Tuesday, September 13, 2005

It's a Post About Nothing

In an article posted on Slate.com last week, a former writer from the television series Seinfeld is reported to be extremely put-out that some of the dialogue that he had penned for the show, certain memorable phrases that later became adopted in the public vernacular, is showing up in advertising copy.

At first I sympathized. Had the advertisers wanted to use a song he had written in their spots they would have had to pay him for the rights to his creative output. They are under no such financial obligation to use the words “yada, yada, yada” in a Coors Light ad.

But after careful reflection, I now think that he should be flattered that his words have been so ingrained in our society that they can be used in a context totally unrelated to that in which they first were heard, and still resonate positively with the listener.

I’ve quoted or paraphrased lines from Seinfeld in my writing before, but I don’t do so to pass them off as my own. I’m counting on the reader to recognize the words’ origins in an attempt to create a bond based on a shared experience.

In yesterday’s post, I had originally paraphrased a line from a Steve Earle song in the disclosure statement that appeared at the end. But I feared that too few of the people who read this blog would be familiar with the line and, absent that connection, it would sound pretty stupid. And I don’t need Steve Earle’s help to sound stupid, thank you very much.

Referencing pop culture as a means of furthering interpersonal relationships is a form of communication that has been widely adapted by the male of the species.

When I get together with my high school friends, our conversations are peppered with lines from our favorite movies of the 1980s. It is a form of reminiscing that allows us to express our longing for the camaraderie we shared in a bygone day, without having to express any messy or embarrassing sentiments. It can also be quite perplexing to our younger spouses who wonder why we would be repeating the phrase “this is Chuck reminding Bill to shut up… to shut up…reminding Bill to shut up”* when there is neither a Chuck nor a Bill among us. They are also given to wonder under what circumstances, because it certainly isn’t the present one, could “still got the ol’ tagger on it”** be as amusing as we seem to find it.

It’s not surprising that an advertiser would try to capitalize on the emotion that can be stirred through a well-known point of reference in pop culture in order to transfer that good feeling to their product. And in the form that it usually takes in these instances, snippets of dialogue or lyrics, it certainly doesn’t rise to the level of plagiarism or infringement.

As someone who enjoys writing and spends a good deal of time doing so, I always aspire to turn a phrase or come up with a metaphor that is totally my own creation. I may succeed at times, but even when I think that I’ve artfully penned something that it is bound in quintessence and totally my own, chances are that one of those million monkeys that have been made to indiscriminately pound away on typewriters has already claimed authorship. Or Little Richard (“Blogging? You know who was doing that first. Whoooo!!!”)***

Perhaps the bigger joy from writing, however, is discovering a new word or phrase that sings with meaning and then being able to incorporate it into my own work.

Whenever I want to speak ill of someone who lacks social grace, I can describe him, thanks to P.G. Wodehouse, by using the delightful slight “ill-bred bounder.” Or if it’s an unwholesome woman, an “ill-bred harpy.”

The Chicago Tribune’s Eric Zorn introduced me to the flowery, and to my ear somewhat sarcastic, phrase “it has come to a pretty pass” to describe those times when life happens upon a difficult juncture.

There is no need to credit these writers in my work because they too are simply passing them along, albeit in a style more skillfull than most, for our enjoyment.

As much as I detest the inbred unoriginality that causes some writers to blanket their work with tired clich├ęs (the phrase “no brainer” should be stricken from the printed page as if it were the most vulgar of profanities), I also have to recognize that there isn’t a lot of originality left to be had. This extends to all forms of art.

When I heard Pearl Jam perform their song “Given to Fly” this weekend as part of the ReAct Now relief campaign, I thought the same thing that I thought the first time I heard the song: they lifted that melody from Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California.”

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.****


*Night Shift

**This is Spinal Tap

***Barry Sobel



Anonymous said...

Do you remember Pat Riley, he of the slicked-back hair, back in the "Showtime" Laker days, when he tried to copyright the term "three-peat"?

What a moron. That's just bad form--greed plus idiocy. People like that have egos and pocketbooks that will forever be unfulfilled.

BlogFreeSpringfield said...

If I'm not mistaken, Riley did copyright the term and made out quite nicely after the Bulls pulled off the championship trifecta.

It is all a bit unseemly.

Dan M. said...

I think the problem here is that Bush lied to us and is spending all that money in Iraq!

Obviously I don't believe that. I just wanted to see how it felt to easily sum up the problem to an issue that I have no viable, rational solution to. Gosh, it does feel good and it doesn't take much thought at all.

I call it "Drive-Thru Blogging."