High Fidelity, Pillow Talk, The Music Man: on technology and on ideas that rhyme, but then don’t

Hey, this looks like a piece about old movies, and it starts out that way, but it’s also about how to think about technology. I even throw in a little Douglas Adams at the end.

Ideas can rhyme like words do. When words rhyme, the rhyme helps us position ourselves inside a poem: we know we’re at the end of a line when the rhyme happens. Rhyme’s spatial nature makes us pay attention to a similarity that doesn’t mean anything most of the time. “Bed” always sounds like “dead,” but we only notice — we only think it means something — when and where both words come at the end of nearby lines in a poem or song in a rhyme.

When ideas rhyme, the rhyme helps us position ourselves inside a story, fictional or non-fictional. Ideas that rhyme* are building blocks for analogies.

Here’s what I mean: one night some years back on a driving trip with my then-eight-year-old daughter we took in a show at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival. The classical plays were all too dark (Macbeth) or esoteric (King Henry VIII) to choose as a little girl’s first introduction to Shakespeare, so instead I took her to The Music Man thinking that this 1950s musical set in the early years of the twentieth century would be more approachable for my twenty-first century kid.

Boy, was I wrong. The gap separating her everyday experience from The Music Man was no narrower than if I’d shown her the Thane of Cawdor’s ancient Scotland. River City, Iowa, after all, is so sleepy that when the Wells Fargo wagon arrives the whole town breaks into celebratory song. Try that today and the UPS guy will floor the big brown truck.

Little about The Music Man resonated with H since the plot depends on information paucity: con artist Harold Hill is able to fleece town after town because the towns don’t have ready communications with each other; Marian the Librarian has to send a letter to Gary, Indiana to determine when the music conservatory there was founded… and then she waits for most of the play to get the answer. There may be trouble in River City, but there’s not a lot of information.

In contrast, at eight H had grown up in an information superabundant world with Google, email, hundreds of TV channels, infinite options online, books aplenty, music streaming from every direction, and frequent Amazon deliveries to our doorstep although not yet by drone. Today, with mobile and social media there’s even more.

When you’re working with ideas that rhyme you can understand stories that don’t bear a lot of resemblance to your own life because there are structures buried inside the narrative ecosystems that look a lot like the structures buried inside your own life.

When we saw The Music Man, H had just finished second grade and was about to enter third. The main reason H could appreciate The Music Man at all, which she did, was that going to elementary, middle and high school today is a lot like River City. The shapes of the experiences rhyme with each other: the same people milling about the same claustrophobia-inducing place doing the same stuff day after day… just with the addition of a barbershop quartet.

What interests me is when ideas stop rhyming. As a researcher and futurist, I’m always on the lookout for cultural narratives that stop making easy sense as everyday life changes. I use those transitions to dig into how our lives are changing as technology and culture do an evolutionary dance with each other.

This isn’t just a matter of having lived your entire life with Batman as a dark movie character (Christian Bale) rather than the sunny TV one (Adam West) your parents remember with happy smiles — the sort of thing that the Beloit Mindset list captures each fall. My kids have no trouble watching the 1960s Batman TV show with me and understanding it, even though they think I’m ridiculous for loving it.

Instead, I’m talking about stories that dwindle into inaccessibility because the audience no longer shares enough context with the story to understand it without footnotes — like trying to rhyme “bed” and “guava.” Indeed, the very presence of footnotes is a clear sign that a story belongs to the past more than the present.**

Pillow Talk is a perfect example of a movie that no longer makes easy sense and that stopped making sense over the last decade. The idea that stopped rhyming is the party line, where multiple houses or apartments share a single phone line because there were more people who wanted phone lines than the phone company had yet built.

Even back in 1959, when Pillow Talk (the first Rock Hudson and Doris Day movie) hit the theaters, party lines were already on their way out.

But growing up in the 1980s the absence of party lines in my parents’ house didn’t stop me from understanding the movie. Pillow Talk made sense because I had to deal with the similarly-shaped frustration of never being able to have a private conversation. It was impossible to chat with a girlfriend and not have other people in both houses picking up the handsets every few minutes. So Pillow Talk was just like my house, only Jan Morrow (the Doris Day character) had to deal with complete strangers interrupting instead of clueless parents and malicious little brothers. The shapes of the experiences rhymed.

But those ideas no longer rhyme today.

It would never occur to now-teenaged H to use the house line to call her friends, and even if she did the likelihood of somebody else picking up the seldom-used house line is small. H has an iPhone, and since she doesn’t know any of her friends’ numbers by heart she would have to look at the address book in her iPhone in order to punch the number into the house line, which is absurd. Moreover, H wouldn’t want to use her mouth to make noises to communicate with her friends in the first place: that’s what texting, Instagram and Snapchat are for. If H does want to chat in real time, she’s more likely to use FaceTime or Skype.

The telephone is for talking with grandparents.

The plot of Pillow Talk revolves around technology barriers, but the technology in question no longer plays a role in the lives of children today. Universal Pictures couldn’t remake Pillow Talk unless the studio decided to set it in the same period when it was written, which would be pointless.

Which brings me to my disheartening realization last night after I stumbled across High Fidelity on Netflix and sank with a happy smile into that delightfully written, perfectly-directed, amazingly-cast film. (And is there a better soundtrack in movies?)

The realization? My kids won’t understand High Fidelity. Oh, I’ll try to show it to them, and perhaps the charming performances will suck them in, but it’s unlikely because the ideas don’t rhyme.

Want to know why? Just look at this timeline…

1995: the novel High Fidelity by Nick Hornby hits bookstore shelves, which means it had been completed sometime in 1993 or 1994. It’s a love story set in a world of used vinyl record shops run by monkish musical obsessives. It is a world that is about to die because…

1997: the first MP3 player is released.

1999: Napster makes music sharing (and piracy) effortless, and shifts the musical unit of measurement from the physical album or CD to the individual song in MP3 form.

2000: High Fidelity the movie, starring John Cusack, comes out; Pandora Radio launches, bringing streaming radio and music discovery to the world.

2001: Apple iTunes and Apple’s first generation iPod come out, taking MP3s mainstream; H is born.

Some of the key moments in the movie (ahem, spoiler alert… although if you haven’t seen the movie already then how did you make it this far in this post?) don’t make easy sense if you’ve grown up with today’s technology.

Sure, there are still record stores out there that cater to music snobs, but not many, not one in every neighborhood and every shopping mall — and rumbling around the record store with your friends on a Saturday afternoon isn’t an activity for today’s teens the way is was for previous generations.

In High Fidelity, as they hang around Championship Records waiting for customers to stumble in, many of the interactions among Rob, Dick and Barry concern musical trivia: which group first performed which song, who did what on which record. Today, Google would answer all such questions.

Rob using a stack of quarters to call his ex Laura over and over again from a rain-drenched phone booth outside her new beau Ray’s apartment is dramatic and emotionally charged. Today, good luck finding a pay phone. Rob would simply hit redial on his smart phone while sitting at Starbucks.

Rob making mix tapes for Caroline the music reporter and for Laura were time-draining labors of love in the 1990s, but today the process is instantaneous and not impactful. “Here, I spent hours selecting, organizing and recording this tape for you” becomes, “here, I spent minutes selecting and seconds creating this Spotify playlist for you: it’ll take you longer to listen to it than it took me to make it. Have fun!”

In the vinyl days, when you heard about a new band or a new song you had to find a disc-shaped object somewhere, either in a store or at a friend’s house. When cassettes came along you could copy things, but you could only do it in real time, which was a drag.

Teens today love music just as much as they ever have, but their musical challenges are about filtering rather than access. There’s instant streaming for just about everything, but the challenge is figuring out what to listen to, whether it’s free and where to find the best deal if it isn’t.

High Fidelity — a movie that, sigh, I still think of as relatively new — is more distant from my kids’ automatically understandable experience than The Music Man. How weird.

Watching stories move into the rear-view mirror — when ideas stop rhyming — is the flip side of watching technologies move into the unremarkable mainstream of our everyday lives where of course I can reach my wife with a stupid question about where the charger for the laptop might be hiding because she has an iPhone and I haven’t thought to look under the bed.

Douglas Adams, in a 1999 blog post called “How to Stop Worrying and Learn to Love the Internet” articulated this brilliantly:

I suppose earlier generations had to sit through all this huffing and puffing with the invention of television, the phone, cinema, radio, the car, the bicycle, printing, the wheel and so on, but you would think we would learn the way these things work, which is this:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that gets invented between then and before you turn thirty is incredibly exciting and creative and with any luck you can make a career out of it;

3) anything that gets invented after you’re thirty is against the natural order of things and the beginning of the end of civilization as we know it until it’s been around for about ten years when it gradually turns out to be alright really.

Apply this list to movies, rock music, word processors and mobile phones to work out how old you are.

With rhyming ideas, we can tweak this into a slightly different three-fold story:

1) everything that’s already in the world when you’re born is just normal;

2) anything that stops being relevant to everyday life between then and before you turn thirty (fax machines, type writers, cameras, VCRs) takes up space in your garage and makes you smile with nostalgia when you run across it;

3) anything that stops being relevant after you’re thirty is a painful sign that you’re going to die sooner than you want to and that your kids don’t appreciate how good they have it until you gradually realize that this is just like when you rolled your eyes at your own parents when they nattered on about black and white TV and wringing out laundry and mixing food dye into margarine and that sort of thing so just relax because it happens to everybody.

Still, though…High Fidelity is a terrific movie. Too bad my kids won’t get it.

Miscellaneous notes:

* My notion of “ideas that rhyme” is similar to but not identical with my old teacher Stephen Booth’s description of “ideational rhyme,” which he works out in detail in his edition of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

** Simply putting the words “bed” and “guava” into proximity with each other might provoke readers with too much time on their hands to think about how these two things actually do go together. If this is the case, then for heaven’s sake please share with me how you think they go together because that sounds fascinating, and then please go read Donald Davidson’s 1978 essay “What Metaphors Mean” because it describes how our minds creates meanings out of these sorts of comparisons rather than discovering meanings that are already there.