Cultural Literacy 2.0

Today I mentioned something about Beth Ditto to my husband and he interjected: “Who’s Beth Ditto?”

This triggered a pointless and irritating argument about What Most People Know and What Most People Don’t Know. I felt defensive, like he was implying I knew too much trivia from spending time on the   internet. I do in fact know too much trivia from being online. But I felt strongly that Beth Ditto is a certified pop culture figure at this point, and it’s not my fault I know about her.

I couldn’t wait to prove that everybody knows who Beth Ditto is.   I asked my sophisticated teenager who knows nearly everything about everything.   Except Beth Ditto. I asked the hip looking tattooed girl who had just cut my kid’s hair.   She never heard of Beth Ditto.

I wouldn’t give up. We kept arguing about what makes someone well known or what makes them a pop culture figure. We agreed that   Kanye West and Kim Kardashian are two people one HAS to know about, despite all efforts to not know.   Then we went to a school meeting where the speaker mentioned some guy from American Idol and all the parents laughed knowingly, except for me and my husband, who never heard of him. I whispered in his ear: “Beth Ditto.”

What do you think about cultural literacy in 2010? Is it more important to know what a hashtag is, or who Blondie is? Is it good or bad to know about Lara Stone‘s wedding dress? Are you disappointed when you meet someone who seems cool but never heard of your favorite movie? Should everyone be able to know what “Proustian” means even if they haven’t read any Proust?

And what about Beth Ditto??

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42 Responses to Cultural Literacy 2.0

  1. Beth Ditto became a fashion icon, at least in Europe. Gossip played at Fendi’s party and Beth did the catwalk for Jean-Paul Gaultier. I start to be bored to see her on french tv telling her tale of a poor but positive Cinderela from deep Arkansas.
    What about lesbian with proustian moustache?
    KD, the singer from MEN (and Le Tigre), she’s the sexiest ‘mauvais genre’ new man (but the music and video suck).

  2. Constance says:

    I think everyone should know about Beth Ditto, Funny you mention, I had the same problem the other day, me and my cousin went to Evans(a plus size shop), and there was a clothes line by Beth Ditto. I pointed the clothes to her and she said “who the hell is Beth Ditto?”.I was shocked , I asked her if she has been living under a rock, she’s 23 for FFS, she had to know who Beth Ditto was. But no, she thought it was perfectly natural that she had no idea what i was talking about.

    Proust is actually my favourite writer but i do not think I would be as shocked if my cousin told me that she didn’t knew what proustian means as i was when she told me she never heard of Beth Ditto. Popular culture is still culture.

  3. Heinous says:

    Am I disappointed when I meet someone who seems cool but never heard of my favorite movie?

    HELL NO!

    That is a really exciting time because if I think they are cool – and I am a very good judge of character – then they most likely are. If they haven’t been spending their lives discovering the same cool things that I enjoy, then they must know about OTHER cool things that I haven’t discovered yet! Yay!

    I mean, I was turned onto BJORK by one of my now closest friends…thank goodness he didn’t write off my sheltered teenage self just for that.

    I can be surprised by things that people don’t know or haven’t been exposed to, but we can’t learn everything on our own, right? It’s nice to share.

  4. I know who Beth Ditto is and quite frankly she is filed under stuff I know but is of no earthly benefit. I’ve never listened to or heard her music as far as I’m aware. She was on the cover of Love but that bored me so I didn’t buy it.

    I’m more miffed I know nothing about Lara Stone’s wedding dress – I’m sort of slacking on all these matters at the moment.

    And for the goodness knows how many times I’m trying to read Proust, I have yet to get passed page 5 of volume 1 of Swann’s Way(In search of lost time) – does that make me very uncultured despite being literate! Ask me about Ugly Betty, I know lots on that.

  5. Nickie Frye says:

    I am completely disinterested in famous people & I’m totally out of the loop when it comes to movies. I’m just not cool like that. 😉

  6. the real andrea says:

    When someone knows about something or someone that you mention, it telegraphs to you that you “are in the same tribe”, that you might have a similar mindset. This stuff was abundantly clear to me when my husband and I lived outside of NY, where we are from originally. When we socialized with our neighbors, they didn’t know anything or anyone that we referred to. When we were preparing to move back to NY and went to dinner with my husband’s future colleagues, we immediately felt at home. We talked about pop culture, politics, entertainment, and we definitely were from the same tribe. It was so refreshing when my husband’s ex- Chief of Surgery (and now my boss) told me that he is an avid American Idol watcher and was rooting for Adam Lambert! Who would have thought that someone in such a lofty position even cared about pop culture? It isn’t necessary for people to know about these people and things, but I personally do keep myself literate on all of these things. It’s my personality. And while the internet does make all of this “knowledge” more readily available, I used to get it from other sources, like magazines, newspapers, and books. When someone doesn’t know something that I automatically assumed would, it does take them down a notch in my estimation. I don’t hold it against them, but it changes my view of them. Sorry.

  7. David Duff says:

    As one of the bits of “trivia” you know about “from spending time on the internet” – and hardly anyone has heard of me – I can only echo your words – Beth who? And who are the rest of them. And who are you? And who am I? And . . .

    (Nurse! Time for his tablets.)

  8. Actually, there are far too many people I wish I had never heard of, yet you can’t get away from them. Madonna, Rush Limbaugh, etc. ad nausea. These unbearable celebrities seem to suddenly emerge from nowhere, then they’re ubiquitous and seemingly immortal, to boot.

    I never heard of Beth Ditto, and I’m not bothered by my ignorance. In fact, it gladdens me.

  9. E says:

    I haven’t had a TV in over 25 years – this makes me something of a conversational pariah in certain circles. However the interwebs keeps me abreast of what the young people are listening/looking at so I don’t make too many faux-pas.

    I do know who Beth Ditto is and Proust.
    Kanye West and Kim Kardashian – not really.
    And I’m led to believe I wouldn’t care to either 🙂

  10. E says:

    That should be listening to – not listening at – gah.

  11. Dru says:

    I’m with Heinous, people don’t always have to have heard of/be into all the same shit that I am for me to like them. Pop-culturally, the only thing someone could conceivably shock me by not having heard of is Harry Potter. I’ll save the true contempt for adults who don’t know which year September 11th happened in (such people apparently exist) or which year the Berlin Wall came down.

  12. Dru says:

    And let’s not knock Beth Ditto, I really do like her music. The mere fact of appearing on the cover of one rather lame fashion magazine doesn’t make her uncool.

  13. honeypants says:

    I have a love/hate thing with pop culture. It used to be more love than hate, but now hate is winning. Today’s Beth Ditto might be yesterday’s Buffy Ste. Marie. 30 years from now, obscure hipster kids will win cool cred points by knowing who she was & referencing her while “normal” kids will be like, WTF, I care way more about Zulbot 5000 than some stupid old fat chick.

    I used to participate in that contest, ‘cos that’s what the people I admired did. But I’m so over it now. Yeah, I know who Beth Ditto is. It’s hard to exist on the interwebz and google “plus size” and not find out about her. I even remember seeing the Gossip on Letterman a couple years ago, and I thought – I guess it’s nice to see a big girl in a band on TV, but her outfit’s stupid and the music sucks. I no longer feel the need to know about everything like I used to.

    I have a BA in English Lit, and I don’t even know what Proustian means! I managed to get that degree without ever reading any Proust, however. I don’t know who Lara Stone is. And if I meet someone and they HAVE seen my favorite movie, I’m surprised and excited! I automatically assume people are lame; that way when they turn out to be cool (in my narrow definition), it’s a bonus.

    Lastly, several years ago, I briefly tried to date some guy who – on paper – had all the right taste and pop cultural knowledge and sense of humor, but in reality I didn’t think much of his personality. So I learned to care less about that stuff.

  14. Dru says:

    It also depends on what someone claims to be into- a chick whose blog some of my friends read apparently figured out that her best friend’s new boyfriend, who claimed he wanted to set up a publishing house, as a conman. The red flag? He claimed he wanted to specialise in graphic novels and hadn’t heard of Persepolis.

    As for Proust, anyone who’s willing to kill a little time should probably try this: http://hoelder1in.org/Proust/fill_questionnaire.html

  15. Stella Mayfair says:

    this is a great topic to think about and discuss. i guess there’s just no right or wrong when it comes to pop culture — even though it sometimes really irritates me (and gives me a giant WTF?-moment) if people don’t have a clue about things i care for, or i think are important to know.

    a nice recent example to illustrate my point:
    “marlene dietrich? that really old nazi movie director who produced the hitler olympics documentary? didn’t they have an affair?”

    WTF??? argh.

  16. kate says:

    i have to be clued into everything, because i don’t consume media on my own terms. i don’t own a tv, so all the shows i watch i have to choose. netfix is making it easier for me to see movies i’d never seek out, but i don’t have any way of keeping up with “the kardashians” unless someone shares it with me through social media. i had to ask “who is lady gaga?” and “who is sarah palin?” i’m not uncool, i’m just a bit passive.

  17. kt says:

    It’s always surprising to discover what people are and aren’t aware of. I have a friend who is into all things obscure, and I’m taken aback when I ask her about an artist or designer I assume she would know, but doesn’t. But I guess that’s the point. You can’t know everything, and if you somehow do, it’s just annoying. As for Beth Ditto and the Gossip goes, I am aware of who they are mostly by way of friends who have worked with them. Otherwise, I’m very much like kate, where I’m pretty passive about this stuff. I listen to the same old albums and songs on repeat not because I’m jaded and don’t want to be exposed to anything new, but because I’m lazy.

  18. tartandtreacly says:

    Are you disappointed when you meet someone who seems cool but never heard of your favorite movie??

    Nah, I give them a break if they’ve never heard of “God of Cookery” or “Tampopo”.

    But I AM overjoyed when I meet someone cool who introduces ME to something I’ve never heard of that turns out to be fantastic. Like, when I told my friend Sam that I liked Gogol Bordello, and she said “I bet you’ll like The Pogues”, and I took a listen and was like FUCK YES THANK YOU MA’AM.

    Also, I find it endearing when cool people like so-called dorky things. Like, waxing lyrical about Star Wars collectibles and creating a Death Star-themed rec room.

  19. Alicia says:

    This reminds me of a story someone told me about Avril Lavigne not knowing who the Sex Pistols are but crowning herself a “creator of punk for this day and age” and the “Sid Vicious for the new generation. ”

    I know who Beth Ditto is. She’s cool.

  20. Joy D. says:

    At large our culture is set up to knock down those not in the know. But I still haven’t figured out what you have ot know to be “in the know”. It is all so trivial that some people could even value or devalue there lives on this fact alone. I think it is ok to know what Proustian means without reading Proust and the same goes for knowing about Lara Stone’s wedding dress. Although, to me, the latter is pretty dumb.

  21. Caz says:

    I don’t know what Lara Stone’s wedding dress looks like… but now I’ll have to google it… I just can’t help myself!

  22. Carrie says:

    I have to agree with several points made by Honeypants, especially that today’s Beth Ditto is tomorrow’s obscure hipster ‘checkmate’ reference, perhaps during a competitive pop culture conversation at the Starbucks hovercraft cart on 23rd & 5th…

    I also agree with all those who intimated that they don’t really care if the people they meet are into, or knowledgeable about, the same stuff that they’re into. ‘Cause I’m a pretty curious person with a good memory…so I’m ‘into and knowledgeable about’ a lot of stuff that I don’t expect other people to be interested in. Likewise, being a curious person, I relish the opportunity to be turned on to things I’ve never heard about by people who are cool. If I think you seem like a complex and aware person with a point of view that I find compelling in whatever way for whatever reason, then I’d like to get to know you and see what you’re all about…maybe learn something.

    I’ve always approached friendship this way, and it has brought some great people into my life who I might otherwise have never befriended. Even in high school fifteen+ years ago, it meant that even though I mostly hung out with the kids in the punk scene I was also close friends with the class valedictorian, a local viola phenom who practiced 4 hours a day, the head of the speech and drama team, and a single mom who left school at 16 to raise her son. I’m still friends with two of these individuals today! My point is that if you choose you’re friends based on the quality of their brains, and carefully select people with an inquisitive nature, you’re going to end up with interesting people as friends. That’s an asset you’ll be thankful for until you’re old and grey…

    More thoughts regarding Beth Ditto: my husband and I saw her play a couple of very early shows with the Gossip quite a few years ago. She was still a big gal, but a much smaller version of her current stature. However a major ‘presence’ was still there on stage and, more specifically, she had a very tangible diva-esque air in the way she performed. Her interactions with the audience were very strange and aggressive for no apparent reason…sort of as if she was being heckled when in reality she was being very warmly received by a packed house of fans who actually knew her music despite the Gossip being relatively unknown at that time. Anyway, my point is that I think she’s always been sort of starring in her own internal movie, and becoming a pop culture figure is the natural progression of a reel she pressed ‘play’ on years ago. In that way, to me, she isn’t all that much different than Kim Kardashian (did I spell it right?).

    Sadly, I found that the more her status as a pop culture figure became cemented the worse I found Ditto’s music to become. I don’t even bother with it at this point to tell the truth, and I guess now all I know about her comes from the occasional ‘fashionista’ post about her clothing line…

  23. Cricket9 says:

    I know who Beth Ditto is, same for Proust and Kanye West. I have a vague awareness of someone called Kim Kardashian. I also know tons of useless facts and factoids, and I’m smarter than a fifth-grader. It doesn’t make me cool or uncool, and to tell the truth, I couldn’t care less about my coolness. About what people don’t know – I was truly shocked when, shortly after D-Day anniversary, I heard the following dialogue between a D-Day veteran and a young guy: “D-Day? When was that?” “towards the end of World War II”. “Oh, yeah? Who won that one?”.

  24. Dru says:

    ^ (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

  25. Erika says:

    Darnit, I didn’t give a crap about Proust and now I feel the need to look him up.

  26. Andra says:

    I know about Blondie and even Dagwood and that’s it!
    I have never heard of any of those other people and don’t give a fuck.
    I know about Proust because I read (books, that is).
    So there!

  27. Audi says:

    I try hard to shield myself from too much useless celebrity gossip and trivia, and as a result I sometimes fail to know about things that “everyone” is, or should be, aware of. So while I pride myself on the fact that I wouldn’t be able to pick Kim Kardashian out of a lineup, I have to admit that I hadn’t ever heard of Beth Ditto either. But that’s one of the many reasons I read your blog, SW; you enlighten me about these things.

  28. Jazmin says:

    I love Beth Ditto. If you examine who Beth Ditto is, she doesn’t fit in with regular standards of the popular celebrities, so that’s probably why she’s not as well known.

  29. hippiebikermom says:

    I know who Beth Ditto is (although not a huge fan of her music) & delight in her general fuck you attitude. I know who Lara Stone is but didn’t know about the dress. I fed the OCD monster, though, and looked it up. Being the parent of a 24 year old keeps me in tune with stuff that would otherwise fly right by my sorry existence; I get to help her out in the reverse direction.

    I don’t look down on folks who lack my knowledge. But I do cherish those in my life who tend to either (1) understand the references I make (even if they don’t enjoy it the way I do) or (2) introduce me to new and awesome things.

  30. damaia says:

    Why your husband didn’t know: Beth Ditto is fashion-famous. Not actual-famous. Those of us who even vaguely follow fashion have a whole different set of celebrities from those who don’t. No one in my family or group of friends knows who Anna Wintour, Carine Roitfeld, Lara Stone, Jessica Stam, or Sasha P. are. They are only vaguely aware of Kate Moss, and only then as someone who once dated Johnny Depp, a celebrity from their sphere.

  31. Ann says:

    Who’s Beth Ditto?

  32. in my third world, no one knows about beth ditto. Heck 70% of the population here don’t know what blog is.

  33. erika says:

    okay, still don’t really care about Proust. I am guessing that he is someone who’s name is thrown around more because people think it makes them sound smart than people actually like him.
    Beth Ditto I know of as an icon for fat people. The Kim girl is some kind of plastic blow up doll girl from television. I used to be a fan of Kanye West but I am sick of hearing about him and how he is so persecuted by everyone. He probably cries every night into his fur pillows. Poor thing.
    Lara Stone is the model who is fat because she has boobs and is a size 2. She doesn’t however think she is too fat to get naked all the time. good for her.
    I don’t know who anyone is anymore in “popular culture” I am constantly saying “who ??” My five year old niece keeps me in the loop though. The latest from her is Hannah Montana, no longer cool. Kids always know.

  34. Sister Wolf says:

    Years ago, there was a popular book about cultural literacy with a exhaustive list of stuff that the culturally literate person should be able to at least identify. Like for Proust, you just have to say “writer.”

    I remember testing my nephew R. with the list, and the scope of his knowledge was astounding! I was jealous. I think we SHOULD all know who Shakespeare is, as well as Freud, Idi Amin, Joseph McCarthy, Karl Marx, Miles Davis, Kurt Cobain, Germaine Greer, Alfred Hitchcock, Steve Jobs, and Saddam Hussein – even if you’re 20.

    It would be nice if everyone knew Lenny Bruce and Bjork too, but I agree that Beth Ditto isn’t a must!

  35. Jaimi says:

    Haha, Dru, regarding September 11, that reminds me of a political economy class I was in freshman year of college (2006). The subject of that day’s lecture was national security, and how concerned nations should be about it as well has how much resources should be devoted towards it. It was September 12th, one day after the fifth anniversary. The professor was a former financial analyst from New York City. One girl, from somewhere in Michigan, commented, “I honestly don’t see why we should be all that concerned about national security in the US. I mean, it’s not like we’ve ever had a major attack on US soil or anything like that.” She was dead serious, definitely absent minded. I’ll never forget the look on the professor’s face. His eyes were bugging out and his face was red and he was clearly restraining himself from jumping over the desk and throttling the girl. He then explained, in the most icily calm voice, that he had been working on Wall Street that day and will never forget the sheer terror and confusion of that day as Manhattan was evacuated. The girl looked about ready to keel over. With comments like that from students at a supposedly “good” school, it’s no wonder the professor is constantly drunk these days.

    Also, SW, I had to double check on Idi Amin but when I saw the title he assigned himself, I remembered exactly who that fucker was.

    I was also totally mortified when I met a guy recently who didn’t know who Nelson Mandela was. He was like 26 or 27, too. What the fuck.

  36. Chelsea Rae says:

    I always find it interesting to see how the internet as “inter”connecting as it is has a distinct ability to polarize. Now, one only has to view content about the things that interest them and are able edit out anything they may find benign. What scares me however is that when people hear about something or someone they haven’t heard about before, they don’t use this same tool to do a quick search in the interest of becoming a better-informed individual whether it be about pop culture or social theorist. I say, everyone should take at least 30 minutes out of their day to watch Jeopardy (preferably with friends so you can school them on words starting with the letter B) and learn something new in a fun social setting.

  37. TinLizzie says:

    My jaw dropped when my expensive private HS and college educated daughter (22 yo) did not know who Toulouse Lautrec was. Gah!!!

  38. I thought it was the aim these days to like things specifically because no one else does. You know of Beth Ditto? Suddenly she’s so passe. I’m already onto the next erm, big thing… so to speak, that you haven’t even heard of. But don’t find out about it – or it’ll be instantly uncool. Chyeaahhh, hipsters.

  39. Dru says:

    TinLizzie- I’m not surprised that your daughter didn’t know who Toulouse-Lautrec was, unless she took classes in art/art history- educational institutions don’t often pay a whole lot of attention to the cultural literacy of their students.

    In addition, Sister, I think you’re also operating on a baseline assumption that the people you expect to know about these things are American. I may know who Joseph McCarthy is because I first encountered the name in a Sweet Valley book (I’m not joking), but to an non-American, he might well be a non-entity.

  40. Nikki says:

    I guess I’ve never been culturally connected & am more a fringe dweller. I want to say I haven’t the time, but if I’m not curious enough to delve further, perhaps I’m not as interested in current culture as I’d like to believe. Occasionally I google someone out of momentary curiousity, like the black contessa writer you wrote about… I already forgot her name but found her oddly interesting. But, here’s where I draw the line… after following links for an hour & reading varying articles about & by her, reality kicked back & told me I haven’t the time, this could become a regularly lengthy process. But, she’s now in the back of my mind.

    Maybe I’m a bore… I’m perfectly comfortable not knowing anything about any of the actors/musical celebs/wealthy splayed across covers of supermarket gossip mags. I don’t know most of their names, don’t care when they adopt more children or when they divorce. Maybe I’m shallow… I have no interest in those I find unattractive, untalented and/or vapid no matter how many times I’m forced to see their pics online… a la J-Lo, Paris, Lohan or Spears. I’ve never seen a reality show. No one’s home life is interesting enough to be filmed unless partially staged, over-exaggerated or wholly fabricated.

    I don’t know 3/4 of the people referenced in this blog, but do enjoy reading others’ opinions & finding out a snippet about them. I mostly visit for a comment which will make me laugh & some of the commentors are quite clever. Occasionally, I’ll take my turn in the queue, but all in all, I enjoy listening, so thanks for that. I’ll return to my corner now. Please carry on.

  41. RLC says:

    My mum thinks Admiral Ackbar is an Iraqi comedian. No joke.

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