Archive for the ‘Popular Culture’ Category

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Getting Covered

posted: 1.22.15 by Jack Solomon

Perhaps someday books will no longer have covers, but until then the physical packaging by which a book is presented to the world remains an interesting, if rather specialized, topic for semiotic exploration.

Some book covers are famous—like the original artwork for The Great Gatsby, which actually influenced Fitzgerald’s composition of his novel.  Others are notorious, like those that adorn the covers of Harlequin Romances.  Sometimes covers are designed simply to let the reader know what to expect, but more often they are marketing devices intended to appeal to a reader’s interests, curiosity, aesthetic tastes, or desires. [read more]

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Categories: Jack Solomon, Popular Culture, Semiotics, Signs of Life in the U.S.A., Visual Rhetoric
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Semiotics Begins at Home

posted: 12.4.14 by Jack Solomon

The practice of popular cultural semiotics has much in common with both anthropology and sociology: after all, cultural semiotics, too, analyzes human behavior.  But it is important to point out that there are a number of methodological differences that distinguish the semiotic from the sociological or anthropological approaches, one of which I wish to explain here. [read more]

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Categories: Jack Solomon, Popular Culture, Semiotics
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On the Road

posted: 5.31.12 by Jack Solomon

So Jack Kerouac’s iconic novel On the Road has finally (more than a half century after Marlon Brando changed his mind about starring in the first of many projected movie renditions of the story) made it to the screen. Far and away Kerouac’s best-known and most popular book, On the Road is a very useful for teaching popular cultural semiotics, not only because of its enduring appeal to college age students but because of the crucial role it played in shaping the youth culture America has become.

Ironically, it rather annoyed Kerouac to find that his break-through novel, published in 1957, would become one of the chief how-to texts of the sixties’ counter culture. Himself a member of what is now fondly known as “the Greatest Generation,” Kerouac had no affection for the baby-booming hippies who transformed the Beat vision into a mass cultural movement. It was Allen Ginsberg, not Kerouac, who avidly crossed generations to become the Pied Piper of the Age of Aquarius. Kerouac was a supporter of the Vietnam War effort, a friend of William F. Buckley Jr., and a jazz aficionado who resented rock-and-roll.

But the fact remains that it was On the Road (published in 1957), more than any other Beat text, that inspired the cultural revolution of the 1960s, and little wonder that it should have. Appealing to a fundamental American mythology of the freedom of mobility and of endless horizons, the book also appealed to a pampered generation of baby boomers who found in its rejection of conventional adult responsibilities a model for the extension of their own youth, a delaying of maturity that continues to this day in the ongoing evolution of America’s youth culture—a culture centered in pleasure and entertainment. [read more]

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Categories: Popular Culture
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It’s a Conspiracy

posted: 4.5.12 by Jack Solomon

Thanks to interactive digital technology, it is now possible to appraise social attitudes and moods without having to conduct formal surveys or interviews. In fact, because of the combined effects of online anonymity and keyboard courage, the information we can gather simply by reading the comments appended to Internet news stories is likely to be more honest—if far more uncivil—than anything we could find through direct conversation. And since what happens in popular culture reflects to a significant degree the social ambience in which it appears, it’s useful to keep abreast of the online commentary wars when preparing to perform a cultural semiotic analysis.

What has particularly caught my eye recently (I mean beyond the ubiquitous signs that the racial situation in this country is, to say the very least, fraught) is the inevitable response to every news story reporting on a Republican primary in which Ron Paul has failed to win another ballot. Even when Paul comes in at 5 to 7 percent of the vote, a number of people are bound to insist that he had obviously won the vote in a landslide and that once again the ballot had been tampered with by a ubiquitous double team of the Republican “oligarchy” and the “liberal media.” In short, the claim is consistently made that there is a conspiracy against Ron Paul. [read more]

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Categories: Popular Culture
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Rush

posted: 3.22.12 by Jack Solomon

Rush Limbaugh’s notorious screed against Sandra Fluke (the precise terms of which I have no intention of compounding by repeating here) offers a striking signifier of the way in which politics and entertainment have become enmeshed within what I call America’s entertainment culture. For beyond the appalling personal attack, misogynistic undertones, and apparent display of medical ignorance, what this story reveals is what can happen when entertainers, who traditionally have been governed by a behavioral code that is looser than the codes that govern politicians, become political leaders in their own right.

The political rise of entertainers—as entertainers, rather than as performers who choose to enter electoral politics like Ronald Reagan and Al Franken—has been unfolding ever since talk radio emerged as a political force some decades ago. Statistically, but not wholly, a phenomenon of the right, talk radio and its televised offspring have produced such voices as Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck, men who have never held political office themselves but who wield considerable power, as evidenced by conservative pundit George Will’s remark that in the wake of Limbaugh’s breach of common decency few Republicans appeared to have the courage to seriously condemn it. [read more]

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Categories: Popular Culture
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The Political Significance of the Oscar Awards

posted: 3.8.12 by Jack Solomon

6754829763_7eba44f8d1_mA student in my semiotics of popular culture class has asked me whether I thought that the largely white, male Academy failed to award an Oscar to Viola Davis because they couldn’t stand to see a sweep of the actress awards by black women. Such a question merits a seriously considered answer, and I think that this blog is a good place to provide one.

First, while I do not pretend to be able to read the minds of the Academy voters, I am certainly aware of the growing controversy over their demographic make-up, and while I do not think it impossible that they were influenced in their voting by their own racial instincts, I think it more likely that they turned to Meryl Streep as they have always turned to Meryl Streep: that is, as a symbol of solid acting excellence in an industry largely devoted to action-packed, special-effects driven entertainment aimed mostly at adolescents. In other words, I’m with Neal Gabler of the Los Angeles Times, who recently argued that the candidates for best picture (including The Artist, which, of course, won) reflect a combination of self-loathing (for all of the low cultural stuff that Hollywood usually produces) and nostalgia (for movies that reflect high-art values or high moral purpose) among the Academy voters, who assuage their consciences by voting for the few high-art or high moral purpose movies that come along in a given year. [read more]

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Categories: Popular Culture
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The Super Bowl Lang Syne

posted: 2.23.12 by Jack Solomon

Ever since the first edition of Signs of Life in the USA, the Super Bowl has been a lively topic for my semiotic attention. Indeed, in the seventh edition of the book, I analyze the office-theme trend that I found in the advertising for Super Bowls XLIII and XLIV for the introduction to “Brought to You B(u)y: The Signs of Advertising.” (By the way, is there anyone else here who wishes that they would give up that Roman numeral stuff: it’s getting very old.) Which takes me to the topic for this blog.

[No, not the advertising for Super Bowl XLVI. I found that to be rather undistinguished and semiotically bland. There’s always the Eastwood-for-Chrysler flap, of course, but all I’ll say about that is that its failure to even mention Barack Obama could just as easily been interpreted as a snub to the president in the way that it pretended that all of America came together to save the American auto industry when, in fact, Obama stuck his neck out to save Detroit and was clobbered (by proxy) in the 2010 election for doing so.

It’s also true that the vaporizing vampires were cute, but everything I have to say about vampires is in the general Introduction to SOL 7/e.]

What struck me this time around appeared in both the advertising and at half-time, which could be summed up by saying that it isn’t only the Roman numerals that are getting old. Between a balding Jerry Seinfeld, a grey Jay Leno, a youthful but clearly middle-aged Matthew Broderick, and fifty-three year-old Madonna still hoofing it as if it was Super Bowl XVIII, I was struck by the way that these Baby Boom entertainers (yes, I checked) still have star power. [read more]

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Categories: Popular Culture
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We Take Care of Our Own

posted: 2.9.12 by Jack Solomon

Well, the Boss is coming out with a new record and embarking upon a national tour to promote it. Though the full album, Wrecking Ball, has not yet been released, a single entitled “We Take Care of Our Own” has just appeared, and it happens to provide a very good topic for semiotic analysis.

I heard it on the radio for the first time last night while driving home from teaching a popular culture class. Aesthetically, it sounded like vintage Springsteen to me (same chord patterns and instrumentation, same arrangement, same less-than-clearly-enunciated lyrics), but I could pick out the chorus, which is “Wherever this flag is flown, we take care of our own.” And that surprised me. It sounded so jingoistic, so emptily patriotic, not like the Boss at all.

And then I immediately remembered that this happened before, almost thirty years ago, with “Born in the U.S.A.,” a protest song dripping with irony, most of which was lost on Ronald Reagan, who alluded to the song for campaign purposes until he was set straight on the fact that it was hardly Republican campaign material. So I decided to look up the lyrics on the Net.

Sure enough, the chorus, when juxtaposed with the rest of the lyrics, which bitterly describe a nation that isn’t taking care of its own, abandoning them “From Chicago to New Orleans, from the muscle to the bone, From the shotgun shack to the Super Dome,” make it clear that the Boss hasn’t gone conservative in his later middle age. He’s still on message. [read more]

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Categories: Popular Culture
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Occupy the Golden Globes

posted: 1.26.12 by Jack Solomon

“Of course the Golden Globes are about the awards, but let’s face it: You really want to see who wore what.”

This is one of the headlines from aol.com’s coverage of the Golden Globe awards.

But no, actually: I didn’t really want to see who wore what. This annual cakewalk down the red carpet is obvious enough and does not require the peep-show promises leading up to the event to tempt viewers to watch. The event offers designers and fashion houses a chance for display that is no different than the ubiquitous celebrity photo-op backdrops plastered in corporate logos. I didn’t need to see what these human mannequins were actually wearing to know that.

What I did want to see was some sort of political demonstration, an Occupy the Golden Globes to match the Occupy the Rose Parade protest of a few weeks ago. But I didn’t see that.

I did see, after an online search using the phrase “Occupy the Golden Globes,” that it occurred to a few other people that such a demonstration would have been an appropriate juxtaposition to the parade of designer dresses, each worth more than an average annual American income (not to mention the jewelry displays). But I didn’t see a demonstration, and therein lies the significance of the Golden Globe awards (or the Oscars, or the Grammys, and so on). [read more]

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Categories: Popular Culture
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Whose News?

posted: 12.22.11 by Jack Solomon

I’ve recently noticed an offer that appears at the top of the Yahoo! News page: “Your News,” Yahoo! promises me. “Now with Friends. Discover News based on what your friends are reading, publish your own reading activity and retain full control.”

Obviously, this is an attempt to compete with the wildly successful Facebook paradigm, but it also reminds me of a recent story in the New York Times about the way more and more elite rock climbers and mountaineers are broadcasting their climbs on Facebook, via their iPhones.

Such signifiers, and there are legions of them today, belong to a system of signs that bears upon an emerging variation in one of America’s most fundamental cultural mythologies: of the emphasis we place on the value of individualism, as most notably reflected in Ralph Waldo Emerson’s famous essay, “Self-Reliance.”

The desire to share everything that you are doing with others, reflected in the Yahoo! offer that allows you to share with your friends what you are reading, and vice versa (or in the elite climber’s real-time broadcasting of his climbing experiences!), seems to be anything but a reflection of self-reliance. Rather, it appears to be an expression of what in classical sociological terms is called “hetero-directedness”, that is, living one’s life in relation to the acceptance and approval of others. [read more]

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