Pop Culture Trending Topics - What do they mean for us?

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There’s a number of pop-culture topics that are or were trendy. They reappear time and again in a number of different mediums. We all know them. My question is, WHY do they reappear? Where do the crazes come from? I think it’s too easy to put it off to the mysteries of the subconscious, or worse, nothing at all. Some topics have a very specific origin, like Lord of the Rings and its various knockoffs, where we know that the books eventually inspired the movies and the movies inspired everything else. But a lot of topics just suddenly become important, for no apparent reason. Why?

For example,

Why are we in love with zombies? You see references about them in movies, games, tv shows, even actual news stories etc. They had their heyday in Night of the Living Dead late 60s era, but even then it was confined to film. Does the zombie craze mean anything? Is it symbolic of a need in our culture? One theory I heard is that it represents post-9/11 anger, struggle to fight an enemy. Or maybe it’s a dehumanization campaign, instead of killing monsters or nazis we’re killing former citizens who’ve been Othered. Does the vampire craze follow into this or does that mean something different?

Kong Games: Road of the Dead, Rebuild

Another example,

Steampunk. For those who don’t exactly know, steampunk is victorian fashion and culture combined with retro technology, usually but not always steam-powered. This one might already be passing into obscurity. What I find strangest about it is, why *steam*punk particularly? Not many people know that steampunk has siblings: cyberpunk and Biopunk, the latter which edges closer to transhumanism than any of the others. Biopunk’s relatively recent (think Bioshock), but cyberpunk was popularized in the 80s, and then just…vanished. What was it that hooked us into steampunk and not the others? Is it that steampunk is ‘safer’? Cyberpunk and Biopunk usually have noire, dystopian settings, whereas steampunk often has a utopian quality to it closely tied to Victorian ideals of the pinnacle of social progress.

Kong Games: Tesla Death Ray, Remnants of Skystone

Feel free to add others.

NB: Please don’t just list your favorite genre game. I added games just to give a better visual clue, and after all we are on a flash game site. Really, don’t. I actually hate Skystone but it’s the most steampunk-y game on Kong.

 
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Steampunk usually forgets the punk aspect of it (punk suffix being that the story should place emphasis on the lower classes and inequality/problems inherent in the system) and acts a wish-fulfillment fantasy for racist nerds who want to live in a time where there was even greater divide between the wealthy and the poor (with the steampunk fans imagining their position in society as being one of the elites or captains of industry). It’s also a highly imperialistic fantasy. Liking steampunk beyond the bare visual aesthetic is a character flaw and usually a sign of larger character flaws. It is a conservative fantasy at its core. Steampunk is a regressive utopian setting (looking at the past and whitewashing the negatives) whereas cyberpunk is progressive distopian (looking to the future and seeing how certain trends of the moment could lead to inequality and ruin). I’d argue that the reason we don’t see many cyberpunk novels any more is because computers and the internet have become a routine part of life and a lot of the issues (barring transhumanist ideas) have already come to pass.

Zombies on the other hand really vary depending on where and how they’re used, but mostly it’s as a way to justify voyeuristic violence against human-like creatures. In films, slow moving zombies are a good device for drama/tension as the only way for someone to be caught and killed is when they actively fuck up (and since these films usually focus on groups, it’s a lack of cooperation that causes it). In World War Z (the movie) they were used to signify the main character’s inability to readjust to home life after working in some form of military organisation. In the opening scenes of the film, he is casually talking about how he just got back from serving (setting the context for the imagery in place), asked by his wife if he’s ok being a house-husband with a far slower pace of life and finally shown stuck in a traffic jam when the zombies do come (p. obv imagery there). The zombies serve as a device to keep him moving and get him back to his old adrenaline filled lifestyle; they are his demons and fears, his inability to reintegrate into society. (the movie was p fucking bad aside from that) Plenty of works don’t use them in these ways, or really justify having them be zombies at all beyond it being a human-like monster that’s fair game to kill.

(on a quasi-related note: Bioshock Infinite is basically a steampunk setting and it is by far one of the most racist and classist works I’ve seen. That it gets such high accolades for its keep the darkies down subtext and meaningless pulpy sci-fi story outside of that shows how devoid of critical analysis nerd “culture” is. It exemplifies the worst aspects of steampunk)

 
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But a lot of topics just suddenly become important, for no apparent reason. Why? For example,

Resonating with a mainstream or fringe feeling. Whether consciously or subconsciously. Beyond any general vogue trending.

Why are we in love with zombies? You see references about them in movies, games, tv shows, even actual news stories etc. They had their heyday in Night of the Living Dead late 60s era, but even then it was confined to film. Does the zombie craze mean anything? Is it symbolic of a need in our culture? One theory I heard is that it represents post-9/11 anger, struggle to fight an enemy. Or maybe it’s a dehumanization campaign, instead of killing monsters or nazis we’re killing former citizens who’ve been Othered. Does the vampire craze follow into this or does that mean something different?

Zombies, to my ken, are analogous to the message and themes in Fight Club. Zombies are the cure to contemporary urban ennui, they bring the jungle back into the old concrete jungle. It’s about survivalism, it’s about suddenly making everything important. The windows in your house? Vital. Your friends? Vital. It’s adds a peculiar glamour, magic, to the great blah of quiet consumerism. It takes physical aggression, it takes survival skills, it takes a team of super buddies, it’s the perfect combination of physical contest, tribalism, and nesting. It’s about man getting the justification to fight against nature and one another. It’s pretty much the army.

As for vampires? Well, hell, that’s hard. Vampires have changed so much in the past little while, and I would say partly because they were so profoundly whitewashed. I think a lot of it would be the idea of being exceptional. Of being made better, stronger, faster, sexier. But that being tempered with moral constraints, rage, lust, gluttony, pride, all the classics. I suppose the idea of empowered beings still subject to mortal failings, equally exaggerated moral failings.

Steampunk. For those who don’t exactly know, steampunk is victorian fashion and culture combined with retro technology, usually but not always steam-powered. This one might already be passing into obscurity. What I find strangest about it is, why *steam*punk particularly? Not many people know that steampunk has siblings: cyberpunk and Biopunk, the latter which edges closer to transhumanism than any of the others. Biopunk’s relatively recent (think Bioshock), but cyberpunk was popularized in the 80s, and then just…vanished. What was it that hooked us into steampunk and not the others? Is it that steampunk is ‘safer’? Cyberpunk and Biopunk usually have noire, dystopian settings, whereas steampunk often has a utopian quality to it closely tied to Victorian ideals of the pinnacle of social progress.

I think Steampunk is trending pretty well still. Which makes me grumble, but ah well. First I think there is an element of nostalgia, especially in the contraption’y ness of it. Technology is portrayed as simple, charming and aesthetically pleasant. Same with decorum, it’s throw back to social structures that are polite, formal, organized. It’s different, but not too different. But, by and large it’s something I feel I’ve never quite ‘got’.

Now Cyberpunk isn’t vanished, it’s now! :D I think people would be hard pressed to press the technology aspect. We’ve hit an imaginative wall. The doom and gloom predictions were still, well, predictions. The rapid, constant acceleration of our technological abilities I think has killed the genre beyond just repeating cliche’s. William Gibson, whom I adore, and arguably the crowned saint of Cyberpunk doesn’t write it anymore. He has suggested that science fiction is nearly impossible in the contemporary climate, that we’re still working on making sense out of Now, let alone worry about later. So he doesn’t write it anymore. He makes some lovely, deeply techy, deeply material books still but they’re all unabashedly contemporary.

Biopunk is new to me, and I will have to look into. Seems very interesting however.

 
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One theory I heard is that it represents post-9/11 anger, struggle to fight an enemy.

It’s not a phenomenom exclusive to the US, so this hypothesis fails to explain the zombie craze in Brazil, for example. A good way out would be claiming that the US’s pop culture dictates many aspects of the Western pop culture – so this zombie thing could have originated there as a result of 9/11 and then spread around. I do find this hypothesis very implausible, though!

 
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Zombies are popular to use in games/movies because they’re human, but it is not immoral to kill them, hence making them very easy to use;
they require(or are usually given) little explanation/personality compared to vampires/werewolfs, basically the undead without a story.

Vampires are more pact-with-the-devilish, going to the dark side, taking/receiving power, having a dark secret/weakness;
much more personal, and much more about making a moral choice.

tl,dr; vampire = main character, zombie = cannon fodder.

i know little about steampunk and never heard of the other two, but i suppose being able to imagine a machine’s workings is part of it’s attraction.

 
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They mean that stupid people will buy terrible games because they have {recent fad} in them.

 
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A quick look at Wiki reveals that vampires have been a popular subject with writers up to and including Goethe for the thick end of three hundred years. The article also mentions the vampire craze of the 1720s and 1730s, so this is by no means a recent phenomenon. Cheap vampire films made Christopher Lee (Saruman) a star in the 1960s – we used to love the old Hammer Horror films, and would move heaven and earth to bullshit our way into the cinemas, even though we were technically too young to watch them.

The Wiki article on Zombie literature quotes this little gem from the Legend of Gilgamesh, nearly four thousand years old:-

I will knock down the Gates of the Netherworld,I will smash the door posts, and leave the doors flat down,and will let the dead go up to eat the living!And the dead will outnumber the living!

Tales of necromancy and the dead rising have been popular down the ages – even the Bible has the story of Lazarus – so although not strictly speaking zombies, related themes have been used since the dawn of writing, probably even longer than that. As for post 9/11 anger, we’re not really angry about it at all on this side of the pond – never were really – but we still like a good undead film.

I had heard of steampunk, but didn’t really know anything about. It immediately put me in mind of Heath Robinson and his complex machines designed to do trivial jobs, a theme which was revived in Wallace and Gromit. And in one of the Back to the Future films, didn’t the scientist bloke turn a steam locomotive into a time machine? So it looks like steampunk has just latched on to existing ideas. As someone who likes all things mechanical and industrial, I’m now in danger of wasting countless hours on something I know nothing about a week ago. Thanks for that!

 
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A quick look at Wiki reveals that vampires have been a popular subject with writers up to and including Goethe for the thick end of three hundred years. The article also mentions the vampire craze of the 1720s and 1730s, so this is by no means a recent phenomenon. Cheap vampire films made Christopher Lee (Saruman) a star in the 1960s – we used to love the old Hammer Horror films, and would move heaven and earth to bullshit our way into the cinemas, even though we were technically too young to watch them.

The Wiki article on Zombie literature quotes this little gem from the Legend of Gilgamesh, nearly four thousand years old:-

I will knock down the Gates of the Netherworld,I will smash the door posts, and leave the doors flat down,and will let the dead go up to eat the living!And the dead will outnumber the living!

Tales of necromancy and the dead rising have been popular down the ages – even the Bible has the story of Lazarus – so although not strictly speaking zombies, related themes have been used since the dawn of writing, probably even longer than that. As for post 9/11 anger, we’re not really angry about it at all on this side of the pond – never were really – but we still like a good undead film.

I see vampires as the only exception here. Vampires have been consistently transcending mediums since the ‘30s. They’ve been in radio, books, TV and movies all at the same time for more than just the current era. None of the others have that in common. Zombies, as defined as zombies don’t predate the 60s. The zombie-Jesus/Zombie-Lazarus connection originates maybe as late as 20 years after that.

Don’t really have anything to add to any of the other comments; it all sounds really insightful…although nothing I’ve heard quite gets at the recursive element to these topics. That is, why do they keep coming back? I’d actually agree with Ung – Cyberpunk is not dead, just found a new author using the genre.

I do find this hypothesis very implausible, though!

I’m not sure I buy it either. I think the better argument might be that it represents a deep loathing for the mundane. Shaun of the Dead points this out pretty baldly.

NB:

And in one of the Back to the Future films, didn’t the scientist bloke turn a steam locomotive into a time machine? So it looks like steampunk has just latched on to existing ideas.

Actually, steampunk originated IN the victorian era (did I mention that?), so it actually pre-dates any existing ideas on the subject. I read an anthology that had different steampunk stories in it written by victorian authors, can’t find the title on amazon, but I did see this

 
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…although nothing I’ve heard quite gets at the recursive element to these topics. That is, why do they keep coming back?

Could it be that we all simply enjoy a scary story, we like being frightened in a controlled way. While vampires and zombies may be a relatively modern version, ghost stories and horror stories about the dead rising have always been part of human culture. The Christian religion is founded on one such story. Even stories of the seasonal cycle have been dressed up in the same way – Sir Gawain’s green knight, John Barleycorn and so on.

Vampires are here to stay. Dracula and his ilk are generally presented as downright sexy, which is only going to increase their popularity. And I quite like urine and Ung’s take on zombies; they bring back the law of the jungle, and we can feed them to the mincing machine with no feelings of guilt. Cowboys and Indians used to do the same job until we realised that in reality the Indians actually had a pretty shitty deal. But zombies need to be laid to rest permanently, and there’s no downside to killing them, no guilt, no sense of loss. We don’t need to engage our brain, just sit back and enjoy a couple of hours of mindless mayhem. It’s easy entertainment.

 
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I don’t really have much of an opinion on this, but I do disagree that steampunk is the way you phrased it Urine*. Not that I have any heavy exposure or notable interest in the genre, I don’t see anything inherent within the idea that promotes the views you attributed to it. Sure, it could be used that way, but really so could anything else.

Edit: Not paying much attention to this thread and mixed up who said what. Corrected.

 
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What do they mean for us? That we’re going to have a lot of twerking shoved down our throats.

But seriously, I think the crazes come from the human desire to evolve in a creative sense, and find something new or revolutionary. The only thing is, there are only so many ideas, and at a certain point people either start to find new and inventive ways of presenting these ideas, or they recycle them.

I’ve seen a lot of recycling in some of the songs that have come out lately that have just been remakes of older songs. Another example I’ve seen of recycling is that every 20-30 years or so the same fashions come back around. In the mid 2000’s, there seemed to be a resurgence of 60’s and 70’s styles. Lately, I’ve seen the 80’s making a comeback; my kids are now finding fashionable the type of bold colored angular stuff I used to find appealing in the 2nd grade.

An example I’ve seen of new ways of presenting ideas could come back to, I suppose, vampires and zombies. With the release of Warm Bodies, a new idea was presented in the form of a zombie “romance”, where the zombie was redeemable and for once the protagonist. With the release of the Twilight series (because I’m a Twilight Ninja after all :-) the author threw around some new ideas that hadn’t been broached with the vampire lore before, such as ability to withstand sunlight, reproduce, and immunity to stakes through the heart. Stuff like that.

 
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Zombies
I think zombies are really getting popular nowadays because we as individuals are competing with another and interacting with each other more than ever in this modern world, and yet real emotional connection remains just as elusive, if not more so.

When we observe strangers in the street, going about their business, their business is meaningless to us; strangers, functionally speaking, do little more than take up bus seats and cut you off in traffic, so zombies are incapable of anything beyond shambling endlessly, lacking all motivation and purpose. Strangers, unlike the close friends and family who we imagine would be alongside us in a zombie apocalypse, are nothing but obstacles and sources of hassle.

Because of this, we grow to hate the general public. The way I see it, every zombie you shoot is a metaphor for the guy in front of you in line at the DMV.

That’s why in Warm Bodies, the cure for the zombie virus is losing that misanthropy and falling in love with humanity again, and, in the movie, that notion felt completely intuitive.

Steampunk
In our cultural memory, the Victorian senses of idealism and manifest destiny to rule and understand the world were blunted by World War I and the ensuing cynicism, anti-capitalist and anti-colonialist revolutions, and the general development of the modern world.

Steampunk, is, essentially, what the world would be like, had that Victorian delusion been correct. The most feverish endeavors of the nineteenth century are made flesh, as if we enjoy seeing the Victorians succeed. If you’ve read Heart of Darkness, imagine its portrayal of Western society as an empty husk, doomed to peter out into pathetic oblivion and be swallowed up by the darkness beyond. If Heart of Darkness is to be a critique, steampunk is to be denying that critique, because it’s more fun to pretend Victorianism had a chance.

The Hunger Games…is about college applications. Seriously, there’s no doubt.

-Teenagers are forced to ruthlessly fight to the death to achieve the ultimate prize: prosperity and happiness for the rest of their lives. Anyone who fails is as good as dead. Literally.
-To make the metaphor even more obvious, the teenagers must fight to the death in front of panels of judges in order to gain the aid they need to survive.
-Some of the teenagers have an unfair advantage because they’ve trained their entire lives, but the protagonist has homegrown skills that mean she’s got a real chance. Readers like to imagine themselves to be the protagonist; you do the math.
-When you’re in the Games, no one is your friend. Everyone is your competition.
-This whole debacle is set up to appease a repressive upper class whose teenagers get what they want without ever really needing to work for it at all. They all dress like Lady GaGa and/or Nicki Minaj.
-The disillusionment with the way this world works is palpable, and boils over at the end of the book.

Seems like an open-and-shut case to me.

My questions for you all:
Why do little girls like horses, when little boys aren’t nearly as interested?
Why does male pregnancy fanfiction exist?

 
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As to the OP, these things are vehicles. Even Romero’s zombies changed meaning when he was working with them. It’s whatever is convenient at the time. You need hordes? Zombies. You want loners? Vampires. Why did steampunk stay and cyberpunk go? I think that’s already been explained well enough (in part, anyways) by urine420- we got our cyberpunkiness. Nostalgia, on the other hand, has been surging as I imagine it tends to do during times of turmoil (even though that’s arguably not even a thing, but whatever).

Originally posted by urine420:


Steampunk usually forgets the punk aspect of it (punk suffix being that the story should place emphasis on the lower classes and inequality/problems inherent in the system) and acts a wish-fulfillment fantasy for racist nerds who want to live in a time where there was even greater divide between the wealthy and the poor (with the steampunk fans imagining their position in society as being one of the elites or captains of industry).

I think you’re being a bit to critical of steampunk culture. There are plenty of works considered steampunk that aren’t whitewashing the past- Mortal Engines sure as hell isn’t praising the ruling class in those novels. It’s what the author does with the material. I’m sure there are some people out there overlooking the negative, but steampunk novels do not have to be utopian by any means.

(on a quasi-related note: Bioshock Infinite is basically a steampunk setting and it is by far one of the most racist and classist works I’ve seen. That it gets such high accolades for its keep the darkies down subtext and meaningless pulpy sci-fi story outside of that shows how devoid of critical analysis nerd “culture” is. It exemplifies the worst aspects of steampunk)

And here I think you’re just missing the point. Yeah, there were racist sub-themes. The main characters participated in a freaking massacre of Native Americans, and it haunts the shit out of him throughout the game. There are totally unrepentant characters, and they’re, shockingly, the bad guys in the game. It’s a criticism of American’s beliefs during that time period, and especially by hammering on some issues that are still prevalent today (immigration, for one) it can even be argued that they’re taking shots at current cultural trends.

 
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Why do little girls like horses, when little boys aren’t nearly as interested?

That’s a doozy. I swear there is a masturbatory element, also a slightly archaic level of domination and command accessible to the female sphere. Also as horses became a luxury item as opposed to a work item, it would linger longer in the luxury cultural spheres which for that time would have a preponderance of women. Lastly, for our modern culture I’d suggest a bit of a feedback loop, it’s just engrained as an intrinsic assumption.

Look at cultures where horses have retained, or at the time, had an active military or labour role. Horses become a masculine infatuation.

Why does male pregnancy fanfiction exist?

Why not? It’s immediately transgressive and related to the erotic, it seems a fair enough reach. It’s pretty conceivable while being impossible. Now, what sort of semiotic mileage are we getting out of it? That might be a longer story.

 
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Steampunk is still very much a sub-culture, but the fascination lies in an escape from the digital technology which has so completely dominated our daily lives.

Zombies however, seem to represent mindless conformity. The struggle of survivors is to protect themselves from the soulless hoard, and to safeguard the divine spark of individuality, creativity, and humanity. In a strange irony however, after hitting the mainstream, many of us have become zombie zombies.

 
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Originally posted by 1132:


And here I think you’re just missing the point. Yeah, there were racist sub-themes. The main characters participated in a freaking massacre of Native Americans, and it haunts the shit out of him throughout the game. There are totally unrepentant characters, and they’re, shockingly, the bad guys in the game. It’s a criticism of American’s beliefs during that time period, and especially by hammering on some issues that are still prevalent today (immigration, for one) it can even be argued that they’re taking shots at current cultural trends.

The issue with BS:I is that it insists on a truth in the middle approach. The oppressing class oppresses the oppressed in the first half of the game, but as soon as the oppressed (blacks/irish/etc) win control, they become the villain (which vindicates the original oppressers). Having the main character become opposed to the revolution, means that the game ultimately wants you to believe that the oppression of minorities and maintenance of the status quo is in the best interest of all. Or, it would mean that if the game didn’t disappear up its own arsehole with the time travel/alternate universe shit. Viewing the piece separate from the sci-fi elements, it is pro-oppression; as a whole, it is a clusterfuck of poor ideas.

 
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I’m pretty much in agreement with the idea of steampunk being the white boy’s fantasy…it answers alot of niggling questions about the genre. Not so sure about Bioshock; it seems a lot more ironic than most steampunk I’ve seen.

 
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Originally posted by Jantonaitis:

I’m pretty much in agreement with the idea of steampunk being the white boy’s fantasy…it answers alot of niggling questions about the genre. Not so sure about Bioshock; it seems a lot more ironic than most steampunk I’ve seen.

A white boy’s fantasy? I personally know quite a few girls who like steampunk, though the emphasis is (as one might expect) more on the fashions and dashing Byronic heroes than the steam-cyborgs and mega wars. Race isn’t much of an obstacle either.

It might be more accurate to deem it a fantasy of disillusioned Western youth.