Saturday, January 9, 2010

High Diction, Low Diction and a Melange of Memes

Tonight, I took my kids to see Avatar (it was too long for them; it took half our day!).

I hadn't intended on seeing this film; in fact, I had been sort of weirded-out by the freaky blue people with cat noses when I saw innumerable previews. But, since the world has been flocking to Avatar and it's rising to meet Titanic's box office record, and everyone is talking about it, I thought: better catch up and form my own opinion so I know what I'm talking about--or so that I can talk about it.

NPR recently ran a very clever article criticizing both Avatar and Ke$ha's party pop song, "Tik Tok," as hopelessly derivative. ("Avatar and Ke$ha: A Denominator in Common?" By Neda Ulaby and Zoe Chace.

I had my students read this piece because I think it illustrates how ignoring the old rules of academic essay writing and taking risks can lead to far more engaging pieces.

One thing I love about the NPR essay is that its form echoes its content in a way that is surprisingly witty.

For example, Ulaby and Chace write, "Admit it: If you've seen Avatar, weren't you sort of overwhelmed by how everything in the story has been in some other movie? Pocahontas, The Last of the Mohicans, the Smurfs. (OMG, we love the Smurfs.) It's like some unholy mashup of those movies, plus bits of Wall-E, Thundercats, Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, Lawrence of Arabia — every colonialist fantasy in which an Outsider Saves Natives..."

The NPR essay is about the mixture of influences and it mixes low and high diction in a similar "mashup."

I love to do this myself; sometimes I am criticized for it, but I love the jarring effect of this technique, and it hardly ever fails to amuse me.

You can see the high and low diction here. Ulaby and Chace write:

"Lyrically, Ke$ha's reference points are a weird jumble of cultural references: She calls out P. Diddy as her baller role model, and only wants to ride with boys who look like Mick Jagger? The aesthetic of her video is hardcore '80s, but her voice is totally Britney. She looks like a cracked-out Taylor Swift...

Now, pastiche is a tricky thing. One person's pastiche might come off as slick and smart, while another's is just derivative. Blaxploitation movies — you know, movies that took every racist stereotype that black actors had been traditionally playing in the movies and put them together into one big superfly extravaganza...

The trouble with Ke$ha is that she's channeling pop and hip-hop memes without adding any personal commentary or insight of her own. And if you're just employing a bunch of played-out old tropes without trying to make a larger point, you're just tired."

I had a good time with my students discussing (well, first explaining some of the words and then discussing) the diction. Cracked-out, pastiche; derivative; superfly; Blaxploitation; memes; and tropes.

What an unholy mashup of words! No, really, I thought it was rather brilliant.

The authors of this essay showed us exactly what they were telling us. They demonstrated the jarring effect of mixing influences, and also appealed to us with memes that have practically become archetypal.

I want to see my students do the same. Playing with ideas and fooling around with language can lead to bold, persuasive, insightful pieces of writing that engage readers in a delightful way.

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