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The Idea Mill: Pop Culture’s Effect on Pop Culture

Updated: Mar 16, 2020

I'm going to tell you why the world needs your story, but first, let’s talk cults. Specifically, Blue Öyster Cult.

Blue Öyster Cult’s “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper” was released on the album Agents of Misfortune in 1976. Despite their tongue-in-cheek 1977 “Godzilla” release and 1981 hit, “Burnin for You,” they will, arguably, forever be defined by one thing.

Must I say it? I have to say it.

More cowbell.

Thanks to Christopher Walken’s 2000 Saturday Night Live appearance as Bruce Dickinson, I can no longer listen to “The Reaper” without trying to pick out the cowbell (which is present on the original track, but not nearly to the extent Will Ferrell-as-Gene Frenkle would have you believe).

Then, there’s “The Reaper” version that’s more in line with the titular suggestion, where the . song has been electronically slowed down by 800%. Sound bizarre? Turns out, it’s some of the most soothing “ambient doom”-meets-spa music you’ll ever hear. Apparently, you can put “The Reaper” through the pop culture grinder and it can become new things over and over again.

So, writers. Let’s get back to why the world needs your story.

Perhaps you’re writing a traditional love story, a crime heist, or high fantasy. We’ve all read these and probably know that they exist in hundreds of slightly off-brand versions.

And yes, there’s the inspirational quote about stories… something about how no one’s written it your way. That’s true. Yet, if we take it a step further, I’d encourage you to consider why that is. Think about all of the ways only you have been influenced. It's like you own a specific writer blueprint of societally-impacted DNA.

I'd like you to consider a few major points to support the theory that almost all of pop culture is one big mama-birding regurgitation mill. Then, I hope you'll reflect on the big question: what should you do to stand out?

In the words of Julie Andrews, “let’s start at the very beginning/ a very good place to start.” (Sorry, I’m just re-gurging some 1960’s pop culture here.) The easiest way to look at this concept is to consider that fan fiction does a similar thing. It takes a hit concept and churns it in a character/setting blender. When it’s done in a way that masses want to consume like vanilla, ahem… ice cream… the concept is familiar and new all at once. Sometimes, it’s fun. Others, it’s like a dying star collapsing in on itself. I digress.

There’s a theory in learning that students don’t learn in a vacuum, rather they learn by relating unknown concepts to those known.(1) I’d guess that the same is true for identifying with creative products. We aren’t necessarily drawn to the most bizarre, unknown, original, unique, book, music, or idea out there, but, rather, to the coolest twist on something that feels familiar enough.

I’ll say it again. Pop culture is a massive idea mill.

I love to play in ideas. When someone asks where my ideas come from, I’ll often reply, “books, movies, media, music.” But, it’s not so straightforward. I’m not talking A = B.

It’s a bit more like: X = B2(A-Z)e - (r * 8n).

Follow me?

Try this.

Let’s consider the Legend of Zelda in all its numerous iterations. There are the video games themselves, and then there are the books of artwork, and albums of the game music. These are normal, licensed uses of the game. A + B = C.

Then, there are traveling symphonies that play Legend of Zelda video game music using symphonic arrangement and instrumentation, which is a cool twist. Fans show up dressed in costume. Okay.

Now, turn the telescope and look in from the wrong end. Let’s chew this idea and spit it out.

8-Bit Misfits took the video game sound and applied it to mainstream music. It went symphony video-game reverse. And, that is a weirdly different twist on the concept.

They answered a question no one asked: What does popular music sound like in 8-bit interpretation?

Guess what? Gimmicky, sure, but pretty fun!

Now, maybe 8-Bit Misfits aren't your cup of Wii. In my humble-ish opinion, what they did still deserves recognition as answering the unasked question with something new, unusual, and remixed in a unique way.

It’s akin to handing someone something they didn’t know they needed, but now they can't unhear. It's rememberable.

You can do this, too, and it’s why the world needs your work. The key is in delivering the awesomely familiar surprise.

It’s not Bob Dylan covering Johnny Cash’s “Ring of Fire.” That makes sense, it’s too expected. It’s Johnny Cash covering Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt.” Now there’s something gorgeously special.

It really can’t be done to death, so I’d say, “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” Pop culture turns its dirt over so many times, the original can get buried.

“So it goes” is said around 100 times in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five, as a reflection on death. Now, it’s generally a hipster stand-in for “whatevs,” with the original meaning sadly buried in today’s society.

Don’t even get me started on “hey, Boo,” as a reference to Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird.

It’s building on what’s come before: Rudy Ray Moore to Run DMC to the Beastie Boys.

I could go on about this topic for a long time. But, at the mention of the Beastie Boys, I’m reminiscent of License to Ill, and the song, “She’s Crafty.” (If you’re not sure how I feel about the Beastie Boys, check out my last blog post.)

“She’s Crafty” borrowed heavily from Led Zeppelin, but it did something that you’ve got to at least appreciate. Not only did Mike D, MCA and Ad-Rock take a hip-hop sound, add rock, sample anything they’d ever want, and give music fans a totally new sound for the time...

...they went all out on cowbell.

Now, go get out there and chew your words. Your baby birds are crying, they're crying, they're crying for you.

1. Svinicki M. Practical implications of cognitive theories. In: Feldman KA, Paulsen MB, eds. Teaching and learning in the college classroom. 1994. Ginn Press: Needham Heights, MA. pp. 274 - 281.

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