Everyone knows that in the Midwest, winter arrives earlier than in regions with more temperate climates – but most students at Northwestern won’t necessarily mean this when they say, “Winter is coming.” And they probably aren’t talking about their RA when they mention, “the one who knocks.”
A day in the life of the average Northwestern student is impossibly busy – work, clubs, papers and the endless stream of midterms leave little time for consuming media. Yet, everyone has, at one point or another, found themselves in the middle of a great party when the conversation turns towards the latest bit of zeitgeist they aren’t familiar with.
So comes the age old dilemma: nod quietly and fumble through the discussion, but risk exposing ignorance with a misplaced comment, or gracefully bow out of the conversation but risk losing cool credibility. It’s a veritable Catch-22 (forgive the literary reference).
There is doubtlessly a canon of films, televisions shows and books the modern youth is required must understand to stay in the know. In the throes of Oscars season, with new noteworthy films released every week, the amount of viewing required to keep up is enough to parallel required reading for any course on comparative literature.
If the culture Americans consume is a language of its own, then keeping up is doubtlessly easier for native speakers. For international students who are new to the country, adjusting their eyes to the lenses of a new popular culture is a challenge all on its own.
Esteban Espino is a freshman living in the Communications Residential College who grew up in Mexico and Italy. As a Radio Television and Film major surrounded by other students who plan on making a living exchanging American culture as currency, he is regularly challenged by his peers.
“The way we see things over there...it's different,” Espino said of his life abroad.
And across countries and continents, media often varies as much as cuisine. The culture is a new experience “...from the food to the humor,” he said.
One of the reasons Espino sticks it out is because of his passion for film, and he cited the ubiquity of American movies as a reassuring factor. “When it comes to film, I think the U.S. is a big thing now,” he said. “One of the things I love about film is that it doesn’t matter where I came from, we all understand each other at some point.”
However, things get more puzzling when conversation devolves into more nuanced references. “When it comes to celebrities or some specific type of music,” Espino added, “it’s hard to follow."
Though Espino has an advantage over other international students in that he studies film and television, American popular culture is so much more than the programming beamed to the silver screen. While American film is wide-reaching and accessible across most countries, the complex reference humor that populates the pop-culture consumer’s conversation involves a far deeper level of understanding. For students like Espino, the wormhole of celebrity news – from celebrities to guerilla-marketed music to viral videos – can be simply overwhelming. It’s as if the melting pot of cultural stew was crafted by too many cooks.
Beyond the introductory level collection of classics, there is the advanced course in everything new and current. While modern culture derives from the golden oldies, knowing the classics is not nearly enough to fully understand exactly why comparing James Dean and James Franco is so problematic (and why James Franco himself is arguably irrelevant).
In a culture that values everything new and avant-garde, where true cultural tastemakers are those who “knew it before it was cool,” one must constantly weed through endless fields of media to stay abreast. Something that was popular two weeks ago may have quickly lost relevance by the time one gets around to playing catch-up.
Pop-culture is a course all its own, and staying informed means not only doing the required reading, but also buying the books. There is no question that being at the vanguard of media comes at a cost – according to the Hollywood Reporter, the average ticket for a movie earlier this year was $7.96, and a Netflix subscription runs $8.99 a month for access to last season’s shows.
Thankfully, many Internet outlets remain free to the public, particularly those covering prominent figures in the media. The web is an invaluable resource for reading up on the latest news, so those looking for a refresher course should consider bookmarking websites like Gawker’s Defamer blog, TMZ or Vulture. Many pop-culture figures maintain a presence on microblogs, so a Twitter account is a necessity for speedy updates on world happenings. The avid tweeter is the first to know what late-night hosts think about Obama’s immigration reform plan, and the first to tell friends about Amanda Bynes’ latest shenanigans.
Savvy college students will always find a way around paying full price. Tuesday movies at the Century 12/Cinearts 6 in Evanston cost $5.75, a saving grace for the broke undergrad. NU students living on campus can capitalize on free Xfinity, which provides access to recent episodes of basic cable shows on-demand and a stream of live television. As always, premium cable, often the most valued in the cultural currency exchange, costs a pretty penny. Finding a friend with an HBO GO account can be a real life-saver when it comes time to binge-watch.
On that note, the ever-busy Northwestern student would be advised to take some personal time over the coming break and get serious about their studies. What better way to do this than shutting down social media, barricading the in the bedroom with books and a laptop, and getting to work – House of Cards isn’t going to binge itself. Come Winter Quarter, this work will be rewarded when the pop-culture literate undergrad can school her peers on the virtues of Boyhood and Birdman.