(CS: Since my goal is to eventually give a good portion of my evergreen pop culture columns for Collective Publishing an online home again, then today seems a perfect day to post another of these pieces. As always, I'll add some 2020 thoughts. This was originally posted in September of 2013.)We all have those artistic works that we hold dear. The pieces where they feel like the artist is talking directly to us and it appears they must have shared the exact same experience. Many works can be interpreted in different ways and mean something different to each consumer. (CS: I'm no longer a fan of the term 'consumer' for one who is interacting with art.) The artist usually has at least one message in mind, and the soul-crushing fact is it may be very different than the one we think. Here are 10 popular artistic works with messages that have often been totally misinterpreted and misunderstood.
1. Fahrenheit 451 (Ray Bradbury): A novel that many of us have likely had to read in high school and almost all of us were told it was an allegory for government controlled censorship. It doesn’t really feel like a very subtle one either since it was about all books being outlawed and the remaining tomes were burned by characters known as Firemen. It was also written in 1953, which was a time period that many started questioning the control governments were beginning to enforce, and also happens to only be four years after George Orwell’s dystopian classic Nineteen Eighty-Four. Literature attacking fascism and totalitarianism was the cool thing to do back then, and it just felt like Bradbury was joining in on the party.
Apparently, he felt there was a much bigger threat to attack, and the allegory is actually about how the rise in popularity in TV was destroying literature. He believed TV was eroding culture, which is sort of odd considering for a long while he had his own TV show. (CS: Though, his show would come out decades after he originally published the novel, so his view may have changed drastically over the years, especially once he saw that first cheque for the rights to his work,) Then again, he was made famous for making up numerous technological items in his fiction and predicted things like flat screen TVs, ATMS, and virtual reality yet he never owned a computer and found the internet to be useless. (CS; He also never drove, so he seemed to like writing about technology rather than using it.)
2. “Our Country” (John Mellencamp): By now most of us know that Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” and Neil Young’s “Rockin’ in the Free World” aren’t patriotic anthems or ringing endorsements for the Republican party. Mellencamp’s song has been viewed as a fine replacement, as it was Ronald Regan’s theme song for his re-election campaign and is now more popular for being played in countless Chevy truck commercials. The famous verse we hear during the commercials, “The dream is still alive/ someday it will come true/ and this country/ it belongs to folks like me and you” sounds like something any major corporation would embrace and something a right-winged politician would cheer alongside. It sounds like the embodiment of the American Dream and celebration of all things American.
Except that means you’re ignoring who Mellencamp is as an artist, because he actually is quite political and not the type that would make Dick Cheney proud. (CS: Oh, for the days when Cheney was the ultimate right-wing 'ugly American' nightmare.) If you listen to the lyrics of the entire song, you’ll quickly realize Chevy extracted the verses demanding the people running the country start helping the poor, fighting to end bigotry, and aiding the average citizen. It is embracing welfare and putting the responsibility on the government, so not really something that screams Chevy or Regan. (CS: Or Trump.)
3. Wall Street (Oliver Stone): This was the motion picture that inspired countless yuppies in the ‘80s to become stock brokers or get other jobs in the financial sector. Gordon Gekko with his slicked back hair and fine suits became their role model and his famous speech about greed being good was their motto. The problem is that these viewers were distracted by the massive New York apartments, expensive paintings, and fine clothing, and went on to miss Stone’s message.
Gekko may have been one of the lead characters, but he also was the villain, and we weren’t supposed to be inspired by his speech but rather revolted. (CS: A more modern equivalent of missing the point would be Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street.) The picture was a harsh criticism against the excesses of the ‘80s and the business practices of major corporations and financial institutions. Stone has since gone on record about how amusing it was that so many people missed the point of a movie made by a fairly liberal filmmaker.
4. Into the Wild (Jon Krakauer): A non-fiction story about a post-college young man named Christopher McCandless who was fed up with ‘90s society and rather than fight back through the power of grunge music, he decided to venture off into the Alaskan wilderness. After 100 days alone, he died inside an abandoned bus, because broken buses are the epitome of being one with nature. The 1996 book by Krakauer also inspired a 2007 picture directed by Sean Penn and starring Emile Hirsch, which likely is what got a whole new wave of people interested in the story.
Most people hear about a guy dying in the middle of nowhere and don’t yell out, “I want to do that!” Yet many misinterpreted this as a story about connecting with nature and exploring the wilderness as a way to find yourself, and then several tried to imitate McCandless’ journey. This ignores the fact the whole story is actually about how ill-prepared and foolish he was, and his venturing off into the great unknown actually demonstrated a complete lack of respect for nature. It seems pretty obvious McCandless wasn’t planning on dying out there, but rather he just foolishly assumed he could handle it without any proper training or supplies.
5. Beavis and Butt-Head (Mike Judge): The popular ’90s MTV animated series seemed to be yet another thing where parents could decry the current state of entertainment. It was about two incredibly dumb slackers who spent most of their day watching music videos and committing stupid acts that would make the Jackass crew blush. (CS: And now Jackass is a pop culture artefact.) Some critics of the series complained it was embracing stupidity and encouraged teenagers to commit dangerous acts. This also usually was coming from people who only watched clips of the show. (CS: Ha! I think, I was being generous to believe the people railing against it even watched clips.) It has become pretty clear that neither of the lead characters were designed to be role models, and they were constantly shown as morons that get everything wrong and often end up failing what they try. The series was meant to be a satire of the current trends and beliefs of society, and it actually was speaking against the idea of slacking or turning off your brain, because you’d end up like these guys. After one episode, it should be pretty clear you probably don’t want to be Butt-Head when you grow up
6. “In the Air Tonight” (Phil Collins): If you grew up in the ‘80s then you likely heard this song about ten thousand times, and that is only if you occasionally watched MTV/MuchMusic or made infrequent visits to the mall. It’s one of Collins most popular songs and was successful in appealing even to people who typically ran away from his music. The song had a chilling vibe, which then didn’t make it too shocking when it was discovered the lyrics were based off a tragic incident in Collins’ childhood.
Apparently, scrappy young Collins witnessed one cold-hearted man watch as another man drowned, and obviously, this is something that stuck with Collins for decades. Well, except for the fact that the story isn’t true, and the lyrics have nothing to do with drowning men (who then through the power of the water cycle become raining men). Collins later confessed on the VH1 series Classic Albums that he just made up the lyrics to go along with the music, so the song literally means absolutely nothing.
7. Dazed and Confused (Richard Linklater): A great nostalgia trip that most discovered was far more smartly and deeply written than a typical 'stoner comedy.' Most viewers see it as a celebration of the ‘70s, and a reminder of what a better time it was, and the film definitely captures the period (though admittedly I’m not the best judge with only spending a little more than 2 years in that decade). The picture is far more than just a love letter to the groovy decade, but is also a look at how the trials, struggles, and desires of teenagers are timeless.
The best example of this is a scene where one of the characters is mentioning how much the ‘70s suck and she can’t wait for the ‘80s. There isn’t a single character that argues against her, despite the fact that a teenager watching this film in the ‘90s would have been screaming how much the ‘70s rock. The reality is a teenager always thinks the current time is the pits and they yearn for something bigger and better, which is part of the coming of age. The film came out in the ‘90s and everyone I know that watched agreed that the time period in the film was better than the lousy one we got stuck with. Yet 20 years later we have a new set of teenagers who are wistfully reflecting upon another lost decade. That’s right, the ‘90s. (CS: Fiction like Stranger Things has made the 1980s pretty cool again too.)
8. “The Road Not Taken” (Robert Frost): A poem that contains a famous line that has been recited in countless graduation speeches and become a mantra for many entrepreneurs, “I took the one less traveled by / And that has made all the difference.” Many have believed this line to be about non-conformity, independence and individualism. Many scholars disagree with this assessment, and a full reading of the poem would back them up. It is believed the line is actually about regret over choices made and human’s nature to try to justify their decision. In earlier stanzas, the narrator makes it clear that both paths are almost identical with the same amount of growth and same evidence of use. It is only at the end of the poem and when the journey has been taken that now there is the claim that one road was less traveled. This reading obviously would make for much less inspiring valedictorian speeches though. (CS: Maybe we should quote Will Smith's 'Being realistic is the most common path to mediocrity' instead to inspire individualism and non-conformity.)
9. The Jungle (Upton Sinclair): This is another novel you likely were made to read in high school, and yet again your teacher may have focused on the wrong message. The novel exposes the unsanitary condition of the meatpacking industry in 1906 and also the lack of regulation that would lead to meat having some unexpected seasonings and flavour. The novel caused such uproar when it initially came out that President Teddy Roosevelt implemented several acts that would eventually lead to the formation of the FDA (Food and Drug Administration).
The problem is that Sinclair actually wanted to expose the unfair and horrible working conditions for factory workers, and was pushing for the government to shift to socialism. The book has several scenes that showed horrendous conditions such as child labour with long hours, unsafe machinery that nabbed appendages regularly, and even an incident involving a guy falling into a meat grinder to then be sold as lard. It appears the only thing that really upset people was the chance someone`s Uncle Charlie could be polluting their precious meat fat products. (CS: I find it fascinating how many celebrated authors wrote works that leaned heavily towards Socialism.)
10. ``Material Girl`` (Madonna): It was a perfect anthem for the excess and decadence of the `80s. The song is largely believed to be about a superficial girl that is in search of a sugar daddy. The music video doesn`t really seem to dissuade that argument with its very intentional allusions to Marilyn Monroe`s version of “Diamonds are a Girl`s Best Friend.”
Actually, the song was written to be about female empowerment. It is about a hard working woman (in this case, Madonna) who is successful and wealthy, and expects her man to be the same. The idea was that the woman is busy and independent, and expects her man to also have goals, because she doesn`t have time to coddle him. It isn`t about a woman expecting a man to lavish her with gifts, but rather wanting her man to be willing to work as hard as she does and stay out of her way. (CS: The 1980s is not credited enough for the plethora of strong feminist leaning works, but that is likely due to it also having stuff like Porky's and Andrew Dice Clay,)
Hopefully, I didn`t end up ruining any of your favourites. Luckily, most of these items on the list are still great works of art even if we have the message all wrong. Plus you can probably just ignore this list, and most people will believe the misunderstood message anyway. Ignorance is wonderful like that.
What are some artistic works that you think the average person has missed the real meaning?