This is a post about shooters, Katy Perry and Pop Culture
Call of Duty: Black Ops 2 sold over 7.5 million copies in the US, but I don’t think we take its kind seriously anymore. I find that lamentable.
It’s a massively consumed entertainment product that’s scoffed at in the corners of the room that shelter the enlightened, the particular consumer, the astute observer who is either pained or confused when the artistically unambitious and flawed resonate with so many. Like Transformers movies, Justin Bieber, and Barbie dolls – the Call of Duty series has attained commercial success and general popularity that, according to its critics, isn’t consistent with its artistic quality.
They aren’t even necessarily saying the game isn’t enjoyable, or that there aren’t any interesting observations to be made concerning design or storytelling in Call of Duty or other shooters, but that among a niche group of thoughtful gamers, we find the genre less compelling than the general population which, according to sales, finds the genre more compelling than any other in video game history.
It isn’t a disparaging distinction exactly. Certain observers are trying to offer honest observations and analysis about a medium that hasn’t always gotten that treatment. In doing so, they’ve found that it’s the subtle works, the ambiguous themes, and the personal indie titles that hold the most potential for meaningful observation, not the bombastic tones of Call of Duty that seem to cast such a wide net commercially.
But I think they – nay, we – might be missing something.
I came to this conclusion while listening to a Katy Perry song.
I don’t often listen to Katy Perry songs, and ther than the one I’m about to discuss, I can only name one other. In someone else’s car, iPod on shuffle, a song called Last Friday Night played and I was forced to listen.
Before I get to the contents of the song, there are a couple of important observations about pop music I’d like to share with you. Both of them are from English novelist and essayist Colin MacInnes, and both are referencing popular music in England, in the late 50s. But both also apply to popular media in general today.
“I’d like to say I think the abysmal ignorance of educated persons about the popular music of millions is deplorable. First, because pop music, on its own low level, can be so good; and I must declare that never have I met anyone who, condemning it completely, has turned out, on close enquiry, to know anything whatever about it. But worse, because the deaf ear that’s turned, in pained disdain, away from the pop music, betrays a lamentable lack of curiosity about the culture of our country in 1958. For that music is our culture: at all events the anthropologist from Sao Paulo or Peking would esteem it so, and rightly. Alfred Deller, yes; but what about Lonnie Donegan, he’d say? They’re both of our world, and there’s no doubt which of these siren voices penetrates and moulds more English hearts and brains.”
From “Pop Songs and Teenagers” published in The Twentieth Century, February 1958. (emphasis added)
I like to look for games that go unnoticed. I never thought I’d be guilty of a “lamentable lack of curiosity”. But I have. I’ve been remarkably uninterested in media that has had wide reaching effect, only because its aesthetics don’t appeal to me.
In another article, MacInnes observes:
“Although these songs are despised by educated persons (who never hear them), and even more so, by lovers of serious jazz music (who, with pain, occasionally do), there is no denying that pop songs have a certain artistic quality which resides almost exclusively, in the art of the individual singers. The tunes and lyrics in themselves are often of meagre quality – although manufactured with extreme competence – and the emotions they evoke are almost invariably synthetic: that is, they are songs about the idea of life, but rarely about life itself. Yet when projected from the larynx of a compulsive pop singer, they acquire an obsessive power to hold the mind and feelings, even if at the most superficial levels.”
From “Young England, Half English” published in Encounter, December 1957. (emphasis added)
These are observations I read for the first time around the Summer of 2011. I’ve tried to keep them in mind and they’ve helped shape the conclusion of never dismiss what’s popular. So as I was essentially forced to listen to a popular song I didn’t care for, I tried to figure out what it was in this song that resonates with the millions of people who do enjoy listening to it.
I didn’t just finish listening to it during that car ride. I kept listening to it – over, and over, and over again. I wasn’t looking for anything profound, I was just looking for something that clicked. Little kids sometimes like Batman just because he beats up bad guys and that’s the right answer for them. It doesn’t have to be profound to be accurate. I just wanted to know what the song meant for those millions that liked it.
The first listen or two, it was easy to dismiss the song as just bouncy, pop drivel. It’s easy to think, “they just like the beat,” or “it doesn’t have any meaning; these kids today like it that way.” But that wasn’t the right answer. There was something there.
On the surface, Last Friday Night is a song about a girl who goes to a large house party that spills over into her parents’ house. Watching the music video (which has nearly 200 million views on YouTube) gives certain clues.
Katy Perry plays ‘Kathy Terry’ who is the aforementioned girl; she has large glasses, oversized braces with a wire head piece, awkward clothes, and bad hair. There is a stereotypical “nerd” character who gets to punch out a stereotypical “jock” character while vying for Kathy’s affection. And Rebecca Black appears as herself in a favorable cameo that, given the song’s name, is clearly a kind of redemptive internet culture reference. So the theme of the outcast redeeming him or herself is evident, but it’s a minor part of the song’s appeal.
The real draw is something more broad, more universal. It’s the thing that hits home with most people, if not all people. It becomes obvious in the second verse.
Trying to connect the dots
don’t know what to tell my boss
Think the city towed my car
Chandelier is on the floor
Ripped my favorite party dress
Warrants out for my arrest
The song is upbeat throughout, and it’s about a bunch of people having a good time at a huge party. But strangely, tucked in the middle of this hedonistic anthem is a medley of what should be highly concerning things. From the teenager’s perspective, the nascent beginnings of responsibility start with having a job, which would seem be in jeopardy according to the lyrics. You’ve also got property being impounded, damage to a chandelier that is presumably someone else’s property, and a telling inclusion about what should be far less concerning damage to a dress. Last but not least, the possibility of incarceration.
But this is all in a song about a party. While these are mentioned, they aren’t really a concern in the context of the song. The chorus makes this plainly obvious.
Pictures of last night
Ended up online
It’s a blacked-out blur
But I’m pretty sure it ruled
For teenage culture that ever more quickly approaches responsibility at a young age, and for young adults in their first few years of dealing with adult pressures, the idea of simply disregarding social expectations about image, minor legal infractions, and career expectations has obvious appeal. I think that’s the level on which most people engage with the song.
Whether you’re a fan or not, whether that message of disregarding responsibility in order to have some fun resonates with you or not, I think it’s obvious that’s the surface level meaning of the song.
But I think it goes deeper than that. We observe some concerning things in the first verse as well.
There’s a stranger in my bed
There’s a pounding in my head
And after a couple of funny lines about other ridiculous things, we get this gem:
Is this a hickey or a bruise?
And in the music video Kathy pulls back her turtleneck to reveal a sizable purplish-black mark on her neck.
What occurred to me while listening to this verse over and over is how afraid we all are. It isn’t until the chorus and the second verse when the song starts to delve into all the things we’re afraid of, but it’s in the midst of viewing and hearing about teenage recklessness that it dawned on me how cautious the rest of us adults are.
And it’s not that they (teenagers) are any less fearful, but that their fear seems to compel them to a kind of boldness in response. What they’re afraid of is not living fully enough, not trying, not falling in love, not having fun; and they’re willing to risk physical harm, public humiliation, and legal fallout to avoid the dullness their parents view as safety.
Certainly adults can be willing to take similar risks, but what’s peculiar is that the younger, who presumably have more time to live, have a kind of urgency to live as fast as possible that lessens with age.
The pressures of life crowd around us quickly in adulthood and we’re taught to scurry fast to the usual shelters of steady work, good medical benefits, a retirement savings account, and a house that will go up in property value. Watching anyone, especially those only a few years behind us, stand around and not run from the fire can be maddening. It’s like they just don’t understand how hard life is, and that they shouldn’t be carousing around at parties and such nonsense when that fire of life’s pressure is surrounding us fast.
But those teenagers they see a polar opposite. They see the pressures of life fast approaching, and they’ve learned to scurry to shields of distraction, levity, and momentary enjoyment. Especially for those them just old enough to know a little responsibility themselves, it can be maddening for them to watch us old folks (even just a little older) dive head first into the fire of life while there’s still a few parties left to go to. It’s like we just don’t understand. But in some ways, a song like Last Friday Night gets it – it sees the fire, gives it the middle finger, and tells it to fuck off for a minute so people can have some fun.
But it’s as I started to further ponder that youthful pursuit of happiness that I came across my final set of realizations about the song. The line from MacInnes comes to mind again: “they are songs about the idea of life, but rarely about life itself.”
Scott Mosier, film producer most known for his work with director Kevin Smith, while doing a podcast with Smith went over a list of goals he had made for himself when he was eighteen. They included some oddities like taking a balloon ride, but mostly consisted of predictable things like having lots of money, owning expensive homes, driving nice cars, and attaining a successful career. Mosier, now 41, made a simple but poignant observation about his 18-year-old self – that he didn’t know what he wanted at that age. He knew he wanted to be happy, but didn’t know enough about himself to know what that meant or what it would look like. So he listed all the typical things he associated with success, and assumed he if he got those, he’d be happy. He was listing all the things society said would make him happy.
In that observation, I think lies the final layer of meaning in Last Friday Night. It’s appeal to the masses, whether they be bored adults or eager teenagers, is that it paints a vivid picture of a colorful night and promises that up against any of life’s concerns you’ll still have fun. There’s a good chance many of the younger fans of the song have never had a ménage-á-trois, gone streaking in the park, or skinny dipping in the dark – as is described in the song – but damn it if doesn’t sound like fun when you’re fourteen and haven’t done much. That’s not to say someone wouldn’t have fun doing those things, it’s to say one doesn’t know until they’ve tried things out in life, figured out who they are, and what they really want.
But, mostly, mass media isn’t interested in helping you find out who you are, it’s interested in telling you who you are and then selling you something based on your new demographic.
Last Friday Night has a clear message: all those bad things in the chorus and verse two (injury, assault, reputation damage, financial ruin, arrest) – they don’t matter. You can have fun and here’s how. These things over here, they’re fun, and if you do them you’ll have fun and be happy.
And then I understood why series like Call of Duty do what they do.
Call of Duty
I remembered just how afraid we are. Amidst all the real conflict and turmoil in the world, both states and complicit media are all too eager to formulate propaganda that invents panic where there should be none.
We are afraid, but it’s not just fear of getting old, or not being happy. As if that weren’t enough, in so many western nations we’re conditioned to the idea that Arab nations are a threat. The U.S. still views China as a potential threat (not officially, of course). And if a particular nation is not a threat, we should always be afraid of terrorists, who could pop up at any minute, in any place, unmarked and out of nowhere.
It’s that kind of illogical fear that drives an aggressive identity. We’re taught that our enemy could be anywhere, that they’re unknowable, and their motivation and zeal is inexplicable and not worth trying to understand.
I recall playing the original Black Ops and during the first mission, while trying to assassinate Fidel Castro, he (actually a double for Castro) uses a woman as a human shield, and then she also tries to kill you. It’s explained later that Castro’s supporters are so devoted to him that they’ll do anything. Basically you’re told, they’re all crazy so it’s fine, just light ‘em up.
But it can’t just be that we’re afraid. Rational people with a strong identity can react to fear in all kinds of ways. But I think back to Scott Mosier’s observation about his young self. He didn’t know what would make him happy, so he adopted the typical ideas society puts forth for what makes people happy.
Everyone wants to be safe, but we don’t know what safe is anymore. All the things that used to look and sound safe, we’re told aren’t safe anymore (like going to the airport). We’re inundated with a constant message that we’re not safe unless we trust the government, but common sense and reality tells us that often makes us less safe. In western culture, the fallback we’ve always had is aggression. We’re taught, “here’s a gun, kill some people, that will make you safe, that makes you powerful.”
Most military shooters (not all, but most) have a clear message. It tells us to ignore all those ugly bits about war; being killed, maimed, losing limbs, being traumatized by combat – those don’t matter, it can’t happen to you here. You can be powerful, and here’s how. Take this gun, go kill a bunch of people who aren’t from your country, then you’ll be safe, then you’ll be powerful.
And yet so many of us who have pretended to kill playing a shooter have never taken a life for real. We don’t know how it would make us feel, but we’re taught that killing bad guys will make us feel good.
But there’s one more clue to Call of Duty’s success and it is vastly more subtle. It may also not apply to everyone, as many fans admittedly have never touched single player.
The clue, in a way, is hidden in the second verse of Last Friday Night. The key is you have to mention all the things that could go wrong, all the things that should worry you about having this awesome night of partying. Missing work the next day, being arrest, getting your car towed. You have to mention all that so you can tell it all to piss off and that you don’t care. If you’re going to make a party song, you need to make sure nothing can stand in the way of your good time, not even reality.
When the protagonists started to die in Call of Duty games it was considered innovation storytelling and then it just became repetitive. It became predictable. But it also became almost necessary. Because if you’re going to make a war game, you need to make sure nothing can stand in the way of your power fantasy, not even death.
Respawns are fine, but something with a little more finality would drive the point home all the better. I know, let’s kill off the player-character. That will get people’s attention, remind them of all the things that could really go wrong in a real war like, you know, death. Then we’ll conveniently give the player another caricature stereotype to embody and use as a death siphon.
That’s the point, right? Ignore all the bad stuff, have a good time.
Even if it’s a blacked-out blur, you’re pretty sure it ruled.