Confession Of A Life Competence Failure

If you are going to be a competent member of society, it is important to follow the popular culture in addition to current events. I have always been a pop culture omnivore, watching TV shows I found barely interesting, listening to music I didn’t like, seeing as many movies as I could, and following sports I hated. I viewed with alarm my contemporaries who assiduously ignored what their children and their children’s friends were watching and who they cared about. This is how you become irrelevant, and also incompetent. A culture has many features, and affects everything: the analogy of an individual in a culture being like a fish in water is apt. All of these people, ideas and events surrounding us that we see as trivial and silly have a massive effect on the rest of our lives, and we ignore them at their peril.

Yet today I have to confess that despite what I thought were my best efforts to keep up with popular culture, it has whizzed by me. There are a lot of reasons, social media being a major one. Another is no longer having a teen in the house, but the reasons don’t matter. It is a citizen’s duty to make sufficient efforts to know and understand the culture of his or her nation, because without that understanding, a citizen is making decisions within that culture on outdated, partial, or just bad information. That is incompetent and irresponsible.

I give myself a pop culture test every six months or so. Today, I used WeSmirch, an online aggregator of celebrity news. It was horrifying. I never heard of most of these people. Those I have heard of seem completely irrelevant to me. Almost all of the important people in thse stories seem to be morons, famous for being famous, illiterate, notable mostly for being rich. The so-called “news,” breathless shouted from various headlines, seemed less than inconsequential. And yet this is what a rising generation cares about.

Here is a typical headline from this morning: “Vanessa Morgan’s son is called River.” Who is Vanessa Morgan? Who cares what her son is named? It turns out that she is an actress on “Riverdale,” a TV show based on the comic book whose appeal I never understood (but I read the damn thing so I knew what my friends were reading). Oddly, I do know something about River’s father, Michael Kopech, because he pitches for the Chicago White Sox, and once was a Red Sox pitching prospect.

Perusing the many articles and supposedly important celebrity news, I saw these names I could identify (unlike Ms. Morgan, who is, naturally, estranged from her newborn son’s father, as almost none of these celebrities think having a stable, two-parent marriage is a big deal because they are inexplicably rich, hence corrupting the values of their fans, who are not. Vanessa Morgan is also black, thus contributing in her own irresponsible way to the general mass shrug of the black community regarding two parent families):

  • Kopech
  • Tom Brady, the despicable NFL quarterback about to play in another Super Bowl
  • Rebel Wilson, the obese comic actress who lost a hundred pounds in 2020, which will prove good for her health but fatal to her career
  • Gigi Hadad, a model, and I have no idea why I know that.
  • Donald Trump
  • Actress Michelle Williams
  • Ryan Seacrest, the “American Idol” host
  • Rupert Grint, Ron Weasly in the “Harry Potter” films (saw every one, was bored stiff by the last five)
  • M. Night Shyamalan, the creepy movie director (he’s not creepy, just his films)
  • Chrissy Tiegen, another model
  • Kim Kardashian
  • Dustin Diamond, “Screech” on “Saved by the Bell,” who is now dead.
  • Queen Elizabeth and Prince Harry.
  • Cardi B, a rapper and social media star.

That’s fifteen. Now here are the supposedly important celebrities I couldn’t pick out of a line-up:

  • Katie Price, a celebrity dulcimer player or a model (above). I never heard of either of them.
  • Jacob Busch, an heir to the Anheuser-Busch fortune
  • Rachel Lindsay, a former “Bachelorette”
  • Clare Crawley, a runner-up in one season of “The Bachelor”
  • Dale Moss, a former NFL player, and male model.
  • Emerald Fennell and Olivia Wilde, both female film directors
  • Alice Evans, a British actress
  • Phoebe Bridgers, a singer
  • Sia, another singer. I’m pretty sure I once knew more about her.
  • Nikki Reed, the “BaYou with Love” founder, whatever that is…
  • Ian Somerhalde, who played a character on “Lost”
  • Emma Corrin, whom I saw play Diana in the last season of “The Crown,” but thought she was lousy so I paid no attention to her name…
  • Harry Styles, an actor in “Dunkirk,” which I also quickly erased from my data base because it was also lousy
  • James Charles, the “make-up mogul”
  • Tyler Reks, a retired pro wrestler
  • Actress Alisha Wainwright

That’s seventeen. I bet the average 20-something knows all but a couple of these, maybe all of them. Next time I take the test, I might be a 30% or less. When all the celebrities are strangers, I will have reached the dreaded stage of my uncle, who got the Beatles mixed up with the Rolling Stones, and the codgers today who talk about the internet like it’s some new-fangled fad.

And at that point, I will be useless.

32 thoughts on “Confession Of A Life Competence Failure

  1. Ian Somerhalder I would have recognized because of LOST, but he hasn’t done much, if anything, else that I’m aware of. Olivia Wilde I do pay attention to every time I see something about her. She immediately made an impression on me as one of Dr Gregory House’s 2nd group of interns on the show “House”. She’s had a few roles here or there (Tron Legacy) but it’s clear she wants to be a director. Most notably 2019’s Booksmart.

    If there’s one from the “unknown” list to pay attention to, it’s Olivia Wilde.

    • I enjoyed Olivia Wilde on “House.” She’s very cute. I thought Aaron Rogers dated her, but he dated Olivia Munn. Hah. I also got a huge kick out of Hugh Laurie’s American accent. But I mostly enjoyed Robert Sean Leonard’s playing Wilson. Although the show became pretty predictable. Anaphylactic shock, you know.

  2. Good luck keeping up with it! It’s quite splintered now. My kids are all Gen “Z”. My oldest kid is on Snapchat and tick tock- are you? Nearly all the kids are. To keep up, you must be on these two sites. She is sad Marilyn Manson and Morgan Wallen were cancelled. My other kid has zero tolerance for silliness and isn’t on social media at all as a participant I don’t know how many have complexity shunned social media. I assume there’s more than just my kid who have. Very few of her friends are “active” on it. To be in the “know” become familiar with Minecraft, the Zelda games and their history, animal crossing, and Mark Roeber, found on YouTube. Makeup guru Jeffery Star. You never mention video games as part of pop culture. It’s a mistake. They are. One really popular one was Fortnite, know anything about it?
    I’m going to be honest here, imo the media who makes these lists also know nothing about Gen Z. They think they know, and isn’t that a dangerous place to be? Millennials are in their 30’s now, or close to. Gen Z begins at about 24 years old.
    They don’t watch movies. They don’t listen to radio. They have Spotify, they have their own playlists. They watch YouTube clips of “americas got talent”. They want the nonsense to stop. They can all sing to Bon Jovi. They caused gamestop. It’s hilarious. They’re jaded and very tech savvy. They’re not sure they want to go to college because it’s so expensive. They absolutely hate Michelle Obama and are shockingly familiar with political figures. They all watched Sponge Bob Square Pants, played Fortnite, Wii, Mariokart and Minecraft and watched silly cat videos on YouTube. They’ve seen Frozen (Ugh!) and at least one or two of the Avengers movies. They were probably the most impacted by the lockdowns as a whole.
    Even for me, video games are more than a blip. It is common ground. I don’t know what other areas are like, but that is the culture here, with my kids and their friends, who may or may not be “normal”. I’m leaning towards likely not since they have never been to the Ocean and the school they attend has no art, music, science fairs, or soccer.

    • Yep, our boy went from a PS2 to a PS4. I know the names Crash Bandicott, Spyro and Final Fantasy Whatever They’re Up To Now. I learned Pokemon til he turned to Digimon and then had to get used to Yi-Gi-Oh! Now my young nephews play Minecraft.

      It’s hard enough keeping up with the interests of the ones I love, much less obligating myself to keep up with the interests of every other teen in the country, too.

      • I leaned about Black Butler, Pokemon and more recently the newest Zelda releases. I asked my oldest and she assured me she’s an “uncultured swine” however, she doesn’t know any more people on the list than Jack does. I know less than both of you. I haven’t made it my “duty” to be self aware of the culture, I don’t think there is a universal culture like there was in the 80’s. Last year I decided to read the books that included catch phrases. Like 1984 “Big Brother is watching”. I read that. Next is Catch-22.

    • “Good luck keeping up with it! It’s quite splintered now.”

      I think this is the key. There is no popular culture now, in the sense of a low-brow but shared culture. Everything is niche culture. The most popular TV show (aside from football) is watched by about 5% of the population.

      • I agree. Everything is “niche”. Although Minecraft is probably the closest to universal for Gen Z. They don’t watch TV series or movies. They simply don’t. If you try to gauge them by TV, you’ll miss 100% of the time. I, as a parent, canceled Dish because we never watched it. We try to have them watch a few we liked. They’ve watched “support your local sheriff” they’ve seen “Ghostbusters”. We all like Corner Gas, which is hilarious although not popular.

    • Millennials are pretty splintered, as well. Everyone knows about a specific subset of millennials because they spend every waking second on social media telling everyone everything they they think and do. There is an older subsection of millennials who grew up before the AOL revolution made the internet ubiquitous, and for whom social media, smartphones and online life didn’t occur until they were in their 20’s. Some of this splinter would like to be reclassified as gen x to escape association with their younger counterparts who are so woke it is sickening. These millennials are closer to 40 than 30.

      Video games are definitely a huge part of popular culture for both millennials and gen z, as is YouTube. Minecraft and Fortnight are probably the two biggest ones, but there are “smaller” games with millions of people playing them. Terraria, Smash Brothers, Dark Souls, and Diablo are all part of pop culture that the younger generations would recognize. There just aren’t many video game “celebrities” to stick on a pop culture quiz.

      • I agree with all you said. The 90’s likely had the last generational hurrah with tickle me Elmo toys and Greenday and other mainstream music, Daria, Seinfeld and Titanic. Since the adoption of the internet and youtube there isn’t a overarching culture movement. As far as books, I think Warriors came closest to Harry Potter. Perhaps the “I survived” series.

  3. You put too much on yourself. I don’t consider keeping up with most of the people on that list as being a life competence issue. Life competence is knowing how to write a check, mail a letter, drive a car, do laundry, hail a cab or other essentials. Pop culture knowledge is a very minimal part of life competence…in my humble opinion, of course.

    My life is too short to waste on films, television and music I know I won’t like. I work and have other responsibilities to my family and my community. When I have free time, I want to watch something that interests me. Sure, I’ve been surprised. The day I tasted my first oyster was a delightful surprise. I’ve been surprised by films I thought I wouldn’t like and have equally been disappointed in films I thought I would like.

    But there’s a difference between an entertainment choice that turned out better or worse than expected and burdening yourself with media in which you have little to no interest. Unless Cardi B carves out a place for herself in Congress or as a NASA astronaut, her culture relevance is going to last about as long as anyone else’s name on that list you didn’t recognize. Fewer celebrities than ever are going to achieve a Span-the-Generation name recognition like Bob Hope or John Wayne did. Even then, the star eventually fades until now there is a whole generation that wouldn’t recognize either of the latter.

    So I’m not going to listen to rap. Period. I will use my time to listen to Grieg or Mozart or Barry Manilow. I’m not wasting my free time listening to music I’ve heard enough of to know it’s not for me. I don’t need to know who the latest rapping sensation is to live my life anymore than I need to know who is modeling clothing impossible for me to wear. I don’t want to watch “The Big Bang Theory” nor do I want to spend my valuable time and money on a Wes Anderson film.

    My free time is spent doing what I consider to be worth it. Yours should be, too. You are not any less competent at life by not knowing who the latest YouTube influencer is…in fact, you’re probably more competent by not knowing.

    • Excellent comment, A.M. I agree with what you wrote, except for that part where you extolled oysters’ virtue. I simply can’t abide an oyster. I must be missing something but I don’t intend to find out what.

      We have a 16 year old son. He doesn’t watch television with us but he surfs Snapchat, YouTube, and “The Trailer Park Boys”. (That last one is on me. I was watching them when Bubbles was building his cat food mountain because he had to go to jail for a bit to pay for his thieving and misdemeanoring ways and he thought it was funny.)

      Cultural literacy to me is knowing what the trends are, not every name on People Magazine’s list of important faces. I gauge where the culture by listening to my son’s conversations with his friends why playing X-Box. I find it comforting to hear that his generation wants nothing to do with George Floyd.


      • I never thought I’d like oysters myself. But that’s the thing. We are free to enjoy what we like and not obligated to endure what we don’t like. Why should you put yourself through eating oysters just so you can say you are a culinary literate.

        Your point about trends is on the mark. I have no problem with trends, but that doesn’t mean I should have to wade into the middle of them to be hit by every minor ripple they develop.

  4. I recognized all of your first list except Kopech, Rupert Grint (I saw him in the Harry Potter films but never bothered to learn his name), and Dustin Diamond.

    I have heard the names of Dale Moss (I think I even knew he was a football player but not a male model), Ian Somerhalde, and Harry Styles. The rest were just words on a page. I don’t think any of this qualifies as recognition, as I would not know any of them by name if the came up and said “Hello” to me.

    So I guess you and I both are gradually becoming culturally illiterate. Thank God for my wife, who keeps up with popular culture for some reason. She would probably recognize all of them.

  5. I’d like to add some extra context. Clare Crawely and Dale Moss are probably mentioned, because Clare was The Bachelorette, for a part of the season, last season, and Dale was the contestant that she chose. Their happily ever after just recently ended, getting a lot of media attention.
    Harry Styles is better know as a pop singer, formerly part of “One Direction”, and now a solo artist. He recently caused a controversy by posing for a fashion magazine, or some such, in womens’ clothing.

  6. There is more of everything now. If you’re old enough, think of things like candy bars and cereal, and even common grocery items, like mayonnaise, that you remember from childhood, and compare what you see, and all the variants, available in each category now to the list you made from memory. Now add in the NEW things that didn’t even exist (or weren’t commonly available) before. Culture is the same way…abetted by the ability to access most of it on a whim. No one can be omniscient.

    If you want to beat yourself up and add to your list of “who the hell are these people?”, Go to any article on the Daily Mail site and scroll the clickbait bits of “celebrity” news on the right. See if you recognize more than 50% of the names (Rupert Grint [I knew that one] and Vanessa Morgan [nope] are in there today!).

  7. For the most part, I consider pop culture to be banal and sophomoric. I cut the cable TV cord two years ago. When I have to stay in a hotel and surf the TV selections available on local/cable channels, my decision to cut them from my life is underscored.

  8. I am frequently saddened by how much older popular culture is unknown to my 22-year-old coworker. When I was 22, I was totally competent to discuss the pop culture from my brother’s generation (11 years my senior) and older, and could name names. This young woman has heard of Star Wars but has never seen ANY of them.

    That said, life IS too short, as someone here noted, to keep up with, for instance, people who are famous for being famous.

    Jack, you are too brilliant to worry about this garbage. (This is not pandering.) You report on, analyze, and provoke discussion about important things and people who inarguably span generations. And for the rest… silence. (I challenge the pop culture mavens to get that reference)

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