"Saddam is toast." US Vice President Dick Cheney, trying to sell the Saudi ambassador on the invasion of Iraq, used the phrase, according to Bob Woodward's book Plan of Attack. Millions of Americans turn to the "toast" metaphor in their daily lives to describe someone, or something, that is, to use another vogue phrase, "so over." Like a Barry Manilow tune, it has crept into the mass brain and taken up permanent residence.
"Toast" has lots of company, as Leslie Savan amply documents in Slam Dunks and No-Brainers, her sharp, if wayward, analysis of the phenomenon she calls pop language. Pop is not slang, exactly, although it includes slang words like glitterati and fashionista. It's not argot or in-group terminology either,
because everyone recognizes it, understands it and uses it constantly. Words and phrases like "Don't go there," "Get over it," "You da man," "Duh" and the sneering "I don't think so" constitute a new subdivision of the English language, an attitude-projecting, allusive vocabulary derived from television and advertising and used by ordinary people to sell themselves as hip in the mildest, least offensive way possible.
"Light, self-conscious and theatrical, chockful of put-downs and exaggerated inflections, today's pop talk projects a personality that has mastered the simulation of conversation," Savan writes. "It's a sort of air guitar for the lips, seeking not so much communication as a confirmation that hey, we're cool."
Savan -- a former advertising columnist for The Village Voice and the author of "The Sponsored Life: Ads, TV, and American Culture" -- is definitely on to something, especially in her analysis of the sitcom-derived rhythms of pop speech, which almost seems to carry a built-in applause sign or laugh track. Pop phrases like "That is so last year," "Too much information" or "I hate it when that happens," Savan argues, "always speak of other people having spoken them."
In an inspired move, Savan compares the 1953 Disney cartoon Peter Pan with the 2002 sequel, Return to Never Land. The earlier version is remarkable for its lack of packaged phrases and slang. The sequel includes "In your dreams, Hook," "Put a cork in it," "Tell me about it," "You've got that right" and the inevitable "Don't even think about it."
Pop language is a bargain. Average Americans, instead of having to venture underground and master the slang of a subculture, can simply pick up the current put-downs and glib ripostes from television commercials or David Letterman. It allows them to channel, with no effort, up-to-the-minute dialects like Valley Girl ("whatever"), surfer ("bogus"), hip-hop ("bling") or drag queen ("please").
Pop language is pre-processed cool for a mass audience. It is, Savan writes, a "boldly bland" language for a new genus she calls the person nouvelle, the sort who is comfortable pushing the envelope, thinking outside the box and stepping up to the plate in pursuit of a win-win situation. "You don't have to be the sharpest tool in the shed -- as long as you're trained to say things like that," she writes.
Pop is a slippery concept, and Savan often loses her grip on it. "Gimme a break," even though it was the title of a television series, does not seem pop. It's a standard English response to express disagreement or irritation. It doesn't belong in the same discussion with "It's all good" or "Yesss!" Then again, it's hard to say, for long stretches of Slam Dunks and No-Brainers, what the discussion is. After her supercaffeinated early chapters on pop, Savan wanders hither and yon through the playing fields of current usage, emptying out her folders on computer-speak, regular-guy-speak and politically correct speech. Some of this is pop, but a lot isn't.
Savan does not really approve of pop language. She worries that it clicks into place too easily and displaces complex thoughts. She is, too often, a scold, the sort of person who turns the lights on at a party and reminds everyone to drink in moderation. Again and again, she feels called upon to interrupt her narrative with a public service announcement, warning the reader that the easy pleasures of pop language come at a price, turning thinking citizens into shiny corporate pawns.
There is an elitist fallacy at work here. Savan sees straight through the machinations of advertisers and understands the malevolent forces at work behind pop speech, the "subtle social and political trade-offs." Everyone else, apparently, is not quite smart enough to do the same. They prove this, time and again, by doing things like buying advertised products (bad) or voting for Republicans (very bad).
The people must be warned. "As cathartic as it may feel to blurt `Duh,"' Savan writes primly, "doing so can confer a false sense of immunity, leaving us more susceptible over the long run to better-disguised vile, naked greed." Please.
Savan needs to worry a little less and enjoy a little more. Pop language is like ketchup. People don't put it on everything all the time, and we all need some stupid time in our day. (Savan herself estimates that the average person speaks pop less than 10 percent of the time.) If everyone engaged in the politically committed, exquisitely nuanced conversations that Savan sees as an endangered species, mass exhaustion would set in before 10am.
Fortunately, there are moments when even Savan lets her guard down. "I quote Shrek and crew a lot because, although he's a cartoon and the movies are shrines to programmatic cool, I'm attracted to the guy," she writes. Yesss!
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