Pop Culture Clash

January 15th, 2013 by Max Allan Collins

Starting about ten years after I graduated from college, I began having an experience that has repeated itself many times since: I would read some entertainment publication, perhaps Rolling Stone or Entertainment Weekly, and feel hopelessly out of touch with the popular culture around me. Since I make my living in pop culture, and have been a fan of pop culture since early childhood, this is distressing. I have prided myself, over the years, for being more connected to what was going on in entertainment than the average person of my advanced age (whatever that advanced age happened to be at the time…in this country, all ages past 35 are advanced).

That happened again to me over the weekend, as I sat down to read Entertainment Weekly’s 2013 preview issue. And my recurring problem – shared possibly by other purveyors of popular culture who aren’t in their twenties or early thirties – reasserted itself with a vengeance. I understand that the popular culture is fragmented. We don’t have, and haven’t had for some time, the kind of shared experience we once had – Elvis and the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, or the premiere episode of The Beverly Hillbillies, or opening week of Thunderball.

There are, obviously, some pop culture experiences of today that rival the shared experiences of the Twentieth Century. The Super Bowl and American Idol, for instance, neither of which I’ve ever seen, but have an awareness of because of their all-pervasiveness. Michael Jackson and Madonna were last gasps of the shared pop culture experience (and even they were not on an Elvis/Beatles level), as they were part of the MTV era that flowed out of the greater cable TV explosion that so fragmented our entertainment experience. I’m not saying this is a bad thing, just an undeniable thing. I don’t believe Lady GaGa has a pop cultural resonance on a level with Madonna, just as Madonna doesn’t have a pop cultural resonance on a level with the Beatles. (On the other hand, the Beatles were on a level with Elvis, just as Elvis was with Sinatra before him.)

But for a writer, even one who often deals with historical subjects, to lose touch with the pop culture is death. And at 64, I’ve reached that age the Beatles once sang about in relation to a distant old age, so I know death is also an undeniable thing. Yet somehow it chills to me read an issue of Entertainment Weekly and see so much I know little or nothing about.

What follows are rhetorical questions, and you may post answers if you like, but understand that’s not the nature of these questions.

Who the hell are Niall Horan and One Direction? Must I watch a show called GIRLS on HBO and endure “superawkward sexual encounters”? Why would anyone want a Blu-ray boxed set of the Jackson Five cartoon show? (Not understanding nostalgia may represent a hardening of the arteries in someone as drenched in nostalgia as I am.) Who the hell are Nick Kroll, Hunter Hayues, A$AP Rocky, Conor Maynard, and M83? Who are Campo, Chainz featuring Dolla Boy, and Arcade Fire (the last falls into a category that I would designate as Actually I Have Heard of Them But Have Never Knowingly Heard Their Music). Why are there so many TV stars I am unfamiliar with (Chris Coffer, Monica Potter, Season Kent, Manish Raval, Thomas Golubic)?

The reason I am posing these questions rhetorically is that if they were actual questions, the obvious answer to all of them is: I’m out of touch. But fragmentation is a mitigating factor, as is bad pop culture that a reasonable human shouldn’t be expected to endure. You make decisions, as you trudge through life, about certain things you aren’t going to put up with. For me, Rap/Hip Hop falls into that category, as does country western music. Both pander to our worst instincts, though I am aware that intelligent defenses can be made of various artists and specific works within those fields. Country western music gave us Patsy Cline, so it can’t be all bad. Rap is a travesty, and I refuse to call it “music” since at his core is a lack of melody. I know doggerel when I hear it – I am an English major, after all.

Not that there isn’t plenty in this issue of Entertainment Weekly that I’m familiar with – probably a good share of which would be unfamiliar to a lot of people my age. But this is that moment, which has repeated so many times in my life, where I feel the popular culture is rolling over me, flattening me like a steamroller in an old cartoon.

* * *

This weekend we saw two films, one of which (ZERO DARK THIRTY) will likely be among my favorites this year, and another (GANGSTER SQUAD) which will likely be among my least favorites. Despite the political squabbling (by parties with varying agendas) in the media over the use of torture, ZERO DARK THIRTY is a gritty, involving docu-drama reminiscent at times of the great BBC series SPOOKS (aka MI-5). The real-time Bin Laden raid is stellar filmmaking. By the way, if you lit a match under my foot, I would gladly give you the atomic bomb secrets. So maybe with some weak-willed persons, torture does work.

GANGSTER SQUAD is a handsomely mounted but incredibly dumb supposed look at Mickey Cohen’s reign as a mob boss in post-war LA. I have never seen a more inaccurate “true crime” film, which is essentially a sloppy, riciulously violent re-do of THE UNTOUCHABLES, with Sean Penn’s smirky, sneering one-note performance managing to be even less true to Mickey Cohen’s character than the moronic screenplay. I hate movies like this, because not only do they suck, but they usually flop and make it tough for good period crime movies (say, based on a Nate Heller novel) to happen. Though over the top and obvious, the art direction makes sumptuous eye candy, and Josh Brolin is very good as a Mike Hammer-ish cop. He would make an excellent Hammer. On the other hand, sleepy-eyed, whiny Ryan Gosling remains the opposite of charismatic, a walking void who sucks the life out of any scene he enters.

* * *

I spent the week doing my draft of a 12,000-word novella called “Antiques Slay Ride,” a Christmas-themed e-book being done as a promotion for the Trash ‘n’ Treasures series. It will appear, not surprisingly, toward the end of this year.

Congrats to Dan John Miller, who was selected as one of AudioFile Magazine’s “Voices of the Year” for his performance of FLYING BLIND. If you’re a Heller fan who listens to audios, I highly recommend Dan’s readings of all of the novels (yes, he’s done them all, and the short story collections, too). He really is Nate Heller.

Some nice Net reviews have rolled in of late, including this one on CHICAGO LIGHTNING.

And here’s a swell TARGET LANCER review.

Short but sweet, this review of SEDUCTION OF THE INNOCENT comes from the UK’s Crimetime site.

Speaking of the soon-to-be-published SEDUCTION, here’s some Goodreads reviews of the novel.

Here’s a review of the previous Jack and Maggie Starr mystery, STRIP FOR MURDER, with a fun discussion of Fearless Fosdick.

Finally, check out this perceptive review of BYE BYE, BABY, and you may want to read my comment posted below it.


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16 Responses to “Pop Culture Clash”

  1. Nathan Collins says:

    Yeah, I have to admit I don’t know most of those names, so I don’t think that’s entirely a generational thing. I’ve grown up with this fragmented pop culture my whole life — I don’t think I’ve ever read more than half of any issue of Entertainment Weekly, while skipping the rest as Things I’m Not Or Probably Wouldn’t Be Into And Are Therefore Not Worth My Time. And while I do enjoy reading EW, my edgy, cynical side would hasten to mention that any given issue is probably less about the current pulse of popular culture and more about what their advertisers want you to consume, so I wouldn’t sweat it too much.

    On the other hand, the barriers to find out more about bands and other pop cultural artifacts have become incredibly low. If you want to know who Arcade Fire is, or to hear A$AP’s “PMW (All I Really Need)”, or to see a clip of “Girls,” that’s just a Google search and a click away, and it’s free. With Netflix, I can read a recommendation of a movie and have it playing in minutes (within their somewhat limited and rotating selection, of course). It’s just that there’s so much out there now, that while it’s never been easier to branch out and explore and find more new things to like, the noise-to-signal ratio for any person’s tastes has also never been higher. The result, with me at least, is this odd mixture of a general cultural insulation with occasional ADD-style bouts of experimentation to redefine (or reinforce) my boundaries.

    (For the record, I guarantee you’ve seen Arcade Fire once or twice on SNL and DVR’d past them within the first 15 seconds, A$AP’s “PMW” is short for “Pussy Money Weed” and I absolutely *dare* you to look up the lyrics, and “Girls” is from the writer/director of TINY FURNITURE, a movie I’m sure you passed on but I Netflixed due to its Criterion pedigree, and likely features adrift, sexually awkward 20-30-somethings having snarky student-film-like arguments where everyone talks about what they are feeling right now. That last bit, by the way, is a loose genre of film called, I shit you not, mumblecore. Talk about fragmented pop culture!)

  2. Joe Menta says:

    Ah, just worry about what’s new in the world of books, not EVERY category of pop culture. That way you can keep up with the competition, and playfully try to top ’em. For example, I just read the Gillian Flynn thriller “Gone Girl” (after stupidly ignoring it when administrative assistants and other “mom” types around me recommended it, waiting until a trusted friend told me I should read it). What a terrific book– credible but unpredictable plotting, great second and third act twists, and the most successful use of the unreliable narrator device I’ve seen in years (in other words, when we eventually discover that it was used during a sizable portion of the book, we smile and lift our glass to the author, and don’t feel frustrated and cheated).

    Anyway, I thought of you when I read the book: “I wonder what Max would think of this, and what he’d do to top it”. But I know you don’t read a lot of the fresh, new competition out there, preferring to fulfill your deadlines and (like so many of us) read and re-read your own comfort-zone authors when you’re relaxing. But yeah– if you’re worrying about keeping current, I’d say just do it with books (you already pretty much do it with movies), so you can demonstrate (more often, anyway) that you can be just as clever and cutting-edge than the latest flavor of the month. But you have to know what people are raving about before you can improve on it.

    Glad to hear about Dan John Miller’s AudioFile recognition. As the AudioFile reviewer of “Flying Blind” (I’m reviewer “JPM”), I filed my review of the audio along with a brief note to the editor encouraging “Earphones Award” and other available recognition for Miller (I did the same when I reviewed another Heller or two title read by Miller). I hope I played a small part in his getting spotlighted by the magazine. The guy’s incredible: I’m still reeling from all those famous figures he brought to lfe in “Bye Bye Baby”– wow!

  3. Terry Beatty says:

    Thanks for saving me the ticket price on GANGSTER SQUAD. I’d been holding off seeing it until getting your view. Though I still can’t bring myself to see DJANGO UNCHAINED — no matter how highly recommended. Just can’t take Tarantino — especially when he’s IN the damn movie.

    I’ve been mystified by current pop culture for some time now. Not having cable and rarely watching broadcast TV probably has me even more out of the loop than you are! Watching Batman reruns and Svengoolie on MeTV don’t count much for keeping up with the new trends. Somehow I earn a living doing “retro” stuff — so that’s okay, I guess.

    I still say I could introduce you to plenty of C&W artists you’d like — but it’s all “roots” and “alt” performers — not the bland commercial junk Nashville has been selling to soccer moms for several decades now.

  4. patrick_o says:

    Max, I am 19 and have no idea who any of the people you mentioned are, with the exception of One Direction, and that’s because my 10-year old sister is in love with them. I still have no idea where the hell Kim Kardashian came from. So you’re not alone, and it’s probably not a generational thing after all.

    I was very suspicious of GANGSTER SQUAD. It was moved to January after it was initially scheduled for awards season, and that’s almost never a good sign.

    One of the things that keeps my blog alive is audiobooks, so I listen to a lot of them. (In fact, I’m on a mission to read all the 007 novels via audiobook for the next little while, using the new UK recordings from AudioGo. I love 007, but I have never gotten around to YOU ONLY LIVE TWICE and so have decided to let him go out with guns blazing.) Anyhow, I must agree that Dan John Miller is a brilliant reader. His reading of TRUE DETECTIVE really made it one of my favourite books of 2012 and so I put it on that list when I was doing my “year in review” bit.

  5. My son is now officially both a better writer than I am and smarter (well, the latter was official a long time ago).

    I don’t read new stuff, Joe, or very rarely do, because it’s not relaxing for me. And I am a natural mimic. I know I miss a lot of good stuff. I also know I’ll miss a lot of good stuff after I’m dead. So I focus on my work, and try to be an influence, not be influenced. The fiction I care about is the fiction I write. Very selfish, I know. But no other writers (except Barbara Collins, Mickey Spillane and Matthew Clemens) generate work that results in checks being sent to my house.

    Another aspect of why I don’t read new stuff (and most of the old stuff I “read” I am listening to on audio in the car) is that I have never been a reader who can read two books simultaneously. And the book I am writing is always the book I am “reading.” When I began my so-called career, I was a student and working intermitently on novels — BAIT MONEY, a book I would write in a month or so now, was written over a two year period; ditto NO CURE FOR DEATH and QUARRY. So in those days, I did lots of reading. As I’ve said elsewhere, I was reading George V. Higgins when I was working on BLOOD MONEY and realized his dialogue style was creeping into mine, and stopped reading the Higgins novel pronto. I have read very little contempoary mystery fiction since — mostly friends of mine like Gorman, Lutz and Randisi, and occasionally when I’ve served on awards committees. I read every 87th Precinct novel as it came out, and kept up with Westlake for many, many years. It’s just not fun for me — I read like an editor, not a writer. Though I’m a filmmaker, at least in a minor way, I don’t have that problem with watching films…I’m still learning, I guess.

    And I do keep up with the field to the extent that if somebody really, really hits big, I check them out. Seldom do I read the whole book, though. Usually a few chapters in, I see what they’re up to.

  6. Thanks to Terry (who is brave to suggest any form of country western that isn’t Patsy Cline would do anything but make me want to tear the limbs from small animals) for dropping by. He is one of the current kings of retro. Maybe he will live long enough to be a “past master of retro.” Not sure what that means, but it would be cool to be called that, I think.

    Patrick, I hope to do the same with Bond. Right now, though, I am navel-gazing and listening to the new audios of the Mallory, Disaster Novels, Regeneration, Midnight Haul and Bombshell. Dan reads Mallory and he makes the young me sound much better than I have any right to. He also read WAR OF THE WORLDS MURDER and it’s incredible — he nails John Houseman. Various other readers to the others, one of them a Bond reader (Simon Vance) who does HINDENBURG MURDERS. Haven’t got to that one yet.

    Audios are great. Stout is actually better listened to than read. Ditto Christie, probably because she was a playwright.

    Dan John Miller’s masterpiece, though, is the mammoth reading of STOLEN AWAY.

  7. Joe Menta says:

    Thanks for the candid reply, Max– very interesting peek into the Collins psyche.

    On an unrelated note, one of the GOOD things about our fragmented popular culture these days is that some things- especially TV shows- that HAD to appeal to a giant mass audience before only need a somewhat decent audience to succeed now. So, shows can take chances, have somewhat limited-appeal premises, and- in the case of crime and fantasy/horror shows, especially- not smooth over every grim-and-gritty aspect. Shows like “Justified” and “American Horror Story” are only two examples of the many adult, bracing TV shows that wouldn’t be around (at least, nowhere NEAR in their current form) if we still lived in the world of dominance by the three major networks.

  8. I agree wholeheartedly. It’s amazing what kind of series can stay on for multiple seasons on cable now. And the obscure stuff that shows up on DVD and Blu-ray…I never expected to see the 87the PRECINCT’s one season run to appear, and I’ve just read that a release of Bobby Darin’s variety show is in the works. Amazing!

  9. mike doran says:

    The whole “pop culture” thing has always left me on the outside, looking in.

    As a ’50s kid, I grew up here in Chicago with four TV stations, representing all the available networks.
    Consequently, I saw everything – encouraged by parents who watched everything.
    It led to a kind of disconnect with kids my own age. I almost never liked the things I was supposed to like; “kiddie shows” had little appeal for my brother and me. The “grown-up” shows – the westerns, the detective shows, the old movies – those were interesting and fun to watch.
    Moreover, since it was only twenty years span between the movies and the TVs, we saw the same actors in both, and were able to connect them (with a major assist from TV GUIDE).
    Then, when we started going to movies in theaters, same thing: just bigger, louder, and in color.
    See, back then nobody had heard of demographics. No one was in a niche. We all saw the same people, the same stories, the same music … nobody told us that we had to like this or that because we were “the right age” for it (ok, some people did, but we didn’t listen to them).
    I managed to hold on to this mindset as I got to be a teenager, which set me apart from others my age who bought into anything that sounded “new”; I was never into rock-n-roll or any of its successors. I never felt the need to adopt the latest fad, whether in fashion, grooming, or entertainment. I just went my own way, and that has stood me in good stead for most of my 62 years to date.

    Your bewilderment at the ever-more frequent profusion of “new faces” is a problem I’ve had for many years, and one I’ve learned to live with. They do seem to turn over faster now than they did Back In The Day, don’t they?
    *must … resist … urge to say … “by Crackey!” …*

    But I have to admit to what gets me the most:

    When I learn that somebody I enjoyed a lot as a kid is now 70 or 80-something years old – and starting to look it.
    MeTV does a lot of promos for their shows featuring kid actors from the 50s and 60s who are now eligible for AARP membership.
    Now THAT can bring you down.

    In terms of the Generation Gap, a true story:

    Some guys in my office have a Dead Pool going, guessing when celebrities are going to die.
    A couple of years back, I mentioned to one of them that James Arness had just died.
    Bob (about 35 years old then) said “I’ve never heard of James Arness.”
    I looked at him askance.
    “Marshal Dillon on GUNSMOKE! Jeez, Bob, you’re not THAT young!”
    I didn’t bother him with Peter Falk a few weeks later.

    I may have more to add to this as the week goes on.

    Meanwhile, good news: NO ONE CAN HEAR YOU has been delivered!
    But now I see that I gotta get one of those E-book gizmos to get your newer, shorter stuff …

    *not fair*not fair*not fair*

  10. Fred Blosser says:

    I see Mike Doran’s 5 and raise him 10. A while back, I asked three of the young ladies on my staff if they knew what a 45 was — and not the Mike Hammer kind. The two youngest (28 and 32) really had no idea; only the oldest, 43, correctly identified it as shorthand for “45-rpm vinyl record.” As a 10-year-old, she would have been part of the last generation of kids who purchased 45s in record stores. Come to think of it, also the last who shopped in something called a “record store.” We’re seeing the fastest evolution in everyday technology since World War I, and popular culture seems to be moving at the same velocity, maybe because the technology of entertainment is one with the content of entertainment.

    It used to take Hollywood at least 30 years to remake movies; now SPIDERMAN is rebooted in less than a decade. (But the studios remain consistent in one thing: Andrew Garfield doesn’t look any more like a teenager than Tobey Maguire did — or Pat Boone in APRIL LOVE or BERNARDINE, for that matter.) I blame John Hughes for skewing Hollywood’s audience demographic younger and younger toward the junior high set in the 1980s with his crappy movies built around smart-ass, suburban white kids. The late Bosley Crowther probably would have said that the damage began in 1967 when BONNIE AND CLYDE resonated with a demographic born after the Great Depression and WWII. Meanwhile, Hollywood tosses the codgers a bone every now and then with DVD sets of dimly-remembered old TV series. THE 87TH PRECINCT, my god!

  11. Thanks to my buddy Mike Doran for these great comments, and also my old friend Fred Blosser (one of the first fans I ever had contact with) for his equally insightful ones.

    Interestingly, in the early days of movies, films were often remade within even five or six years of the original. Look at THE MALTESE FALCON for example, as well as FAREWELL, MY LOVELY and THE BRASHER DOUBLOON (just to name famous tough mystery titles). But in those days, there was no TV and a movie came and went in a matter of days. So recycled material didn’t seem too conspicuous.

  12. mike doran says:

    Just this morning, I took delivery from Crippen & Landru of SHOOTING HOLLYWOOD, Melodie Johnson Howe’s colection of her Diana Poole stories from EQMM.

    Melodie Johnson Howe calls herself “the last of the starlets”, having held that position at Universal Pictures from the mid-’60s.
    Diana Poole is her amateur detective/alter ego, who tries to keep an acting career going into middle age.

    Looking through the book, I noted her intro to a story titled “The Talking Dead”.
    MJH tells of getting the idea for the story from accidently seeing herself in an old BEWITCHED episode from years before – and then realizing that all the other actors in the episode had died.

    Given our subject matter here, you might say that this resonated.
    I recall that this came up when we spoke at the Centuries & Sleuths signing last month.
    And it seems to be more and more on my mind all the time.

    I don’t know how many of you here visit the MYSTERY*FILE blog, run by Steve Lewis.
    I’m commenting there much of the time, usually in colloquy with a guy named Michael Shonk.
    Our shared subject is usually Crime TV, ancient and modern; we routinely smother each other (and the other readers of the blog) with ever more arcane info on this vital subject.
    My TV GUIDE collection comes into frequent play here. When I start looking things up, to confirm what I’m saying to Shonk, I can get easily derailed by stories of “future stars” who turned out not to have one (or at least not the one they figured on).
    Meanwhile, I have been known to sneak a look at the supermarket tabloids (just for a peek – I don’t actually buy them or anything), as part of my “due diligence” in keeping somewhat current.
    So when you write here of “new superstars” that you’ve never heard of, keep in mind that you very likely won’t hear of many of them again.

    I seem to have lost my thread here, so I’ll regroup and come back later.

    Meanwhile, feel free to check out MYSTERY*FILE Blog.
    And if you’re curious enough, look up my grand debut/swan song as an Internet Movie Critic, in which I review ALIAS THE CHAMP (Republic 1949), the only movie featuring Gorgeous George.
    *I triple dog dare you*

  13. Gerard Saylor says:

    Any thoughts on what you would read if you were to take a writing break? Re-read old favorites, check out new authors? Maybe a writing break seems impossible to you.

  14. Gerard Saylor says:

    To clarify, do you read very little fiction in general or just mystery fiction?

  15. I am most often reading non-fiction that is related to one of my books. But I also read collections of classic comic strips, like RIP KIRBY, WASH TUBBS, ORPHAN ANNIE, LI’L ABNER. I read lots of show business related books, most recently the excellent THE ENTERTAINER, which is the biography of actor Lyle Tablot by his daughter, a terrific writer — Talbot, never a huge star, was active in just about every phase of show biz in the twentieth century, from carnivals and travelling play companies to co-starring with Bette Davis at Warner Bros, acting for Ed Wood, and playing stooge to Ozzie Nelson — wonderful book. I have the new book by Herman Wouk waiting to be read, the ninety-something author of CAINE MUTINY and WINDS OF WAR…excellent writer, still at it, God bless him. I also have waiting to be read the first of a series of reprints of the until-now impossible to find original Zorro stories by Johnston McCulley — it’s lunacy that these have never been widely reprinted. I also recently read THE COCKTAIL WAITRESS, which I’d read in manuscript but this was Charles Ardai’s revision based on several versions of Jame M. Cain’s final novel. So I read a lot, actually.

  16. I should add that I do occasionally read a mystery. I loved Bob Goldsborough’s ARCHIE MEETS NERO WOLFE. I am so pleased that Bob is writing these again, and am pleased to report that he’s completed another one.