture (part 2)
This is part 2 of my essay describing my new “You Had to Be There” Theory. Click here for part 1.
The King of Pop is also the King of the YHTBT theory. It is impossible to overstate the cultural importance of Michael Jackson from the period beginning with the release of Thriller in 1982 and ending with his being named Artist of the Decade by President George H.W. Bush in 1990. (This happened while Bush was remarking on an upcoming meeting with Soviet Union President Mikhail Gorbachev. I think that says it all.) I don’t know what it was like to have lived through Elvis or the Beatles, but I can say with absolute certainty that there has never been, and there never will be, a pop star with the fame and adulation of Michael Jackson in the 1980s. (That may or may not actually be true. But I will swear by it anyway. See, that’s the theory at work. You had to be there.)
Recently my younger sister was in the mood to watch a good comedy but wanted something she hadn’t seen before. She asked me for a recommendation in the following way: “What is currently your favorite comedy of all-time?” That’s kind of a funny question and sums up the YHTBT theory nicely – I had to choose a movie that not only did I find funny, but that I still find funny. I named a few, including, of course “Caddyshack”. I can honestly say that I have never stumbled upon “Caddyshack” on TV and not continued watching for at least several scenes, regardless of what stage of the movie I happened to drop in. My father, who was in the room and is a fan of a good comedy, said that he has tried to watch it a few times and couldn’t make it all the way through. My brother, 11 years my junior and a movie junkie, said that he doesn’t like it either. I couldn’t understand. Chevy Chase, Rodney Dangerfield, Ted Knight, Bill Murray and an evil gopher! How could anyone not love “Caddyshack”? I guess YHTBT. (Yes, “Caddyshack” came out in 1980 and no, I am not nearly old enough to have seen it then. But I am old enough to have lived through the era when it still felt fresh and when Murray, Chase, and Dangerfield were still relevant.)
There was one television show that, even though still found regularly in syndication, for which you had to be there to appreciate the full extent of its cultural importance. This show was a remarkably popular sitcom, successful by any measure. It was consistently at the top of the ratings, it’s one of the most widely syndicated shows of all time, and it earned 28 Emmys from on 117 nominations. Not only did it run for 11 seasons, but it generated a spin-off show that ran for 11 seasons of its own. Every major character from this show (and there were many in this ensemble cast) is very famous; 10 different actors received Emmy nominations for their roles on the show. When the show eventually closed its doors, the final episode (98 minutes long, epic for a sitcom) was preceded by a “pregame” show with Bob Costas and followed by a special Tonight Show live from the bar where it was filmed. This show invented the classic “will they or won’t they” romantic dynamic and Sam and Diane’s relationship – mind you, a fictional one – was often the topic of nationwide debate. No television sitcom before or since has held the popular attention quite like Cheers did.
Contrast that to Seinfeld, the gold standard in television comedies. Seinfeld didn’t really catch on until its fourth season and was not in its time quite the critical darling that Cheers (or even Cheers spin-off Frasier) was. Compared to Cheers’ 28 Emmys on 117 nominations, Seinfeld won 10 Emmys on 68 nominations. Ask 100 people today what the greatest sitcom of all time was and at least 90 will say Seinfeld (the other few don’t own a television). TV Guide agrees, calling it the greatest television show of all time as of 2002. Cheers was ranked 18th. An episode of Seinfeld was also ranked by TV guide (in 2009) as the #1 television episode of all time; the highest rated episode of Cheers on the list came in at #29. Both shows were incredibly popular when they aired and remain popular today, but Cheers narrowly edges Seinfeld in terms of popularity in its time while Seinfeld has aged far more gracefully.
So is this simply an example of a show that wasn’t as good as it seemed in its time? Are we smarter now that we were then? I don’t believe so. The Bull & Finch Pub, the exterior of which was used as the Cheers bar and has since been renamed Cheers Beacon Hill, draws nearly one million visitors annually, even though the show has been off the air for 20 years. There is a dedicated group of people – not a small segment of the population, but one that lived through the Cheers phenomenon – that will swear to this day that, despite the fact that they know the “right” answer is Seinfeld, Cheers really is the greatest sitcom of all time. An episode of Cheers may feel dated when seen now, but if you were there in the 1980s you know that the show was groundbreaking and, more importantly, ridiculously funny. Trust me, YHTBT.
MTV. It was all about music videos! Imagine that! Back in the ‘80s, MTV (which stands for Music Televison by the way) was a taste-maker, a cultural force. Could they still show videos today instead of the Real World and Jersey Shore? Of course. They even have a channel that does this, launched in 2011, called MTV Music. Would it be the same? No way. We can tell our siblings and children that we sat around all day watching music videos and it was the greatest thing in the world, and they will simply stare at us blankly. It really happened. YHTBT.
As we get closer to present day, it becomes more difficult to say “you had to be there” since, well, the person you’re talking to probably was there. Difficult, but not impossible …
It’s hard for me to accept, but the rise of grunge music may have been a YHTBT moment. I don’t think that any band will ever impact me the way that Nirvana did. While there are people who chuckle now, focusing only on the flannel and anger, anger and flannel, more people readily acknowledge that Nirvana was a legendary band. What they fail to understand is that Nirvana was even more than that – they were game-changers. Grunge may have been a passing fad, but the way that Nirvana changed music is still being felt in the music being made today. There are evolutions and there are revolutions; Nevermind was a revolutionary moment in musical history. Unfortunately, talk to my younger brother about Nirvana and he’ll acknowledge them as a terrific band, but then he’ll name some other bands that he’d consider in the same category: Pearl Jam, Smashing Pumpkins, Stone Temple Pilots, Creed, Bush … and many others. Can you see the trend there? If so, you’re like this guy, you were there. If not, YHTBT.
Context can mean so much or so little. From the very first time I watched “Pulp Fiction” I knew that it would forever be one of my favorite movies of all time. Nearly 20 years after its release, it is still remembered as either the best or second-best movie of the decade, along with “Goodfellas.” When I think of movies of the 1990s though, two others come to mind: one that fails the YHTBT test because honestly it was never as good as its reputation (probably due to its lead actor and Oscar-like genre – epic romantic comedy-drama), and a second that still doesn’t get the recognition it deserves (also probably due to its lead actor and non-Oscar-like genre – sci-fi).
“Forrest Gump” is not a good movie. It is the rare kind of bad movie that got rave reviews, won 5 Oscars including Best Picture (ironically and mind-numbingly beating out “Pulp Fiction”, not to mention “The Shawshank Redemption” and “Quiz Show”), Best Director (Robert Zemeckis over Quentin Tarantino, Robert Redford and Woody Allen) and Best Actor (Tom Hanks over John Travolta, Paul Newman, and Morgan Freeman), made several hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide and ultimately was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.” At the same time, we all agree now (save for a few hard-core sentimentalists) that it is not a good movie.
“The Matrix” did well for itself too. It won 4 Oscars, also made several hundreds of millions of dollars worldwide (though far less than “Gump”) and also was selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. Of course, the Awards it won were for film editing, sound effects editing, visual effects, and sound – not exactly Best Picture, Director or Actor. Its legacy as a great movie is cemented, but also always qualified as a “great sci-fi movie.” For this reason, when counting down the greatest movies of the 1990s, “The Matrix” never finishes in the top 10. The A.V. Club list, which slots “The Matrix” in at #33 (10 slots below “Carlito’s Way,” a forgettable Al Pacino mob movie), is representative of that way of thinking. But is that fair? Consider this: Has there ever been a purely science fiction movie that made anywhere near half a billion dollars without appealing to kids, fantasy-buffs or comic-book fans? “The Matrix” tells a real story and just happens to use science fiction as the method for conveying that story, but does so in a way that is far beyond what other sci-fi movies were capable of at the time. Watch it now and it still holds up as a pretty good movie (which is pretty amazing for something that relied so heavily ion special effects, which typically quickly become outdated) but what gets lost is that “The Matrix” wasn’t pretty good, it was great. Best of its time great. I guess that in order to understand the brilliance of “The Matrix,” you had to be there.
I hate to do this. You’ve come so far with me and now I’m going to lose you. But I have to say it. The second best show of the 1990s (after Seinfeld) was Beverly Hills 90210. You say that’s insane. I note that 90210 was on the air for 10 seasons and generated 3 different spin-off shows, 2 of which were pretty successful in their own right. You say again that I’m insane. Off my rocker. I say that a teen drama has no business being culturally relevant 20+ years after it originally launched, yet 90210 is. Twenty years after it hit the air we had “90210 Day” which, as the Washington Post explains, is “a date (09/02/10) when numerology demands that we pay homage to Steve Sanders, Dylan McKay and the sexy, edgy dangers of the Peach Pit After Dark.” Even if you were a teen in the ‘90s (as I was), unless you bought into the 90210 phenomenon you might not have been “there.” But if you know the meaning of “Donna Martin graduates” then you know what I’m talking about. (PS: how about this nice little nugget of symmetry (assuming you read part 1: the Rolling Stones once appeared on an episode of 90210.
I actually found that I had a lot to choose from here. The ‘90s were full of important moments and memories that are hard to explain in retrospect in terms of their cultural significance. Magic Johnson’s sudden retirement. The obsession with AOL chat rooms. Doc Martens. But the one that I ultimately chose is the bizarre saga of O.J. Simpson. When you describe the O.J. saga, it boils down to a jealous husband, who happens to be a former football star, killing his wife and another man (Ron Goldman), a low-speed highway chase and a drawn out murder trial with a surprising ending. Newsworthy? Yes. The stuff of Lifetime movies? Definitely. But we have now been completely obsessed with O.J. ever since that fateful night when his Ford Bronco was driven in slow motion along the L.A. freeways being chased by the LAPD and thereby interrupting the Game 5 of the 1994 NBA Finals. How obsessed are we? Here’s a list:
- Just a few days ago it was reported that O.J. threw a Super Bowl party in prison. This news made the USA Today.
- O.J.s Ford Bronco can be rented out for parties. Today.
- Ford discontinued the Bronco just two years after the murders.
- The chief prosecutor in the case contends that Johnnie Cochran, O.J.’s lawyer, tampered with the most important piece of evidence offered by the prosecution, the bloody glove. Amazingly, he made this claim just a few months ago.
- Countless books have been written about the case, including one my Simpson himself titled “If I Did It” whereby he all but admits to the murders! The victim’s father won the rights to the book in court and had it published as “If I Did It: Confessions of the Killer.” Amazon even has an O.J. Simpson page.
This list could go on and on. Why do we care so much about a running back turned murderer who happened to star in commercials for rental cars and the “Naked Gun” movies? I’m not entirely sure. But no one alive from 1994-96 didn’t care about the O.J. trial. You really had to be there.
Tomorrow part 3 … the 2000s and parting words.
 In the debut season for Cheers spin-off Frasier, Seinfeld was nominated for Most Outstanding Comedy Series but lost to the rookie show. Seinfeld was nominated for the same award every year for the rest of its run (4 more years) but always lost to Frasier.