Popcult Disconnect

The Gyre of Hack-centrism

The Austin American- Statesman made an interesting stab at a conceptual unity last week in XL ent., the faux alternative weekly it launched a couple of years ago to compete with the Chronicle for ad dollars and hip cachet. "1976-1996: Beyond the Bicentennial: 20 years of Pop Culture" was fascinating -- well, interesting, anyway -- for what was not attempted as well as what was, and for what it accidentally accomplished. At first glance, it looked like one of those non-ideas forced into being by sheer numerical happenstance. Who but journalists, after all, actually sit around thinking, "Golly, it's been 20 years since the bicentennial! What does it all mean?" The writers, all Statesman regulars with the exception of one illustrious freelancer, made decent hay with the idea nevertheless, advertising the fact that the paper's current arts and entertainment staff is the strongest it's ever had. Each of the pieces worked, despite occasional failings. Don McLeese is really too mild-mannered to suggest the fury at the core of punk rock, though he told the basic story well. Michael Corcoran, who could have gone to town with a topic like "The Rise, Fall, and Rise of Insufferable Pretension in Pop Music," contributed a pithy list of 20 crucial Austin live shows, somehow missing the Gang of Four's epochal stand in 1980 on the night Ronald Reagan was elected. Michael Barnes missed the significance of slam dancing in his otherwise astute piece on dancing and dance music. Harley Jebens nicely described the pre-videocassette, pre-computer era of CB radios and video games. The essay on Jaws and the rise of movie marketing by University of Texas professor Tom Schatz was faultless, as you would expect from the author of the excellent studio history Genius of the System.

"My Bicentennial Summer of '76," written by Hank Stuever, provided a nostalgic finish. Stuever is easily the most accomplished prose stylist of all the Statesman's recent hires, and the only writer there who can describe lived experience with something like lyrical precision. (He did press on the sentiment a little hard in this essay, but so does almost everyone who writes about their childhood.)

What the issue lacked was an overview that linked all of those things and made them comprehensible as parts of a whole culture. Stuever's piece almost managed that feat indirectly, by virtue of remembering how bicentennial marketing trash and moronic Paul McCartney hits all ran together in everyday life, not as distinct categories of culture and entertainment. What the section needed, though, was a piece of critical writing that explored the links between movies, songs, trash novels, dances, video games, and marketing flotsam, the themes those things shared and the buried stories they often told in spite of their makers' intentions.

The complaint seems almost unfair. None of the mainstream media, much less the struggling-to-do-better American-Statesman, commission that kind of piece. All newspapers in this country, including the weekly alternative press, treat culture as a series of pigeonholes occupied mainly by market events. The New York Times model of sharply segmented coverage rules as if by fiat, still holding sway as an ultimate career pinnacle of print media people. Often the segments themselves imitate the model right down to particulars. The Statesman's Sunday book section, for instance, is a great improvement over its old self; it would be even greater if it did not adhere to the Times format of book authors penning kind reviews of other book authors, and a general reluctance about calling certain major publishing events by their true name. ("Another Piece of Crap From Bob Woodward" is a headline for which I yearn.)

When Internet enthusiasts foam about "hypertextuality" -- i.e., the ability to pursue unforseen linkages at will -- is their tortured jargon not a cry for fissures between the pigeonholes? As newspaper editors face an upcoming generation that displays little fondness for their medium, they would do well to give this some thought.

With a single innocent gimmick, "Beyond the Bicentennial" hinted at what might be done. At the bottom of each page, a timeline listed some of the most popular songs, TV shows, and movies of the given year. This allowed for easy eye movement between essays and raw data; the occasional disconnect between the writers' accounts of important trends and the bilge actually swallowed by the mass audience told a story all its own. If newspaper writers and editors ever learn how to think in three or four directions at once, they may still have readers when somebody says, "Hey! Let's do a thing on `Forty Years After the Bicentennial!'"

n What goes on at Statesman editorial conferences when something like "Freeport's Philanthropy" (July 8, reported by Ralph K.M. Haurwitz) comes up, I can only imagine. Let us hope somebody has the decency to groan, roll eyes skyward, or mutter a profanity. They run these things every time Freeport stages a charity golf tournament or suchlike event, though this time the subhead suggested a higher level of discomfort than usual: "Loathed by many, company benefits others with its charity." A reliable feature of these stories is their failure to mention the related concepts of guilt money and image maintenance, or remind readers how the money is used to whip up animosity between "Eastside Activists" and "Westside Enviros" whenever the company mounts an assault on the city council.

Two days later, however, the paper redeemed itself somewhat with an bona fide scoop well-timed for budget season: "Lawyer ran up $290,000 bill before official hiring" (July 10, reported by Ben Wear). The story related a classic bit of City of Austin sleight of hand, telling how Houston attorney Lee Godfrey was hired at $970 an hour to work on the city's suit against Houston Lighting & Power seven months before he was officially, you know, hired by a vote of the council and all that. A curious feature of the story was the emphasis on City Manager Jesus Garza; Bruce Todd's name did not appear. Of course, any City Hall regular will tell you that the chances of Garza taking such action without Todd's approval are nil. Whether Todd's absence from the story was the Statesman's doing or clever distancing on his part is hard to tell.

n Writing tends to seek its own level. In our town there is always a music tabloid that is willing to run with undulant sentence structure as long as your heart is in the right place. The free monthly Arena: A Compendium of Music and Multimedia is worth checking out; it is badly written, but with a certain style. From the July issue: "It would seem that, with all the options of modern TV watching, including a zillion channels, high-tech sound equipment and, most importantly, remote control, a guy like me (a big tater who never met a couch he didn't like) would be your basic pig-in-shit." That is from a piece on public access programming. Here is a lead from a music story, by a different writer working in a more subdued voice: "Over a year ago I met Calvin Russell, not as an entertainer, but as an individual."

Arena, it turns out, is devoted to a mode of discourse peculiar to this region, a sort of counterculture rhetoric deep-fried in folksy patois. And there is great news! Max Nofziger has signed on as their political columnist! "Election Reflections" is a classic of counter/fry, from the feeble rhyme of the headline to the details of Nofziger's ramble around Palmer Auditorium. The election-night narrative consumes about 1,500 words and the addendum about inauguration day goes on for about 500.

Along the way, Nofziger analyzes the race ("The `Pave-It-Over' PAC was pouring big bucks and lots of effort into taking over the council. This was their big chance..."), talks to Slusher consultant Mark Yznaga ("Sometimes Mark is edgy, anxious, but right now he seemed very calm, confident..."), cites his record ("In 1993, I got more than 52,000 votes compared to Daryl's 23,268..."), waxes on about clouds and air, and generally plays Good Old Max to the hilt. It is amusing, but patience has its limits. For the record: Next year, with four seats up for grabs, is the real estate faction's big chance; Mark Yznaga careens from nervous to serene all the time; and Nofziger racked up a big total in 1993 because his opponent had no backing.

Truly we are blessed to live in a place where wisdom is so inexpensive. n

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