So you have a laboratory. You know a lot about contemporary culture. It’s time to move beyond the kitten video and create something more interesting, more provocative.
One of your options is what we will call the alchemical combination. This trick here is to take disparate pieces of culture and bring them together. The right combo and blammo. You have made culture out of culture.
Here’s a naturally-occurring piece of alchemy reported this morning on MTV. At an award show, Ray Dalton and Richard Simmons sang for a moment on camera. Ray Dalton is a young singer from Seattle. He was featured recently in a Macklemore video. His star is rising. Richard Simmons…um, well, we’re not sure what to say about Richard Simmons. Dance diet diva, perhaps?
These guys spent no more than a couple of seconds singing together and there were hundreds, actually thousands of tiny interactions at this award ceremony, but it is this one that got reported this morning on MTV. And not because there was a category on the Top 20 show this morning. But because there wasn’t.
In effect, Ray and Richard had forced their way out of the crush of all those other celebrities into the media coverage. Because there was something so…what?…about this combination. It’s precisely when you can’t quite say that the media feels it must.
Bring these two guys together and something happens in our heads. You get a little rush of vertigo. It looks as if we are looking at an act of photomontage where Ray and Richard have been edited in to the same frame. Because, well, it just feels like they come from different worlds. And we are not talking about differences of age and race, but because well this guys are so far apart in our culture, it’s hard to think about them at the same time.
We are a culture that produces lots of diversity. Here’s a little list I put together for Chief Culture Officer in 2008:
Synchronized swimming, Target, Simon Cowell, Facebook, Bryan Singer, Chinese Soft Drinks, Grammys, SNL, YouTube, Gucci, Wikipedia, Jeff Koons, Apple, Kanye West, Hulu, Francis Bacon, SxSW, Mizrahi, TypePad, Heath Ledger, Nike, Dexter, Karim Rasheed, Agent Dinozzo, Manolo Blahnik, Veronica Mars, Arrested Development, LilWayne, Coen Bothers, Heroes, Hollywood Hills, Tina Fey, Reality TV, Chuck, Frank Ghery, Claire Bennet, Friendfeed, mashable, Thievery Corporation, Twitter, tagging, Henry Jenkins, Milton Glaser, Monk, LastFM, Second Life, Cherry Chapstick, Hannah Montana, Panic At The Disco, Design, Watch Men, iPhone, Xbox, Shoe Gazy, Andy Samberg, Joss Whedon, Ellen, Anime, hip hop, Ollie, Rolling, Cut And Paste, Entertainment Weekly, Matador Records, Tim Gunn, Yahoo, Damien Hurst, Audrey Hepburn, IDEO, Ashton Kutcher, Twilight, synchronous, SMS, Bollywood, Mickey Rourke, Christopher Guest, Ownage, MMORPG, Rastaman, Red vs Blue. (pp. 54-55)
How does one culture produce this much difference? Well, never mind that now. Lucky for us but it does. And the fact that it does open up these alchemical opportunities we were talking about.
We could almost take any two…and stand back. Simon Cowell and Bryan Singer. Jeff Koons and Kanye West. Second Life and Manolo Blahnik. Entertaining both elements in the same thought is hard. Giving a crisp account of both elements (to a visiting Martian, say) would take effortful acts of exposition. (It’s also interesting to note that we are not just various but dynamic. At least 1/4 of these elements are courting obscurity, especially Ashton Kutcher who surely will not survive his disastrous miscasting as Steve Jobs.)
Mickey Rourke, Christopher Guest. It makes my head hurt. Have a go. Make culture out of culture by creating a little short circuit, collapsing the distance between one this and that other that. In a perfect world, life will imitate art, and in a celebrity hungry culture, the two parties will find one another and cameras will roll. It’s not just alchemists who like to culture out of culture.
For more on how to make culture, see my book Culturematic, by clicking HERE.