The RIFF Generation

Top-10-Most-Funny-Youtube-Channels I know, you just saw a thing. But what was even funnier was the video parody you saw of the thing! Or the video that riffs about the five things wrong with that thing! So many videos with so many riffy McRiffsters riffing away that… you might entirely forget about the original thing you saw in the first place.

I’m really glad my childhood was never plagued with Internet fan videos like:
“Everything Wrong With ‘E.T.’,”
“10 Plot Holes in ‘Ferris Bueller,”
“The Way ‘Back To The Future’ SHOULD Have Ended,”
“The Worst Parts Of ‘Close Encounters,’” etc.

I will admit that many of these videos are amusing, but we seem to live in an eternal “riff culture“ now… Where it’s easier to riff on things we see than to make things ourselves. YouTube videos are rarely original content. They usually regurgitate stuff that already exists in pop culture. They are parodies, songs, re-edits, mash-ups, just taking what IS and twisting it. That’s a LOT of energy put into something that isn’t even an original thing.

Beware of the riffing. We are steadily becoming a culture that is just riffing on riffs on riffs. Parodies of parodies. I cringe when a parent tells me their four year-old watched “Hoodwinked” and it’s the first time they’ve ever heard the Red Riding Hood story. While I love when people see my movie, it shouldn’t be the first time a kid encounters that story. “Hoodwinked” is a RIFF on Red Riding Hood. Without knowledge of the original work, not only will you not enjoy the movie as much, you will not get the full impact of how we’ve subverted it.

So as we travel down the rabbit hole of an increasingly riff-centric culture, seek out the source material and fully enjoy it first. Many do not. Many know a great line in cinema (“Here’s looking at you, kid”) only because they’ve heard it parroted in a parody moment. Seek out the original. Seek out the source, the “root art form.” Even a new original is based on art that came before it. If we have a bigger vocabulary of old movies, books and TV, we can appreciate what the next artist is doing with the established tropes. As I watch my kids become media consumers, I am convinced that a lot of art is best consumed based on our accumulated vocabulary of the art that has come before it.

Challenge yourself to consume classic books, old movies and very old stories so that you can fully enjoy all the pop entertainment you see. Because almost all of it is built on what came before. If my kids have never heard of “The Wizard Of Oz” or “The Hobbit,” will they understand when Phineas and Ferb make an episode about it? If the high schoolers I am speaking to at a film camp don’t know what a “John Hughes Movie” is (and they didn’t), my theory is that they cannot fully enjoy the current teen comedies that pull from its DNA. Or maybe I’m just a grumpy old man who doesn’t like when kids enjoy a cover tune, not even knowing it’s a cover tune.

The other bad side effect of “Riff Culture” is that it emboldens the entitled audience member. It rewards those who poop on something rather than seek out a connection with it. I grew up in a time where you just didn’t like something. But now there’s 1000 YouTube channels that need some snarky content. And if you can push your opinion a little farther and say you “hated it,” or it was “the worst,” you’ve got a trendy show to shout it on!

LukeTheLastJediHey, I know… everybody’s got an opinion, and everyone’s entitled to it. But let me blow your mind: ART is not a democracy. A work of art is there for the audience to react to. But it is not meant to anticipate or navigate to the audience‘s whims. It is the result of an artist‘s take on the world. We can like it or not. But I’m tired of the snarky content that rides on its back.

When we encounter a piece of art, we should ask: “What is the artist trying to say?” Not: “How does this art serve my needs?“  We will absorb art more objectively and criticize more kindly, even when we don’t like it. The movies and shows we like and don’t like certainly define us. But even beyond that, the reasons WHY we don’t like something and the way we communicate it says a whole lot about us too.


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