"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Pop culture, like fast food, gets a bad rap. It’s perfectly understandable: Because we consume so much of the stuff — we watch so much TV, pack away so many fries — and because the consumption is so intimate, it’s natural to look to our indulgence as the cause of all that ails us. Let’s face it, we Americans are fat and lazy and simple-minded; we yell a lot and we’ve got short attention spans and we’re violent and promiscuous and godless; and when we’re not putting horndogs into office we’re electing dumb guys who start too many wars and can’t balance the budget and … you know what I mean? You are what you eat. The output follows from the input. When you look around and all you see is Ronald McDonald and Ryan Seacrest, it seems natural to conclude that junk food and junk culture are responsible for a large chunk of the mess we’re in.
The other day, though, in an unbelievably delicious turn of events, the government reported that people who are overweight face a lower risk of death than folks who are thin. While the news didn’t exactly exonerate junk food, it was a fitting prelude to the publication of Steven Johnson’s new polemic “Everything Bad Is Good for You,” which argues that what we think of as junk food for the mind — video games, TV shows, movies and much of what one finds online — is not actually junk at all. In this intriguing volume, Johnson marshals the findings of brain scientists and psychologists to examine the culture in which we swim, and he shows that contrary to what many of us assume, mass media is becoming more sophisticated all the time. The media, he says, shouldn’t be fingered as the source of all our problems. Ryan Seacrest is no villain. Instead, TV, DVDs, video games and computers are making us smarter every day.
“For decades, we’ve worked under the assumption that mass culture follows a steadily declining path towards lowest-common-denominator standards,” Johnson writes. “But in fact, the exact opposite is happening: the culture is getting more intellectually demanding, not less.” Johnson labels the trend “the Sleeper Curve,” after the 1973 Woody Allen film that jokes that in the future, more advanced societies will come to understand the nutritional benefits of deep fat, cream pies and hot fudge. Indeed, at first, Johnson’s argument does sound as shocking as if your doctor had advised you to eat more donuts and, for God’s sake, to try and stay away from spinach. But Johnson is a forceful writer, and he makes a good case; his book is an elegant work of argumentation, the kind in which the author anticipates your silent challenges to his ideas and hospitably tucks you in, quickly bringing you around to his side.
In making his case for pop culture, Johnson, who was a co-founder of the pioneering (and now-defunct) Web journal Feed, draws on research from his last book, “Mind Wide Open,” which probed the mysteries of how our brains function. Johnson’s primary method of analyzing media involves a concept he calls “cognitive labor.” Instead of judging the value of a certain book, video game or movie by looking at its content — at the snappy dialogue, or the cool graphics, or the objectives of the game — Johnson says that we should instead examine “the kind of thinking you have to do to make sense of a cultural experience.” Probed this way, the virtues of today’s video games and TV shows become readily apparent, and the fact that people aren’t reading long-form literature as much as they used to looks less than dire. “By almost all standards we use to measure reading’s cognitive benefits — attention, memory, following threads, and so on — the non-literary popular culture has been steadily growing more challenging over the past thirty years,” Johnson says. Moreover, non-literary media like video games, TV and the movies are also “honing different mental skills that are just as important as the ones exercised by reading books.”
Johnson adds that he’s not offering a mere hypothesis for how video games and TV shows may affect our brains — there’s proof, he says, that society is getting smarter due to the media it consumes. In most developed countries, including the United States, IQs have been rising over the past half-century, a statistic that of course stands in stark contrast to the caricature of modern American idiocy. Johnson attributes intelligence gains to the increasing sophistication of our media, and writes that, in particular, mass media is helping us — especially children — learn how to deal with complex technical systems. Kids today, he points out, often master electronic devices in ways that their parents can’t comprehend. They do this because their brains have been trained to understand complexity through video games and through TV; mass media, he says, prepares children for the increased difficulty that tomorrow’s world will surely offer, and it does so in a way that reading a book simply cannot do.
Still, at times Johnson protests too much, setting up what look like straw men defenders of old media so that he can expound on the greatness of the new. It’s true that many oldsters continue to say a lot of silly things about the current media environment. Johnson quotes Steve Allen, George Will, the “Dr. Spock” child-care books and the Parents Television Council, all of whom think of modern media in the way former FCC chairman Newton Minow famously described the television landscape of the early 1960s — as a “vast wasteland.” (For good measure, Johnson could also have taken a stab at opportunistic politicians like Jennifer Granholm, the Democratic governor of Michigan, who’s trying to pass a state ban on the sale of violent video games to minors, or misguided liberals like Kalle Lasn, who wants vigilantes to shut off your TV.)
Yet, I suspect that most of Johnson’s audience probably already gets it. I was tickled by much of what Johnson illustrates about how video games and TV affect your brain, and some of it surprised me, but I wasn’t really skeptical in the first place. Most people my age — kids who grew up at the altar of Nintendo and “Seinfeld” — probably feel the same way. And this is to Johnson’s credit: To young people, his take on media feels intuitively right. It’s clear what he means when he says TV makes you think, and that video games require your brain. Indeed, if you’ve ever played a video game, Johnson pretty much has you at hello.
That reading books is good for children is the most treasured notion in society’s cabinet of received child-rearing wisdom, Johnson notes. Yet it’s a pretty well established fact that kids today don’t read as much as kids of yesterday — at least, they’re not reading books. (Few studies, Johnson points out, have taken note of the explosion of reading prompted by electronic media like the Web.) What are these children doing? They’re playing video games. And other than praising games for building a kid’s “hand-eye coordination,” video games are, say child experts like Dr. Spock, a “colossal waste of time,” leading us down the path to hell.
What’s best about Johnson’s section arguing that video games are just as good for you as books are is his tone: He’s breezy and funny, and for a while you forget that he’s proposing the kind of idea that in earlier times may have ended with a sip of hemlock. As I say, I think most people will be with him from the start: Video games are better than we think? Sure, I’ll buy that. But one still feels itchy under the collar when he starts comparing something as sacred as the bound book to the sacrilege that is “Grand Theft Auto.” And when, in a short, satirical passage, he points out all the shortcomings of books in the same unfair way most people describe the shortcomings of video games, I’m sure he drives more than a few readers to go out in search of some hemlock. A sample: “Perhaps the most dangerous property of … books is that they follow a fixed linear path. You can’t control their narratives in any fashion — you simply sit back and have the story dictated to you … This risks instilling a general passivity in our children, making them feel as if they’re powerless to change their circumstances. Reading is not an active, participatory process; it’s a submissive one.”
Of course, Johnson makes clear, he loves books (they provide, for starters, his livelihood). Still, his criticism of books’ lack of interactivity — even if it’s offered as a purposefully specious point — is valid. Books may promote a wide range of mental exercises, and a certain book may send your mind skittering in a dozen euphoric directions, but there are things that a book simply will not, cannot, do. Books don’t let you explore beyond the narrative. Their scenery is set, and what’s there is all that’s there. You may have liked to have visited some of Gatsby’s neighbors, but you can’t. Books also don’t ask you to make decisions, and in a larger sense don’t require you to participate. You sit back and watch a book unfold before you. The book’s possibilities are limited; what will happen is what’s written on the next page. Read it a thousand times, still Rabbit always runs.
So this should be plain: Because they’re interactive, video games promote certain mental functions that books do not. Specifically, video games exercise your brain’s capacity to understand complex situations. That’s because in most video games, the rules, and sometimes the objectives, aren’t explicit. You fall into the sleazy urban landscape of “Grand Theft Auto” with no real idea of what you’re supposed to do. Indeed, Johnson points out, much of the action in playing any video game is finding out how to play the game — determining how your character moves, seeing which weapons do what, testing the physics of the place. If you fall from a building, does your character get hurt? What happens if you open this door? What kind of strategy can you plan to beat the monster on Level 3? The kind of probing gamers employ to determine what’s going on in such simulated worlds, Johnson says, is very similar to the kind of probing scientists use to understand the natural world. Kids playing video games, in other words, are “learning the basic procedure of the scientific method.”
Because TV is more fun, Johnson’s section on television is more engaging than his examination of video games, but its revelations also feel a bit more obvious. His main point — you can see an extended version of it in this New York Times Magazine excerpt — is that most modern TV shows exercise your brain in ways that old TV shows never dared. Today’s shows, whether dramas or comedies, are multithreaded — several subplots occur at the same time, and in the best shows (like “The Sopranos” or “The West Wing”) the subplots often run into each other (there is one popular exception: “Law & Order.”). Modern shows — including, of course, reality shows — also feature many more characters; only a handful of regulars graced “Dallas” every week, but there are dozens of people in “24.”
Today’s TV shows are also far more willing to keep the viewer in the dark about what’s going on in a certain scene, or to include allusions to other art forms, or previous years’ episodes. Medical jargon has been written into just about every scene on “ER” specifically to keep you on your toes about what’s happening. “Nearly every extended sequence in ‘Seinfeld’ or ‘The Simpsons’ … will contain a joke that only makes sense if the viewer fills in supplementary information — information that is deliberately withheld from the viewer,” Johnson writes. “If you’ve never seen the ‘Mulva’ episode, or the name ‘Art Vandelay’ means nothing to you, then the subsequent references — many of them occurring years after their original appearance — will pass on by unappreciated.” What all this amounts to, Johnson says, is work for your brain. Watching TV is not a passive exercise. When you’re watching one of today’s popular shows, even something as nominally silly as “Desperate Housewives,” you’re exercising your brain — you’re learning how to make sense of a complex narrative, you’re learning how to navigate social networks, you’re learning (through reality TV) about the intricacies of social intelligence, and a great deal more.
What I wonder, though, is, Doesn’t everyone know that today’s TV is better than yesterday’s TV? It’s here that I think Johnson’s too focused on straw men. Like most Americans, I’ve spent enough time watching television to have earned several advanced degrees in the subject. Yes, TV today is clogged with more sex and violence than TV of yesterday, but for all that, is there anyone in America who doesn’t believe that on average, what we’ve seen on TV in the last decade has been more intricate, more complex and just plain smarter than the shows of the 1980s or the 1970s? Of course, there are exceptions; everyone can think of a great show from the 1970s that beats a middling show of today. (“The Jeffersons” kicks “According to Jim’s” ass.) But I’m talking about apples-to-apples comparisons: Is there anyone who prefers “Hill Street Blues,” which as Johnson points out was one of the best dramas of the 1980s, to “The West Wing” or “ER” or “The Sopranos”? I imagine only the very nostalgic would say they do.
In the same way, I don’t know how anyone couldn’t see that “Seinfeld” is smarter than “Cheers,” or that “Survivor” is more arresting than “Family Feud,” or that “American Idol” clobbers “Star Search.” When I say that the new shows are better, I mean in the same ways that Johnson argues — not based on content, but on brain work. Today’s shows tease your brain in ways that the old shows do not, and you are aware of the difference. We may not have plotted out the shows’ mechanism as well as Johnson has — we can’t say precisely why “ER” is completely different from “St. Elsewhere” — but to me, at least, the difference is clear enough that Johnson’s Sleeper Curve is unsurprising.
As I see it, then, the most interesting question about Johnson’s theory is not whether it’s accurate. It’s why it’s happening — why is media getting smarter, and why are we flocking to media that actually makes us smarter? Johnson examines the question at some length, and he fingers two usual suspects: technology (the VCR, TiVo, DVDs, ever more powerful game systems) and economics (the increasing importance of the syndication market). But I like the third part of his answer best — our media’s getting smarter, he says, because the brain craves intelligent programming.
The dynamic is that of a feedback loop: Today’s media is smarter because yesterday’s media made us smart to begin with. “Dragnet” prepares you for “Starsky and Hutch,” which prepares you for “Hill Street Blues,” which begets “ER,” “The West Wing” and “The Sopranos.” If we’d seen “The West Wing” in the 1980s, we wouldn’t have known what to do with it. Indeed, many people didn’t know what to do with “Hill Street Blues” when it debuted, in the same way that all path-breaking media confound viewers at first. Few people understood the early years of “Seinfeld,” and, today, only a small crew can appreciate the genius of “Arrested Development.”
The amazing thing — and the most hopeful thing in Johnson’s book, and about culture in general — is that the mind challenges itself to understand what’s just out of its reach. After three years of watching “Seinfeld” the nation more or less collectively began to understand the thing. In no time, then, the show lodged itself into the cultural landscape. No longer, after that, could you remark on someone’s sexuality without adding, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that.”
And, whatever else you may have heard, this tells us, once and for all, that we are not stupid.
Farhad Manjoo is a Salon staff writer and the author of True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society.More Farhad Manjoo.
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)