The New Classics: Enduring books, shows, moves since 2000

By Slate staff,  Slate (Nov 7 2011)

David Foster Wallace, in his introduction to The Best American Essays 2007, coined a great phrase to describe our contemporary media environment: “Total Noise.” Movies, books, television shows, the journalistic outlets formerly known as newspapers, podcasts, YouTube videos, actual museums, tweets—they all comprise the noise. It’s easy to feel that the cultural world has fractionated into endless niches. Yet, just as in previous decades, there will be those ideas that emerge and endure: the new classics.

The difference now is that the classics are more personalized—there is no longer a mass culture that aids in canon formation. The classics are also more diverse, as high, low, and middlebrow culture have become inextricably twirled and tangled. The new millennium is only 11 years old, but we at Slate became curious—as a thought experiment—about which cultural artifacts since 2000 will speak to future eras. What are the timeless expressions being forged in our noisy moment? Even more important: What are we overlooking that will one day be seen as an essential document of our time? To that end, we asked Slatecontributors to name the new classics in the fields they know best.

“I Gotta Feeling,” The Black Eyed Peas
Nominated by: John Swansburg, Slate culture editor

Some songs become classics because they are the purest expression of the musical movement that produced them. Some songs become classics because they’re just undeniably good. “I Gotta Feeling,” by the Black Eyed Peas, has very little to say about politics or culture; as hip-hop, it can’t compete with Kanye or Lil Wayne; and its goodness is frequently and convincingly denied. Yet the song has entered the canon for the simple reason that it will be played at every wedding you will attend for decades to come.

I mentioned this theory to a Slate colleague recently, who countered that she had forbidden her DJ from playing the song at her nuptials. But that’s my point exactly. “I Gotta Feeling,” like “Brick House” and “Shout” before it, has become so standard that if you don’t want to hear it at your wedding you must affirmatively ban it from the proceedings. (Given the song’s unlikely fondness for Yiddish—there are the mazel tovs in the refrain, plus an easier to miss, auto-tuned l’chaimat one point—it is surely a standard on the bar mitzvah circuit as well.)

Whether you love the song or hate it, you must acknowledge its insidious play for function-hall immortality: It invites an energetic but unskilled style of dance consisting largely of jumping up and down. Its lyrics are vague enough that it can score country-club mixers and sorority house pregaming. It’s easy enough for wedding bands of all stripes to master—soul is rewarded but not required. Most important, it’s infectiously upbeat: After a couple of cocktails, even avowed rockists and penny-loafered uncles by marriage can find themselves won over by its relentless optimism. Who wants to be caught sulking with the salad at Table 4 when “I Gotta Feeling” inevitably strikes up? Are you rooting for it not to be a good night?

Clearview typeface
Nominated by: Julia Turner, Slate deputy editor

Clearview Font Signs. MPD01605 via Wikimedia Commons.

The typeface you’ve probably heard most about lately is Helvetica, the 20th-century sans serif classic that starred in a recent documentary. But Clearview is the young typeface to watch. It was approved in 2004 for use on American road signs as an alternative to the old standard, Highway Gothic, and it’s destined to become a classic thanks to its utility and sheer ubiquity. Clearview was designed to solve a problem: Highway Gothic, which has been in use since the 1940s, has small, cramped lowercase letters that are hard to read on highway signs at night. The creators of Clearview, designer Don Meeker and typographer James Montalbano, sought to minimize “halation”—the glowy halos that appear on letters and make it hard to tell, say, an afrom an e—and thus enhance legibility, and, by extension, road safety. (In the two signs above, you can see the crisper Clearview on the right.) The typeface got its closeup in a New York Times Magazinefeature in 2007, and since then, its use has only increased. Occasionally people squall when Clearview comes to town—New Yorkers objected on nostalgic grounds when the typeface replaced our ALL CAPS street signs earlier this year—but Clearview works, and it looks nice. Odds are it will endure. And one day we’ll be nostalgic for it.

Chronicles, Volume 1
Nominated by: Ron Rosenbaum, Slate columnist

Bob Dylan Chronicles Cover.

In the age of the memoir, one stands out as illuminating and likely to last. When I initially read it, it struck me (as the title of Mary McCarthy’s famous review of Nabokov’s Pale Fire had it) like “a bolt from the blue.” And it has retained its lightning-like luminosity in the seven years since.

I’m speaking of Bob Dylan’s Chronicles, Volume I. Who knew that Dylan, whose previous venture in prose, Tarantula, was almost deliberately impenetrable, could write with such astonishing clarity, taking us back to the matrix of creativity found in New York’s East and West Villages in the early ’60s. Telling great tales in a voice that is distinctively yet unobtrusively literary, and yet rings with tonal echoes of his best storytelling songs. Are all the stories true, all the names real? As they say, it’s too good to fact-check. I’d argue that it’s a rare glimpse of the notoriously taciturn Dylan as he saw himself, and that’s something to be valued.

Whether or not you like Dylan, few aside from Elvis have had as much influence on American culture (and much as I love Elvis, he wasn’t much of a writer). And here Dylan takes us on a tour of the wild array of people and books and places that influenced him, from folkie haunts to haunted folkies to the 42nd Street Public Library in the dead of winter, where Dylan would read century-old abolitionist literature. Nobody has given us a better portrait of New York City and its creative ferment. The city is his greatest character.

And few have taken us inside a musician’s head the way he does in a later chapter in which, touring with the Grateful Dead, he has a transformative musical experience I still can’t quite figure out. But whatever it was they put in his drink—and his head—that time,something seems to have unleashed a hallucinatory beauty in his prose.

“The Star Wars Kid”
Nominated by: Michael Agger, Slate editor

In November of 2002, a pudgy, 15-year-old Canadian teenager named Ghyslain Raza took hold of a golf-ball retriever and videotaped himself swinging the stick around like Darth Maul in The Phantom Menace. Five months later, a classmate made the video available through peer-to-peer networks, and Raza became “The Star Wars Kid,” one of the Web’s first viral stars. Some estimates claim that the original video has been viewed over a billion times. His performance was clumsy, cringe-inducing, but ultimately winning because of the total uninhibited effort on display. Here was everyone’s inner geek, caught in a moment of imaginative rapture.

Not everyone saw it that way. Raza was mocked online. Some of the remixes were cruel: “Every Jedi has a semi-retarded clone …” He became depressed and dropped out of school, telling the New York Times: “People were laughing at me, and it was not funny at all.” His farflung fans rallied to his side, going so far as to buy Raza an iPod and send a letter that read: “Remember, the Internet loves you.” But all the boy wanted was the impossibility that the video had never been made public. He felt both the rush and the sting of Internet virality, a proto-Rebecca Black. While she, and others like her, try hard to capitalize on their popularity, Raza has moved on and is becoming a lawyer.

His video is classic because its story holds both the good and bad of the Internet. For the “new classic,” I choose a remix, since that’s the signature Web video genre of the past decade. Of the hundreds that exist, my nomination goes to “Star Wars Kid Drunken Jedi.” It takes the original video and makes it funnier while also saluting its earnest, out-of-control spirit. So-called “viral” phenomena are best when we are not making one another sick, but rather saluting the unfiltered awesomeness that makes us all smile.

“I’m a Mac/I’m a PC”
Nominated by: Seth Stevenson, Slate ad columnist

Which TV ads will define the past decade? If our cutoff were 1999 instead of 2000, we’d need to discuss the rapturous Volkswagen addepicting—to the strains of Nick Drake’s “Pink Moon”—a quartet of young’uns who eschew a party in favor of an aimless and yet somehow poignant drive on a starry evening. If we were assessing ubiquity as opposed to vitality, we’d be compelled to consider a pair of animal spokesmen: the Geico Lizard (still going strong) and the Aflac Duck (who has lately undergone a sort of forced laryngectomy as a result of Gilbert Gottfried’s imprudence). If clever humor were our sole criterion, I’d vote for Geico’s “Tiny House”—which utterly fooled me into believing it was a promo for an actual reality show. If our judgment hinged on technical perfection, I’d point to a pair of big-budget Nike ads (titled “Awake” and “Move”) in which music and editing conspire to create sublime little flecks of visual art.

But forced to predict which ad campaign will be remembered years from now for exhibiting total mastery of the form, I’ll go with “I’m a Mac/I’m a PC.” Apple’s series of ads portrayed PCs as nerdy cubicle drones and Macs as affable loft-dwelling creatives—using a pair of actors as human stand-ins to represent the competing products. The campaign was so conceptually clear, so fiendishly simple, that it spurred a direct response from a wounded Microsoft marketing team.

had a few problems with the campaign’s initial tone, but many of those were cleared up with the second iteration of the ads. I’ve now come around to believing that the campaign helped not only to send Apple sales zooming, but to forever cement the stark stylistic contrast between the two leading luminaries of personal computing. A decade hence, when we picture Bill Gates and Steve Jobs, will we visualize the men themselves? Or will our mind’s eye conjure John Hodgman in an ill-fitting beige suit and Justin Long in jeans and a hoodie?

The iPod
Nominated by: Farhad Manjoo, Slate technology columnist

Ipod; Apple via Getty Images.

The iPod wouldn’t belong on this list if you were looking at just the thing itself: Sure, it was a really nice music player, it sold like gangbusters, and the scroll wheel—which in later versions turned into the click wheel—was a truly innovative tech interface. Yet the iPod had its heart in the 1980s; it was just a smaller, better Walkman, if you stopped to think about it.

Still, the iPod changed everything in tech. Before the iPod, Apple was a marginal computer company. Afterward, it was a powerhouse, on the way to becoming the biggest, most profitable firm in the business. The iPod taught Apple two things: First, that its seamless, integrated approach—making the software and hardware for a device—worked better in the consumer electronics business than it did in the PC business. Second, that operations matter: The iPod was where Apple perfected its now legendary ability to make lots and lots of devices for very little money. In this way, it set the stage for the iPhone and the iPad, two devices that ushered in the “post-PC” era in tech.

Indirectly, then, you can tie the iPod to much else in tech these days—not just stuff Apple makes, but stuff all of its competitors make, too. If it weren’t for the iPod, you wouldn’t have had the iPhone, hence no App Store, so no Instagram or Angry Birds. But without the iPod, Google’s Android OS would look like the BlackBerry, and there’d be no Kindle Fire, either. You may not think about your trusty old iPod anymore, but remember: It started everything.

Nowhere Man, by Aleksandar Hemon
Nominated by: David Haglund, Slate Brow Beat editor

Nowhere Man Cover

Aleksandar Hemon’s prose is not “luminous” or “spare”; it doesn’t “limn” anything. It is angry, funny, and sad—and full of unexpected word-combinations that convey not just the outside world but an individual’s experience of it: an elevator, for instance, “rife with a woman’s fragrant absence: peachy, skinny, dense.” That scent is detected by the nose of Hemon’s great alter ego, Jozef Pronek, inNowhere Man (2002), Hemon’s best book … so far. Like Hemon, Pronek grew up in Sarajevo, and came to the United States on a visit in his late 20s; he got stuck in Chicago when the Siege of Sarajevo started (as Hemon did). To improve his English, Hemon read Lolita with a dictionary close by, and Nabokov also inspires his stance toward adjectives: “You pile them up until the object is formed completely.”

Or the man: Pronek takes amusing, awkard, angry form in a series of stories with different narrators (Nowhere Man is subtitled “The Pronek Fantasies”) that move freely between his birth (“his crumpled face, dominated by a screaming mouth, like an Expressionist painting”) and adulthood. We observe the “fireworks of universal experiences” as well as “the ephemera, the nethermoments.” Poor and at sea in landlocked Chicago, Pronek works whatever jobs he can; the book’s anger and sadness stem from American indignities as well as Bosnian horrors. Earlier, while studying abroad in Kiev, Pronek happened to meet the first President Bush, who walked “in the long dumb strides of a man whose path had always been secure.” Like most of ours, Pronek’s steps are much less secure, and far more interesting.

Roger Federer
Nominated by: Josh Levin, Slate sports editor

The most impressive thing about Roger Federer is how he makes his admirers nostalgic for an era that he obliterated. Federer’s artful, loping game reminds us of the slo-mo champions of yore, who couldn’t possibly hang in the topspin-and-smash epoch that the Swiss star made his own. Federer is an emissary from the past to the future—and from the future to the past. I believe this shot constitutes proof that time travel is possible. Also, this one. And don’t forget this one, which helped convince Andy Roddick to give up tennis for a career ofsupporting roles in the American Pie movies.

Athletic immortality doesn’t come for free along with a lot of Grand Slam wins—hell, Ivan Lendl won 8 slams and nobody cares about that guy. The true greats make their chosen sport something that it wasn’t, they build a new kind of game on the same court. Lendl won a bunch of titles because he played the same way as everybody else, only better. Federer didn’t play the same as anybody else. He was so much faster, so much more agile, and so successful, that he made the best players in the world look like they were holding their rackets upside down.

David Foster Wallace said this better than I have in his essay “Federer as Religious Experience,” and the fact that DFW said it at all is a good indication that the Federer name will persist long after we forget how to spell Novak Djokovic. Nadal and Djokovic are great. Federer is a paragon. Step aside René Lacoste—the finest shirts of 2100 will bearthe RF logo.

Mulholland Drive
Nominated by: Dana Stevens, Slate movie critic

Mulholland Drive Poster

Being asked to contribute a movie for a hypothetical “new canon” of post-2000 classics immediately plunged me down a rabbit hole of unanswerable questions. What does “canonical” mean in the century after the canon exploded? The whole notion of a fixed pantheon of culturally sanctioned works has been troubled—if not definitively discredited—for a good two decades now. And the ever-increasing number of channels that new media offers people to find, watch, discuss, and create movies for themselves makes that pantheon seem ever more like a dusty echo chamber. So I’ll choose a movie that takes its own dive down multiple narrative rabbit holes: David Lynch’sMulholland Drive (or to use Lynch’s preferred spelling, Mulholland Dr.)

I wouldn’t say Mulholland Dr. is the best movie of the past 10 years—if forced by a gun-wielding list-compiler to name a candidate for that spot, I’d likely name Paul Thomas Anderson’s There Will Be Blood. (Here’s my list of the 10 best movies of the new millennium from late 2010, which includes both films.) But if canon-worthiness is about what works will last as a part of the cultural conversation, Lynch’s slippery, mind-altering tale of murder, betrayal, romantic obsession, and show business has to claim the spot. Almost 10 years to the week since its release in October 2001, Mulholland Dr. can still provoke dinner-length conversations that range from squirrelly debates about plot threads (what is that guy behind the Dumpster at the diner supposed to represent?) to flights of swooning hyperbole (that lip-synching scene at the Club Silencio!). To skip Mulholland Dr. is not only to miss out on two and a half hours of bravura filmmaking, but on dozens more hours of discussions as spiraling and open-ended as the movie itself.

The Ugg
Nominated by: Simon Doonan, Slate fashion critic

Uggs

In the last 10 years the fashion landscape has exploded into a million conflicting and diverse notions and styles. Within the chaos there are certain consistent trendy items that have demonstrated exceptional staying power: examples include the skinny jean, the prominently logo’d handbag, the tattoo, and the cripplingly high sculptural platform shoe. Which item will prove to have the most endurance?

I am betting on the Ugg. (Yes, I know, it wasn’t invented this millennium—but we fashion folk have always been sketchy on details.) The Ugg is the place where comfort meets glamour. The Ugg offers a refuge from the crucifixion of 7-inch heels. The Ugg is democratic. Even the Duchess of Cambridge wears Uggs.

The Clock
Nominated by: Ben Davis, art critic.

I’m not sure that Christian Marclay’s The Clock really needs any more praise. But you also can’t deny it: No single work of visual art of the recent past even comes close to having the same impact. Last year, when it debuted at the London gallery White Cube, it attracted blockbuster crowds. At Paula Cooper in New York, people camped out to experience the full sweep of the 24-hour video installation. “The Clock” has become an immediate touchstone, snapped up by the country’s major museums—LACMA, MoMA, the MFA Boston—and drafted into service at international art spectacles in Japan (the current Yokohama Triennial) and Italy (the Venice Biennale, where it won the Silver Lion for best work on view earlier this year). Evidently,The Clock is capable of touching a truly broad and popular audience as well as the cognoscenti, not something you can say about just any old work of contemporary art.

In essence, The Clock is a single-channel video, usually shown on a large cinema screen, comprised of thousands of short clips from film history—from High Noon to Pineapple Express—stitched together into one epic, free-associative montage. What makes this more than just an overgrown YouTube video is the narrative that unites it all: time. Each clip has been selected because it somehow features a temporal reference, usually in the form of clock somewhere on-screen, with the moment on-screen syncing up to the moment in real time, as you watch it. Thus, as a viewer, you schizophrenically leap from one universe to the next, from drama to horror to comedy and back again, never settling down—but always aware that each moment is chained to the relentless beat of the present. The effect is almost magical: The Clock is both cerebral and visceral, both a mammoth work of pop art and almost spiritual in the way it puts you in touch with time. As a creative achievement, it feels at once completely contemporary but also—to be cute—completely timeless.

The Wire
Nominated by: June Thomas, Slate cultural critic

The Wire Poster

I don’t usually take my TV cues from Jacob Weisberg, but the SlateGroup’s editor in chief was absolutely right when he declared The Wireto be “the best TV show ever broadcast” in this country, because it “portrays the social, political, and economic life of an American city with the scope, observational precision, and moral vision of great literature.” In fact, The Wire could not have existed in any medium but television, where it was given 60 hours and a cast of hundreds to work out its epic sweep. The show’s creator, David Simon, recruited some of the best chroniclers of urban America, including George Pelecanos and Richard Price, to the writing team; and provided great black actors with roles worthy of their talents. (Omar! Bubbles! Prop Joe! Brother Mouzone!) But what elevates The Wire above other great shows of this century (The SopranosMad MenFoyle’s War) was the decision to keep things fresh by focusing each of the five seasons on a different aspect of Baltimore life: the drug trade, the docks, city politics, the school system, and the newspaper industry. If there’s a more disturbing portrait of 21st-century America than Season 4 of The Wire, I’ve yet to encounter it.

The High Line and Brooklyn Bridge Park
Nominated by: Witold Rybczynski, Slate architecture critic

The Skyline. Getty Images.

Product design tends to change so rapidly, and most electronic devices have such a short life that they barely have time to become “classics.” Will anyone remember the iPhone in 50 years? I doubt it—we’ll have something better. Architecture has just gone through the heady mill of an economic boom, which made for many expensive and extravagant buildings, but few, I suspect, that will be greatly admired in the future.  My pick as long-lasting designs are two urban parks. The High Line, not because it will necessarily spawn many imitators, but because it marks a coming together of urbanism, nature, and fashion, in a way that will, I suspect, mark an era. The other, also in New York, is Brooklyn Bridge Park, which will become a model—for creatively reusing industrial urban land. Its low-key design well suits the stringent economic times that seem to be on the horizon. It’s not Central Park, but it’s as close as our generation will get.

Avenging Angel, by Craig Taborn
Nominated by: Seth Colter Walls, jazz critic

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During an interview with Jason Moran, right after the jazz pianist’s receipt of a MacArthur “genius” grant in 2010, I asked him to free-associate about some of his contemporaries. He seemed diplomatically taciturn in several cases, though when I asked Moran for his thoughts about Craig Taborn, he paused and shifted to real talk. “Everyone who plays piano knows what Craig is doing,” Moran told me, with what felt like awe.

But that’s not the same thing as the ideal number of people knowing about what Craig Taborn is doing. In part, the pianist has been to blame. While he’s recorded as a sideman on a dizzyingly diverse (and high-quality) number of albums that runs into the dozens, until this year’s solo CD Avenging Angel, he hadn’t put out anything under his own name since 2004.

It was worth the wait. Wholly improvised but rigorously controlled, the 70-plus-minute set of Taborn at a grand piano bears an incredible, unmistakable intensity—even when Taborn is just barely pressing the hammers to the strings. As the contemplative minimalism of opening track “The Broad Day King” gives way to the dreamy sustain of “Glossolalia,” you’ll be hard-pressed to recall any other jagged left turn executed with comparable fluidity. And when Taborn—a powerful keyboard-abuser—finally does start in with the contrapuntal pounding (during the title track, among others), Avenging Angel doesn’t just seem like an “album of the year” candidate, but something destined to have one of those “crown” icons next to its four-star rating in the 30thPenguin Guide to Jazz, however many years from now. Anyone who wonders why their “indie” music has become so familiar as to be arguably equated with “adult contemporary” should take a tour of Taborn’s sound-world: a place where echoes of Debussy, ’70s AACM-school jazz, and minimal techno collide with a force that could easily preclude intelligibility. In Taborn’s hands, that radical chorus really sings.

“Marlboro Marine,” by Luis Sinco
Nominated by: Heather Murphy, Slate photo editor

Luis Sinco's Marlboro Marine, Courtesy L.A. Times

Many enormously talented photojournalists have risked their lives to cover the war in Iraq. As a result, millions of powerful photos emerged. Sadly, as the war dragged on and on—and then was overshadowed by Afghanistan, the images began to blend together, one bloody combat mission fading into another, one young soldier indistinguishable from the next.

Except for Luis Sinco’s Marlboro Marine. Thirty years from now, his smudged face will continue to stand apart from all the other smudged faces. Marine Lance Cpl. James Blake Miller (his real name) is the “Afghan Girl” of the 2000s. As he struggles with his post-combat nightmares over the coming decades, he’ll smoke his way through textbooks, posters, and documentaries.

Calling out a single photo as “the new classic” is an impossible task. Each genre of photography has its own classics. Sinco’s photo, emblazoned in the minds of millions as it hit the covers of more than 150 newspapers in 2004, is just one of many.

It’s been a decade of radical digital change in photography. Talking to friends in the photo world about this project, many suggested iPhone photos taken with Hipstamatic filters as the new classic. I was tempted to agree. But then I realized that a classic is not a trend or style, it is a single undistinguishable image that will live on, whether we want it to or not. There have been many significant cellphone photos throughout the last few years, but with the exception of perhaps the amateur shotof the “Miracle on the Hudson,” have we seen many that will still be discussed in 50 years?

One thought on “The New Classics: Enduring books, shows, moves since 2000

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