Stephen King: Lessons from ”Ellen”
In the entertainment business we talk so much — books, music, movies, theater, blah blah blah — that it’s easy to forget why we came to the party in the first place. I got reminded the other day on a hotel treadmill, of all places. The little TV attached to mine got only four channels, so following the immutable First Law of TV Viewing, known to network execs the world over as LOP (least objectionable programming), I opted for The Ellen DeGeneres Show. Of course I did. The other choices were Judge Judy, Nancy Grace, and some weird infomercial about scarfing up Chinese herbal remedies and living forever.
It turns out that Ms. DeGeneres has a video segment featuring innocuous and mildly amusing stuff, like babies making faces and cats unscrewing the tops of their food containers with their cute li’l pawsies. Only on this day there was a clip so striking that I stopped my daily walk to nowhere and just watched, first grinning, then laughing and actually hugging myself with delight.
I checked out a longer version of the video on YouTube. It was shot by a high-angle security camera and shows a customer shopping in Best Buy — just an ordinary fortysomething dude dressed in jeans, a black T-shirt, and sunglasses. Looks like that male-pattern baldness thing is starting to make itself known in his life. He’s shopping, I guess. Then the clip’s audio kicks in with one of the greatest rock songs of all time: ”Going to a Go-Go,” by Smokey Robinson & the Miracles. (No, it’s not on my list. Silly me, I forgot it.) Shopper dude with the thinning hair starts to move a little. Checks out something on the counter of a momentarily unattended checkout station. It’s of no interest to him, but the music starts to hit him. He pops a hip. And then — great God A’mighty — he starts to dance. Before long he’s really busting moves; I mean this guy is doing his duty and shaking his booty. If your Uncle Stevie is lyin’, he’s dyin’.
For more than a minute the guy is giving it his best there in Best Buy, having the time of his life. At the end of the vid, someone comes into the picture and accosts him. It might be store security, sent by the grinches in management to make him stop — the clip ends before that’s clear — but I’d rather believe the two of them ended up dancing side by side, doing the Chorus Line thing. I know I would have joined him if I’d been there.
The whole deal might have been staged — so many of them are these days, lonelygirl15 being a case in point — but it doesn’t matter. The crazy guy dancing in Best Buy, be he fake or fact, demonstrates the real purpose of these things we write about — to cause a sudden burst of happy emotion, a sudden rush to the head, the feet, and what may be the truest home of joy: a butt that just has to shake its happy self.
I felt it when I saw Steven Spielberg’s War of the Worlds. I sat there amazed and full of happiness, thinking: ”Yeah. This is exactly what I wanted today.” I feel it every time I listen to ”Jump” by Van Halen or ”You’ve Got Another Thing Comin”’ by Judas Priest. I feel it every time I put on my club mix of Lou Bega’s ”Mambo No. 5.” I’m sure some of you think that’s silly, but you probably have your own personal joy buzzers (for a very hip friend of mine who shall go unnamed in this piece, it’s the Dolly Parton version of ”I Will Always Love You”).
It’s easy — maybe too easy — to get caught up in serious discussions of good and bad, or to grade entertainment the way teachers grade school papers (as EW does, in case you missed it). Those discussions have their place, even though we know in our hearts that all such judgments — even of the humble art produced by the pop culture — are purely subjective. And as a veteran grade-grind in my youth, I have no problem with awarding A’s, B’s, and the occasional F to movies, books, and CDs (which is not to say I don’t also have reservations about such drive-by critiques). But artsy/intellectual discussions have little to do with how I felt when I saw Rob Zombie’s The Devil’s Rejects. This movie made virtually no one’s top 10 list except mine, but I’ll never forget some exuberant (and possibly drunk) moviegoer in the front row shouting: ”This movie KICKS ASS!” I felt the same way. Because it did. The same way Smokey & the Miracles kick it — even in Best Buy.
I’m not talking about guilty pleasures here. Guilty pleasures aren’t even overrated; the idea is meaningless, an elitist concept invented by smarmy intellectuals with nothing better to do. I’m talking about the pure happiness that strikes like a lightning bolt out of George Strait’s blue clear sky (another sacred occasion of joy for me). It’s the way I feel about The Wire. The way I feel about Forest Whitaker in The Shield, offering Vic Mackey’s ex-wife, Corrine, a stick of gum with that scary-shy, passive-aggressive grin of his. The way I felt about Black Rain, the new Ozzy Osbourne CD. I don’t know if these things are art, and I don’t really care. All I know is that they make me want to laugh and dance in the aisle at Best Buy.
And that’s enough.
Because, dammit, that’s what it’s for.