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You Had To Be There: A Theory on Pop Culture (part 3)

February 20, 2013

This is part 3 of my essay describing my new “You Had to Be There” Theory.  I know I’m a few days late on this, but hey, all deadlines are self-imposed.  Meanwhile, click here for part 1 and here for part 2.

The 2000s:

Unless you’re a toddler being read this essay as a bedtime story (which I kind of understand – we’re up over 5,000 words now, it would make anyone a bit sleepy), saying “you had to be there” about the decade that just passed makes little sense.  Looking back on part 1 though, you may recall that I defined “there” as “not just being a witness to the spectacle, but a witness of the right age, at a time when perceptions about the world are still being formed.”  In that case, perhaps I myself was not “there.”   Of course, that’s fine; I’ve already made the YHTBT claim about several decades where I literally was not there.  Doing it for a decade where I was a little past my prime shouldn’t slow me down.  What will prove difficult is trying to project into the future that which will one day remain important to to the kids of Gen2K but will not resonate as well with their children.  Here are my thoughts on what will eventually be our YHTBT candidates for the 2000s …


Quibble with my categorization, but I believe that one day someone will talk about the reign of American Idol and say “you had to be there.”  Idol was the #1 ranked show on television for 8 consecutive years, beginning in 2003-04.  It single-handedly changed the way the networks planned their programming for the entire decade, as rival programmers refused to take it on head to head in any meaningful way. Auditions for Idol would see thousands of people show up in a city in the desperate hope to be chosen as one of the few to appear on the show.  It had mass appeal from day one and it never waned – 110 million votes were cast in the show’s first season; nearly 750 million voted in season 10.  The show created major stars, and not just from the pool of contestants.  In addition to making Kelly Clarkson and Carrie Underwood legitimate pop and country stars, respectively, and launching Jennifer Hudson to an Oscar, the first panel of judges (Simon Cowell, Randy Jackson and Paula Abdul) and host Ryan Seacrest all became mega-stars (Abdul for the second time) because of Idol.  There is even an American Idol theme park experience in Disney World.

So why do I say “you had to be there” to appreciate it?  Because I wasn’t (at least not in spirit), and I believe that one day someone will try to explain the cultural significance of Idol to another, much younger, person and that person won’t understand it any better than I ever have.  I cannot understand why more people vote for Idol than for the President of the United States.  I cannot understand why a show that has produced only a handful of legitimate stars in 12 years still pulls in millions of interested viewers.  And I’ll never understand why anyone would have cared what Randy Jackson or Paula Abdul had to say.  And yet I know each of these things to be true.  I guess YHTBT.


This is going to upset some of you, but those are the chances I have to take.  Anyway, there’s a strong likelihood I will be proven wrong about this entire decade, since these are ostensibly just guesses.  That said, I have a feeling that one day we will be saying “you had to be there” about “The Dark Knight.”

I am not a comic-book movie fan.  I have not seen “X-Men,” “The Avengers,” or any number of other comic-book movies in between that most other movie-goers (judging by the gross receipts) have.  I did, however, see both “Batman Begins” and “The Dark Night” in the theater.  Both were excellent movies.  Christian Bale is a brilliant actor and Christopher Nolan may be my favorite director.  Together, they bring a depth to the super-hero story that even a non-comic-book fan like me must appreciate.  I recall walking out of “Batman Begins” and feeling blown away.  Never before did I imagine that a comic-book movie could be, well, a real movie.  “Batman Begins” was, in that respect, the first of its kind.  Thereafter there were many imitators, presumably some good, some terrible, and among them “The Dark Night.”  Heath Ledger’s performance as the Joker, for which he posthumously won both a Golden Globe and an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor, was chilling, and is rightfully recognized as a terrific performance.  But Ledger’s death prior to the release of the movie cast such a shadow over the film though that it became impossible to separate the movie from the real-life story happening around it.  I wonder whether looking back the context in which “The Dark Night” existed will get muted and people will wonder what all the fuss was about.  It is no doubt a great movie, but one I find difficult to rewatch.  With the passing of time I’m not even sure it’s better than “Batman Begins,” an idea I never would have considered back in 2008.  Comic book movies never age well; one generation’s dark tale becomes the next generation’s camp.  YHTBT indeed.


By now you know the drill, but I’ll refresh your recollection one last time.  There are shows that don’t fit the YHTBT theory because they are timeless: The Sopranos, Mad Men, Arrested Development.  There are others that don’t fit because despite the hype and ratings, they really weren’t all that great:  24, Entourage, Lost.[1]  There was even something I watched, talked about, and delighted in, yet still can’t come to terms with, called Jersey Shore.  The show that fits the theory though may surprise you – ABC’s Who Wants to Be a Millionaire, with original host Regis Philbin.

Millionaire was like a meteor – it exploded onto the scene (by way of a UK predecessor, like many popular U.S. shows in the past decade), instantly grabbed the attention of the entire U.S. population (and the media), and then flamed out nearly as quickly as it appeared, although it still lives on through new episodes in syndication.  At its peak, ABC aired new episodes of Millionaire five nights a week.  Five! Viewers couldn’t get enough until they couldn’t stand it anymore.  After all, it was just a simple game show, perhaps the simplest one of them all.  That simplicity made it at once brilliant and brilliantly dull, which ABC must have realized in making its decision to ride the show as hard as it could until the moment inevitably passed.  Who Wants to Be a Millionaire was nothing but a quiz show, but it was so much more.  You really had to be there.  And that’s my final answer.

Everything Else:

Rarely do we see a “you had to be there” moment for what it is almost immediately after it’s happened.  Yet somehow we all knew that the Janet Jackson “wardrobe malfunction” during the Super Bowl XXXVIII halftime show was just that.  As you can read (and see) here, the malfunction itself was a fleeting moment, but its impact rippled throughout the television landscape.  Since the tragedy of seeing Ms. Jackson’s right nipple, all live television events are aired with a 10-second delay that previously did not exist and Congress was compelled to enact the “Broadcast Decency Enforcement Act of 2005” which, as President Bush then noted, is a “law [that] will ensure that broadcasters take seriously their duty to keep the public airwaves free of obscene, profane and indecent material.  American families expect and deserve nothing less.”[2]  “Wardrobe malfunction” is a phrase that is now part of the national lexicon – a Google search yields over 20 million results, including a Huffington Post web page completely dedicated to these “malfunctions”.  It took nearly ten years for the Super Bowl halftime to recover with a decent show featuring a culturally relevant performer (this year’s Beyonce extravaganza) and it will take many more to understand what all the fuss was about when it comes to Janet’s nip slip.  Just imagine – less than ten years ago a nanosecond of breast yielded a great moment in Super Bowl, television and, let’s face it, American history.  YHTBT.


So Will Leitch was right.  But he didn’t know how right he was.  Regardless of genre, the “You Had to be There” Theory can be applied to dozens of candidates.  In addition to the ones listed in my essay (and Will’s too), there are so many more examples that come to mind.  Off the top of my head, and just from my own time “there,” you have Bo Jackson, Mike Tyson, Charlie Sheen, Madonna, EminemSaved By the Bell, beepers … the list goes on and on. I’m actually pretty proud of this theory; I’d argue it’s better than the Advanced Genius Theory. Anyone can play the game – in fact, we all often do – and the discussions over who meets the test could go on and on. I’m not bold enough to suggest that the theory will catch on, but I wish it would, and if you’re with me thus far please drop some suggested candidates in the comments.  After all, theories are born to be put to the test!

[1] I was a devoted watcher of both 24 and Entourage at various points in their respective runs.  I’m not ashamed to say that I enjoyed both immensely.  I’ve also never seen a single episode of Lost, but I feel convinced through pop culture osmosis that it belongs in this group.

[2] Despite that promise from the President, the wardrobe malfunction that is the Victoria’s Secret Fashion Show was canceled for just that one year and continues to run annually still.

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