Category Archives: Popular Culture

Frye at the Movies: “The Count of Monte Cristo”


One of the sources for V for Vendetta (here and here) is The Count of Monte Cristo. Frye saw the movie on a double bill with The Barretts of Wimpole Street on November 1, 1934 with his friend Roy Daniells (CW 8, 375). The entire movie after the jump. Above is a traditional fireworks display in London celebrating Guy Fawkes Night.

Here also is an interesting passage in one of the late notebooks on the relation between opera and romance, including a surprising declaration to rehabilitate the melodrama. Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas and other authors of the genre are cited:

Scott was the source for the 19th c. opera — Donizetti’s Lucia & Bellini’s Puritani, the latter very loosely adapted from Old Mortality. I think not Verdi, though Verdi drew from a Romantic tradition that Scott did a lot to solidify: Hugo, Dumas, Schiller, etc. Nobody could imagine an opera of that period based on Jane Austen. If I try to rehabilitate Scott as a romancer, I should also try to rehabilitate melodrama. That term is usually used with contempt, & I’ve used it myself, because of the way it approximates lynching-mob mentality in its hiss-villain setup. But there’s a legitimate type of melodrama where characters and plot outrage “probability,” yet seem to live in a legitimate world. I find Scott very hard to read now, but there are a lot of important critical principles extractable from him. (CW 5, 245-6)

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“V for Vendetta” and “Demonic Modulation”


V for Vendetta: “Words will always retain their power”

“First they came for the rich, and I said nothing. Because, you know, fuck the rich.” — Oral graffiti currently making the rounds.

The clip above is V’s pirate-radio speech to the people of London in V for Vendetta. V’s sardonic Guy Fawkes mask is now a favored icon among the disaffected, hacktivists especially. This movie is a hopeful relic from the Bush years, which, at the time of the film’s release, seemed they would never end.

Regarding V and his Guy Fawkes mask — as well as the repeated refrain of “Remember, remember, the fifth of November,” the day of the failed Gunpowder plot of 1605 — the literary principle involved is what Frye called “demonic modulation.” With demonic modulation Frye makes a much needed distinction between “the moral” and “the desirable”:

The moral and the desirable have many important and significant connections, but still morality, which comes to terms with experience and necessity, is one thing, and desire, which tries to escape from necessity, is quite another. Thus literature is as a rule less inflexible than morality, and it owes much of its status as a liberal art to that fact. The qualities that religion and morality call ribald, obscene, subversive, lewd and blasphemous have an essential place in literature but often they can achieve expression only through ingenious techniques of displacement. (AC 156)

Demonic modulation manages this by way of “the deliberate reversal of the customary moral associations of archetypes.” For example, in literature, whatever the current status of received moral standards,

a free and equal society may be symbolized by a band of robbers, pirates, or gypsies; or true love may be symbolized by the triumph of an adulterous liaison over marriage, as in most triangle comedy; [or] by a homosexual passion. . . . (AC 156-7)

In other words, exactly the sorts of things that oppressively “moral” forces in society get most nuts about, usually with a commensurate rise in rhetorical violence, sometimes outright threats of it, and occasionally tragic instances of it.

The traditional Catholic villain Guy Fawkes of seventeenth century England becomes in this film by way of demonic modulation the dark force of wrathful resistance in a somnolent dystopian Britain of the near-future. The movie does seem to possess the power of at least some short-term prophecy; it had picked up on something that was roiling just below the surface of the daily nightmare that was the Bush administration. The silent, simultaneous uprising of the people of London nicely prefigures what seems to have been the spontaneous generation of the Occupy movement; and, more ominously, the death of the tyrant High Chancellor Sutler doesn’t look all that different from the recent death of Muammar Quadafi. To cite another instance of oral graffiti that pops up here and there, “When people on the inside of their glass palaces are mocking the people on the outside, it never ends well for them.”

Saturday Night Video: Poly Styrene and X-Ray Spex

I posted on riot grrrl a couple of weeks ago, so I don’t want to push my luck, but I only heard this week that Poly Styrene of X-Ray Spex died of cancer in April at the age of 53. Poly was one of the few women who were part of the English punk offensive when it hit North America in the mid-1970s like a blast of hot, sour air from an unventilated pub.

Above is an excellent segment about Poly from the British documentary, The Punk Years. If you don’t know her, it is a pleasant and insightful four minutes of video.

After the jump is a do-it-yourself, live-in-someone’s-basement performance of “Oh Bondage, Up Yours!” from 1977, when Poly was 19. (This single was followed a year later by the band’s debut album with the inspired title, Germ Free Adolescents, the best cut from which, “The Day the World Turned Day-Glo,” is also after the jump.) Poly had a classical vocal training, but she used her voice to be noisily and cheerfully insolent about a world of mindless consumption and the human and environmental waste it produces.

(Executing a lateral move in pertinence, here’s Joe Fasler in The Atlantic on the horizontal transfer between “high” and “low” culture.)

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Saturday Night Video: Riot Grrrls

Hole, “Violet” (Highly recommended live 1994 SNL performance here)

Here is the post I promised in yesterday’s “Frye and Popular Culture.”

Compiling this selection of video, it became apparent that it is impossible not to feature prominently the videos from Hole‘s first wide-release album, Live Through This. Three of them are here, and they’re all worth seeing, especially Violet, which may be the most powerfully realized video riot grrrl at its height produced. But there’s also music, video, and live footage from highly regarded cult bands that never broke into the mainstream on anywhere near the same scale: Bikini Kill, Huggy Bear7 Year Bitch, Babes in Toyland, Bratmobile, L7, Sleater-Kinney, and Tribe 8.

If I can advocate for must-see work here besides Hole: Bikini Kill, Huggy Bear (although not for the faint of heart), 7 Year Bitch, and Babes in Toyland.

Two recent retrospective articles on riot grrrl in The Guardian here and hereTobi Vail‘s fanzine Jigsaw, appearing regularly since 1989, here.

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Frye and Popular Culture Update

I was negligent in adding links to my earlier “Frye and Popular Culture” post. Here is a much-expanded set of links to posts dealing with Frye on popular culture

Previous posts on Frye and rock ‘n’ roll herehere, and here.

Casting our net a little wider on the issue of popular culture: posts on Charlie Chaplin herehere, and here; on silent movies here; a list of every movie Frye alludes to seeing here; on the New Yorker here and here; on television here; on popular art forms herehereherehereherehere, hereherehereherehere, here; on popular music here; on John Lennon here; on the Beatles here; on Bob Dylan here and here; on the ’60s youth movement here; on Andy Warhol here and here; Frye’s comments on a number of movies here.

This is by no means a comprehensive collection. This is just the stuff we’ve pulled together so far.

Frye and Popular Culture


Hole, “Olympia.” Why it’s Hole, why the song is “Olympia,” and why this version of it is amateur hand-held video of a 1993 performance, is clarified below.

Last Saturday night I put up a brief post to note the passing of R.E.M and the twentieth anniversary of the release of Nirvana’s Nevermind. The next day I posted some observations by Amanda Marcotte on Nirvana and Third Wave feminism, and added a comment to expand a little on the rise of the riot grrrl phenomenon which, like Nirvana, had the same improbable hometown of Olympia, Washington. Tomorrow night I’m putting up more video featuring riot grrrl bands, partly because the movement is so closely associated with the emergence of the Third Wave, but also because the music and the culture around it are interesting on their own.

Whenever I post anything having to do with popular culture, especially if it is music that may be unknown to or disliked by many people, I do the same gut check: is this Frye-relevant?  In this instance I’d say, as I say every time, yes it is, even though it is obviously not for all tastes. This time, however, I thought I’d sketch out my reasons for thinking so.

Frye once observed that soap operas never rise to the condition of fully realized romance because the endless narrative of serial adventures cannot reach a dialectical crisis of identity. It’s tempting to take this sort of comment as licence to dismiss popular culture generally. But Frye himself does not do this. He in fact says that there is no real distinction between high and low culture, and that any imposed distinction is about bias rather than anything intrinsic to the art itself. I have three main reasons to suggest why works of popular culture, whatever their appeal to taste, ought to be of interest to Frye critics.

The first is the assumption of imaginative value. Even the aesthetics of mass produced and distributed cultural phenomenon — particularly music, movies, television — have their own implicit value that can be tapped by critical engagement. The more consistently we are imaginatively engaged, the greater our potential for creative imaginative response. Mass produced culture has the advantage of ensuring mass circulation but introduces the danger of mass conformity. It has, however, also always been a cause for resistance and “counter-cultural” reactions. As long as this continues to happen, it is more likely to provide enough variation to prevent a debilitating decline into cliché and the kinds of reflexive response that undermine a liberated imaginative response.

Second, in much if not most of our popular culture (especially in that element with resistant counter-cultural origins) the dialectic of identity is strongly manifested in the prevailing archetypes of concern. Our only recently developed youth culture has a notably stubborn streak of resistance (which corporate interests, contrary to the conventional wisdom, do not entirely erase, but also search out at street level as the resistance reinvents itself). The lyrics of popular songs can easily be seen to be some expression, however occasionally naïve or fleeting, of discontent driven by something more like what Frye calls primary concerns: “making a living, making love, and struggling to stay free and alive,” as he puts it in Words with Power. This dialectic of identity those primary concerns represent is not much different from other “higher” forms of imaginative expression; the concerns are universal and their expression is recognizable in recurring archetypes.

Finally, there is what Frye refers to as the local and decentralizing aspect of culture. The universal is best perceived through the particular, which is why, as he once put it, William Faulkner could set his novels in a fictional county in Mississippi and still win a Nobel Prize for literature. The principle is in no way restricted to white American males; it is in the nature of the imaginative dimension of literature and all of the other arts. This fact ought to be more readily appreciable today when there is increasing evidence of the potential for a globalized popular culture, in which just about any aspect of any culture can be transferred and enjoyed anywhere else. It is typically picked up by another small, localized community and eventually transposed into the wider culture. Not surprisingly, the trend is most conspicuously present in music, which always has a massive international appeal, and therefore lends itself to innovation and synthesis. Thirty years ago a designation for “world music” came into wide use, and the increasingly hybridized nature of the music that falls under this heading has only become more obvious. It is almost a certainty these days that just about wherever there are discontented youth challenging local authority, there will be rap and hip hop: this is as true of large parts of the Muslim world, for instance, as it is of Israel.

Local culture therefore has a decentralizing effect on the more widely shared culture, and there is observable movement between the two. This makes it easier to understand why there is a cultish aspect to any counter-culture, especially among young people: these cultish communities are decentralized in the sense that they make a deliberate point of being as far away from accepted standards as they can manage, and they are local in the sense of exhibiting a sensibility and outlook assumed not to be widely shared, even if the community is international and held together by the ability to communicate through electronic media. But today’s cult always has the potential to be part of tomorrow’s culture.

Riot grrrl, for example, to end with the subject of tomorrow’s post, began in about 1990 in Olympia, Washington, which, again, was also the home of Nirvana, and quite remote from any source of the North American musical mainstream. The members of the Olympia music scene made their own music for their own enjoyment, and in a remarkably short period of time Nirvana’s local brand of grunge (an amalgam primarily of heavy metal and punk rock) became an international phenomenon. Meanwhile, the riot grrrl movement introduced a renewed expression of feminist attitudes into the alternative music scene, and that in turn allowed it to catch on just about anywhere it went. Like punk, with its anti-corporate orientation, the music is stripped down, the outlook is crankily dismissive of the status quo, and the lyrics are often profane; but the expectation tends to be hopeful, in the sense that there is anticipation, as there is throughout all of the arts, that things really could change for the better by confronting the world as it is with some sense of the way it ought to be. The fact that the perspective also tends to be ironic is, of course, not a problem because our universally shared concerns are, as Frye points out, what makes irony ironic.

Relative simplicity does not exclude a work of popular art from being imaginatively relevant or from having transferable value. It can render the dialectic of identity as reliably as any “serious” work of art, although, admittedly, with less range and nuance. But what the consumer of art does with any particular work of art is a matter of choice and discretion, and there the potential remains limitless. One of the most pleasantly surprising things about the punk movement when it first began to appear in the mid-1970s is that its indignation is typically motivated by passionately advocated concern. Because that concern is ironically expressed, it can yield a lot of wit and even unexpected tenderness. A much loved but long defunct riot grrrl band from Olympia, Bikini Kill, has a song called “I Like Fucking.” The title and the content are provocative, and, like most punk, there is a conventional épater la bourgeoisie involved. But the more localized context is, once again, what would soon become known as the Third Wave, including an energetic push back against male privilege, as well as a declaration of freedom and gender identity that is more fluid, self-confident, and defiantly sex-positive. However offensive some might find the presentation, the expectation is always reassuring if reassurance is what we are expecting to find. Approached on its own terms, this kind of music has its own authority, an authority that, like the best in all art, invites and does not compel.

I’ll hedge my bets a little by acknowledging that a lack of “range and nuance” in popular culture may be an issue worth considering in much more depth than I have here, and for some people it may be a deal breaker. I also do not address Frye’s critical but prescient observations about the youth culture of the 1960s because I think the culture has much deeper roots now. Because I teach, I am fortunate enough to be continually surprised by the sophistication of students, despite the needless compromises that have been introduced into their formal education through cutbacks and chronic under-funding. Their worldview is remarkably liberal, and it has certainly not been encouraged by the diminished opportunities we have provided them compared to their baby boomer parents. They seem to pick it up where they can, and the most obvious place to look is the culture a significant number of them seem to feel is not simply there for them to consume, but to engage to the extent their own concerns will carry them. In a society currently under seige by a plutocratic class which appears to be set upon stripping away wealth from whatever source it can find, our popular culture is a means to keep alive the determination to prevent the powers that be from being the powers that will prevail.

Previous posts on Frye and rock ‘n’ roll here, here, and here.

Casting our net a little wider on the issue of popular culture, posts on Charlie Chaplin here, here, and here; on silent movies here; a list of every movie Frye alludes to seeing here; on the New Yorker here and here; on television here; on popular art forms herehere, herehere, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here; on popular music here; on John Lennon here; on the Beatles here; on Bob Dylan here and here; on the ’60 youth movement here; on Andy Warhol here and here; Frye’s comments on a number of movies here.

This is by no means a comprehensive collection. This is just the stuff we’ve pulled together so far.

Quote of the Day: “Women who — like Vulcans and Mothra — do not exist in real life”

The red-band trailer for Bridesmaids

Mindy Kaling, who writes for and plays Kelly Kapoor on The Office, in this week’s New Yorker lays out her love of romantic comedies by way of “the female archetypes”:

I like watching people fall in love onscreen so much that I can suspend my disbelief in the contrived situations that occur only in the heightened world of romantic comedies. I have come to enjoy the moment when the male lead, say, slips and falls right on top of the expensive wedding cake. I actually feel robbed when the female lead’s dress doesn’t get torn open at a baseball game while the JumboTron camera is on her. I regard romantic comedies as a subgenre of sci-fi, in which the world operates according to different rules than my regular human world. For me, there is no difference between Ripley from “Alien” and any Katherine Heigl character. They are equally implausible. They’re all participating in a similar level of fakey razzle-dazzle, and I enjoy every second of it.

It makes sense, then, that in the romantic-comedy world there are many specimens of women who—like Vulcans or Mothra—do not exist in real life.

The types Kaling goes on to describe in detail are:

The Klutz” (“The hundred-per-cent-perfect-looking female is perfect in every way except that she constantly bonks her head on things”)

The Ethereal Weirdo” (also known as the Manic Pixie Dream Girl: “She is essential to the male fantasy that even if a guy is boring he deserves a woman who will find him fascinating and perk up his dreary life by forcing him to go skinny-dipping in a stranger’s pool.”).

The Woman Who Is Obsessed with Her Career and Is No Fun at All” (“Often, a script calls for this uptight career woman to ‘relearn’ how to seduce a man, and she has to do all sorts of crazy degrading crap, like eat a hot dog in a sexy way or something.”).

The Forty-two-Year-Old Mother of the Thirty-Year-Old Male Lead” (“If you think about the backstory of a typical mother character in a romantic comedy, you realize this: when “Mom” was an adolescent, the very week she started to menstruate she was impregnated with a baby who would grow up to be the movie’s likable brown-haired leading man.”).

The Sassy Best Friend” (“You know that really hilarious and horny best friend who is always asking about your relationship and has nothing really going on in her own life? She always wants to meet you in coffee shops or wants to go to Bloomingdale’s to sample perfumes? She runs a chic dildo store in the West Village? Nope? O.K., that’s this person.”).

The Skinny Woman Who Is Beautiful and Toned but Also Gluttonous and Disgusting” (“If you look closely, you can see this woman’s ribs through the dress she’s wearing—that’s how skinny she is, this cheesecake-loving cow.”).

The Woman Who Works in an Art Gallery” (“The Gallery Worker character is the rare female movie archetype that has a male counterpart. Whenever you meet a handsome, charming, successful man in a romantic comedy, the heroine’s friend always says the same thing: ‘He’s really successful. He’s”—say it with me—“an architect!’”).

Read the entire thing here.



The first ten minutes: although it helped to define youth culture and shape popular music for a solid twenty years, these opening moments are as primitive as ham radio.

MTV launched on this date in 1981 at 12.01 am. The first video was The Buggles’ “Video Killed the Radio Star,” which, even though it’s not a great song, captured the expectant mood of the early 80s when anything seemed possible in popular music. Well, maybe that’s an overstatement. After the jump is the playlist for the first day, and there’s still a lot of the musky recent past hanging in there, such as the crushingly depressing Rod Stewart of the late 70s — and REO Speedwagon; more REO Speedwagon, in fact, than you’d likely want in an entire lifetime.

However, there’s some good stuff in there that made the whole thing seem very new and very promising: Elvis Costello, The Pretenders, David Bowie, The Specials, Kate Bush, Talking Heads, and, uh . . . okay, just those six (sorry, Pat Benetar fans). Sadly, devastatingly, the first appearance by a Canadian band was April Wine. Bryan Adams hadn’t been invented yet.

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Bob Dylan


“Subterranean Homesick Blues,” rendered in one of the first great proto-videos. (Yes, that’s Alan Ginsberg animatedly in conversation in the background.)

Frye has a few things to say about Dylan, but this is especially high praise to offer up for his 70th birthday:

Oh, I think Bob Dylan is a poet.  I am quite interested in the folk-song idiom as a poetic idiom.  It’s a revival of an oral tradition in poetry which disappeared for centuries.  Poetry got too badly bogged down with books, and I think it’s a very healthy thing when poetry becomes something that can be recited to an audience with a musical background.  (CW 24, 474)