Consider: Can you recite a poem, any poem? Chances are, at some point during your formal education, some well-intentioned lit teacher figured that memorization of a sonnet or the beginning of The Canterbury Tales would be enlightening and ennobling. So you committed those words to memory. And I suspect that unless this occurred last week, you’re riffing after the first line or two. It’s gone.
Consider: Can you recite the lyrics to the theme song for “Gilligan’s Island”? How about “The Brady Bunch”? Chances are, you’ve got them nailed. . .and if you don’t then odds are exceedingly good that you’re able to find someone who can fill in the blanks.
A question that consequently arises is whether the TV lyricists are better writers than Shakespeare or Chaucer. Of course, that question is absurd. I hope. I would suggest that if you have an independent, non-school-driven interest in a particular writer, then you’ll be able to roll off long passages of Tennyson or Ginsberg or whomever. The TV jingles have the general characteristics of being something that is repeatedly heard and simple. (If you think about it, you’re probably able to recite “Mary Had a Little Lamb.” Same thing.)
The BBC has conducted a poll of some 30K Brits, asking them to name the 100 greatest of their countrypeople of all time. The list contains the Fab Four minus one (sans Ringo—natch), Boy George (who is currently performing in London’s West End: as for the rest of the cultured club, it’s not clear), and Bono (who might take slight exception to the inclusion, given that he’s Irish, but then again, when has he every shied away from some pub—as in publicity, that is?). Even Johnny Rotten makes the cut.
While some people might feel a bit of vindication seeing these people on the list, as though it provides some sort of justification (e.g., “Rock not only rocks, it is as important as that guy who discovered gravity—whatever his name is. I think his mom named him after a cookie.”), I suggest it is far from the case. Rather, it is nothing more than the TV jingle syndrome: We know who we know from absorbing information about things that interest us. Quick, who discovered hydrogen, the most-abundant element in the universe? Chances are, you don’t give a damn about that;consequently, the name Henry Cavindish means nothing to you. (“Ah, what band is he in, the Plasmas?”)
What is striking to me is that I discovered the item about the BBC list in the “People” section of the Dallas Morning News (not my morning read, but something that I picked up while there, a point I make because of the following: maybe this is just something that happens in the Friday editions of that paper). Generally, the “People” section of my hometown rags include a potpourri of Celebs. But in this case, each item had something to do with pop music: the aforementioned list (headlined “Brits’ favorites include Diana, a Beatle or two”); one on whether Michael Jackson has a third child; an accident report related to Cyndi Lauper (trooper she is, after falling on stairs, she went on to perform, opening for Cher); an item about Willie Nelson, who appears in the current issue of Modern Maturity; an item about why Paul McCartney won’t be at the Kennedy Center awards; a recap of Britney’s revelations in People; an item indicating that Tony Bennett and Queen Latifah would be involved in the opening ceremony at the U.S. Open; and a photo of Robert Plant signing the hood of a Cadillac CTS, as part of Caddy’s centennial. (Damn. Couldn’t get out of this without a car reference, it seems.)
All of which seems to say to me that pop performers are becoming too much with us.