December 1998
s m u g
by Steve Kleinedler

Making Sense of Reference

Ok, I'll admit it. I enjoy that special glow of cleverness that washes over me when I toss out a witty reference that only a handful of my peers catches. This luscious sensation is bested only when I am the sole person nodding at someone else's esoteric verbal volleys.

Dropping arch references has become the feature of modern discourse. This is undoubtedly fueled by reference-laden fare like:

    • Mystery Science 3000, famous for peppering horrible movies with a myriad of snide comments that make me laugh, especially when I'm hip to the reference and I need to signal to others watching it with me that I get it;

    • The Baffler, an astute publication that weaves the political, the perverse, and the perplexing with the passion that is best appreciated when sitting in a cold cafe on 57th Street near the University of Chicago campus waiting for your server to stop smoking for just one minute so you can get a refill before you venture out into subzero weather; and

    • practically any USENET newsgroup (yes, Virginia, USENET still exists), where both awareness of every pixel from the Pong of culture and the unflappable historical memory of every post since the group was newgrouped are woven to create a delicate referential tapestry of real-world minutiae and specialized, newsgroup-specific trivia. The fruit of my lexical loom thus earns me a spot on the A-list of any newsgroup I choose.

    Of course, our face-to-face discourse is likewise affected. While at a party discussing the relative merits of the new Bauhaus record, a friend of mine, who also can't seem to let go of the '80s, suggested that maybe the music sounded so good because those asymmetrical haircuts had thrown off our brains. The crowd exploded into peals of laughter and then a single shot ran through the din: "What's that from?" And, my friend fell from being seen as an original wit to joke scavenger. Yes, you can quickly irritate anyone by consistently tagging each amusing or pithy thing they say with "What's that from? " We're so inured to recycled material - from sampled disco hooks in current music or badly executed gags involving '60s and '70s sitcom plots imprinted on our consciousness - that we assume anything funny must be unoriginal. This realization is unsettling.

    Worse, the merest glimmers of originality are immediately thrown on the cultural compost heap for future references. Heathers is the prime example. The characters in that movie inhabit their own world, the invention of the screenwriter. The music (other than what plays over the credits) and programs of their environment exist only within that story -- there are no eight-bar snippets of pop songs written by real-life musicians of the day. Nods to our world constitute a kind of an anti-reference: Moby Dick is reduced to one word, "Eskimo." Of course, the movie became a pop-culture extravaganza, and I can't even discuss Herman Melville or Moby Dick without someone booming "ESKIMO" in my ear. Aren't they clever? None of us is any better, especially those of you who found yourself thinking about Heathers when I used the word 'myriad' earlier in this article.

    Here's an interesting theory I read long ago. I'm not sure who said it. (But it wasn't TV's Frank, Tom Frank, or Winona Ryder.) Anyhow, this theory goes that the only original themes are that of Cinderella and Jack and the Beanstalk. While that claim may have some simplistic merit, it's less stale than a world where the only themes are derived from pop songs of 1976-1984 and television shows from 1955-1980. What happens when they run out of mediocre television shows from which to make even more mediocre movies? Hollywood will have to mine the '80s, and are you really prepared for a Very Special Facts of Life Reunion?

    The '90s are the decade in which anyone who had 15 minutes of fame in the previous two decades were allowed even more airtime (even if only in Old Navy ads). Personally, I'd prefer to dwell in the present and praise originality, but then I couldn't be so smug.

    in the junk drawer

and such
and such

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