Friday links! Ineffability of culture edition


Behold Nyan Cat, a cat that is also a pop tart flying through space! This video has 35 million views. The ten-hour version has three million views. Nyan Cat is a goddamn cultural epiphenomenon, and I dare you to explain why. As a person who A) thinks Nyan Cat is wonderful and B) loves to analyze created works, I have to admit that here is a place where human reason has no compass. You cannot dissect Nyan Cat and use what you learn of its parts to make something else culturally successful. Sure, broad conclusions can be drawn—the internet likes cats, the song is catchy, rainbows are funny when they come out of animals anuses. But it is impossible, having seen Nyan Cat, to make something that works like Nyan Cat but is different. Its Nyan-Catness slips through your fingers like a disassembled sand castle. American culture is ineffable, even as it appears to be completely effed, and there’s nothing for it but to sit back and let it erase your brain. Won’t you stare in dumb amazement with me?

Perhaps it is the mysterious, almost arbitrary nature of our cultural artifacts that makes them so dear to us. They take on lives of their own and move in unexpected directions so that they are alien even to the people who created them, like children. Maybe that’s why colorizing them is like watching people put makeup on their children—viscerally wrong even as it appears to be the creators’ inalienable right. Back in 1988, George Lucas spoke passionately to Congress against the colorization of classic films, arguing that such cultural artifacts belong to the nation as much as to the originating auteurs. Saying that America needed “a moral anchor to help define and protect its intellectual heritage,” Lucas delivered this eloquent argument that individuals’ expressions should be as inviolable as the individuals themselves:

The destruction of our film heritage, which is the focus of concern today, is only the tip of the iceberg. American law does not protect our painters, sculptors, recording artists, authors, or filmmakers from having their lifework distorted, and their reputation ruined. If something is not done now to clearly state the moral rights of artists, current and future technologies will alter, mutilate, and destroy for future generations the subtle human truths and highest human feeling that talented individuals within our society have created.

Ten years later, he made Greedo shoot first.

I think I speak for everyone even close to my age when I say: don’t fuck with my fantasies. How about you make new fantasies instead? It’s easy, provided you’re as imaginative and hard-working as my friend James Erwin. The story he began on Reddit yesterday about whether a battalion of contemporary Marines could conquer the Rome of Augustus is blowing up. You know why? Because it’s awesome. Sure, it incorporates identifiable principles of story structure that hold reader interest, but you can transplant those same structures to another corpus and it remains inert. This story is simply right—right in its playful but suspense-multiplying tone, right in its breakneck construction, right for its time and place. The lesson to be learned from Rome Sweet Rome—and from James generally, if you know him—is that the best way to write something awesome is to be writing something.

Remember what I said about not going back and remaking cultural artifacts? That only applies to artifacts that were good. If a cultural artifact kind of sucks, even as it kind of rules, remaking it is maybe the best thing you can do. Consider what The Hold Steady does with a sluggish, overly-synthesized Huey Lewis classic:

The Hold Steady covers Huey Lewis & The News

Still kind of sluggish, right? But much better. If you haven’t seen The Hold Steady live, go do it. The vague effeminacy that Craig Finn restrains in this video is on full display in concert, in a way that eerily invokes Mick Jagger. Jagger is old, too.

But maybe you disagree with me about The Hold Steady and marines v. Romans and Nyan Cat. There’s no accounting for taste, which is a shame because accounting is such a big part of the American taste business. Quality is vaporous and arguable, but you can count sales. From a certain standpoint, everything in today’s roundup is shit compared to the book Heaven Is For Real, the true story of a four year-old boy who “during emergency surgery slips from consciousness” and comes back with a description of heaven that, apparently, proves it’s real. How else could he know about his great-grandfather who died and “the horse only Jesus can ride?” Unless his pastor father who wrote and profited from this book told him, but that seems pretty implausible compared to Heaven being For Real. We’re talking basic Occam’s Razor stuff, here. The co-author of this book is Lynn Vincent, by the way, who also cowrote Going Rogue.

Me personally, I don’t want to read the fake story of a four year-old who visits heaven. That’s why the whole of American culture is set against me, and also why I like weird, abrasive music. Pursuant to that end, I will go see the Butthole Surfers in concert on Tuesday night. It so happens that I was tasked with reviewing their opening band for the Missoula Independent, and it so happens that they rule. It’s the kind of rule that most people don’t like, but that’s where most people are wrong. Behold 400 Blows, in all their bizarre glory:


Now that’s good culture.


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