Jersey Shore may be a bottom-feeding show created by a network that has spent 30 years perfecting the art of bottom-feeding. It may feature a cast of vagrant alcoholic robo-people who have made — and will continue to make — untold millions of dollars by metaphorically dancing naked on a metaphorical dance floor flooded up to their metaphorical shins in metaphorical syphilitic emo-vomit. It may be a monument to everything that is terrible in modern youth culture, post-post-9/11 America, and the human soul.
But this does not mean that the show is not entertaining. Nor, for that matter, does it mean that the show is not important. Sometimes, the silliest dregs of zeitgeist popularity can speak volumes about Where We Are Now. Even the most vapid pop song, or the most unnecessary big-budget blockbuster threequel, or the most poorly-written vampire novel can teach us something important about the culture. A seashell is just a seashell, but if you hold it up to your ear, you can hear the sounds of the distant ocean.
Consider the Monkees. Now, no one could ever conceivably argue that the Monkees were a great band, or even that they were a particularly good band. (The notion that they were a “band” at all would seem offensive, if we still lived in a real civilization, and not in an amoral dystopia.) The Monkees were conceived as an establishment cash-in on the rock n’ roll trend that all the kids loved. Of course, the only reason the kids loved said rock n’ roll was because it was anti-establishment, because it was real, but no one is better at manufacturing reality than the establishment.
Hence, the Monkees: A band built in a laboratory specifically for television. The Monkees recorded some of the catchiest pop songs in history, almost all of them written by non-Monkees. That actually seemed vaguely insulting to the general music listening public back then. But now that we live in an age when pop starlets get courtesy writing credits because they totally wrote that lyric where they go “Uhh, yeah” in the chorus — and thus, they can assure themselves and their fans that they are not mere vehicles for the relentless brilliance of the dark cabal of Swedish songwriters — the whole story of the Monkees looks uncannily prescient. That’s how musicians get made. Was there ever another way?
I bring up the Monkees for three reasons. First, because they represent a primordial vision of the modern reality show cast: A group of young people who didn’t know each other, who had to pretend to like each other for the cameras. Second, because they really did put their name on some ridiculously gorgeous pop songs: Anyone who doesn’t get a bit misty listening to “Daydream Believer” is a cynical pedant freakshow, and I hope they enjoy their corner of purgatory where every album Radiohead recorded post-Amnesiac plays on repeat forever. And third, because the Monkees created the most important work of their career after their moment in the zeitgeist was over: The surreal 1968 film Head, in which the band committed pop suicide by deconstructing themselves. (Last-minute meta-deconstruction is a common thread in the land of Post-Popularity Synthetic Zeitgeist Sensations. See also: The Hills, a show whose last two minutes are roughly one million times more interesting than the entire series that preceded it.)
And that gives me a glimmer of hope for Jersey Shore, which last night ended its first truly inessential season with a bland whimper. There was so much talk about returning to Jersey and the house in Seaside Heights and Karma, you began to get the feeling the Shore producers had decided to cut their losses and just turn this whole Florentine misadventure into a commercial for Jersey Shore season 5, kind of like how Iron Man 2 was just a commercial for The Avengers. Except that Avengers looks pretty awesome if you squint a little, and the prospects for the next season of Jersey Shore are uncertain at best.
NEXT: The Situation is the hero! The Situation is the villain!