Newsletter 159: The Lost Art of a Shared Pop Cultural History

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I’ve decided to start putting some of the best newsletter essays here on Medium, so more people can read them. You’re still better off just subscribing. This one is from May 2019, about that long-gone time in history when everyone was experiencing the same thing at once.

When running down Milledge Avenue in Athens this week, I came across a woman wearing a “Save Ferris” T-shirt. It was just that basic T-shirt that you can get anywhere. Amazon can have it to your door by Sunday.

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When I was a kid, we had five movies that my sister and I watched over and over. My parents bought blank VHS tapes and took them over to my Uncle Ron’s house, the only person we knew who had cable, so we would have some movies to watch that summer, a summer my parents knew they’d be working heavily and wouldn’t be home for us as often as they might have liked. (We lived out in the country, where cable wasn’t available. Ron’s patience for his brother-in-law and nephew coming over to watch Cardinals-Braves games on TBS was apparently infinite.) Ron spent a day recording the movies on HBO for us and then labeling them in black magic marker on a sticker outside of the VHS tape. You remember, like this:

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And then we watched those same five movies over and over, basically for the next three months. My sister and I, to this day, can mostly recite these five movies by heart. They are:

  • Clue
  • The Golden Child
  • Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
  • Short Circuit
  • Superman II

For those three years, when we were home all summer and could no longer play outside in the sweltering Central Illinois heat and humidity, we watched those five movies, and only those five movies. Occasionally some neighborhood kids came by, but mostly it was just the two of us, trying not to fight with each other, in that house by ourselves, watching those same five movies. For that summer, those five movies constituted all of American culture, and the only people, as far as I knew, who saw or understood those movies were my sister and I. I had no place to find out if anyone else had seen them, or who they actors were in them, or what their lives were like. As far as I knew, they made the movies specifically so my sister and I could watch them. It was as close as you could get to culture in a vacuum.

I did not know at the time — and could have had no way of knowing — that I was in fact having a shared cultural experience, that millions of other kids like me were all watching Superman II, or Clue, or The Goonies, or Revenge of the Nerds. We were all having a collective generational moment, all in our studies or living rooms or bedrooms, watching old VCR tapes while our parents tried to make sense of the increasingly ominous world that swirled around us. I had no idea that was happening. I was just arguing with my sister about what movie we were gonna watch next.

I never knew there was a whole other world out there, and other people who cared about what I cared about, until I went to college. You’d see someone else with the Reservoir Dogs poster on their dorm wall, or hear them playing “Exile in Guyville” on their CD changer, and there would be instant recognition: That person is like me. There are others like me. I remember the early days of the Web, of alt.newsgroups, when you could go to to discover that it hadn’t just been me staying up late and taking notes on Dave’s best jokes, of noting which guests had which ongoing gags. It was thrilling. I had felt alone. But I wasn’t, and I never was. There were people sitting around and watching with me that whole time. But I think it’s better, in retrospect, that I didn’t know that.

When I think about Generation X, a big topic this week (and another reminder that Choire Sicha is a genius), that’s what I think about: Being, essentially, the last generation that didn’t know it was living collectively. I remember what life was like before I had an email address. I remember sending a message to someone in Australia and getting it returned in a matter of seconds and being absolutely blown away by this. I remember discovering something and having no idea if I was the first person to ever come across it. I remember not knowing the answer to a question and having to sit there in the mystery instead of just looking it up. I remember all my feelings being genuinely, distinctly mine, without worrying about how they held up to hive-mind scrutiny, without wondering whether they would be considered cliched because someone else had gone through them before. I remember being able to learn things in private, on my own time, at my own dumb speed.

When I went to college, I heard about the band Save Ferris, probably most famous for their cover of “Come On Eileen.” I didn’t really care for Save Ferris that much; I preferred my alt-rock less ska-tinged, all told. But it blew my mind that there was a band called Save Ferris. Somewhere in California, a quarter of the planet away from a Mattoon, Illinois living room, 10 years earlier, the members of that band had been watching “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off,” just like I had, and knew their band name would be knowing wink to those of us who had loved that movie and thought we were the only ones, just as that T-shirt, which can be at your door by Sundat through Amazon, is commoditizing that same knowing wink. I miss that knowing wink. I miss stealthily finding a kindred spirit. Young people now experience everything in public. They can know, instantaneously, that any thought they have is shared by millions of people they can connect with whenever they desire. They have the world at their beck and call. And I bet this makes them feel more alone than we ever did.

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