Unwiring the culture

Culture | Cyberpunks, wimps, DJs, and other cultural buzz

Issue: "Not-so-smart bombs," April 24, 1999

Science fiction theology
The Matrix (Warner Bros.; rated R for virtual reality violence) may be the toniest sci-movie ever made. It debuted at No. 1, grossed $44.6 million in its first full week in theaters, and is singlehandly bringing back cyberpunk and the career of Keanu Reeves. The star plays Neo, a computer hacker who has stumbled across a dark secret: Life is just a computer-generated simulation imposed on us by machines that breed, enslave, and consume us. The Reeves character winds up playing Luke Skywalker to Morpheus, an Obi-Wan-like figure played by Laurence Fishburne. Morpheus teaches that since the normal world is just a piece of software, nothing "really" exists. Neo learns he can do everything from spoon-bending to zero-gravity kung fu just by using his mind to manipulate the Force, er, the Matrix. The two men, plus a woman named Trinity, must save the city of Zion (yes, Zion) from the machines. Throughout, Christian symbolism abounds. Mr. Reeves is portrayed as a Messiah figure, with Mr. Fishburne as his John the Baptist. The Matrix is one of those movies that is bound to start endless philosophical discussions. It gives Christians an opportunity to explain the reality of existence, despite all the cyberpunk rhetoric about how reality is just a bunch of electrical impulses fed into our brains. That cyberpunk philosophy has gained popularity through a whole pile of novels by William Gibson, Neal Stephenson, and Bruce Sterling. The book TechGnosis, reviewed in WORLD (The Buzz, Feb. 27, 1999), explains how this philosophy has driven a major chunk of Internet culture. Yet The Matrix doesn't entirely invoke a world that is nothing but meat machines. If the characters are trapped-like contemporary Americans-inside an electronically created world of fakery, there is still a reality that exists beyond their perception. Unlike The Matrix's people, we don't live in an electronically created world of fakery, but in a real world that is in rebellion against God. The wimpy husband motif
For a whole generation now, a plague-a disease called Wimpy Dad Syndrome-has stalked the movies: These days, an endless stream of movies from Stepmom to The Other Sister feature weak-willed husbands who can be counted on to show no backbone through whatever crisis faces the family. An example of this is a Neil Simon comedy remake called The Out-of-Towners (Paramount; rated PG-13 for some sex and drug-related humor). This one gives us an unusually strong actor as Wimpy Dad: Steve Martin. He just can't seem to handle life as an empty-nester. Most of the movie is slapstick about how he and his wife (Goldie Hawn) fly to New York for a job interview and everything goes wrong. All this is juxtaposed with another plot about how Wimpy Dad can't tell his wife that he lost his job. She has her own secret: She gave their daughter one of their credit cards. This offspring dropped out of medical school to study acting, then maxed out the card. When Dad can't use the card to get their hotel room, the whole story pops out. Naturally, when his wife scolds him for getting upset, he's left speechless. After all, the young woman just wants to follow their dreams. This is just one stop on this great trek that saves their flagging marriage. The wife cons, cheats, and blackmails her way through a mad night in the big city. Since the pair never had anything to talk about for years, a New York disaster is apparently just the thing to add that special spark to a marriage. The end of the top 40
One of America's biggest pop culture institutions has quietly vanished: Top-40 radio. For decades, Americans picked up the latest tunes from a powerhouse radio station and heard big-voice DJs like Gary Owens, Bobby Ocean, Charlie Tuna, Wolfman Jack, and even young Rush Limbaugh. The stations were aimed at everybody, and they fought enormous battles against competing stations for ad dollars. On such stations, one could hear The Beatles, The Osmonds, Black Sabbath, and The Carpenters while waiting for the chance to be caller seven and win the latest prize du jour. The stations were kept peppy and lively to keep the audience tuned in. Pop music guru Ben Fong-Torres documents the Top-40 heyday in The Hits Just Keep On Coming (Miler Freeman). The author tells how rock 'n' roll saved radio from death at the hands of television. By hiring a sugar-tongued announcer to host a tight playlist of popular tunes, stations found a new formula for success. The DJs themselves were the most hypnotized by their own work. Stressed-out and usually underpaid, the jocks worked relentlessly to make the big time in a big city like New York or L.A. Often this road to stardom had some major potholes, like drugs, divorce, and that special form of bribery known as payola. What Mr. Fong-Torres only briefly discusses is why Top-40 is going away. The variety of possible formats today is so broad that there isn't room for them all. And rap music so dominates the singles charts today that many station programmers won't touch a format that literally plays the top 40 songs of the week. Add the fact that rock is losing market share among teens, and it's easy to see why Don Imus doesn't play records anymore. On the other hand, the Internet radio features over 100 different sounds without the interruption of commercials or DJs.

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