Wednesday, February 22, 2006

The OC - All About the 80s

I was going to wait to comment on The O.C. until I was all caught up on the latest episodes—I burned through the first 2 seasons in about a month, and have been picking away at the third more slowly since class started a few weeks ago—but I feel compelled to record some thoughts about it after watching season 3 episode 4, titled "The Last Waltz." The episode ends with Ryan and Marissa, the heroic teen couple, facing the daunting task of remaining true to each other even while attending separate educational institutions (Marissa at, gasp, public school, and Ryan homeschooling). Marissa suggests a solution: "the next song that comes on the radio will be 'our song.'" Of course, in fiction, the things that happen "at random" are often the most deliberately constructed events in the whole story. I had a guess at what was coming up next, and I wasn't disappointed: an 80s cover. Specifically, Youth Group covering Alphaville's ballad "Forever Young."

Josh Schwartz, the creator of the show, is almost the same age as myself, born in 1976. At 26 when the show debuted, he was the youngest person ever to run an hour-long network drama series. Many attribute its success to his youth, which gave him, or so the theory goes, a heightened ability to connect with contemporary teen audiences. But for all of the show's references to current pop (and underground) youth culture, it just as frequently flatters audience members of my generation (Generation X, 13th Gen, whatever you want to call us). The entire first season was arguably an extended riff on several John Hughes movies (especially Some Kind of Wonderful and Pretty in Pink). In addition to "Forever Young," the show has also hosted covers of "If You Leave," originally by OMD (which is also a musical reference to John Hughes's The Breakfast Club), and several Oasis tunes (of course, Oasis patterened themselves as the 90s-era reincarnation of The Beatles, which makes their subsequent reappropriation all the more appropriate). Is this mash-up a kind of colonization of current youth culture by the previous generation? Or an ingenious method of preserving the potentially ephemeral works of Gen X pop artists (let's face it, those John Hughes movies weren't always great)? Or, biased by my own personal relationship to the show, am I overstating things?

Cultural transmission through youth entertainment is not a new concept and, until the networks start airing series written and produced by teens, somewhat unavoidable. But this seems to have a different flavor. Just 15 years ago, the popular television series built around multigenerational appeal was The Wonder Years. That featured many of the same coming-of-age themes relevant to teens, but was overtly about the baby boomer experience: set in the 60s with a classic rock soundtrack. George Lucas, once a guest star on The OC, set his coming-of-age films in the 50s and in timeless sci-fi environments. Schwartz's 80s references are, at once, thinly veiled and thoroughly transformed; sort of the televisual analog to sampling in rap music.


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